WHEN THE CHANGE occurred in George Carlin, it occurred suddenly. To viewers at home, it seemed that one day he was on the talk shows all clean-shaven and besuited; the next, he was hirsute in a T-shirt and jeans. One day, he was doing the Hippy Dippy Weatherman and other anodyne routines; the next, he was using his wit as a weapon against censorship, Vietnam, and the Catholic Church. The change, when it came, was so swift and decisive, it wouldn’t wait for Carlin to even finish the album he was working on. He had to title it FM & AM, in reference to the way it contained both mainstream and underground material.
Carlin has disputed this interpretation of his transformation, insisting that it occurred more gradually than people seem to realize, so it’s good to hear that his own daughter — his only child, Kelly — experienced the transformation in the same way it’s retained in the popular imagination. “During the spring of 1970,” she writes in her new memoir A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up with George,
my dad went into the hospital for a double hernia operation. He went in my daddy — a clean-cut man with groovy sideburns — and came home someone else — a man with a beard. A beard he would not shave for the rest of his life. I wasn’t quite sure if this was really my daddy. This was very startling for me.
Just who her daddy really was is something she spends a good portion of her memoir articulating and describing. Although Carlin was not by nature a confessional comedian on the order of, say, Richard Pryor, he was always very candid in interviews, and his so-called private life has long been a matter of public record. It’s not surprising, then, that Kelly Carlin tells us nothing jarringly revelatory or new. Rather, A Carlin Home Companion provides its revelations in the form of simple, domestic moments that allow us to witness how George Carlin behaved at home — to glimpse him going about the daily business of father- and husband-hood. As a result, our understanding of who Carlin was can’t help but become more nuanced and refined.
“When Dad wasn’t on the road,” Kelly writes, “he was in his office listening to albums, smoking weed (he was also growing a huge pot plant in there), and working on new material: It was something he now did with real fervor since he now had a new audience for it — college kids all across America.”
Carlin never talked much, on stage or off, about his love of music — the full depth and intensity of it — but Kelly makes it clear that he shared much more than just the political sensibilities of his audience. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, she’d look into the living room and
there’d be my dad bopping his head to an unknown beat that only he could hear through his headphones. I’d stand and watch him until finally he’d notice me and say, “Kel, Kel, you gotta hear this.” He’d then place the headphones on my ears. I never knew what to expect. Would it be the groundbreaking sound of the albums Tubular Bells or Switched-On Bach or the bluegrass soul of Doug Kershaw? Or maybe even Harry Nilsson singing, “You’re breakin’ my heart/you’re tearing it apart/So fuck you”? […] When Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” came out, my dad played it over and over again on the big stereo in the living room at full volume. He’d say, “Kel, listen to the harmonies,” and then he’d sing with the record […].
Such moments of pleasant domesticity were frequent enough but did not predominate, and in fact Kelly looks back on them now as “little life rafts in our life of increasing chaos. A safe haven of daddyness.”
Even as a child, she
knew that Dad’s volatile behavior probably wasn’t the best strategy for succeeding in life. […] His general attitude toward authority (which had gotten him kicked out of every institution he had ever been a member of — middle school, high school, the air force), combined with the quality and quantity of cocaine he was now regularly ingesting, resulted in mounds of unfiltered rage.
One afternoon, when Kelly was not yet even a teenager, her mother, Brenda, came to her room to tell her that her father had “taken something, and he’s not feeling well, and I need you to help me.” “We walked into their bedroom,” Kelly writes, “and found my dad standing in his boxer shorts, holding a framed picture of his old head shot — the clean-cut face — smiling at us. The frame was shattered, and Dad’s hand was bleeding.” Kelly and her mother “sat on him for a torturous forty-five minutes until he finally cried himself to sleep.”
This isn’t the worst way to find out what a bad acid trip looks like, but it’s not the best, either.
For all this, Carlin was not an abusive parent, just a neglectful one, and prone to setting a bad example. Kelly tells about asking him for a hundred bucks to buy some weed, and her father responding, “Yes, of course. But don’t forget — when you get home leave me a few joints in my office.”
