By Jack Neworth
For the last years of his life, legendary comedian, satirist, social critic and best-selling author George Carlin lived in Venice. Actually he, his wife Brenda and young daughter, Kelly, lived here back in 1970 and had a great affinity and affection for this unique community. In 2008 when Carlin died I was asked by the Beachhead to write his obituary.
Everyone I spoke to, neighbors, friends and even merchants, commented on how down to earth Carlin was. Never mind the 14 HBO specials, the 5 Grammys, the Mark Twain Prize for Humor, or that his books sold a million copies. George Carlin was just a regular guy, albeit a remarkably talented one. Even at 72, he went far too soon.
I first saw Carlin on TV more decades ago than I care to admit to. I was a boy when my father, who loved comedy, introduced me to it as we’d watch the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday night.
Among the myriad of performers I remember a young George Carlin who, with his variety of voices and characters, always made me laugh. But my favorite act was a Spanish ventriloquist, Señor Wences.
Part of Wences’ rapid-fire routine included banter with a character, just a head, which was in a box. Wences would open it and ask, “S’alright?” The head quickly answered, “S’alright!” after which Wences promptly slammed the box shut. (I recently watched a clip on You Tube and I still find it hilarious. Go figure.)
As I grew up and went through radical changes, i.e. the 60’s, so did Carlin. He came out of the “straight” closet and evolved right before our eyes. He went from a traditional comedian whose goal was to have a career like Danny Kaye to a long-haired counter culture icon whose cutting edge comedy impacted generations of audiences and untold aspiring comedians.
And Carlin did so right up until his death. His last HBO special, It’s Bad For Ya was one of his best and was less than four months before his passing. In fact, as Carlin got older he was even more daring. It was as if he were saying, “I’m an old fart, what can you do to me?”
Well, now on May 24, at the Santa Monica Playhouse, we have a chance to see Carlin perform again. A séance? Not exactly. Actually it’s a one woman show written and performed by Kelly Carlin, George’s only child.
A natural storyteller, Kelly weaves the forty-year journey of her life with classic photos and footage of her talented and often tempestuous father. (Who, given occasional drug and alcohol abuse, didn’t always know best.)
A Carlin Home Companion is highly entertaining, very funny and very moving. At the risk of a cliché, it’s bound to make you laugh and cry. (To me, the ultimate compliment for a writer/performer.)
But finding her performing voice is fairly recent for Kelly. After getting her Masters in psychology she had planned to become a therapist. In fact, she interned for three years when she found herself using more and more of her spare time writing stories about “growing up with George.”
A Carlin Home Companion begins with Kelly at age four “making spice cookies with daddy.” Naturally, “daddy’s cookies had a little more spices than Kelly’s.” A few years later George, having been up for days on coke, confided in his daughter that the sun had just exploded and that they only had seven minutes to live. Naturally, this was something that Kelly couldn’t exactly share with her classmates next day at school.
The Carlins lived in upscale Pacific Palisades, surrounded by Ronald Reagan’s friends and a high-ranking executive at the Rand Corporation. (Not exactly George’s “base.”)
As Kelly recalls in the show this close proximity lead to the occasionally provocative neighborly chats that may have been peppered with some of her dad’s famous seven words you still can’t say on prime time radio. (Following a radio broadcast of Carlin’s routine there was a single complaint to the F.C.C. This resulted in the “seven words” case going to the U.S. Supreme Court and is still known as “the Carlin words.”)
A year in the making, A Carlin Home Companion, directed by actor, comedian and filmmaker Paul Provenza, is a remarkably honest and revealing look at what is was like to be swept up by the career of George Carlin. But it also chronicles the struggles of their father/daughter relationship and what it took for Kelly to find her own place in the world.
A Carlin Home Companion is a roller coaster ride of laughter, emotion and, I dare say, even insights into all our lives. I can only add that I’m very glad that she survived the sun exploding all those years ago.