September 2, 2016
For today’s PopCulteer we hail the return of The PopCult Bookshelf. The plan is to get back to reviewing books, comics and graphic novels at least once a week here in PopCult, after a few months of slacking off. In the coming weeks The PopCult Bookshelf and The PopCult Toybox will settle into their own days here in the blog, but this week, it’s PopCulteer time for the Bookshelf.
This is a little unusual. I am reviewing a book that was published more than two years ago (the first edition came out in 2013). I picked up my copy of this book at Half-Price Books over the summer, for under five bucks, not expecting much. I was a fan of Flip Wilson when I was a kid, and it was cheap, so I figured “why not?”
The book sat in my stack of unread things for a couple of months. Then one day I saw it and thought it’d be worth flipping through for a few minutes to kill some time.
I could not put the book down. Flip Wilson’s life was thoroughly interesting, and Kevin Cook does an amazing and intricate job showing us what made this complex man tick. Cook does an amazing job sorting through an unusual amount of documentation, much of it Wilson’s own writing, and crafts a stunning portrait of a man who was seriously flawed, yet overcame so much, that you want to shake his hand and kick his ass at the same time.
Wilson was so charismatic and so talented an entertainer that he was able to break down barriers and become the first black superstar to host a network variety show. On one hand, he clung so close to “the establishment” that he could be seen playing golf with Bob Hope and Gerald Ford. On the other hand, among the writers for his variety show were two struggling stand-up comics who needed a hand–George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Without Flip Wilson’s help, neither would have made it in show business.
Cook expertly tells the story of Wilson’s tragic childhood, his abandonment by his mother at a young age and the following travails that would make Dickens wince. He shows how Wilson managed to exploit his talents to get through life, eventually ending up in the Army as a typist, and parlaying that into what became a career in stand-up comedy. Wilson self-educated himself, and was equally at home quoting Shakespeare as he was spitting out raunchy sex jokes. Cook also covers how Wilson’s abandonment issues played havoc with his personal life. He arguably never had a healthy relationship with a woman, and while at times he could be a doting father, he also put his kids to work processing his marijuana.
This is a great book in terms of the history of black entertainment and the civil rights movement. Wilson was at ground zero of the breakthrough. We get to read about the “Chitin’ Circuit” where black stand-up comedians plied their trade, and we get to see how Wilso made the leap to the mainstream via Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in and other programs. Plus there’s other background material about such things as the relationship between Redd Foxx and Malcolm X and how Carlin and Pryor were essentially washed-up before Wilson hired them to work on his show.
You come away with an appreciation of Wilson as a pioneer in both comedy and civil rights, but also as a deeply-flawed man who overcame a lot of adversity, but still struggled with major issues of abandonment and drug abuse his entire life. Still, knowing all that, you like the guy. And that was the key to Wilson’s success–he was eminently likable.
It is a shame that this book was not more widely-acclaimed on its release. It’s one of the best entertainment biographies I’ve read. Cook did an incredible job pulling together all the threads of Flip Wilson’s life and weaving a memorable life story. In the right hands, this could easily be turned into an OSCAR-worthy movie.
Because the book has been remaindered, you can find it really cheap. It’s on Amazon for a penny in paperback, and you might find it anywhere discount books are sold. It is well-worth seeking out and it is well-worth your time. Flip Wilson has been unjustly overlooked as a pioneer in comedy, and this book has been unjustly overlooked as well.
Let’s hope this review helps a few more people discover this great book, and this great, nearly-forgotten talent.