Few people glimpsed the inner life of this beloved comedian, but his only child, Kelly, was there to see it all. Born at the very beginning of his decades-long career in comedy, she slid around the "old Dodge Dart," as he and wife Brenda drove around the country to "hell gigs." She witnessed his transformation in the '70s, as he fought back against-and talked back to-the establishment; she even talked him down from a really bad acid trip a time or two ("Kelly, the sun has exploded and we have eight, no-seven and a half minutes to live!").
Kelly not only watched her father constantly reinvent himself and his comedy, but also had a front row seat to the roller coaster turmoil of her family's inner life-alcoholism, cocaine addiction, life-threatening health scares, and a crushing debt to the IRS. But having been the only "adult" in her family prepared her little for the task of her own adulthood. All the while, Kelly sought to define her own voice as she separated from the shadow of her father's genius.
With rich humor and deep insight, Kelly Carlin pulls back the curtain on what it was like to grow up as the daughter of one of the most recognizable comedians of our time, and become a woman in her own right. This vivid, hilarious, heartbreaking story is at once singular and universal-it is a contemplation of what it takes to move beyond the legacy of childhood, and forge a life of your own.
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A Carlin Home Companion
Growing Up with George
By Kelly Carlin
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Kelly Carlin-McCall
All rights reserved.
The Moon and Venus Rise Together
Carlin legend holds that all it took for me to come into the world was a little sperm, a little egg, a little weed, a little scotch, and something called the limbo.
"We'd been trying to get pregnant for months, but no luck," explained my mom to me, seven-year-old Kelly, as I sat on the bed watching my dad pack for the road.
Just moments earlier he'd said to me, "When I'm down in New Orleans, I'll get a postcard from the hotel you were conceived in and send it to you."
Confused by the word "conceived," I looked at my mom, and she quickly filled in the details. "We were down in New Orleans, must've been what, October of '62? We were at a club hanging out with some musicians we'd met, when someone announced a limbo contest. Well, it sounded like fun, and so I did it. Next thing I knew, I was pregnant."
Mom didn't mention the weed or scotch in her telling of my fateful beginning because she didn't need to. They were a given. Dad had been smoking weed and drinking beer since he was fourteen, and Mom started sneaking sips off her daddy's drinks at around the same age. And as far as the limbo goes, I'm still not clear about the mechanics of it all, but that's never mattered. It clearly worked. I am here.
For the two years leading up to the night of the limbo, my mom, Brenda, and my dad, George, had been constant companions, starving artists, and comrades-in-arms, chasing my dad's comedy dreams. They did hell gigs, packed and unpacked their suitcases hundreds of times, and traveled to almost every state in the country in their '57 Dodge Dart. My mom loved playing the role of on-the-road partner in crime to my dad's rebel artist on a mission. She was Dad's lover, party girl, and press agent all rolled into one — his full partner in life — and always his best audience. You could always hear her great laugh above the din of clinking glasses and mumbling patrons in every club they visited.
Because Dad was a complete unknown, on some nights she was the only person in the audience.
One night in Baltimore, no one was in the audience, not even Mom. Dad asked the club owner, "So exactly why am I going on?"
"Cuz if people come in, I want them to know we gots some entertainment," he was told.
I hear Dad killed that night.
During those lean years, Dad paid his dues but also got lucky. One night Lenny Bruce caught his act in Chicago, loved what he saw, and introduced him to his manager, Murray Becker. This was huge. My dad worshipped Lenny.
Taking every opportunity to soak up Lenny's presence, my mom and dad would often drive from New York to the Gate of Horn Club in Chicago, just to see him perform. One night while they were there, Lenny got arrested halfway through his set. This had become the norm. That night the cops did not like his use of the word "cocksucker." Looking to hassle the club, the cops began to ask everyone for their IDs. When they got to my dad, he defiantly told them, "I don't believe in 'identification,'" and the cops promptly threw him into the back of the paddy wagon with Lenny. When my dad proudly told Lenny what he'd done, Lenny looked at him and said, "What are you, a schmuck?"
