Although Kelly Carlin may have a famous father, comedy legend George Carlin, she is not the type of woman who is content in having that fact define her. The name George Carlin is synonymous truth and creative exploration. In that respect, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree! One of her latest creations is a powerful one woman show titled “A Carlin Home Companion”. It is a project in which vivid storytelling, classic video footage, and family memorabilia, are used to chronicle over 40 years of her life with her famous father. The project provides a funny, poignant and unfiltered look at the man who not only redefined 20th century comedy, continues to inspire new generations of comedic minds and comedy fans alike. She has proven that she is no one trick pony as she also hosts a highly successful podcast titled “Waking From The American Dream” and interviews some of the biggest names in comedy with “The Kelly Carlin Show” on Sirius XM. Armed with a killer personality and a quick wit, there is no telling where her creativity will lead her next. Only one thing is for sure when it comes to this creative dynamo — the sky is the limit! Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Kelly Carlin to discuss growing up with her famous father, the creation of “A Carlin Companion,” her projects both on and off stage and what the future might hold for her in the years to come!
You grew up a child with a famous parent. When did you realize your father was not your average dad, so to speak?
I don’t think I had a moment where that became a conscious thought but certainly realized this over time. I remember being 4 or 5 years old and watching him on TV. That was a special thing because I would get to stay up late at night if he was on something at night and watch that. Once he broke big, we would go to Vegas and things like that. I guess it was a slow awakening of realizing what my dad did. When you are a kid, you don’t really think about what your parents do, they just are who they are. I think as you get older, you realize, “Oh, other parents do this or that.” But I knew he was on TV and on stage at an early age and that was always exciting!
As that started to dawn on you, did your parents try to shield you from the showbiz side aspect of his life?
We weren’t really a showbiz family. My dad worked on the road a lot. That is mainly what he did. There was really no sheltering. [laughs] No. There was no sheltering at all with my family! [laughs] If my dad was on a TV and I wasn’t in school, we would go with him. If he was touring in the summer, we would go with him. I was an only child, so we were a very small family. There was really no sheltering going on. I mean, my dad was rolling joints in front of me when I was 5 years old, so … [laughs]
I am sure you get asked this quite a bit but “The 7 Dirty Words,” is a classic bit from your father. It seems many of us have that moment when one of those words slips in front of mom or dad for the first time. Did you have some sort of “Oh shit!” moment?
No, I didn’t. I think because my dad had that moment in his life and talked about it in his act, he was very aware of language and having a child and wanted me to see and exist in the world. The general rule was, “Those words are words.” They are just what they are but there are places you aren’t allowed to use them like school or other people’s houses.” You had to be mindful of where you use them and that, even though words are words, you probably don’t want to call your mom a cunt! [laughs] He wanted me to be mindful of that even though when my parents argued with each other, they let those words fly toward each other! Do as I say, not as I do! [laughs]
When your father is a counterculture star, how do you rebel as a teen? I imagine that would be a little more difficult!
Yeah, when you are sharing ounces of weed with your dad when you are in high school, how do you rebel against that? [laughs] There wasn’t any real rebellion on my part. I had a relationship with a real kinda bad boy but I don’t know if that was a rebellion or not. I was a good girl. I got straight A’s. I was an AP student. I was college bound. I was a champion horseback rider. In a lot of ways, I was always towing the line of the good girl. At the same time, I was totally a stoner, hanging out with the crazy kids and doing all sorts of crazy stuff. I guess rebellion would have been becoming a Reagan Republican or something!
Thank God that didn’t happen! [laughs]
You did eventually make your way into the entertainment industry. How did you get started initially and what made you walk away from the mainstream aspects of it?
The entertainment industry, not only is it highly competitive, but also when the accountants kinda took over the business in the ‘80s, for the most part, it became a very soul sucking place to be. It still is on some levels. There is some quality work happening out there now but if you look at 90% of what is in the movies or on television, it is pretty horrific. Not having to sell out to that kind of stuff was something I kinda always resisted. I certainly got that ethos from my parents. At the same time, you are an entertainer and a person who wants to perform, write and be part of the culture and be someone who is impacting the conversation about life through art, so you want to dance with that too. It has been an endless back and forth, and I think it will be all of my life, of wanting to step into the mainstream, getting a taste of it for a while, then rejecting that and moving away from it. In 2001, I took a big step back and went back to school to get my master’s in psychology. I spent about four years completely outside of the business and I didn’t even feel a need to focus on it. Eventually, my need to want to express myself, write and perform just came full center for me again. It is a ridiculous thing to say but it feels like a calling. I feel like I have to do this and, if I don’t, I will die! I stepped back into the world of storytelling and live performance stuff with autobiographical, personal essays that I do. I started going in that direction and away from the therapist room because, as a therapist, I didn’t feel like I could fully express myself to the world in the way I wanted to. It is a constant dance and it is one I feel myself doing everyday.
You touched on the material that makes up your one-woman show. What can you tell us about “A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up with George” and the process of bringing it all to life?
