The Dark Side Of Funny: Growing Up In George Carlin's Shadow

Sep 15, 2015
Originally published on October 19, 2015 6:43 pm

In the comedy world, it's a commonly held belief that there's a dark side to being funny — and Kelly Carlin is living proof. The daughter of the late comic genius George Carlin has just written a memoir about her childhood. It's called A Carlin Home Companion, but it's nothing like what you'd find on Lake Wobegon.

In her book, Kelly writes that her parents, George and Brenda, could never be accused of hovering over their only child. In fact, in a 1999 HBO special George ranted about overprotective parenting:

"You know what it is? These baby boomers, these soft, fruity baby boomers, are raising an entire generation of soft, fruity kids who aren't even allowed to have hazardous toys for Christ's sakes. Hazardous toys, s***. Whatever happened to natural selection, survival of the fittest? The kid who swallows too many marbles doesn't get to grow up and have kids of his own."

The audience howled and Kelly says she laughed, too, though she wasn't all that surprised. "I sat in the audience listening to this going, 'Well, of course this disgusts him, because, you know, he was the ultimate laissez faire parent.'"

That's one way to put it. Kelly's book has harrowing stories involving her as a little girl alone with her mom and dad while both of them are wasted on drugs and alcohol. One such story took place in a hotel room in Hawaii when Kelly was 11 years old. She writes:

"We had spent the entire day in the bar in Lahaina so my dad could score some coke and weed. ... The coke was running low, Mom wanted more and Dad wouldn't share. They fought, threatened divorce, and argued about every trespass they'd ever committed against each other in their 14 years together. Then Mom picked up a kitchen knife, and Dad did, too.

"I screamed and hurled myself between them.

" 'Stop! Stop! Please just stop this.' "

They did stop, and little Kelly became the adult:

"I wrote out a UN-style peace 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. The undersigned agrees to these conditions so that we can all have a perfect Hawaiian vacation.' I even drew those little lines with their names underneath, and they both signed it."

Sadly, both parents broke it almost immediately. Kelly writes that they resumed their habits the same day: Mateus rosé for Brenda; cocaine for George. "I spent the rest of the vacation as far away from them as I could," she writes, and "pretended" to everyone she met that she was having "the perfect Hawaiian vacation."

Very early on, Kelly says she became an expert at figuring out what drugs her parents were on. "I could tell. Was Mom drunk? Was she just waking up and had a hangover? Had Dad been up for a few days with cocaine, or was he just smoking some weed and he's just, you know, kind of mellow? Have they been arguing, are they getting along? Walking on eggshells doesn't even begin to explain it."

Meantime, in the 1970s, George Carlin's career was soaring. He packed shows on college campuses; his comedy albums were best-sellers; he was a regular on TV variety shows hosted by Flip Wilson and Tony Orlando; and he was stirring up trouble — and making history — with "Seven Dirty Words." In 1975, he became the very first host of a new show called Saturday Night Live.

Stoned or not, George Carlin was also a perfectionist. According to Jerry Hamza, George's manager and best friend for more than 30 years, the comic worked at his craft incessantly. He says, "I would tell people, 'Well, where's George? He's up in the trees,' because what he wanted to do was write. He wanted to go away, be by himself and write." When George wasn't writing, he and Hamza were on the road driving to gigs, TV tapings and meetings with entertainment industry types. "I spent more time with him than his wife or his daughter," Hamza says.

Long absences and drugs aside, A Carlin Home Companion also includes moments of George Carlin as a pretty cool and caring dad. Kelly says watching TV together — The Carol Burnett Show, Wild Kingdom — 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," she says.

Music was a huge passion George shared with his daughter, whether it was putting his headphones on her so she could listen to a new piece called Tubular Bells or playing The Beatles' White Album around the house. Kelly says the first song she ever learned to sing was The Beatles' "The Continuing Story Of Bungalow Bill." "There were kids in it, you know, 'All the children sing.' You know, I remember skipping around the house, singing the words at the top of my lungs — 'Hey, Bungalow Bill, who did you kill?' — [having] no idea what that was about." Kelly still has her father's iPod with some 20,000 songs on it — blues, folk, jazz and rock. "He was always discovering new music."

