Geraldine Jones is a fictional African American character and the most famous recurring persona of comedian Flip Wilson. Geraldine was played as a sassy and liberated Southern woman who was coarsely flirty yet faithful to her (unseen) boyfriend “Killer”. She was direct and confident and did not change her persona to suit anyone. Several of Geraldine’s sayings entered U.S. popular culture as catchphrases, especially “When you’re hot, you’re hot; when you’re not, you’re not,” “The Devil made me do it,” and “What you see is what you get!“
Wilson portrayed Geraldine many times in the early 1970s on his variety seriesThe Flip Wilson Show, though not on every episode. He made comedy albums featuring Geraldine, notably The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress, and he appeared as Geraldine on other programs such as Saturday Night Live. He sang and danced as Geraldine at the Kennedy Center in 1983 for Bob Hope‘s 80th birthday celebration. Wilson tired of the Geraldine character late in his career; he responded to most requests by saying: “She’s retired.”
Since the mid-1960s, Wilson had been using high-pitched voices to characterize women in his comedy routines. He said he was inspired by Butterfly McQueen‘s innocent depiction of “Prissy”, Scarlett O’Hara‘s maid in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. He used a high, brassy voice to portray from a black perspective both Queen Isabella (introduced as Queen Isabel Johnson) and a West Indian woman in a comedy routine titled “Christopher Columbus”, appearing on his 1967 album Cowboys and Colored People. Wilson worked at developing his own version of the voice, imagining a black Southern woman living in a rural area. He performed embryonic Geraldine-type routines at stand-up comedy clubs, but not wearing women’s clothing, and not with the name Geraldine.
Wilson said he got the name Geraldine from a friend he had when he was eight or nine, a pretty girl that did not return his adoration. He said he always held a warm regard for her.
The character of Geraldine was intended by Wilson to “relate to women” without putting them down. Wilson said he wanted Geraldine to be strong, proud, and honest in her dedication to her man; a woman who felt free to act spontaneously. In contrast to other comedians who belittled women, Wilson wanted Geraldine to be “the heroine of the story.”
Wilson first introduced Geraldine by name and appearance in a comedy sketch on Labor Day, September 1, 1969, within a television special put together by Wilson, his manager Monte Kay, and NBC executives. The show was called The Flip Wilson Special. In the skit, comedian Jonathan Winters, dressed in drag as his popular character Maude Frickert—a gray-haired lady with a sharp tongue, was a passenger in an airliner. Wilson’s Geraldine character entered, walking down the jet’s aisle in a stewardess‘s miniskirt, and a bouffant flip hairdo topped by a pillbox hat. Geraldine sat down next to Maude and the comedic interaction was immediately infectious. Wilson said that Winters was chosen because his Maude character was well-known, and because there would be several points of comic tension: both men playing women, the generational difference in apparent age, and the difference in race.
Wilson also performed as Geraldine on The Ed Sullivan Show on January 11, 1970. In the routine, Wilson takes on the persona of a preacher’s wife. The wife (Geraldine) explains to her angry husband why she has an expensive new dress, telling him that “the devil made me buy this dress.” This skit was also performed by Wilson on his fourth comedy album, The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress—its title taken from Geraldine’s retort. The album, featuring Geraldine on the cover, was certified Gold, and it won the 1970 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording.