The Dark Side of Comedy
by: Jack Neworth
For five decades, the world adored George Carlin as a stand-up comedian, social critic, actor and best-selling author. Carlin’s career included books, record albums, HBO specials, movies and television. But, to Kelly Carlin he was just dad.
The only child of George and Brenda Carlin, Kelly, was born in 1963. As a toddler, she sat in the back seat of the family car as her parents drove around the country, going from one comedy gig to another.
When Kelly was 7, the family moved to 3002 Pacific Avenue in Venice where George developed material for his groundbreaking Class Clown and Occupation Foole albums. Brenda hung out at Hinanos Cafe and the family shopped at Dales Market. George and Brenda’s rather “laissez faire” parenting style allowed Kelly to roam the canals with playmates.
Kelly has just written a candid memoir about her childhood with a comedy icon in A Carlin Home Companion: Growing up with George. It’s based on her acclaimed one-woman show of the same name. As for the take-off on Prairie Home Companion, suffice it to say, growing up with George was no Lake Wobegon.
The memoir is funny, disturbing, loving and moving. Kelly’s intimate style makes you feel like you’re reading her diary. Given her parents’ drug and alcohol addictions, having a comedy legend for a father was a combination dream and nightmare.
We see George as a cool and caring dad. “Watching TV together was a riot, especially the fun animal shows, because he would do all the voices and it was way more entertaining than the actual show.” George also shared many passions with young Kelly, including astronomy, language and music, whether it was putting his headphones on her so she could listen to a new piece or playing the Beatles’ White Album around the house.
Not such fun, Kelly became adroit at determining if her parents’ moods were the result of alcohol, pot, cocaine or LSD. She recalls when she was 8, being frightened when her father, up for days on coke, burst into her room announcing that the sun was about to explode.
The memoir reflects love and understanding of her parents’ shortcomings. But there are also harrowing stories as a little girl alone with her parents while they’re wasted on drugs and alcohol. There was the vacation in Hawaii when Kelly was 11.
“We had spent the entire day in the bar in Lahaina so my dad could score some coke and weed. Returning to the hotel, they fought, threatened divorce, and argued about every trespass they’d ever committed against each other. Then Mom picked up a kitchen knife and Dad did, too.”
Young Kelly was often the adult in the family. “I wrote out a treaty that stated, ‘I, George Carlin/Brenda Carlin, will no longer buy or snort cocaine, drink alcohol, or argue with each other for the rest of the vacation.’”
One worries how Kelly would survive this madness. The answer is, not easily. “I made every bad choice a rich girl from Brentwood could make.” The 80’s brought her a crushing anxiety disorder, a failed marriage and “piles of coke.” Devastating Kelly, in 1997, Brenda died within five weeks of her diagnosis of liver cancer. In 2000, George moved back to Venice where he lived until he died in 2008, months before posthumously receiving the prestigious Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Ultimately the memoir is about Kelly’s heroic journey from the abyss of drugs and constant anxiety to self-discovery and redemption. Comedian Jay Mohr commented, “For anyone that has ever not been sure who they are, this book is for you.” For Carlin fans still missing him, Jon Stewart notes, “When I wish I could sit next to George and talk, this is the next best thing.”
In a touching chapter, Kelly describes George’s memorial, attended by friends, some going back to his grade school days. There were also comedians for whom Carlin had been their inspiration.
They embraced Kelly like an orphan child. She inherited an extended family of new uncles and cousins who shared a love for her father. Kelly’s description of the memorial, filled with sorrow and laughter, brought me to tears.
Buckle your seat belt, A Carlin Home Companion is a wild but heartwarming ride.
The Carlin Home Companion is available at Amazon.com and wherever books are sold. Kelly hosts The Kelly Carlin Show on Sirius XM Radio’s Raw Dog Comedy and Waking From The American Dream on SModcast Internet Radio. George Carlin is currently the subject of a three month exhibition at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Jack can be reached at [email protected]