More decades ago than I care to admit, my father introduced me to the world of stand up comedy as every Sunday night we’d watch the “Ed Sullivan Show.” Among the performers on the Sullivan show was a youthful George Carlin who, in a suit and thin tie, always struck me as hilarious though at my tender age I must admit the famed ventriloquist Señor Wences was my favorite performer. (Now I’ve dated myself even further.)
As I grew up and went through life’s changes, i.e. the 1960s, so did Carlin. He came out of the “straight” closet so to speak and transformed himself from a traditional comedian whose hero was Danny Kaye to a long-haired counter culture icon whose cutting edge comedy enormously impacted young audiences and other comedians. And it did so right up until Carlin’s death in 2008 at age 72.
As Bill Maher points out, as Carlin got older he was even more daring in speaking truth to power. It was as though he was saying, “I’m old, what can you do to me?”
In fact, in my personal pantheon of the Gods of standup would be Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Carlin. Social critic, satirist, actor and author, Carlin might be at the top because of his constant re-inventing himself, his amazing longevity (Pryor’s and Bruce’s primes were painfully short) and his prodigious body of brilliant work. (Carlin had 14 HBO specials. I believe the second most is four.) Winner of five Grammys, what made Carlin proudest was that his books sold almost a million copies.
As it happens, next Thursday, April 26, at 8 p.m. at the Santa Monica Playhouse, we get a rare chance to see Carlin work again. No, it’s not a séance. It’s a one-woman show written and performed by Kelly Carlin, George’s only child, who artfully weaves her 40-year story of growing up with her talented and often tempestuous father (who, given periodic alcohol and drug use, didn’t always know best) with classic and well-timed photos and footage from his groundbreaking career. Simply said, it’s a terrific show five different ways.
Not surprisingly given her DNA, Kelly Carlin is a natural storyteller. “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.)
The charming and intimate Santa Monica Playhouse is an ideal venue as Kelly has deep roots here. She went to Santa Monica Montessori for elementary school and graduated high school at Crossroads. But finding her performing voice is a fairly recent event.
After getting her master’s in psychology, Kelly had planned to become a therapist. In fact, she interned for three years when she found herself using her spare time writing stories about “growing up with George.”
“A Carlin Home Companion” begins with Kelly at age 4 “making spice cookies with daddy.” Naturally, “daddy’s cookies had a little more spices than Kelly’s.” Kelly, George and Brenda (George’s wife and Kelly’s mom) lived in upscale Pacific Palisades surrounded by Ronald Reagan’s friends and a high ranking executive at the Rand Corp. (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 by her dad with some of his famous seven words you still can’t say on prime time radio. (Following a New York City radio broadcast there was a total of one complaint to the F.C.C. This resulted in the “seven words” case going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and is still known as “the Carlin words.”)
A year in the making, Kelly’s show, directed by noted actor, comedian and filmmaker Paul Provenza, is a remarkably honest and revealing look at what it 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. (And yet, I don’t think Señor Wences is mentioned once.)
To learn about Kelly’s podcasts “Waking From the American Dream,” or her monthly “Kelly Carlin Show” on Sirius XM Radio interviewing comedians including Robin Williams, or to order tickets for the April 26 or May 24 “A Carlin Home Companion” at the Santa Monica Playhouse, go to www.Kellycarlin.com.
Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.