At its core, A Carlin Home Companion is about the perks and pitfalls of being the daughter of a famous, edgy comedian in the 1960s and '70s. Kelly writes about new cars, Caribbean vacations and a night of partying with Leif Garrett and Griffin O'Neal that, amusingly, ends up a sleepover at the home of Griffin's parents, Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal.

At the same time, Kelly struggled well into adulthood to overcome the fear that comes with being raised by addicts. "This book has always felt like unfinished business," she says. "I wanted to tell my survivor's tale of how I found my way through the chaos."

When George Carlin died in 2008, Kelly says the outpouring from her dad's fans was overwhelming. Comedians who worshipped him shared their grief with her — Gary Shandling, Richard Belzer, Lewis Black and Jon Stewart among them. She writes:

"My father was gone. But I was not alone. I didn't have to fear falling down a rabbit hole of grief because these men were stretching out their hearts and declaring, We are here for you. I realized that these men were, in some ways, my father's other children. He had inspired, shaped, and determined their lives as much as he had shaped mine. They, too, were his heirs. I felt an instant kinship with them. They were my brothers and uncles. I felt a net of love catch me and carry me forward."

Today Kelly hosts a radio show on Sirius XM, and she and her father's longtime friend Jerry Hamza are very much the keepers of his legacy. She also inherited a wicked sense of humor.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A lot of people have complicated relationships with their parents, and we're going to hear next from someone who is still coming to terms with that seven years after her father's death. This was her dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEORGE CARLIN: Let me tell you about endangered species, all right? Saving endangered species is just one more arrogant attempt to buy humans to control nature. It's arrogant meddling. It's what got us in trouble in the first place. Doesn't anybody understand that - interfering with nature? Over 90 percent - over - way over 90 percent of all the species that have ever lived on this planet - ever lived - are gone. They're extinct. We didn't kill them all.

(LAUGHTER)

G. CARLIN: They just disappeared. That's what nature does.

CORNISH: That's George Carlin. He was called a giant among comedians. Kelly Carlin called him Dad. And in her new memoir, she writes about what it was like growing up in the shadow of a comic genius. The title of the book is, "A Carlin Home Companion," but her childhood was unlike anything you'd find in Lake Wobegon, as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: March 2008, Santa Rosa, Calif. George Carlin is taping what will be his last HBO special, ranting about overprotective parents.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story incorrectly attributes George Carlin's "fruity baby boomer" bit to his 2008 HBO special. In fact, it's from Carlin's 1999 HBO special.]

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

G. CARLIN: You know what it is? These baby boomers, these soft, fruity baby boomers are raising an entire generation of soft, fruity kids who aren't even allowed to have hazardous toys, for Christ's sakes. Hazardous toys. [Expletive].What ever happened to natural selection? Survival of the fittest? The kid who swallows too many marbles doesn't grow up to have kids of his own.

(LAUGHTER)

G. CARLIN: Simple as that.

KELLY CARLIN: I'd sat in the audience listening to this, going, well, of course this disgusts him because, you know, he was the ultimate laissez-faire parent.

BLAIR: That's putting it nicely. In Kelly Carlin's new book, there are some harrowing moments of her as a little girl alone with her mom and famous dad, George, both of them wasted on drugs and alcohol.

K. CARLIN: We had spent the entire day in the bar in Lahaina so my dad could score some coke and weed.

BLAIR: Here, Kelly is 11 years old in a hotel room with her parents in Hawaii.

K. CARLIN: The coke was running low. Mom wanted more, and dad wouldn't share. They fought, threatened divorce and argued about every trespass they'd ever committed against each other in their 14 years together. Then Mom picked up a kitchen knife and Dad did, too. I screamed and hurled myself between them. Stop. Stop. Please, just stop this.

BLAIR: They did, and little Kelly became the adult.

K. CARLIN: I wrote out a U.N.-style peace 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. The undersigned agrees to these conditions so that we can all have a perfect Hawaiian vacation. I even drew those little lines with their names underneath, and they both signed it.

