Kelly Carlin-McCall has stepped into the spotlight once dominated by her father, George Carlin, who died in June 2008. With his passing, Kelly’s accepted honors for her father, first in November 2008 with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, and in February with a Grammy for Best Comedy Album, for “It’s Bad For Ya.” Now she’s speaking on behalf of his posthumous autobiography, “Last Words,” which Tony Hendra co-authored.
As “Last Words” and Carlin-McCall’s own words reveal, being George Carlin’s daughter wasn’t easy.
What was your role with the book? Did you do editing and proofreading?
Yeah, that’s pretty much what my role was. It really was Tony and my father’s project. I did some proofreading and just some accuracy checking. I had a few changes but for the most part we really wanted it to very much stay in my father’s words and let him be the one who gets to be the final editor, in some ways.
Were there things you’d rather have been left out of the book?
No, not really. I’ve written a bit about my own background. I’m actually working on a book of my own right now. I’d done a one-woman show 10 years ago where I talked about my own struggles with drugs and alcohol and crazy relationships. So no. I felt comfortable with what was in there.
What was your one-woman show called?
It was called “Driven to Distraction.” It was about how our parents and our culture distracts us, gives us a false sense of who we are because of just the way life is, how we have to survive. It was my past and how that kind of built up in my life. The bad choices I made in men.
Sounds like a very heavy topic.
And yet did it in a very light way. There was a real balance between the light and the dark. I’m not a standup comedian but, like my dad, I’m a real thinker and I think about life, this journey and what it’s all about.
I took great pains and went to great lengths to do a show that was in no way finger-pointing or blaming or victim-hood because that does not work for me at all, but I took a strong stand for myself in the show. It did change our relationship.
For the better, eventually?
Absolutely, because we became two equals, two peers, two adults with each other instead of me at times being the adult and him the child.
When I wrote my one-person show and when I gave it to him to read, although he was uncomfortable with it and said, “I don’t think I can be in the audience and in some ways I feel uncomfortable, I really respect you as an artist and I wouldn’t ask you to change a single word of it.” So there was an incredible equality that happened through that process for us.
What is the status of your book?
I’m working on an outline right now. I’d written about 50 pages of a memoir about five years ago. I ultimately put it on the shelf and said to myself this is really going to have to wait until dad goes, whenever that is, because I didn’t want to make him feel uncomfortable about it.
Interestingly enough, he put his own memoir on the shelf also until he died. I think that’s kind of the way he liked those things. I know he wanted to share his life and his journey but at the same time I think he was from a generation that wasn’t comfortable necessarily sharing a lot of their private life. And of course as we know from my dad, he didn’t share a lot of his private life. And that’s why this book is so revelatory and interesting for fans because he is so raw and honest about everything in his life in this book. It’s a gift that he left us all.
I’m working on the outline and trying to find my way into this book. This is not going to be the tell-all George Carlin’s daughter book. This is really my book and a book about my life and my journey, which includes both my mother and father. I’m very interested in the human journey and what it takes for us to find our true selves and our voices in the world. In some ways it’s about my dad because it really is about my struggle of being in the shadow and the journey that I’ve gone on to find my place as a person who has a voice.
There was some talk about a year ago of you working on an oral history of your father. Is that not going to happen?
We’ve been working on that. That has actually been put on the shelf for now. We decided to go with this project first. We really wanted his voice to be the first voice. When he had started the oral history we didn’t really know what would do with Tony’s manuscript and what he wanted to do. It became clear we wanted to put Tony and my father’s words out first. This other book, I think is going to be a great addition to this story my dad has put out because it will be a lot of those same experiences, but told through the voice of myself and his brother and his friends and colleagues and peers and people along the journey. We don’t have a date yet for that, but that is in the future.
How did you hear about your father’s death?