My mom chased after their paddy wagon — on foot — all the way to the police station and bailed them both out of jail that night.
Growing up surrounded by stories like these, and living through many others myself, I've always felt as if my family's journey has unfolded like some kind of mythological legend. Our lives together have felt shaped by a force, threads of fate, or maybe even what my dad called the "Big Electron." Something was calling us forth, and interweaving exactly the right people, places, and things to form one amazing life together.
It's just always seemed so destined.
* * *
My dad should never, ever have come to be.
In 1936, a year before he was born, his parents, Mary and Patrick Carlin, had separated. Not for the first time, but for the fourth. Patrick, as my dad would say, "couldn't metabolize the ethyl alcohol," which meant he was a mean drunk. No longer able to take the verbal and physical abuse he doled out to her or their four-year-old son, also named Patrick (who the fuck hits a child across the face with a slipper?), Mary left him for what she wanted to believe was the last time.
But Mary could never stay away for too long. When Patrick wasn't drinking and raging, he was witty, handsome, and one of the top national salesmen of ad space for the biggest newspapers in the country. He had the Irish gift of gab and had even won a national Dale Carnegie speech contest. He was funny, smart, and charming — and irresistible. So irresistible that once again in the summer of 1936 Mary found herself in bed with him, at a motel in Rockaway Beach.
Six weeks later, at the age of forty, Mary realized she was pregnant. She knew she didn't want to bring another child into this already complicated situation, so she decided the best thing to do was to get rid of it.
But that "Big Electron" had different plans. While Mary sat in the waiting room of "Dr. Sunshine," the Gramercy Park gynecologist who took care of such things for most ladies of import in New York City, she looked up at a picture of the Virgin Mary hanging on the wall and saw her own dead mother's face. A good Catholic, she knew a sign when she saw one. She promptly stood up and declared to Patrick, "I am keeping this child."
On May 12, 1937, George Denis Patrick Carlin was born. Eight weeks later, after months of trying to make the marriage work, Mary sneaked out the fire escape in the middle of the night with her two young boys, leaving Patrick Carlin and his rage for good. She'd seen the damage that her husband had already done to little Patrick, and she was not going to let sweet George be another victim.
This time it stuck. Even though Patrick tried to woo her back, she held strong. George never saw his dad again. In 1945 his father died of a massive heart attack at the age of fifty-seven. My dad was eight years old.
Without a man around to keep my dad out of trouble on the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan (or what he and his friends liked to call Irish Harlem), Mary took her job as both mother and father very seriously. She looked for ways to shape and control young George's mind and life. She succeeded in only one area — a love of language and words.
Mary encouraged my dad to look up words he didn't know in the dictionary, and then use them in conversation. One morning young George, wanting to show off a new word he had learned, excitedly asked his mother if she had "perused" the paper that morning. He anticipated her approval. Slowly she turned, sharpened her gaze onto him, and said, "I have not. Actually, I've only given it a cursory glance." George, chagrined, turned around and marched right back to the dictionary to learn the new word, "cursory."
This was Mary to a tee. Just when you thought you had the upper hand, she let you know who was really in charge.
Mary had big dreams for my dad. She wanted him to be an upstanding member of the Better Business Bureau someday — a man in a pinstriped suit who had a key to the executive washroom. But that was not his destiny.
When my dad was ten years old, he went to the movies, saw Danny Kaye on the big screen, and decided right there and then that he wanted to be just like him one day. And so he came up with his big "Danny Kaye plan": Step one — become a disc jockey; step two — become a stand-up; step three — become an actor.
By the time he was eleven, my dad was doing stand-up on the stoops on his block, imitating the priests, cops, and shopkeepers of the neighborhood. He also did his impressions of famous people on the radio, and even made up his own radio shows, dialogue and all. At Camp Notre Dame, where he went for three summers, he won the drama award for his routines every single year.
Mary saw the writing on the wall, and in 1951, for his fourteenth birthday, she bought him a reel-to-reel tape recorder so he could practice his voices, impressions, and routines. Who buys a reel-to-reel tape recorder in 1951? Mary Carlin. Her son might not become exactly who she wanted him to be, but her commitment to his excellence was fierce.
