Growing up with George
Kelly Carlin’s tumultuous childhood as the daughter of a counterculture icon
By Joe Piasecki
Booze, pills, pot, caffeine, sugar, shopping — most of us rely on one kind of drug or another to cope with life’s anxieties and challenges, says Kelly Carlin, who holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology.
“That’s 90% of the population — the other 10% is seriously mentally ill,” she says.
While Kelly Carlin was growing up on the Venice Canals and later in Pacific Palisades, her parents —revolutionary comic George Carlin and hard-partying housewife Brenda Carlin — took self-medication to extremes.
Once during a binge, George Carlin woke his 11-year-old daughter to explain that the sun had exploded and the family had exactly seven and a half minutes to live. Days earlier she’d drawn up a U.N.-style pact swearing mom off booze, dad off blow and both off arguing for the week; it lasted 20 minutes. At the height of her mom’s alcoholism, Kelly Carlin would frequently head to the Hinano Café in Venice to coax mom into coming home from the bar.
But, boy, did they laugh. Despite the chaos, Kelly Carlin grew up in a home that was full of love and encouragement punctuated by teaching moments and spontaneous record-listening sessions with dad.
In some ways, she was the luckiest kid in the world. In other ways, she struggled.
Formative years spent trying to balance out family turbulence and living in the shadow of dad’s larger-than-life public persona obscured her sense of self.
Kelly Carlin’s efforts to lay claim to her own identity and find her true voice — a journey spanning wild teenage years into her thirties and beyond — is the driving force of her recently published memoir “A Carlin Home Companion: Growing up with George.”
For George Carlin fans, the book offers a unique perspective on his evolution. There’s the clean-cut 1960s TV comic in Beverly Hills, the longhaired “7 Words You Can’t Say on Television” truth-teller getting high in an upstairs Venice apartment at 3002 Pacific Ave. in the 1970s, and the master of his craft meeting his adult daughter for coffee at the Cow’s End Café on Washington Boulevard in the 2000s.
For those looking for signposts on the road to self-discovery, the story spans a lifetime of father and daughter growing together as people — one that continued for Kelly Carlin even as she spread George Carlin’s ashes in the New York City haunts of his youth and under the Venice Pier.
Between work as a writer, storyteller, satellite radio personality and host of the podcast “Waking from the American Dream,” Kelly Carlin, 52, spoke about her book last week over Diet Cokes at Playa Provisions —not far from the Playa del Rey apartment where she met her husband, Bob McCall, in the 1990s.
It was fascinating to read about your mom — limited by society and circumstance, nearly consumed by alcoholism, but fierce enough to take control of a chartered plane the family was on to keep it from crashing.
I wanted to give my mother a voice, finally. It was important for me to make sure that her existence, her life, her sacrifice was understood. When you’re someone like my father, the people around you have to make sacrifices for your dream even as they benefit from your success. I think it hit me when a fan said to me, after my dad died, “Thank you for sharing your father with us.” I had never framed my life that way before, and then it was like, “Oh, yeah, I guess I did.” [Laughs.]
Do you think your mom’s struggles influenced your turbulent transition to adulthood?
That could be part of it, but in general it was because of the nature of our family dynamic [daughter keeping the peace between drug-abusing parents]. I had disappeared myself into that system so easily that I wasn’t a separate self. Going into my own romantic relationships, I was just trained as a textbook codependent person. I was seeking the same chaos that I’d gotten from my family, but also that charismatic, good-looking, smart, funny male that my father was. It was like, “Daddy issues? Really?” [Laughs.] I hate that it’s so Freudian.
Home life was beyond chaotic but you got a lot of love and support, too.
I had a real foundation of love. That really helped. The difficult parts of my years with my family were traumatizing, but looking back from a distance, I’m still one of the luckiest people on the planet. I was born in the lucky sperm club: white and American in the 20th century, with the genes of genius artist.
But being in that club also set a trap for you.
I think it sets a trap for just about anybody — undermining values for an instant hit of ego gratification, fun, or a sense of importance or being special. One of the things I deal with in the book is this concept of needing to be special and the trap that is: My dad’s special and I’m treated special, so I think I must be special and therefore ordinary circumstances don’t apply to me. And yet in order to build character you have to live through ordinary circumstances and learn to endure things and get to the other side. Being special gives you a way to bypass that. Part of me being a late bloomer is I didn’t have to pay the consequences of things for a while. But eventually you always pay the consequences for everything.
