Flip Wilson started working his way up the comedy ranks in the 1950s, but his big break came in 1965. That’s when Red Foxx told Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show that Wilson was the funniest comedian out there. Carson put him on, and stardom followed. Within five short years, Wilson was at the helm of his own variety and sketch-comedy show, The Flip Wilson Show. The trailblazing series saw Wilson become one of the most visible and popular Black entertainers in America. On the 50th anniversary of its first episode, here’s a look back at Wilson’s journey and how his show became a platform that propelled other artists forward.
Clerow Wilson Jr. was born in 1933. His mother left his father, him, and his nine siblings when he was seven; as a result, Wilson and a number of his siblings went to foster homes. Wilson joined the Air Force when he was 16 (yes, he lied about his age). Wilson’s natural instincts for entertaining emerged, and his gift for comedy soon saw him sent from base to base to improve morale. Some of his fellow servicemen would describe him as “flipped out” and called him Flip. Wilson would adopt that name and perform under it for the rest of his career.
After the Air Force and into the early 1960s, Wilson built his comedy brand. He recorded a pair of albums, Flippin’ (1961) and Flip Wilson’s Pot Luck (1964) during this period as he performed in clubs. He also appeared regularly at the Apollo Theater. When Redd Foxx endorsed him to Johnny Carson, it facilitated his entrance onto television. In addition to multiple appearances on The Tonight Show, Wilson would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Show, Here’s Lucy, and more. With the launch of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In in 1968, Wilson was billed as a “Regular Guest Performer” through the first four seasons.
Wilson’s growing popularity earned him a shot with his own show. The Flip Wilson Show debuted on September 17, 1970, on NBC. The program incorporated sketches along with music and celebrity guests. Wilson played a variety of recurring characters. Easily the most famous was Geraldine Jones, his take on a modern Black woman from the South. Geraldine turned out to be something of a catchphrase machine, with lines like “The Devil made me do it,” “What you see is what you get,” and “When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not” entering the cultural vocabulary.
Wilson used the show as a platform for a number of other Black performers. The show included early appearances by the Jackson 5 and welcomed stalwarts like Aretha Franklin, The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, and more. He also brought on a wide range of other guests, featuring everyone from Johnny Cash to Bing Crosby to Joan Rivers. Musical guests also frequently took part in the comedy bits. Among Wilson’s writers was legendary comic George Carlin, who himself was in the midst of a turn toward more countercultural comedy; Carlin occasionally appeared on the show as well.
In a short period of time, The Flip Wilson Show was one of the most watched programs in America, falling behind only All in the Family in 1971. It was a groundbreaking success, as Wilson became one of the few Black entertainers to be that popular with white audiences as well. The show was also recognized for its overall quality; it won two of eleven Emmy nominations and earned a Golden Globe for Wilson for Best Actor in a Television Series. Wilson’s fame grew, but the network began to resist his demands for a larger salary. As the show went on, ratings dipped (as they did for most prime-time variety shows of the period), and the series was cancelled in 1974.
Wilson worked regularly in comedy, television, and film over the following years. In 1983, he memorably hosted Saturday Night Live; he even played Geraldine in a sketch that “revealed” her to be the mother of Eddie Murphy’s hairdresser character, Dion. Wilson headlined the TV show People Are Funny in 1984 and was the lead in Charlie and Co. from 1985 to 1986. His last television appearance was on a 1996 episode of The Drew Carey Show. Wilson passed away from liver cancer in 1998 at the age of 64.
Wilson reached all audiences with his humor and put acts in front of audiences that might not have seen them otherwise. His influence extended into the way Americans talk; even the editing software WYSIWYG is an acronym taken from one of Geraldine’s catchphrases. He earned the admiration of comedians like Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor, worked to get the best facilities for his show, and wasn’t afraid to demand compensation commensurate with running and starring in the #2 show on television. If what we saw was what we got, then we got greatness.