My husband called me. I was in Hawaii. I officiate weddings. Both my father and I had this funny thing we did. We were both ministers of this Universal Church of Life or something, whatever it’s called. He got this from the back of a Rolling Stone magazine in the ’70s and of course I got mine off the Internet. I was in Hawaii marrying another comedian, Craig Shoemaker and his wife Mika. I had spent a few days there and strangely enough I unplugged my cell phone for a few hours to get a massage and relax and take a nap.
My Dad had been rushed to the hospital that Sunday, the 22nd. My poor husband couldn’t get a hold of me for hours and was frantic and finally found me through Craig at the condos we were staying at. I pretty much knew because there was such a big deal about my husband trying to call me that something really bad had happened.
An incredible thing ended up happening the weekend before he died when I was in Hawaii. You know that story in the book about being in the Napili Kai and my parents are going at each with knives and I make them sit down and I write out a treaty, basically, is what we used to call it. The family treaty. So the weekend he died, I was in Maui and I went to the Napili Kai and I went back and walked along the property and walked where we had stayed. All of the pain and grief and anger -- all of that from that time in my life -- was completely gone. It was a miracle.
I called him on the way home from having this experience and told him about that. That was the last phone call we ever had. He died two days after that and it was a very poignant time we had on the phone together talking about all that stuff.
Your father, to me, seemed like he was someone who would be going forever. He was George Carlin, bigger than life.
And he believed that himself. He kept saying he was going to replace every part of his body.
Obviously, no one lives forever although his legacy certainly will be around for generations to come. But were your surprised, after all his heart attacks and problems over the years, that he finally was gone?
Yeah. I’d certainly been prepared for years. I’d literally been waiting for that phone call. Whenever the phone would ring in the middle of the night, you’d have to peel me off the ceiling for fear it was [his manager] Jerry Hamza calling and saying, “We’re at a hospital in Wichita and it doesn’t look good” or something. The last few years, he had been struggling with congestive heart failure. That had been a new wrinkle in his heart disease. Unless you can get a heart transplant, it’s one that you don’t recover from. I think it was 2006 when he did his second-to-last HBO show, he looked very puffy in that show and people could see it. It looked like he’d aged 10 years. That happened pretty quickly. There was a four-month period where that aging happened. His heart was really struggling. That HBO special, he was actually in pretty much full congestive heart failure. He should have been in the hospital and actually wound up going in the hospital after that.
You can never fully prepare for the day it happens. I just remember thinking when my husband told me on the phone -- in the middle of this big emotional reaction I was having – “Wow, so this is the day. This is what this day looks like.” It’s a very difficult thing. Surprised about that particular day? Yes. Shocked that it happened that year? No.
What do you miss most about having your father around?
I think it’s a two-fold answer, one of which is I really want to know what the fuck he’s thinking about this world right now. Because every day it gets stranger. I know he would revel in that. Then personally, I just miss my dad. My whole life is completely changed 180 degrees. I miss his being my dad, being someone I go and have coffee with, someone I shoot the shit with, to get to see and hang out with. He used to take care of his career. And now I take care of it. So that’s a little strange too.
I would imagine that he left volumes of ideas, notes, paperwork, archives behind. What’s going to happen with all of that material?
We don’t know yet. We’re still dealing with closing up all the stuff you have to after a death, so we’re just sitting on it all right now. There are a lot of ideas and notes and half thought-out things and lists and folders on this computer of his. What that could turn into at some point, I do not know. I don’t even know what I might want it to turn into. I’m assuming there will be something at some point. But right now we’re just letting it rest in peace.
He was extremely prolific and very disciplined. He thanked his OCD tendencies for really shaping his career because it helped him be such a prolific creator. He was very good and disciplined at writing things down and categorizing them and filing them, and then having the good fortune every few years either in a book or an HBO show to start pulling out his files and start playing and shaping them. That was biggest joy.
Are you as organized?