As George Carlin relates in his own memoir, Last Words (published posthumously in 2009), Kelly had begun stealing roaches from that same office at the age of 13. “I figured it out after a while,” he writes, “and rather than being Big Bad Dad — I did make a living being against all forms of authority — I let it go.” But eventually, Kelly developed her own problem with substance abuse, particularly cocaine, and inflicted upon her parents woes similar to those they’d inflicted on her. (Brenda was a serious alcoholic and pill-popper, who ultimately got sober and helped many others do the same.)
“When it came to Kelly’s responsibilities […] I really abdicated my responsibility,” Carlin confessed in Last Words.
And yet it was all directed at me, all designed to get my attention. I just took an emotional walk on that. What I should have done was to be more aware; intervened, opened up. But I was afraid of what lay behind that door; afraid of what might come out. One of my biggest fears — the most difficult area of my existence — has always been unleashing my feelings.
Carlin also remembers a physically abusive boyfriend — Terry, by name — who came by the house after George had found out all the things he’d been doing to Kelly. Carlin gave him a very clear indication of what would happen if he continued, but “without actually threatening the kid.” “I don’t play baseball,” he supposedly said, brandishing a bat. “Neighborhood I come from, we use bats a different way. To change a person’s behavior.” Kelly, however, remembers this incident a little differently: “He went inside his office and grabbed his baseball bat. As my dad marched down the driveway toward Terry, he said, ‘You come near my daughter again, I’ll bash your fucking skull in.’”
But at least they remember one thing the same way. “Later,” George wrote, “she told me it was the first time in her life she felt I’d done a real traditional fatherly thing. She was shocked, she said. And very proud.” And in A Carlin Home Companion, Kelly writes: “It was the proudest day of my life. My father had finally fathered me.”
Kelly Carlin’s story would be worth telling even if it did not have at its center the greatest stand-up comedian in history. Great memoirs have been written from far less dramatic raw material, even apart from that pertaining to her famous father: the abusive relationships, the addictions (her parents’ as well as her own), the quest for identity. As a writer she is wistful and whimsical and always engaging, and particularly good at capturing the essence of her own grief. When her mother, Brenda, died, a decade before her father, “Everything hurt,” she writes,
nothing felt real, and I felt an eerie separation from the rest of the human race. When I watched TV or went out in the world, I couldn’t believe that life still marched along. How dare it? I wanted to stop people on the street and say, My mother is dead. How can you go to lunch or pick up the dry cleaning? My mother is DEAD. Have you no heart? Nothing interested me, felt meaningful or worth an effort. I existed somewhere between the living and the dead.
Perhaps the chief value of the book, particularly for the comedy-history buff, is the perspective it affords on the many detours and arrivals in George Carlin’s career. We get to see him as a struggling beginner (when Kelly was still a baby), making his first big breaks; then coming to the courageous decision to refurbish his act and defy the mainstream (“Middle America had fallen in love with George Carlin, just in time for him to have fallen out of love with them”); then thriving victoriously with his classic ’70s albums, before, by the end of the decade, lapsing into the mediocre observational style that many believed spelled the end of his career (and which was devastatingly parodied at the time by Rick Moranis on SCTV); then accelerating forward once more with the birth of HBO (whereupon there were no longer any seven words George Carlin couldn’t say on television); then the sharp, abrupt turn his observational mode took in the midst of the Reagan era, lending his comedy an angrier, more political cast; and, ultimately, the full flourishing of this style in the mid-’90s, when Carlin found the speed that would take him triumphantly to the end of his life.
But he wasn’t always happy during this period, and not even Kelly knows for sure how much the ever-emerging bitterness in his comedy — the hilarious crankiness of it — was “a reflection of the depression and grief he’d just dealt with” following the death of Brenda, and how much was “some unleashing of a side of him that he’d repressed while Mom was alive.” That his own daughter cannot solve this riddle, of course, only makes it more compelling.
