I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

What You See Is What You Make It: The Flip Wilson Show and Ambivalence


by Kristen Bialik
Oct. 4, 2012

Staying power is impossible to predict. Or as Flip Wilson himself popularized, “When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not!" On September 17, 1970 The Flip Wilson Show debuted on NBC before a wide and divided audience. Over the course of its incredible four-year run, the show would receive Emmy Awards for Best Variety Show (Comedy) and Best Writing in a Variety Show. Its Nielsen ratings would propel the show to the number one variety show in America and second highest rated show overall, second only to the CBS hit All in the Family. In fact, in a year of TV economic recession, The Flip Wilson Show was able to raise its commercial airtime price from $46,000 per minute to $80,000 per minute, eventually hitting a nearly unprecedented $86,000. The Flip Wilson Show was a gamble that paid off immensely in the Network Era that called for mass appeal.

Yet despite the incredible peak of his popularity, Flip slipped out of the public consciousness where other black comedians of the time, like Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby, stayed. But in the same year that Flip Wilson appeared on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “TV’s First Black Superstar,” Bill Cosby debuted his own variety show that would collapse after its first season.

How can we explain Flip Wilson’s immense popularity in the seventies? By Flip’s own account, it comes from three factors: “First, I’m a friend. The audience likes me. The second thing is they like my characters. Like, the secret of the success of Geraldine is that she’s not a put-down of women. She’s smart, she’s trustful, she’s loyal, she’s sassy. Most drag impersonations are a drag. But women can like Geraldine, men can like Geraldine, everyone can like Geraldine. The third thing is I talk to an audience honestly.”

In her book on The Flip Wilson Show, Meghan Sutherland attributes the show’s unprecedented success as a variety show starring a black comedian to what she terms an “aesthetic of ambivalence.” Sutherland defines “aesthetic of ambivalence” as “any strategy that the show employs to inscribe a full range of conflicting viewing positions, interpretive possibilities, political sensibilities, and audience demographics into its ostensibly singular address.”

The sociopolitical landscape at the time of The Flip Wilson Show was deeply polarized and growing more divided. Coming out of a period of political radicalism and unrest, from the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Watts riots in 1965, and violent reactions to nonviolent civil rights protests just a few years earlier, race tensions were high at the same time Flip Wilsons was reaching the heights of his career. Such polarization put the entertainment industry in a pickle. Programming that represented the civil rights movement positively risked boycotting from disgruntled southern audiences. At the same time, networks were facing pressure to reform the accuracy and gross underrepresentation of their racial portrayals. A 1964 New York Ethical Culture Society study, for example, found that in a 1964 programming sample, an average of only three black people appeared in a full evening of television. As Sutherland writes, “race was a ‘problem’ of both politics and revenue for networks” and with the goal of one, happy cash cow audience in mind, a show that was politically ambivalent and could appeal to different audiences was just the ticket. And if ambivalence was the ticket, Flip Wilson was the express train.

This ambivalence can be seen in the popular and critical reception to Flip Wilson and in the structure and comedic tricks of the show itself. Take two New York Times articles for example. In a 1968 review for a live comedy show at which Flip Wilson was performing before his Flip Wilson Show debut, one critic writes, “Mr. Wilson is a Negro, and his material touches on matters that the average night-club patron could not be expected to find amusing – race riots, looting, police brutality. But, hold, it is all in fun…His pleasant round face and impish deadpan delivery say: just kidding, folks; the suit is from J. Press; I don’t dig riots either.” Besides revealing a shocking lack of touch with reality, the critic betrays a certain reading of Wilson’s comedy, one that finds hilarity in proper attire (a la chortle chortle, that’s not what you wear to a race riot!’) and finds a reassuring comfort in what it perceives as a lack of threat or criticism. It prioritizes a reading of Wilson’s cheerful face over the content of his sketches, ending, most cringingly, in the interpretation “perhaps, like most of us, some nights he [Wilson] wishes he were a janitor.”

Yet another New York Times reviewer a year later wrote “Mr. Wilson has a sharp eye for the absurdities of race relations and for those cant attitudes that hide prejudice. He exposes their foolishness by trying them out on others… His own manner is bright but his style is sharp.”

That such radically different interpretations of the same performer were published in such a short time in the same publication underscores how the show itself was ambivalent, and lent itself to radically different takeaways. Some argued that Wilson’s characters played into black stereotypes too much, others argued that Wilson was satirizing stereotypes themselves. Arguably, they were both. Wilson himself said always strongly denied assertions that his race necessitated his art be political. “If it is serious, I keep it out,” he purportedly said.

But do we believe him? Wilson had unprecedented artist control over his show, paving the way for artistic freedom for black performers for decades to come. He put extensive efforts into production, wrote a third of all the show’s material, intensively edited the work of other writers, and demanded his staff and guest stars put a five-day workweek in for every one-hour segment. The show brought on an eclectic mix of guest stars that would attract viewers from potentially antagonist segments of the show’s broad audience. In the episode here alone, Johnny Cash, Cash’s wife June Carter, Albert Brooks, and Boston Celtics player Bill Russell all make guest appearances. The show used each guest star in interesting ways, ways that allowed the stars and characters from different segments of society to interact.

In this episode alone, Bill Russell plays Sleeping Beauty near drunk on sedatives. Albert Brooks performs a one-man skit impersonating different Americans auditioning to rewrite the national anthem, and in a hilarious sketch, reveals American exceptionalist and xenophobic attitudes. And most fabulous of all, Johnny Cash and Wilson’s most famous character, Geraldine square dance. Geraldine, the spunky black woman with a boyfriend named Killer, made famous the phrases “the devil made me do it” and “what you see is what you get.” She’s here at her finest, shimmying out of a giant cake and riffing off Johnny Cash with a wit far beyond the $25 she’ll earn for square dance calling. “Do you know anything about swinging a partner?” Johnny Cash asks. “Killer’s my partner, honey, and we always swing.” Geraldine quips.

Wilson’s characters, like Wilson, are smart and multi-faceted. Perhaps Wilson’s comedy was always simply in good fun. Perhaps Wilson himself was unsure whether his role was to be merely an entertainer or an entertainer and critic. But he did say in a 1971 interview, “My show is my statement.“ When asked what that statement is, he replied, “What I’m trying to say through the show is that the old Uncle Tom image of the Negro is not necessary. That a Negro can stand up and be a man simply be being himself,” and added with a wink, “Just like in life.”

Wilson reminds us, with a wink and an energetic smile, that it’s not just characters or critics who are ambivalent. People are ambivalent, and can all to easily become characters if we paint them as one. Life is open to interpretation. What you see is what you make it, and what you make is what you get.

Resources:

Flip Wilson at Encyclopedia Britannica

Lask, Thomas. “Flip Wilson: A Sharp Eye for Absurdities.” The New York Times, 17 September 1967.

Gardner, Paula. “Flip Wilson.” at Museum.tv

Greenfeld, Josh. “Flip Wilson: ‘My Life Is My Own.’” The New York Times, 14 November 1971.

Sullivan, Dan. “Flip Wilson Finds Comic Note in Nation’s Long, Hot Summer.” The New York Times, 17 July 1968.

Sutherland, Meghan. “The Flip Wilson Show.” TV Milestones Series . 25 January, 2008.

Wells, Herman B. “Richard Pryor’s America: Comedy, Social Criticism, and the Ascendency of African American Culture.” Indiana University lecture, 30 October 2009.

Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.