I have to thank Lewis Black for germinating the seed of it. He invited my husband and I to come on a comedy cruise that he was doing. At night, he had a bunch of standup comedians doing standup and he needed some day events. He wanted my husband and I to come on for that. He said, “Come on and play some videos of your dad and tell some of your stories. You have a ton of them and create this event!” So, I literally did! The morning of the event, I just threw together a bunch of clips of my dad from his various DVDs and just started talking off the top of my head about stories from my life and stories that my dad had told to me or through his memoir. It got a huge response, so much so that I couldn’t ignore it! Then my dear friend, Paul Provenza, who I had been talking about the idea of doing this thing, got me booked at Just For Laughs last summer. I think it was February or March at the time and he said, “You’re booked to do it!” At that point, I thought, “Fuck! Now I have to write this thing and do it!” I spent those months developing it enough so that I could get it on stage in Montreal. I really spent the second half of last year rewriting, carving and shaping it. I was working with Paul a lot to find out and discover the themes, what we were highlighting and what the story was about because starting out, you can’t tell at all. It is an extremely jam-packed 90-minute show! I start in 1960 with my parents meeting and I go all the way to 2008 when my dad dies. It has some George Carlin videos that show him on stage. There are lots of backstage stories about our family and our problems dealing with my dad’s fame. It also deals with me growing up and my relationship with my father. There is a lot of humor and a lot of poignancy. It is a big emotional roller coaster and that is how I describe it to people.
Did you ever have any reservations about going into the project originally or in going so deep with some of the things you are putting out there?
Yes and no. No, in the fact that I have been doing this work for about 10 years and had been telling stories on stage. I am OK with being ruthlessly honest about my life. My only hesitation was in that my work always made my father uncomfortable. That is actually a point in the show where it was the main friction that my father and I ever had — the fact that my chosen art form was one that made him uncomfortable. It was because he wasn’t an autobiographical artist. He wasn’t a Richard Pryor, who got on stage and talked about his drug addiction. My dad talked about ideas and thoughts, of course they were filtered through his point of view. You know, a lot of his earlier material was observational humor but he never talked about his real life or him. It was always this heightened, fictionalized version of everyman, in some way. I think it made him uncomfortable how personal I was up there. Even though he is gone and that is part of what happens when parents go, they are no longer in charge of you but they still live in your head. I know that working with Paul Provenza, knew he has a really good bullshit meter and a good gauge of if something is too much or not enough. I really trusted his taste level. There were a couple things at play. I knew that my dad’s fans missed him. The only thing I can give his fans at this point is a glimpse into the man. I wanted to connect with them and for them to be able to connect with him again because I know they really do miss him alot. I get it all day long from them. I also know that this is the kinda stuff I do! This is what I talk about — the human journey, the ability we have to transform our lives and the obstacles we encounter both internally and externally and how we overcome them. That is very much what my life is about and what I am fascinated by in myself and the world around me. That is my life’s work on some level, so it is what it is, basically!
Did you learn anything about your father you might not have known in the process of putting this together?
Yeah. As we were working on the material you really start to see the themes begin to pop out. I think I had unconscious intuitions about these kind of things. One of the interesting things is that here was this man who everyone really regards as an important truth teller and certainly that is what he did on stage was tell big truths about our culture, humanity and what we are doing to each other. Yet, in our household, telling the truth to each other was very difficult. We were a very typical dysfunctional, codependent family. The irony of that and the strange tension and paradox of that and the confusion that it creates, certainly in my mind was intriguing. Things like that are kinda revealed and came to the foreground and definitely were interesting little things to discover along the way.
I know the one-woman show is you presenting things in the role of storyteller but did you ever try your hand at standup comedy?
No, I did not. My dad discouraged me from that route. I think it was a fatherly, protective kinda thing. He didn’t want me to have to deal with life on the road, clubs and club owners. My dad was doing theaters and never really had to grow up in those kind of comedy clubs, he paid his dues in other ways. I think he was really protective of that and really never, ever wanted his shadow to affect me, which is ridiculous, of course, because it did. You can’t protect your kids from stuff like that. He didn’t want me to go to a club and have everyone saying, “Oh, it’s Carlin’s kid!” And have me have to live up to some horrible expectation of what would probably be the most ignorant person in the audience. I am sure he didn’t want me to have to deal with hecklers and being compared to him. He was pretty protective of all that and it was pretty straight forward. He said, “You probably shouldn’t do that.” I was talking to somebody about it the other day. I didn’t see it as a protective thing at the time. I think my low self-esteem at the time heard him saying on some subconscious level, “Well, you really just don’t have the chops, kid!” Or, “You wouldn’t be able to make it. You don’t have the talent.” I kinda took it in that way and thought, “OK, well I will go off and do my own thing.” It is something that I still grapple with and it is one of those things I think I am going to have to do at some point, just to explore that territory for myself. Whether it is something I really want to do or not, I just don’t know. I am kind of fascinated by it just because it is this sort of taboo subject for me. I know it would be interesting. Rain Pryor, Richard’s daughter, is doing standup. She is doing a one-woman show right now but she started doing standup about two years ago. It is really about her finding her own way through it and I am just so fascinated by that and look at it like, “Wow! I really want to do that someday!” — but not right now! [laughs]
It is interesting how your worlds and previous work converged in the form of a podcast. What can you tell us about that?
