Whether saucily sashaying across the stage in a wig, high heels, and dress proclaiming, "What you see is what you get!" or piously exclaiming, "The Devil made me do it," Flip Wilson was one of America's funniest comics of the late '60s and early '70s. With a top-rated comedy/variety show, he was also one of the first black television superstars.
Born Clerow Wilson, he was one of 24 children. Because his family was extremely poor, Wilson spent much of his youth in foster homes and reform schools until, at age 16, he lied about his age and joined the Air Force. Claiming that he was always "flipped out," Wilson's barracks mates gave him his famous nickname. Discharged in 1954, Wilson started working as a bellhop in San Francisco's Manor Plaza Hotel. At the Plaza's nightclub, Wilson found extra work playing a drunken patron in between regularly scheduled acts. His inebriated character proved popular and Wilson began performing it in clubs throughout California. At first Wilson would simply ad-lib on-stage, but in time, he added written material and his act became more sophisticated. As a standup comedian, Wilson started out working small blacks-only clubs and gradually worked his way up to such major theaters as the Apollo and the Regal. In 1965, Redd Foxx plugged Wilson's act to Johnny Carson, saying he considered the young comic the funniest one around. Carson booked Wilson and soon he was appearing frequently on other shows, including Ed Sullivan. Wilson also recorded several best-selling comedy albums. He launched The Flip Wilson Show in 1970 and for its first two years the show was number two in the Nielsen ratings. The show ran through 1974. That year Wilson made his screen debut in Sidney Poitier's Uptown Saturday Night. Wilson appeared in two more films and gave up his acting career, though he did reappear for a season in the short-lived People Are Funny and the domestic sitcom Charlie & Co. (1984-1985).