For almost five decades, Americans adored George Carlin as a stand-up comedian, social critic, actor and best-selling author. His 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 slid around the backseat of the family car as her parents drove around the country, going to one comedy gig after another.
A 1981 graduate of Crossroads in Santa Monica, Kelly has just written a remarkably candid memoir about the privileges and pitfalls of being the child of a comic icon in “A Carlin Home Companion: Growing up with George,” 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 hardly Lake Wobegon.
The memoir is funny, disturbing, loving and moving. Kelly’s intimate style makes you feel like you’re reading her diary. Given the Carlin parents’ drug and alcohol addictions, having a comedy legend like George 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 eight being frightened when her father, up for days on coke, burst into her room announcing the sun was about to explode.
The memoir reflects love and understanding of her parents’ shortcomings. But they’re 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. George died in 2008 shortly 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 an emotional 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. Warming her soul, she inherited an extended family of new uncles and cousins who shared a love for her father. Kelly’s touching description of the memorial, filled with sorrow and laughter, might bring you to tears.
As was her father, Kelly Carlin seems fearless. She’s written a brave, difficult and yet often hilarious account of growing up in the tumultuous ’60’s and 70’s as the child of comic royalty. Buckle your seatbelt; “A Carlin Home Companion” is a wild but ultimately 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 is at firstname.lastname@example.org.