The Best of the Flip Wilson Show on DVD: Flip side

One of TV's best burned brightest, briefest

Few African-American comedians burned so brightly and so briefly as Flip Wilson. One of my favorite TV-watching memories as a child was gathering with my family to catch "The Flip Wilson Show" on Thursday nights to marvel at his range of characters: Rev. Leroy, of The Church of What's Happenin' Now, and of course the saucy and sassy Geraldine Jones, with her trendsetting claims, "What you see is what you get!" and "The Devil made me do it!" as she slinked around one unsuspecting guest after another. Who else could make Joe Namath blush?

There was no one – black or white – doing what Wilson was doing at the time, whether it was performing in the round and without gaudy production numbers or weaving race deftly into the sketches to great universal effect. Wilson achieved that seemingly impossible blend of swagger and self-deprecation, effortlessly playing off his guests and having no problem playing the hapless fool. The taller the guest (6-foot-9 Bill Russell, for example), the more confidently he shrank.

But Wilson's Emmy-winning show was limited to a four-year run, succumbing its Thursday-night time slot to, of all things, "The Waltons," and never regaining its traction before its cancellation in 1974.

Wilson's career never was the same either, and despite the occasional guest spot here and a failed sitcom there, he faded into the ether and died of liver cancer in 1998 at the age of 62.

Yet Wilson's contributions cannot be minimized, as Rhino's DVD release of The Best of The Flip Wilson Show underscores. Other black entertainers (Nat "King" Cole and Bill Cosby in particular) had tried and failed at a variety series (Sammy Davis Jr. being the only successful one). When Wilson's show became the top-rated variety show (and second most-popular overall) after its 1970 premiere and won two Emmys in 1971 (Best Variety Show and Best Writing in a Variety Show), its impact became immediate and permanent.

While featuring some of the best comedians of his day – Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers, Redd Foxx – Wilson also helped along some of the up-and-comers (including Albert Brooks). He had an uncanny ability to keep his audiences guessing with his mixture of special guests and sketches; you never really knew what to expect. One moment he'd be featuring Johnny and June Carter Cash only to switch out and present the three finalists of Miss Black America (with their talent-category performances including an Afrocentric interpretive-dance piece). He could line up Ray Charles, Phyllis Diller and the Committee and somehow it would all work. For every Roy Clark, there was a Lena Horne.

Wilson put tremendous pressure on his physical comedic and writing skills (he often rewrote other writers' work) by simplifying the production and presentation; with minimal set design, costuming or big dance numbers, there was nowhere for him to hide. And so he played to both his guests and his surrounding audience with a mixture of mugging and chemistry. He seemed entirely engaged in every scene, every monologue and yet he was never over the top.

Inspired by Redd Foxx (who helped convince Johnny Carson to give him a shot) and Bill Cosby, Wilson favored stories over punch lines and one-liners in his monologues, his soft, upper-register rasp filled with mischief. But his drag work as Geraldine was a revelation (maybe because he had the legs for it), and if you ever want to see an actor work feverishly not to break down laughing during a sketch, watch Flip. Geraldine was Wilson's alter ego – all passion, vamp and admonishment. She dared men to resist her, only to remind them of her loyalty to the never-seen boyfriend "Killer." While some blacks criticized Geraldine and other characters for veering too close into Negro minstrel territory, there was always something empowering and affirming about Geraldine – a strong black woman at a time when TV featured few.

Watching him nearly 40 years later, it's hard not to sense a whiff of melancholy in Wilson's comedy; the whole tears of a clown thing. His was a vulnerable comedy, where you sometimes didn't know whether to laugh at him or console him.

Wilson supposedly felt too heavily the pressure of his show's success, so perhaps "The Waltons" isn't the only reason for his show's fleeting run. That he didn't extend his career much beyond those four sweet years is a shame, but as The Best of The Flip Wilson Show proves, it doesn't take much for something to feel timeless.