Artists - Flip Wilson

Artist Biography

Born Clerow Wilson into extreme poverty, he was abandoned by his mother at age five. After being sent to multiple foster homes, he dropped out of school at sixteen and joined the Air Force. It was there he got the nickname ‘Flip’ from his fellow troops whom he entertained. After he was discharged, Flip paid his dues in the comedy circuit, and finally landed several gigs at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem. That led to television and The Ed Sullivan Show.

Flip’s act was more story-telling than joke-telling. Wilson tended to avoid vulgarity and fit perfectly with the Sullivan family audience. He recalled his first show and the nerve-wracking experience it was, saying, “I was at the top of the steps and I was going over my lines, my stories in my head, and Ed was downstairs walking in another door and he kept looking up, then he said, ‘Hey, kid, come here.’ So I looked around to see who he was talking to. He says, ‘You, come here.’ So I came downstairs, Ed put his hand on my shoulder, he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You’re going to be a star.’ He said, ‘I’m going to make you a star.’” And a star he became.

On November 13, 1966, Flip made his first appearance on the show. In this debut performance, he discussed issues of race and made comparisons to how Native Americans were never really stereotyped like several other ethnic groups. Wilson played it cool and never crossed the line into controversy. His performances covered a broad range of topics, but often reflected on his deeply seeded religious background.

One regular character was the Rev. Leroy, pastor of the “The Church of What’s Happening Now”. This was where viewers would first meet what became his famous “Geraldine” character, and her line “The devil made me buy this dress.”

Wilson would pour everything he had into his performance. He recalled that being on Sullivan, a live show, helped him learn how to quickly trim his act if needed and still keep the integrity of the comedy. “Every time I went on, I said this may be the last chance of ever performing and I’m not going to blow it. So, I put all I had in every time so that if I had an accident the next day and just my head survived, you could put my head on a mantle there and my head will smile and say, ‘Thank you.’”

Wilson appeared eleven times on The Ed Sullivan Show, and even won the “Comedian of the Year” award from Ed in 1970. He later had his own variety program, The Flip Wilson Show, which lasted for four seasons and earned him two Emmies and a Golden Globe award. Flip asked Ed Sullivan to be a guest on the first episode, to thank him for all the support. Flip Wilson, who passed away in 1998 of liver cancer, will go down as one of the best Ed Sullivan comedy acts.