There was no repressing George Carlin’s bitterness on that now-infamous night in 2005 when he interrupted his own routine on suicide bombings and beheadings to muse about how much he hated the hotels and people of Las Vegas. This would have been typical Carlin fare if only he hadn’t been standing on the stage of the MGM Grand — where he had a standing residency — talking to an audience comprised of its patrons.
“People who go to Las Vegas, you’ve got to question their fucking intellect to start with,” he continued. “Traveling hundreds and thousands of miles to essentially give your money to a large corporation is kind of fucking moronic. That’s what I’m always getting here is these kind of fucking people with very limited intellects.”
Carlin was soon fired from the MGM Grand. Months later, he checked in to rehab to treat what had become a pretty severe prescription-drug addiction.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been fired from a Vegas hotel — although, 30 years earlier, in 1969, to get fired from the Frontier, all he’d had to do was say the word shit (in a routine about how he never said it: “Down the street Buddy Hackett says shit. Redd Foxx says shit. I don’t say shit. I smoke a little of it, but I don’t say it”). Back then Kelly was a child, and her father’s losing the gig had very tangible implications for the family.
But just because a Vegas firing, by 2005, no longer meant poverty for George Carlin doesn’t mean such an incident came consequence-free. The truth is, Carlin, in spite of his distaste for Vegas and its crowds — consisting as they did largely of people who “couldn’t get into that night’s Cirque du Soleil,” as Kelly writes — considered Vegas “a solution […].It kept him off the road and out of airports for about twelve weeks a year, and it was a great place for him to write during the day in his condo, and develop new material at night.” For a comedian revered for his machine-like prolificity, and for a comedian who thrived precisely because of that prolificity, this is no incidental insight. Las Vegas, for all the trouble it caused him, needs to be regarded for what it was: one of the very best things to ever happen to George Carlin’s later comedy.
Insights like these comprise the best possible reason for opening A Carlin Home Companion, and they’re all over the place. Kelly Carlin can take something like her father’s renowned routine on “Stuff” and limn its real-life implications beyond what made it into his act. “My dad believed all was right in the world when, and only when, there was a list, a pile, a folder, or a Ziploc bag to contain the chaos of his life,” she writes.
Even his ideas needed to be contained. Everywhere in our house, for as long as I can remember, there were pads and pens in every room so that when an idea popped into his head, it had a place to go. He would then collect all those notes, organize them into themes, place them in folders, and then build his bits from there. This is how he did fourteen HBO specials of groundbreaking comedy over a forty-year span — he wrote his shit down. [He actually did them over a 31-year span.]
Readers who approach Kelly’s memoir with an idea of George Carlin as a singularly complex human being will find little in its pages to disabuse them. Disciplined yet erratic; volatile yet good-humored; a man who genuinely loved his family but who was nevertheless neglectful and frequently absent; a compassionate soul whose comedy contained some of the most bracingly searing acerbity ever seen on stage — there is little about George Carlin that is easy to contain and capture. And yet, his daughter has managed to capture so much of it.
Kelly describes what it was like to tell her father about the material she was writing about his life, about their lives, and which she had already begun delivering on stage in a one-woman show, and describes his response to what he read when she showed him. “We need to talk — at your therapist’s office,” is what he said to her, over the phone. Readers familiar only with the work of George Carlin will be surprised that he even considered a therapist’s office a viable venue for any meaningful conflict-resolution.
At the therapist’s office, George told Kelly that he felt “deeply betrayed by this,” whereupon, for Kelly,
The room began to spin. I thought I might lose my mind. I began to sob and sob and sob. The kind of sobbing you do at age three, and you can’t quite get enough air because your body is in a panic, so you take big gulps of air.
George, however, wasn’t finished. “But I am an artist,” he continued, “and you are an artist, and I would never ask you to change a single word of it. But I can’t be there to watch it. It would just be too hard for me. I just can’t sit there and be in the audience.”
Kelly canceled her scheduled performances and never publicly presented the material again in her father’s lifetime — a self-censorship that she’s rescinded not only with this book but, once again, on stage. It’s hard to imagine her father objecting, because it’s hard to imagine him ever ultimately siding with obfuscation over disclosure, censorship over expression, fantasy over brutal and beautiful reality.