'The Best of The Flip Wilson Show' on DVD Before Martin Lawrence's Shanaynay character, or Tyler Perry's Madea, Flip Wilson set the bar high with his portrayal of the sassy Gerladine Jones. She was one of many characters from the late comedian's award-winning series, The Flip Wilson Show.

'The Best of The Flip Wilson Show' on DVD

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TONY COX, host:

Before Martin Lawrence's Shanaynay character or Tyler Perry's Madea, this sassy character set the cross-dressing funny bar awfully high.

(Soundbite of show, "The Flip Wilson Show")

Mr. FLIP WILSON (Comedian): (As Geraldine Jones) My name is Geraldine Jones and I'm the fashion expert representing the working girls of America.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILSON: (As Geraldine Jones) Hello working girls.

COX: That's right. Geraldine Jones, played by the late comedian Flip Wilson, was one of many characters from his award-winning television series, "The Flip Wilson Show." The show catapulted Flip to the top, making him one of the first African-Americans to have a hit network variety show.

Known for his innovative format, a simple round stage, hilarious sketched comedy and top guests like Redd Foxx and Bill Cosby, "The Flip Wilson Show" kept America laughing from 1970 to 1974. Now popular episodes from the series are featured in a DVD box set called "The Best of the Flip Wilson Show." I recently sat down with the series producer, Bob Henry, who says Flip's childhood influenced his crossover success.

Mr. BOB HENRY (Producer, "The Best of the Flip Wilson Show"): His background was kind of unique in this regard: His mother had 12 children. I've heard various figures. And she took off and Flip ended up working or living with his father in New Jersey. His father was a custodian of a building in a white area.

So he went to essentially a all-white school, and they loved him, everybody loved him, and so they would bail him when necessary for lunch money. So he was so comfortable in a white milieu. That's a million-dollar word, whatever that means. But he was very comfortable crossing over that it helped him career-wise.

COX: Well, let's flip the script on that and talk about how blacks saw him with characters like Reverend Leroy and Geraldine, cross-dressing, big bosomed, kind of stereotypical…

Mr. HENRY: Right.

COX: …you know, character.

Mr. HENRY: Right. He didn't do, like, if I may mention his name, Milton Berle, who worked in drag, and that's a derogatory term meaning a guy who's working as a woman and he'd come out with big boobs and things like that. That was Milton's caricature of a woman, any woman. But Flip was too knowledgeable, too sensitive to wear that - you don't do things like that. And he also had great legs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of show, "The Flip Wilson Show")

Mr. WILSON: (As Geraldine Jones) Why don't I call the square dance?

Mr. JOHNNY CASH (Musician): Now, what do you know about calling square dance?

Mr. WILSON: (As Geraldine Jones) Honey, I've danced with a lot of squares.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASH: I'll bet you don't even know what a promenade is.

Mr. WILSON: (As Geraldine Jones) I may not know anything about a promenade but I got lemonade cups.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Let's talk for a moment about something else that was innovative about the "The Flip Wilson Show" and that was the set. It was in the round, which made for a really interesting challenge, I would imagine, just to shoot it. Three cameras?

Mr. HENRY: Maybe four.

COX: Yeah, look at your face. You should see - if you could see your face right now, you're smiling. You're right back there, aren't you?

Mr. HENRY: The smiling is because, God bless you, it was my idea to put them in the round.

COX: (Unintelligible).

Mr. HENRY: Flip was short of stature and he had a kind of a gentility, whereas if somebody like Bob Hope who was tall and was sort of rugged in his humor, so Bob could work in a set that look like an office with real desks, real windows. But Flip would have been overwhelmed if you put walls behind him. My theory then and since, even without a (unintelligible), is to let his talent flow.

COX: Well, he certainly liked to run across the - he ran all over that stage.

Mr. HENRY: You bet.

COX: And dance all over it and every bit - he used every bit of that apron that was available to him.

Mr. HENRY: God bless you again, you remember.

COX: Oh yeah.

Mr. HENRY: You got a great memory.

COX: I watched that show quite a bit. Let's talk about the DVD collection. So that's out now.

Mr. HENRY: That's when I'm going to be as candid as I can. If someone had asked me to suggest which four shows would you recommend, honest to God, I would have picked these same four shows, the guests that were on them, the quality and everything.

COX: We didn't talk about this. The end of the show, what happened to bring it to an end? And talk about your relationship with Flip up to the time of his death.

Mr. HENRY: Oh, very sad, very, very tragically sad. He kind of lost himself. He was at sixes and sevens and he had all the money in the world now having been a star for that many years. Toward the end, he was both lonesome, sometimes to the point - I never thought I'd be saying this any place - to the point of tears, and then he get hit with cancer. And it should never have happened, you know, nobody should get cancer, but it should not have happened to Flip. He deserved better in life.

COX: Let me take you back because we didn't really get it, I didn't get it clear from you and I want to make sure that I am clear on this.

Mr. HENRY: Please, yes.

COX: How did the show come to an end? Did the time just pass it?

Mr. HENRY: He was managed by a man named Monte Kay, who was with him for many, many years, and he said, you know, NBC is not picking him up for a sixth year. I said oh, how come? I said, well, they feel it's run its course, not too unusual with stars and things. You know, some people, variety shows like Carol Burnett, Ed Sullivan, with that kind of a variety show lasted but they were not Flip Wilson, who was a gifted performer.

COX: Well, Bob Henry, I want to thank you very much. I'm sure that Flip Wilson is looking down from the church of what's happening now.

Mr. HENRY: Oh, God bless you.

COX: Thank you very much.

Mr. HENRY: I would like to think so.

COX: That was Bob Henry, producer of "The Flip Wilson Show."

(Soundbite of show, "The Flip Wilson Show")

Unidentified Man #1: Can I get an amen?

Unidentified Group: Amen.

Unidentified Man #1: Truly wonderful, ladies and gentlemen.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's our show for today. Thanks for being with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow in our continuing series, a leading lady who hails from Wall Street.

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