BLAIR: And they both broke it almost immediately. Kelly Carlin writes she spent the rest of the vacation as far away from them as she could and pretended to everyone she met that she was having the perfect Hawaiian vacation. She says very early on she became an expert at figuring out what drugs her parents were on.

K. CARLIN: I could tell. Was Mom drunk? Was she just waking up and have a hangover? Had Dad been up for a few days with cocaine, or was he just smoking some weed and he's just, you know, kind of mellow? Have they been arguing? Are they getting along? Walking on egg shells doesn't even begin to explain it.

BLAIR: Meantime, George Carlin's career was soaring. In the 1970s, he was selling out shows on college campuses. His albums were best-sellers. He was a regular on TV, like here, on "The Flip Wilson Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FLIP WILSON SHOW")

G. CARLIN: Baby, what's happening? Que pasa? How's the hippy-dippy weatherman with all the hippy-dippy weather, man?

BLAIR: He was stirring up trouble and making history with seven words and became the very first host of a new show called "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

G. CARLIN: Football is played in the stadium. Baseball is played in the park.

(LAUGHTER)

G. CARLIN: In football, you wear a helmet. Baseball, you wear a cap.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: George Carlin was high a lot in those days, but he was also a perfectionist who worked at his craft incessantly. Jerry Hamza was Carlin's manager and best friend for 35 years.

JERRY HAMZA: I would tell people, well, where's George? He's up in the trees because what he wanted to do was write. He wanted to go away, be by himself and write.

BLAIR: When Carlin wasn't writing, he and Hamza were on the road.

HAMZA: I spent more time with him than his wife or his daughter.

BLAIR: At the same time, Kelly Carlin says she has many joyful memories of her dad. You can imagine how much fun it would be to watch TV shows like "Carol Burnett" and "Wild Kingdom" with George Carlin.

K. CARLIN: Especially the fun animal shows because he would do all the voices, and it was way more entertaining than the actual show.

BLAIR: They also bonded around music.

K. CARLIN: The early Stones, and Cream, and early Van Morrison and The Band was big to Dad.

BLAIR: The first song Kelly Carlin learned to sing was "Bungalow Bill" from the Beatles' "White Album."

K. CARLIN: Because you know, there were kids in it, you know?

(Singing) All the children sing.

I mean, I remember skipping around the house singing the words at the top of my lungs - hey, Bungalow Bill, who did you kill? Having no idea what that was about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CONTINUING STORY OF BUNGALOW BILL")

THE BEATLES: (Singing) Hey, Bungalow Bill, what did you kill? Bungalow Bill.

BLAIR: Reading "A Carlin Home Companion," you get the sense that growing up the daughter of George Carlin was both a dream and a nightmare. Kelly Carlin writes about her own drug use and the years it took to find her own voice - not easy when your dad's voice is one of the most distinctive in the country.

K. CARLIN: This book has always felt like unfinished business. I wanted to tell my survivor's tale of how I found my way through the chaos.

BLAIR: When George Carlin died in 2008, Kelly says the outpouring from her dad's fans was overwhelming. Comedians who worshiped him shared their grief with her - Garry Shandling, Richard Bowser, Lewis Black and Jon Stewart among them.

K. CARLIN: My father was gone but I was not alone. I didn't have to fear falling down a rabbit hole of grief because these men were stretching out their hearts and declaring, we are here for you. I realized that these men were, in some ways, my father's other children. He had inspired, shaped and determined their lives as much as he had shaped mine. They too were his heirs. I felt an instant kinship with them. They were my brothers and uncles. I felt a net of love and light catch me and carry me forward.

BLAIR: Today, Kelly Carlin hosts a radio show on Sirius XM. She wrote and performed a one-woman show, also called "A Carlin Home Companion." She and George Carlin's longtime friend, Jerry Hamza, are very much the keepers of his legacy. And you can believe she's got a great sense of humor - small wonder, with a dad like that. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

G. CARLIN: I'm new wave but I'm old-school, and my inner child is outward-bound. I'm a hotwired, heat-seeking, warmhearted, cool customer, voice-activated and biodegradable. I interface on my database. My database is in cyberspace. So I'm interactive, I'm hyperactive and from time to time, I'm radioactive. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.