Growing up in the 1940s and '50s, my dad had plenty to inspire him: the verbal gymnastics of guys like Spike Jones and Danny Kaye, and the musical rhythms of guys like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He frequently hopped on the subway or onto the back of a truck heading downtown to Times Square to collect autographs of his heroes. These men of comedy and music were living his dream — expressing their souls and at the top of their game. He knew what he wanted, and he knew how he'd get there. His life was set. There was never a plan B.
* * *
By 1960, at age twenty-three, my dad was in the flow of his destiny. He was already at step two of his big "Danny Kaye plan" — becoming a stand-up. He was part of a fledgling comedy team — Burns and Carlin. Dad and Jack Burns had met in radio, hit it off, and soon went on the road as a comedy duo. They were quickly building momentum in their careers, doing smart, "modern" comedy — which meant that they weren't telling mother-in-law jokes but using material that commented on the times.
In August they booked a two-week gig at the Racquet Club — the Dayton, Ohio, version of a supper club. It wasn't the Playboy Club of Chicago, but it was a decent-enough gig back then. And in Dayton it was the only place to find quality entertainment, especially comedy. Most nights there was some shining new talent coming through — Phyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, and even Lenny Bruce.
A week before their gig, the hostess of the club, Brenda Florence Hosbrook, looked at the promo picture of Burns and Carlin in the foyer, and said to her best friend, Elaine, "You can have the one on the top [Burns]. I'll take the one on the bottom [Carlin]. He's really cute."
Evidently my future mom also had her own "big" plan for her life. It was called the "Get the Fuck Out of Dayton plan."
Brenda had always felt like a stranger in her own life. She knew she didn't belong in small-town Dayton. She was like her dad, Art Hosbrook, who'd been a jazz singer in the thirties, "The Whispering Tenor." She was Daddy's little girl.
Alice, her mother, sensed that Brenda had Art's wild spirit in her, and kept her on a tight leash. In high school, while my mom wanted to be out wearing poodle skirts, singing along to pop music, and making out with boys under the bleachers, her mother had her wearing homemade clothes, practicing Debussy on the piano, and steering clear of all boys except for the approved-of boy next door, Ken. My mom, too afraid to rebel, remained the quintessential dutiful daughter. She made the National Honor Society, won piano competitions, and only let Ken go to second base. Her virtue was rewarded with a full scholarship to Ohio Wesleyan to study piano. She couldn't wait to escape and begin to live her life. But Alice would have none of that. "Women don't go to college," she said to my mom, and refused to let her go. Alice told her that she could get a job, but only until she married and started a family.
Seething with disappointment, my mom decided if she couldn't go to college, then at least she'd have sex. The story goes that my mom went to Ken and basically jumped his bones. She claimed she forced him to have sex with her. Of course I'm not sure how much convincing it takes to make a teenage boy "go all the way." Mom got her "revenge."
She also got pregnant.
Alice had always diligently marked my mom's periods on a calendar, so when it didn't show up, Alice knew immediately what Brenda had done. In the car ride home from the family doctor's office, where the bad news had been confirmed, Art quietly drove them as Alice informed my mother, "You've made your bed, now you must lie in it."
Brenda was forced to marry Ken. A few weeks after the wedding, while shopping with her mother in Rike's Department Store for furniture for their new apartment, my mom miscarried in the restroom. It was twins. After a miserable year of a sham marriage, she and Ken acknowledged that they weren't happy and amicably divorced.
As a divorcée at the age of twenty, my mom was deemed tarnished by Alice. In a flash my mom went from model student, musician, prized daughter to shameful, wanton whore.
* * *
Now, in 1960, Brenda was having the time of her life. Working at the Racquet Club she could let her hair down, drink and smoke as much as she wanted, and most important, rub shoulders with the type of people Alice would certainly never approve of — entertainers.