Featured image: Flip Wilson as Geraldine Jones interviews Dr. David Reuben on an episode of The Flip Wilson Show (Wikimedia Commons)
People enter reality competition shows for a variety of reasons. Some want to find an audience for their talent. Some want to find true love. And some want money, fame, power, and the ability absolutely one-up everyone at class reunions. But for every person who “wins” a competition show, there are dozens who didn’t get that final honor at the end of the season. Plenty return to anonymity. But in the case of a select few, not winning may have been the best thing that never happened to them. Here are “reality show losers” who won in reality.
1. Jennifer Hudson
Hudson came to public attention in the 2004 season of American Idol. At one point, when viewer voting placed her, eventual winner Fantasia Barrino, and LaToya London in the lower half of finalists, Elton John himself blew his stack. Though Hudson finished seventh, it looks like Sir Elton was right. Using the show as a launch pad, Hudson went on to huge success on stage, screen, and record. Her first two solo albums went gold, and she took home both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her debut film role as Effie White in Dreamgirls. Hudson continues to record, appear occasionally as a judge on The Voice, and act; she plays Aretha Franklin in the forthcoming biopic, Respect, which is already generating awards talk.
2. Chris Daughtry
Another early exiter from American Idol, Chris Daughtry placed fourth in the fifth season. Daughtry stood out from his fellow contestants by sticking with his distinctly rock persona in a crowded pop field. After the show, he formed a band named Daughtry, and group’s self-titled debut raced to #1 on the album chart, partially on the strength of the single “It’s Not Over.” A Grammy nominee and occasional actor, Daughtry trails only Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood in terms of Idol alums with the most album sales. In addition to music, Daughtry is a talented visual artist and comics fan; he drew a variant cover for Batman #50 in 2016.
3. Britney Spears
It’s fairly common knowledge that Britney Spears was part of a Mickey Mouse Club cast that was overflowing with future stars, including Keri Russell, Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, and future NSYNC bandmates Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez. But before she joined the cast in 1992, she took a swing at Star Search. The original 1983 to 1995 run of the series was the launch pad for a wide array of stars, giving the first national TV exposure to LeAnn Rimes and Broadway star Sutton Foster, among others. Although a 10-year-old Spears won her initial week, she was knocked off the show a week later. After the Club, Spears signed with Jive Records and went on to become the best-selling teen artist of all time. With six #1 albums, Spears has sold over 100 million albums worldwide. This year, Rolling Stone listed “…Baby One More Time” as #1 on their list of Greatest Debut Singles of All Time. Though she’s gotten press in recent years for her turbulent personal life, Spears maintained a successful and lucrative Vegas residency for several years, only halting it when her father had health problems. She also has a billion dollar perfume brand.
4. Justin Timberlake
Like Spears, Timberlake did his time for the Mouse. He also took the stage on Star Search, but leaning into a country persona when he did; sporting a cowboy hat and going by Justin Randall (his middle name), the guy we’d all call JT didn’t pull out the victory. However, he did go on to megastardom with NSYNC, as a solo artist, and an actor. NSYNC remains one of the best-selling groups ever, and Timberlake’s solo career kicked off with two Grammys for his 10-million-selling Justified. Timberlake has become the best-selling male solo artist in the history of the Billboard Mainstream Top 40. Not bad for the kid in the hat.
5. Christina Aguilera
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a youngster goes on Star Search, but gets eliminated, yet bounces back with a run on the Mickey Mouse Club. Aguilera’s trajectory echoed that of her castmates, and she made her solo debut as part of the same teen pop boom that Spears and NSYNC rode. Her self-titled debut, which featured “Genie in a Bottle,” was a smash and netted her the Best New Artist Grammy. Aguilera has sold over 75 million records and is routinely counted on lists of greatest vocalists. She has balanced her ongoing recording career with acting roles and coaching for six seasons on The Voice. As a teen, Aguilera recorded the song “Reflection” for the original Disney animated film Mulan, and she returned this year to record a new version for the new live-action film.
