The making of a Shirley Hemphill

I have no idea how accurate my memory is, but, about 25 years ago, while flipping through television stations late one night, I happened across one of Shirley Hemphill’s comedy routines. Shirley Hemphill, for those of you who don’t recognize the name, is probably best known for her portrayal of Shirley Wilson, the short-tempered but lovable waitress who frequently traded barbs with Raj, Dwayne and Rerun on the late-70’s television show What’s Happening. I can’t remember a word of what was said during her routine, or how many beers I may have had in my system at the time, but I remember laughing my then-bony ass off. And, as a result, about once a year, I find myself, in the wee hours of the night, sorting through videos of her online, as the rest of my family sleeps. Too date, I’ve not been able to find the magical, pant-shittingly-hilarious set that I’d seen all those years ago, but, through watching her work, and reading about her, I’ve come to appreciate the career that she’d made for herself, in spite of the fact that she was an overweight African American woman during a period when popular culture wasn’t exactly looking for any of those things. (Word is that her career got started when she borrowed a tape recorder from a neighbor in Asheville, North Carolina, recorded herself telling jokes, and sent a cassette to Flip Wilson, who encouraged her by sending back a dozen roses, a new tape recorder, so that she’d no longer have to borrow one, and an open invitation to visit him in Hollywood.) Granted, the projects that she was involved in weren’t terribly redeeming in any societal sense. (Ebony described What’s Happening as “the Archie comic book gang in blackface.”) What’s Happening, I guess, did have an episode about illegal bootlegging (see below), but they certainly didn’t deal with issues like heroin addiction, gang violence and child abuse like the more socially-aware Good Times. Still, though, I’ve always appreciated Hemphill’s spunk, and I was sad to hear that she’d passed in 1999. And, tonight, as I sat watching videos of her, I made myself a promise… If I ever open that bar that I dream of, my first task will be to create a drink in her honor – a bold, bawdy, decidedly adult version of the “Shirley Temple.”

So here’s my question of the day, if a “Shirley Temple” is two parts ginger ale, and a splash of grenadine, garnished with a maraschino cherry, what’s a “Shirley Hemphill”? I’m going to spend my evening watching back episodes of What’s Happening, and her guest spots on shows like the Love Boat, in search of inspiration, but, if you have thoughts, let me know. (I’m hoping that maybe she tells Isaac what her favorite liquor is, while attempting to give him a physical on the way to Puerto Vallarta.)

How can it be that no one has done this yet?

And, with that, here’s the Doobie Brothers episode of What’s Happening.

One last thing, I don’t know why it shocks me, but apparently Haywood Nelson, who played Dwayne on What’s Happening, is a Scientologist. I noticed that he quoted L. Ron Hubbard on a special “What’s Happening Reunion” episode of the Jenny Jones Show, and started to do some digging. It would seem that he’s been in the church for some time. One more thing… Speaking of black Scientologists, did you happen to catch the article in The New Republic on the convergence of the Nation of Islam and Scientology? Here’s a clip.

…The first large-scale introduction of Scientology to Nation members took place in August 2010, when hundreds of believers from around the country traveled to Rosemont, Illinois, near the Nation’s headquarters, for a seminar in Dianetics, a foundational belief system of Scientology. There, they were guided through auditing sessions—a kind of hybrid between hypnosis and confession—in which a Scientologist purges painful experiences from his subconscious in the presence of an “auditor.” At the end of the seminar, Farrakhan told the group he wanted everyone in attendance to become a certified auditor.

Jesse Muhammad, a 34-year-old writer and community organizer who joined the Nation of Islam as a teenager at the urging of an older brother, had driven overnight from Houston for the event. He took this goal seriously. “Those who follow Farrakhan, we trust his guidance, so we jump to it,” he told me. After three weeks of intensive training with Scientologists in Houston, he became certified. The Nation refused to comment for this story, but according to its newspaper, Final Call, as of this spring, more than 1,000 members have become certified auditors and another 4,000 were studying “some aspect of Scientology.”

