George Carlin’s daughter looks back on life with iconic comedian
Eleven years ago, after Kelly Carlin sent her father a draft of the one-woman stage show she’d penned about her traumatic upbringing and her late mother, he clammed up. Weeks went by and George Carlin, the late comedic icon and iconoclast, made not a peep.
So Kelly, now 49, finally phoned him and asked, “Did you read it?”
“Yes,” he told his only child. “We need to talk at your therapist’s office.”
Kelly soon found out why.
“I was talking about my inner life in front of perfect strangers, and some of what I was revealing to these perfect strangers I had never revealed to him,” she says.
On June 15, during her first visit to Chicago since the mid-60s, she’ll perform her newest and second solo show — this one dad-focused, critically acclaimed and titled “A Carlin Home Companion: Life, Love and Laughter with George” — as part of Chicago’s annual TBS Just for Laughs comedy festival.
While George respected Kelly’s freedom of artistic expression, he nonetheless felt “betrayed.” And so, being the “dutiful daughter” she was, Kelly scuttled her planned six-week run after only a few performances and entered graduate school for psychology. Her primary reason for doing that, aside from having an affinity for the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, was to better understand her tumultuous life. After years spent in the not-always-great company of parents whose dysfunction was exacerbated by substance abuse, she developed issues of her own.
“It had really affected my ability to function,” Carlin says of her upbringing, “and I wanted to finally understand the full landscape and the human journey and the human psyche in general. I’ve always been fascinated by the inner life and what it takes to change and transform and how that then affects our outer life in the world.”
While studying at Pacifica Graduate Institute, near Santa Barbara, Calif., she logged clinical hours as an intern, wrote her thesis on the Greek mother-daughter myth of Demeter and Persephone, earned a degree in Jungian Depth Psychology and sorted out her “mommy stuff.”
To some extent, the daddy stuff still lingers.
“There are just some things you just can’t come to grips with until your parent is gone, I really believe that,” says Kelly, who also hosts a monthly comedy-centric talk show on Sirius-XM and a wide-ranging podcast called “Waking from the American Dream.”
Her mother, Brenda, died in May of 1997, her father in June of 2008.
“There’s a permission that happens and there’s a freedom that happens where you can kind of look [the relationship] straight in the eye.”
Besides the emotional healing it spurred, George’s passing had another positive effect: Comics Kelly had never met, comics who idolized and were inspired by her dad’s inimitable takes on death and voting and “7 Words you Can’t Say on Television,” began reaching out. Until then, she’d kept their ilk at arm’s length.
“The world of comedy has come into my life and just said ‘yes’ to me and I’ve said ‘yes’ back to them,” Kelly says. “And I just kept saying yes. . . . And that is what led me to this show.”
Lewis Black, an acerbic comedian and bestselling author with a large flock of loyalists, is who led her to the show. Kelly already was spinning autobiographical yarns onstage, if only sporadically, when Black invited her to do likewise on an ocean cruise he was hosting. By the end of her 90-minute presentation, whipped up in a couple of hours and replete with video clips of George being George, 400 “rabid Lewis Black fans” with an equally abiding love for George Carlin were, according to Kelly’s telling, thoroughly wowed. “You were our favorite part of the trip,” she remembers hearing over and over. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
That’s the kind of adoration George regularly received during his decades in the spotlight, and Kelly was around to witness some of it.
“It was amazing to watch my dad onstage and the worshipping that was going on and the way he was just transforming audiences,” she says. “It was a little heady and even a little too much at times — a bit overwhelming.”
Asked if being the offspring of a legend has the same effect, Kelly says no. Well, not anymore.
“I know that’s in some people’s heads because they don’t know who I am, and that’s fine. But I know what I bring, and I’ve been bringing it for over ten years, and I’m getting more and more comfortable with who I am and with what my gift and power is onstage.”
If audiences project certain things — expectations, especially — onto her because of whose loins she sprang from, so be it.
“Much of what I’ve kind of done my whole life was hide from those projections,” she admits. “[But] the last four years I’ve made a full choice to step into the glare of those projections and really start seeing, how real are they? And how do I learn to react to them?”
Whether it’s with “humor,” “grace” or “bitchiness,” she says, there’s always “integrity and heart.” That’s the goal, anyway — one that George surely would endorse.
“I don’t like ass kissers, flag wavers or team players,” he once said, as only he could say it. “I like people who buck the system. Individualists. I often warn people: Somewhere along the way, someone is going to tell you, ‘There is no “I” in team.’ What you should tell them is, ‘Maybe not. But there is an “I” in independence, individuality and integrity.’. . . And if they tell you you’re not a team player, congratulate them on being observant.”