6. Beyoncé and Kelly
“Lose My Breath” by Destiny’s Child (Uploaded to YouTube by Destiny’s Child)
Here are two Star Search contestants who didn’t go on to the Mickey Mouse Club, but you can agree that it didn’t slow them down. Beyoncé Knowles and Kelly Rowland were members of the group Girl’s Tyme, which appeared on Star Search in 1993. After Beyoncé’s father, Matthew, took over management of the group, they went through several name and line-up changes before Beyoncé, Kelly, LeToya Luckett, and LaTavia Roberson signed to Columbia in 1996 as Destiny’s Child. The group went through more changes before settling on the classic line-up up of Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle Williams; they remain one of the most successful trios and “girl groups” ever, earning 14 Grammy nominations and selling over 60 million records. As a solo artist, Kelly Rowland has sold over 40 million records, whereas Beyoncé has become a legit phenomenon as one of the biggest artists in the world, selling in excess of 100 million records.
7. Rupert Boneham
How is it possible to lose Survivor not once, but FOUR times, and yet still be beloved enough to have the audience just vote to GIVE you a million dollars? You’d have to ask Rupert Boneham. Boneham had worked with troubled kids in Indiana prior to his first tenure on the show, during the Pearl Islands season. Boneham’s enormous strength, pirate mentality, and general sense of humor made him an immediate fan-favorite. He made such an impression during the first season that he was quickly added to the All-Stars season that followed, making him the only player at the time to play in back-to-back seasons. After the season, producers held a special vote based on four fan-favorites who didn’t win, and 85 percent of voters gave the million dollar prize to Boneham. Since his first appearance, Boneham has become a popular guest on talk and reality shows; he and his wife competed on The Amazing Race in 2019. He started the mentorship program Rupert’s Kids, and even ran for governor in Indiana as a Libertarian in 2012, losing to eventual governor (and current vice president) Mike Pence.
8. One Direction
Like a teen-pop Voltron, five individual contestants on the 2010 edition of the U.K.’s The X-Factor joined into a brand-new record-moving creation. Louis Tomlinson, Liam Payne, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, and Harry Styles hit dead ends in the solo “Boys” portion of the competition, but were invited to form a group to continue on in the competition. Dubbed “One Direction” by Styles, the group became immediately popular on social media and made it to third place in the overall competition. 1D, as they’re commonly called, became the first group to have their first four albums debut at #1 on the U.S. albums chart. Although Malik left in 2015 and the band went on “indefinite hiatus” in 2016 as the various members pursued (mostly successful) solo projects, the group has sold more than 70 million records around the world.
9. Fifth Harmony
Fifth Harmony has a very similar origin story to One Direction. Five contestants on the 2012 U.S. season of The X Factor were again united in a single group, and again finished third. The five members were Ally Brooke, Normani, Dinah Jane, Lauren Jauregui, and Camila Cabello. Though not as successful in the traditional album format, the group was a smash on digital (selling 7 million songs) and streaming (over 1.6 billion on-demand streams of their music). Cabello departed for a very successful solo career in December of 2016. By 2018, the group announced their own indefinite hiatus, with each former member working on solo music.
10. Amy Schumer
There’s no doubt that Amy Schumer was on her way before her 2007 stint on Last Comic Standing. She had already been doing stand-up in the clubs for three years and had recorded an episode of Live at Gotham for Comedy Central. But LCS put her in front of millions of new potential fans. She advanced to the finals and finished fourth, but the show and her years of groundwork gave her the momentum to break to the next level. For the next few years, Schumer worked furiously, putting in appearances in Celebrity Roast episodes and popping up in a variety of projects. Her real ascension began in 2012, when she appeared in three films and put out her extremely popular and critically acclaimed comedy special, Mostly Sex Stuff. The next year, she launched her much-loved sketch series Inside Amy Schumer. Her expansive body of work has seen her nominated for Golden Globes, Grammys, and Tonys, and her 2016 memoir, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, was a bestseller.
Featured image: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock