I’ll never forget the first time I heard of the late comedian George Carlin. I was at the tail end of my sixth grade year. Mr. S, my teacher, was driving a bunch of us silly twelve-year-old girls to a camping site where our entire class would stay for several days. Other kids in our class rode along with some of the parents who chose to chaperone this outing. Alas, my mother, too bougie for camping, decided to stay home.
Being a nosy bunch, my fellow sixth grade sisters began to snoop around Mr. S’s glove compartment box. In this box, we found several George Carlin cassette tapes. Not familiar with Mr. Carlin, we asked Mr. S about him and begged to listen to these tapes. Mr. S was a pretty cool dude, but not so cool that he’d allow young impressionable minds to listen to Carlin’s brand of comedy. Yes, we were all bummed, but we figured that George Carlin was too “grown-up.” I guess I would have to wait to find out why…
A few years, while watching cable TV, I found out why. Now in high school, and oh-so-mature, I stumbled upon one of George Carlin’s stand-up specials. I thought to myself, “Hey, isn’t this guy the guy Mr. S wouldn’t let us listen to? Hmm, I going to check him out.”
I soon realized why Mr. S wouldn’t let us listen to George Carlin. He was a total potty mouth and he was talking about issues a bit too “mature” for a bunch kids. But I was now in high school. Not to brag, but I had a bit of a potty mouth myself, and was becoming more and more aware of the mature themes Mr. Carlin was joking about. I laughed out loud during Mr. Carlin’s show, agreeing with many of his views. Before the ending credits I was a huge George Carlin fan.
And I remain a fan to this day. I was hugely saddened by his death in 2008 and can only imagine what he’d make of today’s political and social climate. I bet George Carlin would have a field day with the likes of the tea party, the current clown car of GOP presidential candidates, certain political pundits, the weeping Cheeto and soon-to-be former Speaker of the House-John Boehner , and wishy-washy Democrats (or as I like to call them “Republican Lite”).
Carlin was an icon in the world of comedy. Comedy bits like “Seven Dirty Words” and “A Place for my Stuff” are legendary. And undoubtedly, Carlin influenced countless of stand up comedians from Lewis Black to Chris Rock and to Margaret Cho.
What I can’t imagine is George Carlin as a father? George Carlin had a kid? Seriously? Well, yes, George Carlin had a kid, a daughter to be more precise. Her name is Kelly Carlin, and she has written a memoir about her life with her late father (and her late mother, Brenda). And her book, both heartbreaking and hopeful is called A Carlin Home Companion-Life With George.
According to Ms. Carlin, her father honed his comedy skills from the front stoop of his New York childhood home. He met his wife, Brenda, soon married, and Kelly Carlin came along in 1963. At the same time, her father was honing his comedy act and his career started to take off. At first, Carlin appeared to be a clean cut type, complete with short hair and a nice suit, But soon he let his hair grow out, put on a t-shirt and jeans, and embraced the counter culture (yep, that included the drug culture).
Carlin’s career went off into the stratosphere. And it was not without some controversies. In 1972, Carlin was arrested at Milwaukee’s entertainment festival Summerfest for his Seven Dirty Words act. Hmm, I wonder if Milwaukee and Summerfest became the eighth and ninth dirty words in the Carlin household. And Carlin became addicted to drugs, pot and cocaine being his drugs of choice.
Meanwhile, Ms. Carlin’s mom, Brenda, had her own issues to deal with. She struggled living in the shadow of her husband and also struggled to raise Kelly in a world that wasn’t exactly wholesome. Brenda also contended with a huge alcohol problem.
Due to Carlin’s huge career, not to mention the substance issues both he and wife suffered from, their parenting style could best be described as laissez-faire. They weren’t exactly neglectful, but they weren’t exactly doting either. At a time of great vulnerability, when Ms. Carlin needed stability and security, she often dealt with chaos and uncertainty. Would her mom be in bed, nursing a hangover? Would her dad be strung out on drugs? Plus, there were other issues that the Carlin family dealt with-financial, household and career woes being just a few.
As Carlin’s continued to reinvent himself as a stand up comic, his daughter went from confused little girl to troubled teen. She hung out with Ryan O’Neal’s son Griffin, and in one brief snippet mentions spying Farrah Fawcett shampoo while taking a shower at the O’Neal household. Ryan and Farrah were a huge item at the time. Ms. Carlin also had a tight bond with the late Carrie Hamilton, the daughter of a another comedy legend, Carol Burnett. Ms. Carlin was also friends with teen idol Leif Garrett and hung out with other celebrity offspring. She lived a fast lifestyle of drugs, drink, partying and sex. But when you think about it, she really didn’t have much of a different lifestyle than a lot of teens in the 1970s and early 1980s. She just lived in a more expensive zip code and drove a much better car.
As Ms. Carlin gets older, she meanders through college and tries to get her footing in the world of being an adult in which she was not quite prepared. Just how does she live as a grown-up when the grown-ups who raised her didn’t quite have their act together. Ms. Carlin can’t quite figure out what she should do when it comes to having a career and suffers through a truly horrible first marriage.
Meanwhile, her own parents deal with both triumphs and tribulations. Brenda conquers her problems with alcohol, and George seems to conquer his drug demons. His career continues to be successful, mostly due to his hilarious HBO stand-up specials, which leads to movie roles, a TV show and many best-selling books.
Still, heartbreak is always on the horizon and it isn’t long before Brenda is diagnosed with cancer. Ms. Carlin is devastated and the subsequent death of Brenda leaves a huge hole in her heart. Her father is also devastated, but soon finds a love again, which leaves Ms. Carlin a bit weirded-out.
Ms. Carlin still tries to find herself, feeling a bit lost even as she goes through her thirties. She makes attempts at several careers-performer and screenwriter to name two, but wonders if she’s only getting attention for being George Carlin’s daughter, not for her own talents.
It’s only when she attends grad school that she finds her footing. She studies psychology, hoping to become a counselor. Lord knows, she has the life experience to help those with messed-up lives. She also seems to have the compassion and understanding to help those who are truly troubled. Perhaps, having parent who weren’t exactly perfect not such a burden after all.
And then there is George Carlin’s death in 2008. Though you are well aware his unfortunate demise is coming, you can’t help but feel kicked in the stomach when it does happen. Ms. Carlin is devastated, but also accepts all the love that comes from his fans, both the famous and the not-so-famous expressed their sympathy and their love of the comedy legend. And Ms. Carlin’s appreciation for this is truly palpable.
Carlin Home Companion is not a “Daddy Dearest.” Sure, you get to know George Carlin, warts and all. But you also get a glimpse of a kind and loving man. Sure, he wasn’t Ward Cleaver, but he wasn’t a monster and his love for his only child is touching and real.
As for Ms. Carlin herself? She writes with amazing candor, self-awareness and compassion for her parents. She’s brutally honest, but also wonderfully empathetic. Her writing style is warm and down-to-earth. It’s almost as if your having a painfully honest conversation with a good friend.
This is Kelly Carlin’s memoir, and she is unbelievably honest on what it was like to be raised by a comedy legend, and all the glory and difficult times that came with it. I have seven not-so-dirty words for you Ms. Carlin. Bravo, Kelly! Your dad would be proud.