Late Night Last Century: Flip Wilson Encounters an Ugly Baby

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Late Night Last Century: Flip Wilson Encounters an Ugly Baby

A portrait of Flip Wilson graced the cover of TIME magazine on January 31, 1972, under the headline: “TV’s First Black Superstar.” With the 1970 debut of The Flip Wilson Show, the comic became the first Black host of a television variety program to reach the top of the Nielsen ratings. More than fifteen years earlier, on November 15, 1956, Nat King Cole and his eponymous program became the first nationally broadcast television show hosted by a Black artist. But racism of sponsors and the public writ large led to a lack of advertising success. NBC canceled The Nat King Cole Show by the end of the following year. 

The first episode of The Flip Wilson Show aired at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, September 22, 1970, joining NBC staples like Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Dean Martin Show, and, of course, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. By 1972, only All in the Family bested The Flip Wilson Show in the ratings. Wilson’s genius delivery, pacing, and ease before the camera (follow his eyes!) can be seen throughout his varied skit and stand-up work on and off thee show. “You’re the only performer that I’ve seen,” Richard Pryor reportedly said of Wilson, “who goes on the stage and the audience hopes you like them.” Watch a clip of Wilson and you can see, and nearly feel, how his stories carefully envelope audiences, who in turn relish every beat of the joke on the way to the punchline.

In the 1960s, Wilson recorded several comedy albums. In February 1970, he released The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress, which went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording. On the album, Wilson plays Geraldine Jones, a character he embodied in full drag and later developed on his show. Geraldine, as described by Renee Graham in The Boston Globe, was “a confident, stylish, liberated woman who took no gruff from men.” Surf YouTube and you will encounter many of Geraldine’s signature catchphrases, including “The devil made me do it” and “What you see is what you get.” 

On September 30, 1965, five years before he himself became an NBC staple, Wilson appeared on Carson’s Tonight Show, then only three years into its historic run. Cigarette gracefully in hand, Wilson, then in his early thirties, strolls out for a stand-up set. He ends his routine with a story about an “ugly” baby he encountered on the train. Wilson’s monologue is a masterclass in timing, made none clearer than when he finishes the joke and exits stage right. He knew exactly how to leave an audience wanting more.

Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic and researcher, who first contributed to Paste in 2022. He is an assistant editor at Cineaste, a GALECA member, and since 2019 has hosted The Video Essay Podcast. You can follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter and learn more about him via his website.

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