The Inside Story
of TV's First Black Superstar

By Kevin Cook

Viking. 256 pp. $26.95

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Reviewed by Robert Lloyd

Though his time in the national spotlight amounted to only about a decade, Clerow "Flip" Wilson was one of the great comic voices of the 20th century, a compact fireball whose early-1970s NBC variety series embedded characters such as the Reverend Leroy of the Church of What's Happening Now and Geraldine Jones (a self-assured bundle of sass whose catchphrases were "The devil made me do it" and "What you see is what you get") in the national consciousness.

As portrayed in Kevin Cook's new and overdue biography, Flip: The Inside Story of TV's First Black Superstar, - which nicks its subtitle from a 1972 Time magazine cover story - Wilson was a more troubled person than his easy and attractive onstage demeanor would suggest. But he was also a more serious and committed one, who studied comedy like a science and performed it as an art. Part of the first wave of black comedians to break the color line, he arrived during the sociocultural divide in time we call the mid-'60s. He straddled that divide for a while, and then it swallowed him.

Before his career-making Tonight Show debut, in August 1965, he had spent a decade crisscrossing the country, playing mostly to black audiences. But it was television, culminating in The Flip Wilson Show, that made him a household name.

By attracting 40 million viewers a week to a show that was, its many white guests notwithstanding, unreservedly black in its tone and rhythms, Flip was in himself revolutionary. And the fully embodied Geraldine, such a successful character that she became a millstone around his neck, was also radical in her way - "liberated," Wilson called her.

At home, he was a serial adulterer through two marriages and many more relationships. (He never wed the mother of his children, whose custody he eventually gained.) And there had always been drugs in his life, mostly marijuana - which his kids would clean and roll at a kitchen-table assembly line - but also cocaine.

Cook wisely does not make this a story of a Life Destroyed by Narcotics. Still, they might have had something to do with the paranoia that colored his later life; Wilson would sometimes frisk visitors, and at one party, he had guests take a lie-detector test to learn if they had ever stolen from him.

Wilson died of liver cancer in 1998 after what amounted to a long semiretirement, financially secure if not always content. He was only 40 when, in 1974, he walked away from The Flip Wilson Show in expectation of its cancellation.

Cook locates Wilson within his rapidly changing times. If he sometimes skims where context is called for, he has written an engaging story, more anecdote than analysis, that flows easily and doesn't bog down in extraneous facts related just for the sake of his knowing them.

If a single "real" Wilson never quite coheres, that is how he seems to have appeared to the people who actually knew him.