Ishmael Bey, a former assistant Nation minister, told me that years ago he’d heard from a top official that headquarters was flirting with “a white church in L.A.” Initially, Farrakhan never mentioned Scientology in public. Instead, he cryptically alluded to the “study” of “a technology” that would help his people. His caution made sense: after all, the Nation was explicitly conceived as a black separatist organization and a repudiation of Christianity, which Nation leader and prophet Elijah Muhammad derided as “the slave master’s religion.” Farrakhan himself has called white people “a race of devils” and the Nation teaches that the apocalypse will involve a UFO, or “mother plane,” that will eradicate all Caucasians.

However, there are some striking theological overlaps that might help explain how Farrakhan came to adopt a religion invented by a white man. There is, of course, the attachment to science fiction: Scientologists believe in an alien dictator, Xenu; the Nation holds that the white race was created by a mad scientist named Yakub. More significantly, though, at the core of both religions is a never-ending pursuit of a better self. In the case of Scientology, that best self is “clear” of residual traumas buried in the subconscious. In the Nation, that self is free of the hang-ups of white culture that black people have internalized to their detriment. Scientology, Farrakhan seems to believe, provides a new path toward black empowerment. “I’ve found something in the teaching of Dianetics, of Mr. L. Ron Hubbard, that I saw could bring up from the depth of our subconscious mind things that we would prefer to lie dormant,” he said to his Chicago congregation in early summer. “How could I see something that valuable and know the hurt and sickness of my people and not offer it to them?”…

[note: I was in Detroit at Sugar House earlier this evening, and it occurred to me to ask them how they’d adultify the Shirley Temple, but I got scared, thinking that maybe they’d rip off my idea. The good ideas, you see, don’t come to me as rapidly as they once did, and I need to be protective of them.]

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  1. Posted January 6, 2013 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Dee, the sarcastic sister, was my personal favorite. Shirley was awesome though. Also, I went to school one day (first grade?) and sat backwards in my chair like DeWayne…my teacher didn’t find it nearly as awesome as she should have.

  2. Posted January 6, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    According to Hemphill, Dee became a vet somewhere in LA. Hemphill, on the Jenny Jones Show, complained that Dee didn’t give her a discount when treating her animals. During the same show, Haywood Nelson said that he should have married Dee.

  3. anonymous
    Posted January 6, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    I imagine that her life in “the industry” was better than it would have been if she’d stayed in North Carolina, working minimum wage jobs, but her death is still tragic. As I understand it, she died at 50 from kidney failure, and her body wasn’t discovered for 2 weeks. That makes me incredibly sad.

  4. anonymous
    Posted January 6, 2013 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    The Love Boat segment was called “Isaac Gets a Physical” (’82). This is from IMDB:

    “A nurse comes on board to give the crew their company physical but Isaac tries to avoid her cause there’s a congenital condition in his family that he fears could jeopardize his job. And the nurse is attracted to him also.”

  5. Anonymatt
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    You found your thrill
    On Shirley Hemphill

  6. Mr. X
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I’ve always wanted to create a drink called “The Mister Gower.”

  7. XXX
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Does anyone know if her 1979 series “One in a Million” ever got made? She was supposed to have played “a lady cab driver” who took over a $200 million corporation.

  8. Meta
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    OK, you got me interested. I found this.

    In later years, Shirley’s health was failing. Her weight was taking a toll on her knees, so she needed a walker – at age 52. She was also plagued with kidney problems and according to one published report, Shirley was so self conscious about her illness, she had her phone number changed so friends wouldn’t find out how ill she really was. She ambled around her home, preferring to be alone. She didn’t like taking pills and had a fear of being cut, so would never have surgery to alleviate any of her symptoms.

    Rerun was quoted, “The last time I saw Shirley I literally had to hold her up as we walked. She was very sick. The bones on her face were all sunken in. She had lost a lot of weight. She was in pretty bad shape.”

