What It Was Like Growing Up With My Father, George Carlin
Kelly Carlin-McCall is a critically acclaimed author. She's also the daughter of George Carlin.
Kelly Carlin-McCall is a woman of many talents. She wrote for TV and earned her masters in Jungian Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute before she found her true passion in autobiographical storytelling, which led to her writing and starring in her one-woman show, “Driven To Distraction.” She also happens to be the daughter of George Carlin, who is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Carlin, who wrote about her childhood and her relationship with her father in her critically acclaimed book A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up With George, spoke to us about what life with her father was like.
My dad wasn’t around a lot. He was on the road at least 100-150 days a year for most of my childhood. Sometimes he was gone for more than 200 days a year. That’s a lot of time for a parent to be gone from your life, so my mom raised me most of the time. She was the parent in the household.
And even when my dad was home, he was busy. He was obsessed with his work and would spend a lot of time writing or working on jokes. He had an amazing work ethic and was a fantastic role model in that way. Unfortunately, that meant there wasn’t a ton of Kelly-and-dad time. But when there was Kelly-and-dad time, it was the most precious thing in the world to me.
He taught me how to ride a bike, with and without training wheels. He took the time to make sure I was understanding the big things that were going on in culture. I have a vivid memory of him waking me up during the moon landing and making sure that I understood exactly what was happening. I was only five at the time but he wanted me to know that this wasn’t a TV show. This was really happening on the moon. He loved sharing those kinds of moments with me.
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his work but as a dad, he really was unafraid of expressing the truth of what was going on in the world. He always was making sure that I understood America’s history and the fact that America didn’t always treat people well. He wanted me to understand the history of oppression of black people, Native Americans, and other disenfranchised communities.
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his work but as a dad, he really was unafraid of expressing the truth of what was going on in the world.
That’s not to say my dad was always serious with me. The house was filled with goofiness and laughter whenever he was around. I opened my one-woman show saying, “some of my fondest memories with my dad were watching comedy on television with him.” And that really is the truth. I’ll never forget watching Newhart or The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Carol Burnett with my parents. When Tim Conway would try to get Harvey Korman to break during a scene, my dad would be crying because he was laughing so hard.
There’s so much joy in sharing that with somebody. There was nothing better than being with this person who made the world laugh and getting to witness what made him laugh. A lot of his early observational humor certainly came from life at home. And while he didn’t ever speak directly about us in his act, we were definitely an influence because we were a major part of his life.
I worshipped my dad. I didn’t really realize it until I was an adult but I absolutely put him on a pedestal. I needed him to love me. I was constantly seeking his approval. Of course, part of that came from the fact that he was on TV and was a big performer who people adored. When we would walk into a restaurant or any room, people would look at him like he was a god.
I worshipped my dad. I didn’t really realize it until I was an adult but I absolutely put him on a pedestal. I needed him to love me. I was constantly seeking his approval.
He was someone who was very skilled at compartmentalizing his life. He would often say he worked from his head and as a result to that, I think he liked to keep things separated. But he never tried to shield me from his work in any way. I was eight years old sitting in the audience while my dad was doing his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine. People would sometimes stare at me, wondering what this young kid was doing in the audience. Was it healthy all the time? Maybe not but did I end up as a healthy adult with integrity? Yeah, I’m fine.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t have rules. We had rules. My dad knew there was a society out there and he didn’t want me running into classrooms freely yelling the word “cocksucker.” He would explain that I could use whatever words I wanted at home as long as I wasn’t using the words against people, but there is a society outside of our house and I need to be aware of that.
Both my parents had issues with addiction and my mother, in particular, was in a battle with alcoholism for the first 12 years of my life. So beyond being the famous funny guy, he was also the stable parent despite not being around a third of the time. He was my rock. I relied on him emotionally to be the one that listened to me and understood me. He made me feel safe from the chaos in our household. I really needed my dad to think that I was okay and that I was smart and that I was capable. Because of those needs, I censored myself a lot and wanted to be seen as a “good girl” in the world. Maybe not in the traditional sense — I certainly made my mistakes — but I wanted my dad to be proud of my achievements. That shaped my life.
I feel that one of the biggest gifts my dad ever gave me was teaching me to be a truth-teller, even if he didn’t mean to.
But overall, my dad was pretty hands-off. He preferred a laissez-faire approach to parenting. He didn’t have a father. His died when he was young and he never got to know him. And when his father was alive, he was violent and a drunk. His mother wanted to protect him from all of that so she was sort of a helicopter parent before that term actually existed. She worked full-time but she really wanted to control every aspect of his life and he rebelled against that in every way he could. Her desperate need to shape him ended up shaping him as a parenting style with me.
Because of his laid-back approach, he never gave me advice on my career and I really wish he had. After he died, I found out he was casually mentoring a few young comics and would let them know if he liked their stuff. He had this secret life as a mentor that I never knew about until after he died. And to be honest, my initial instinct was jealousy. I felt left out because I craved that kind of attention from my dad. I wanted those conversations with him so badly.
He didn’t mentor me creatively or tell me a direction to go. A couple of times he warned me not to do stand up comedy because I think he knew it would be a really difficult road to go down because of the name factor and the natural comparisons people would make. He was uncomfortable with my autobiographical storytelling but that was a personal thing. He told me he would never try to stop me or object to my work but he just couldn’t be an audience member for it.
People will often expect certain words to come out of my mouth or want me to have the same willingness to speak a certain kind of truth. And there is some reality to those expectations.
He wasn’t above nepotism but I think he felt it was best that he didn’t intervene too much because he wanted me to find my own way. And in some ways, I’m grateful that he left me alone professionally because I know the approach I take to my work is wholly mean and I know that was important to him.
That being said, I know whose shoulders I stand on. When I walk onstage as a speaker or leading a workshop or writing a book, I have a certain permission because I’m a Carlin. The projections that people have about who I am come from who my dad was. And I can’t control that. People will often expect certain words to come out of my mouth or want me to have the same willingness to speak a certain kind of truth. And there is some reality to those expectations. I feel that one of the biggest gifts my dad ever gave me was teaching me to be a truth-teller, even if he didn’t mean to.
About a year or two after my mom died, my dad and I rented a house in Yosemite and spent a few days together. It was probably the most alone time I had ever had with my dad. It wasn’t even that we spent every moment together. We were happy to be in this space together. Whether he was writing and I was reading or if we were talking, it was just us two and that made it special to me. I think it’s so powerful for kids to physically be around their parents. And we ended up putting some of my mom’s ashes in the Merced River, which was a profound experience.
— As Told To Blake Harper
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