No, unfortunately, I am not. I don’t have quite the rigidity he had and he needed in his own coping strategies. I’m not quite as organized, and I’m not as focused. He had this one thing he did, which was standup comedian. I’m a bit more an electric nature. I’m a writer and a performer but I also have a need to be a facilitator and a teacher, so I’m also a life coach and I facilitate workshops. Even though all that work is umbrella of Kelly Carlin it makes my life a little more scattered. Nowadays I also have the category of the keeper of George Carlin’s stuff, so that takes some time out of my day.
With his passing, there’s been this increase in my visibility in the world because I am the one who now speaks for him. There’s opportunities coming my way to do things in other media. I want to pursue a career in radio. I’d love to do that. I’ve also started Interviewing legendary comedians for Laugh.com and their CD series “On Comedy.”
How did you get involved with interviewing these comedians? I know you’ve talked to Phyllis Diller and Sid Caesar and others.
My dad was one of the founding partners in Laugh.com, with Marshall Berle, who’s Milton Berle’s nephew. Marshall approached me and said, “I wonder if this is something you’d be interested in doing. We’d like to start updating the catalog and there’s some people we’d love to talk to that we haven’t gotten a chance to yet.”
I’m a really good listener and conversationalist. I’ve got this kind of innate thing that’s been given to me, which is I’m a child of comedy. I grew up in it; not that I spend a lot of time in clubs or hung out with a lot of comedians but there’s a trust there among comedians, so these people really get that that I know their DNA, I understand some aspect of who they are because it’s in my DNA, so they feel very comfortable around me instantly and we end up having conversations that I don’t think anyone else would ever get to have with these people. It’s just a pure joy for me to do those.
Who have you interviewed that hasn’t been released on CD yet?
Jonathan Winters is coming up. Once the new year swings around, I’ve got a list of about six people that I want to do this year, some of whom I’ve talked to already and they’ve given me a nice tentative thumbs up. And there are some wish lists there too, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner being two on my wish lists that I haven’t pursued yet but hope to.
Do you go and see them? How does it work?
So far I’ve been in LA and I’ve gotten to sit with them in person and that’s what we do. We go and sit in their living room or wherever they feel comfortable and I bring an audio engineer. We just let them go. I literally sat with Sid Caesar for almost three hours, and he was the first one I did. It’s really a beautiful thing because he really wanted to talk a lot about his life, not just about comedy, and I felt like I was giving him an opportunity to share and to share with someone in a younger generation and talk about his life. I felt really honored and privileged to get to do that.
The original interviewer of a lot of these comedians who were part of the “On Comedy” series for Laugh.com was, I believe, Larry Wilde, who published a book of his interviews.
Obviously you can’t put a three-hour Sid Caesar CD out, but any plans to eventually put these out in a book form?
You know, we have not talked about that at all. I haven’t thought of that. Who knows?
Are there stories or events in your dad’s book, “Last Words,” that you wanted to hear more of?
I’m trying to think. It was such a rich read for me because I did learn about him and certainly the time before I was born. I heard highlights and little stories of the big events, but never the rich context and his inner life around a lot of that stuff. I don’t have anything specific where I think I want to know more about that. I think part of his own struggle -- and he talks about it in the book -- are those years of drug use. He didn’t really remember a lot of it and to be frank, I remember some of it but I didn’t remember a lot of it. It was really a dark period for our family, and I wish that maybe he and I had been able to sit down and piece some of that together more.
It’s kind of like a highlight reel in my head with some peak moments, good and bad, during those years, but for him I think it was really frustrating because he was really stoned and wasted solidly for a good four or five years there. There’s just frustration about that, I guess.
In part of the book you were the voice of reason as a young girl, trying to get your parents to stop with the alcohol and the marijuana.
And the cocaine, lots of cocaine. Anyone who grew up in an alcoholic or pretty majorly dysfunctional family, that’s what we did as kids. You look around and the adults are not acting like adults and if you have any good survivor instincts, the adult in you kicks in.