    On Friday December 10, 1999, her gardener was peeking inside her window. Apparently, this was normal. He was expecting to find her sitting in her chair, looking outside. Instead, he saw her laying on the floor of the master bedroom, not moving. He called 911 and police arrived and found her dead at 9:47 AM. She had been dead for several days. Her hands were “blackened and dry.” One of the investigators recognized her from television.

    Cause of death: heart attack due to obesity and kidney disease. She was 52 years old.

    Read more:

  9. Eel
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Sugar House is awesome.

    And I wonder how much David Miscavige paid Farrakhan. That’s fucking amazing.

  10. anonymous
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I can’t find evidence of it, but word is that Hemphill sang the into to “one in a million.”

    Here’s the intro without words.

  11. Posted January 7, 2013 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    The answer is yes

  12. Anonymous Mike
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Miscavige and Farrakhan are the same person. Has anyone seen them together before?

  13. anonymous
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    I want to name a kind of alcohol but I think that, if I do, someone will call me a racist, regardless of the kind of alcohol that I mention. If I were you, I’d call Isaac. I think he’s still alive. A black person’s perspective, I think, is imperative.

  14. Curt Waugh
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    I’m very proud (?) to say I watched the bootlegging episode when it was originally broadcast – along with every single episode. (Rerun dancing was my favorite episode. Roger complaining he couldn’t breathe when his mamma hugged him was the funniest line.) The best part about the bootlegging episode was that it featured the Doobie Brothers. Even at a tender young age, I thought to my self, “Self, why in the hell would these young black dudes give two shits about the Doobie Brothers?”

  15. Anonymatt
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    I never heard of bootlegging until I saw the episode (also originally broadcast). But I’ve never met anyone with a bootleg of a Doobie Brothers concert.

  16. Posted January 7, 2013 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    I saw the episode, too! A few summers ago some channel was showing Good Times, Sandford & Son and the Jeffersons and an occasional episode of What’s Happenin’. Or maybe it was on every night and I just didn’t stay up late enough? Anyway, the Doobie one was on. To quote P-Funk–it was cool, but can you imagine Doobie in your funk?

    I’m glad to hear that Dee became a (presumably sarcastic) vet. I can see her giving that “look” to the puppies and kitties.

  17. Joan Carson
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Your drink should add a twist of lime and a splash of either white rum or amaretto to the traditional Shirley Temple. These ingredients capture Shirley’s “sour” delivery of sweet friendship. Remember, Shirley filled in as caretaker for Dee and Raj when their mother (Mabel King) was away…She pretended to be their mother to get Raj and Dee out of a bind…Even in the midst of her teasing, she was, overall, a solid and reliable friend.

  18. Joan Carson
    Posted March 14, 2017 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    The Nation of Islam and The Church oScientoolgy are similarly organized, so Miscavage capitalized on an opportunity to work his program on (another) captive audience to the tune of what I’m sure was a hefty sum. Scientology can run a single individual into the $100K and more figures in search of “clear,” with its various programs, so an entire congregation of people is all the more profitable.

    There is no doubt that Farrakhan was well-paid for this. His willing participation suggests that either he does not “truly” believe the rhetoric and vitriol he spews from his podium or, like the mercenaries he berates, he can be bought at the right price. Most likely: Miscavage paid Farrakhan to endorse Scientology with the Nation of Islam, and Farrakhan sold his membership rolls and mailing lists to Miscavage for a kick-back on whatever his members paid for their programs. Since Farrakhan’s members are conditioned to not question him, Miscavage has an effective “partner” and guaranteed income streams.

  19. Wrecked But Whole
    Posted April 18, 2019 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Comedian great Adam Carolla invented the drink. It’s 1 part Hennessy and one part Yoohoo

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  1. […] father met her once or twice.  He said she was very nice, very funny.  Mark Maynard suggested that a drink should be named after her, an adult version of the Shirley […]

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