Journalist Cook (The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless ’70s, 2012, etc.) gives a largely forgotten TV pioneer his due.
Raised in a brutal environment of poverty and abuse, New Jersey native Flip Wilson (1933–1988) became an overnight success in the 1970s as the first African-American host of a TV variety show but not before more than a decade of honing his comedy act in dives and nightclubs across the United States, creating routines and characters such as the legendary “Geraldine.” Cook promises readers the “inside story,” and he does not shy away from presenting the less-than-savory aspects of a life on the road and the stage. Wilson was driven to succeed from the start, and he did not hesitate to clean up his nightclub act for a wider, and whiter, TV audience. He was able, however, to walk a line between comedians like the edgeless Bill Cosby, whose early crossover success both enraged and motivated Wilson, and the unpredictable Richard Pryor, who clearly learned valuable lessons on how to make it big from his time on Wilson’s writing staff, alongside fellow future comedy legend George Carlin. Unlike those and others of the time, Wilson’s work is mostly absent from the airwaves today, and Cook’s readable narrative will hopefully go some way toward rectifying that situation. However, despite the book’s level of detail, including some you-are-there creative license on the author’s part, readers do not come away with a real appreciation for what made Wilson tick, beyond a desire to entertain and get rich.
An entertaining and well-intentioned biography that lacks a deeper understanding of its subject.