There’s a lot of the Westside in this book — even like you as a kid often looking for your mom at Hinano Café in Venice.
My husband and I go there for a burger at least twice a month; a couple of years ago we started doing that. The first few of times I’d walk in and think, “Wow, this is the place.” I used to stand at the doorway, because it was 21-and-over, and have to lean in and shout, “Is Brenda Carlin here?”
When your dad transitioned out of mainstream comedy, the first thing he did was grow out his hair and move the family to the Venice Canals.
It was super cheap back then, 1971. Yuppies weren’t even a thing yet. It was a tough neighborhood. We were not allowed to go trick-or-treating. They really believed people were going to be putting acid in the candy and razorblades in apples, whatever the urban myth is.
They being your parents?
George Carlin was freaked out?
There were a lot of families. None of us were allowed to trick-or-treat in that neighborhood. It was kind of the Wild West back then.
But during the day you had freedom.
We lived on the beach as kids. We were allowed to ride our bikes up to the main lifeguard station and back. This is when parents would just say “Come home when it’s dark” and you’d play outside all day. We were very free spirits.
Near where Hinano is but right on the boardwalk — I think it’s The Wings there now—was a restaurant that had an open mic space in back. I remember musicians would gig there, and my dad would even do material once in a while. … I think people were doing hootenannies back there.
People living in the neighborhood at that time will remember the big snot car. It was a VW bug covered in green-painted Styrofoam, and it looked like a big piece of snot. As a kid it was the most magical thing. It was crazy, but it was a thing in Venice in ’71, ’72. And there were musicians living in the alley in empty school buses. It was a bunch of hippies. A very cool time.
And Crossroads School in Santa Monica, too — your dad basically telling founder Paul Cummins he didn’t care if you smoked weed as long as you maintained good grades.
That was Crossroads — at least back then. They were literally inventing this school. You could get a note from your parents to smoke cigarettes.
But that was the times …
It was completely the times. Even Paul’s reaction to it. He could have called Social Services on my parents, but he didn’t. People didn’t do that in 1978, ’79 and ’80. We were all coming out of this idealized time.
With the drug thing in high school, I used to have a kind of a sentimental approach to it, but when I think about it now it would have been nice to have my parents limiting me in some way.
What’s your perspective on parenting?
I think partly I’m not a parent because I didn’t want to face that. It’s a real dance, sure, between giving your child unconditional love and freedom to explore, but also making them understand that they’re responsible for their actions, that actions have consequences and that life is limiting on some level. When the light turns red, everyone stops for a reason.
After all you experienced as a little kid, as a teen you modeled your parents’ behavior with drugs.
I don’t know anyone from my generation who rebelled against their parents by not doing drugs. It’s not like a sitcom. The bottom line is I’m genetically predisposed for addiction. We use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and cope. That’s what the world does. There was already great permission in my household. You’re curious. There was no cultural influence telling you to say no. … I was so enmeshed with my parents that in some ways the drug culture was part of my family culture, and to say no to it would have been to say no to everything else that my dad represented in some way.
What advice can you give to people trying to find their voices?
The first thing I had to do was give myself permission to believe that I have a right to be here on this Earth. I think that’s usually an underlying issue for people, especially women. They don’t feel like they have a right to their voice to begin with. That’s the first hurdle: Understanding you have something to say just in the fact that no one else can ever be you. Your perspective, how you think and how you see the world, is unique — completely unique — and who knows how that might serve other people? So open your mouth. Write your song. Protest the thing you want to protest. Wishing and dreaming is an important part of being a human but people can get stuck there.
Even if it’s buried under piles of garbage and family baggage, we always have a little something that we feel is a unique something. [Finding your voice] is about getting clearer and clearer about that something; that’s what will lead you to your vision that will help you take action.
Being and doing are both important. In America, our culture is all about doing. That builds a great nation, but if you don’t have a vision that’s uniquely yours and can sustain you for a lifetime, then in the end the doing is all B.S.
What was most important was to trust the voice inside of me. My dad taught me that.
Read Kelly Carlin’s blog and find out more about “A Carlin Home Companion” at thekellycarlinsite.com.