My podcast is called “Waking From The American Dream.” It really started as an outlet for me. I just wanted to find my voice. For me, it was kinda like going to an open mic. That is literally what it is — an open microphone. There it is in front of your face. Starting out, I didn’t know if I would be good at it or how it would shape up. I have been doing it for almost two years now and it has been great. The minute I did it, I realized I had found a home for myself. I am very comfortable in that space and I love having deep, powerful conversations with people. Being a therapist, you get trained to be a listener and I am someone who had the propensity to do that anyway. Now, I am playing with new aspects of it and I am having round table discussions and sometimes I have call-in shows with just my callers. I love tackling big, broad subjects and I also like drilling down and getting deep with people. It has been such an interesting pleasure. I have been letting it evolve into what it wants to be. The biggest opportunity it has given me is to really learn to, in some ways, not care about what anyone is thinking about me or what I am doing and just put it all out there and see where it lands. Taking that risk of being vulnerable in that way is in a way, I think, a lot like standup. However, I am not forced to be funny. We have a good time and we laugh all the time but I like the deep subjects too. I am loving that!
I have another show, which I started about six months ago with Sirius XM. We have our own channel of Sirius XM called “Carlin’s Corner,” which right now plays 24/7 George Carlin bits. They invited me to come and do my own show there. For that, I have a one hour sit down interview with a comic. It is once a month right now, which is a great pace for me because I can do my podcast, do my other stuff and have a nice deep sit down with some people. I have had some great guests on there. I have been really privileged to have Louis C.K., Lewis Black, Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard. I just had Greg Proops last month. The show is always on the first Sunday of the month on Raw Dog, so it will be airing on September 2, 2012. They are actually going to replay an interview I did about three years ago with Phyllis Diller for another project. It was one of the most incredible afternoons of my life! I was new to interviewing at the time and her and I just clicked! I am really proud of it and excited that some Sirius XM subscribers are going to get a chance to listen to it!
You get to talk to a lot of great comic minds on your show. As a fan, who do you consider some of the greatest comic minds of today?
As far as being a fan of comedy, there are so many interesting things going on. I am always learning about new comedians. Paul Provenza is my comedy filter. He has introduced me to so many great people. One of the standouts for me is Doug Stanhope. He is one of the most brutally honest, vulnerable human beings on stage and he just doesn’t give a shit what people think about him! It is so brave and I admire that quality. I don’t agree with everything he says or his point of view all the time, but I love his boldness, his fearlessness and his ability to just put it out there. His unique way of thinking about things reminds me of my dad. My dad would come up with a point of few that would make you think, “Wow! No one else is saying that!” Doug does that for me! Louis C.K. is another great one. He has so come into his own. His standup is great but that TV show he is doing right now is amazing. To be a comedian and to be willing to risk showing such human vulnerability is so beautiful and it is really where I live. As an artist, it is something that really inspires me a lot. Lewis Black is fantastic. I think he holds the outrage for our culture. Bill Maher is important, as well as John Stewart. Stephen Colbert is one of the most incredible satirists of this century! It is amazing how he is living and breathing and commenting every night on our culture! There are also all of these other people that I just find, fall into and get a glimpse of. There is so much richness out there in comedy when you just go under the surface of the Comedy Central stuff and you get to see some people who are doing amazing work in live shows around the country.
Standup is going through a revival of some sort over the past few years and people seem to be getting back into it.
It really does feel like that. It feels like it is having a renaissance. I don’t know if that is only because, I don’t know, maybe we are focusing on it more but I think it is appropriate. I think the culture is really in a state right now where truth and bullshit is really in a big battle! [laughs] The comedians job is to point out that the emperor has no clothes! That is their ultimate job! They are the fool of the court! It makes sense that more interesting comedy is rising right now and comedians that can point to the hypocrisy of our public life are making a big splash right now. It’s necessary for survival.
Absolutely and I am sure social media plays a big role in making it much more accessible to everyone these days.
That’s a good point. Absolutely. Agreed.
Speaking of that, where is the best place for people to catch up with you online and learn more about all the irons you have in the fire?
You can go to www.kellycarlin.com. You can always follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/kelly_carlin. I am a very active Twitter person! I also have a public page on Facebook. My website is something I try to keep up to date as much as possible. It has all the dates for my live shows like “A Carlin Home Companion.” All of my live shows will be listed there!
What is on the horizon for you in the short term?
I am going to be in Toronto for Just For Laughs 42. I am one of the 42 and I am very excited about that! My shows are September 21 and 23. I hope people come out and see “A Carlin Home Companion” ! I am really looking forward to that and it is going to be a really fun week!
Awesome! Thank you so much for your time today, Kelly! It has been great to speak with you!
Thank you so much! I really appreciate it!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.