It’s a curse and a gift. You are cursed with not really getting to have somewhat of a childhood and getting to focus on your own needs and your own wants, but the gift is you are resilient and you’re really good in a crisis
Obviously you had a problem with your own addictions. Was that the nature of being in that environment that led you down that path as well?
Yeah. It’s silly because as a kid you’re sitting watching this insanity and thinking “I will never do this” and then age 14 comes around and I’m steeling roaches from my dad’s collection. He would smoke his joints and he had this little bowl of roaches and I just starting stealing them and really self-medicating because there were so much unmetabolized emotions from this journey I had just gone on.
By age 14, my mother had been sober a few years and my dad was more and more stable. It was almost like OK, the adults are OK now, now I get to feel all my feelings and I guess I didn’t really want to and I started self-medicating. I did.
I had a real struggle in my teens and 20s with drugs and that stuff and had horrible panic attack syndrome for a few years, became agoraphobic, had monumental panic attacks where I was having trouble leaving house and driving my car, all symptomatic of not really being able to heal these earlier wounds.
Finally at age 29, I’d already gotten clean and sober and was enrolled at UCLA and was putting my life back together, I left my first husband and first marriage. I really felt like in some ways my life started at 29.
Were you ever angry at your parents about how you were exposed to all these things?
Absolutely, but that took a while. It’s part of the process of healing. Because we were such a small family, a lot of my role was not only to be the diplomat between them but to also put on a good face to the world. “No, everything’s fine and mom and dad are great and they’re the greatest parents in the world.”
On some levels they were because they were amazing people, but I did finally get angry and I think that was part of my drug use, trying to mitigate that anger.
When did you realize that your dad was George Carlin?
Was there a conscious moment where I went, “Wow, my dad’s George Carlin”? I don’t have a memory of that moment, but I certainly know there was an acknowledgment at a pretty early age. I think I must have been 5 or 6. My dad was doing a lot of those variety shows so he was on TV a lot and we would get to go to places and see him. I remember he opened for the Supremes in Las Vegas and being in the audience and seeing that. So there was an idea that my dad did this interesting job where he was either on the TV or on the stage. I remember then a few years later, once he’d made the big change and was doing colleges and “Class Clown” and “Occupation Foole” were out and we were touring at a lot of colleges, I remember getting oh, now my daddy’s really special. People were treating him like a god on these campuses and I was being treated as the god’s offspring.
I talked to Kitty Bruce recently and she mentioned she and you and Rain Pryor getting together and doing something together next year.
Yeah. We are. We’re contemplating something; we don’t know what it is yet. I came up with a visual, basically, is what happened, and a title, and the title is “Daughters of the American Revolution.” and there’s a Mount Rushmore drawing up on a scrim and it’s my father and Richard and Lenny because a lot of comics say they are the Mount Rushmore of comedy. Richard had other kids, but there’s something about these three daughters getting together. We haven’t talked about it, just very little, but we know there’s some sort of amazing synergy going on, and want to play with it a little bit. Sounds like fun, even if just a little bit of storytelling and some Q&A and showing some clips, something where we can honor our fathers and talk about the importance of carrying the torch for all of us. What does it mean to be the next generation and what is our job now?
Do you have an idea what your job is now in terms of your role with your father’s continuing legacy?
I believe that part of my job is to keep his words and his ideas alive because I see things that are 20, 30, 40 years old that he’s done and they are still extremely relevant because it’s the perspective he comes from that I think is essential.
Not every daughter thinks her father is funny, but what is your opinion about your father’s humor?A genius. He was a genius. You put anything up, any clip up, and there’s not a single one that won’t make me laugh. Even the stuff that makes me cringe at times makes me laugh. We just screened “Jammin’ in New York” a few weeks ago. I was weeping with laughter. It’s such a joy. He’s a true, true genius, and thank god he knew how to make us laugh so much.