After his first show George couldn't help but notice Brenda hanging out at the bar. Besides her musical and scholarly talents, Brenda was what they called a "knockout." When she walked into a room, she lit it up — fabulous cheekbones, an electric smile, blue eyes, and a laugh that made the whole world come alive.
After some chitchat, George asked Brenda, "So what does one do in Dayton, Ohio, after a show?"
"Well, you could find a diner and have some breakfast, or ..." she replied.
And this is when Brenda Florence Hosbrook, Alice and Art Hosbrook's good-little-honor-roll-girl-turned-black-sheep-of-the-family took the leap of her life and looked the young, handsome, and funny George Carlin straight in the eye and said, "Or you could find a girl with a stereo hi-fi and go home with her."
George slowly but astutely asked, "Do you have a stereo hi-fi?"
Every night for the entire two-week run, George went home with Brenda, and they "listened" to her stereo hi-fi.
After the two weeks were up, Brenda told George, "I love you."
George told Brenda, "I'll call you."
It's not that he didn't like her, it's just that he had this big "Danny Kaye plan," and it had never included another person.
Months went by, but no phone calls or letters came. Then one day, out of the blue, George called her. The spark between them reignited immediately. He knew she was the real deal, and he had to see her again. They made plans for him to come down after his New Year's Eve gig in Chicago to spend a weekend with her.
The day came and went. The next day came and went. By the third day Brenda was officially heartbroken. He had once again disappeared without a trace. And then sometime during the lunch rush, when Brenda was seating guests, George entered and stood in the front. When she saw him she dropped all the menus and ran the entire length of the restaurant, straight into his arms. They left immediately. No one saw them for three days.
When they finally emerged from the "Sleep & Fuck Motel," they were engaged.
The next day George and Brenda sat across from Art and Alice at lunch, ready to break the news to them. But things were not going well. Alice just glared at George. Alice did not like entertainers. Because Art had been one, she knew entertainers too well. That's why, when they got married, she'd made him give up his music to get a real job so that they could raise a family.
Finally an opportunity arose when Art excused himself to go to the restroom, and George quickly followed him. As they stood side by side at the urinals in the restroom of Spencer's Steak House in Dayton, Ohio, George said to Art, "I'd like to marry your daughter."
Slightly startled, Art replied, "Oh, yeah? Okay."
It was official. Except for the engagement ring part. Due to a serious lack of funds, the ring had to wait. Eventually it came — in the mail. With my dad on the road, and no money for another trip back to Dayton, he couldn't hand-deliver it. But they didn't care about the formalities. They'd found each other.
And even though Alice admitted that she would never understand her daughter's choice, she made my mom's wedding dress and invited them to have their small, humble wedding ceremony in the living room of the house that Brenda grew up in on River Ridge Road.
On June 3, 1961, George and Brenda became husband and wife.
Excerpted from A Carlin Home Companion by Kelly Carlin. Copyright © 2015 Kelly Carlin-McCall. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Moon and Venus Rise Together 1
2 Westside Story 10
3 The American Dream 18
4 The Three Musketeers 30
5 She's Leaving Home 44
6 This is the End 58
7 Sober-Ish 72
8 Haagen-Dazs and Sinsemilla 84
9 Sex, Drugs, … 94
10 … And Rock and Roll 101
11 Prince Charming 107
12 I Know I'm In Here Somewhere 117
13 Whack! Thump! 129
14 "Mother and Child Reunion" 138
15 A Slice of Patty-Cake 150
16 Right Foot Forward, Left Foot Back 163
17 What It Looks Like When the Other Shoe Drops 175
18 "Sunday Will Never Be the Same" 188
19 True Nature 199
20 When a Triangle Becomes a Square 204
21 Unspoken Words 217
22 The Clown and the Guru 228
23 Plan B 242
24 Long and Winding Road 253
25 Out on a Limb 261
26 Sunday Will Definitely Never Be the Same 274
27 Episode Number 268 of Kelly's Surreal Life, Or the Sun and the Buddha (I Can't Decide) 284
28 He Was Here Just a Minute Ago 293
29 Ashes to Ashes 301