After decades of setting the bar for stand-up comedy, George Carlin displayed a rare bit of bad timing by dying last year, just as we needed him most.
In a career that included over two dozen comedy records, 14 HBO hour specials and three books, it’s remarkable to think how little Carlin revealed about his personal life in his work. It seems, now, like he was saving it up.
In Last Words, his just released, long-in-the-works memoir/”sortabiography” written with satirist and former National Lampoon editor Tony Hendra, Carlin gives us one more great gift by opening up about his life and his work, not just his successes but also his struggles: with his mother, his absent father, his marriage, his drug problems, his creative frustrations, and more. It’s funny, in parts, but bleak in others, much like his best material, which could go from whimsy to darkness, from fart jokes to capital punishment in mere moments. To put it another way, Last Words doesn’t just tell the story of what made George Carlin irreplaceable, it is itself a piece of that story, a reminder of how urgent and vital Carlin’s artistry remains.
In a world where even the strangest satire is often dwarfed by the surrealism of the actual news, George Carlin was a clear, unattached voice of reason and logic and relentless truth in a sea of soul-killing noise. For those, like me, who discovered him at that pivotal moment in early adolescence, he taught us that it was okay to have these crazy, suspicious, skeptical thoughts about god, society, and authority, that he was right there with us, plumbing the depths of the absurd. He also taught us some pretty fucking good swear words, too. When I was learning to think, it was emboldening to know that George Carlin had my back. And, maybe he had yours too.
When I was 15 years old, I wrote him a letter. I wanted to interview him for a project on government for my high school civics class. It was a long shot, and I knew it, but I also knew that I trusted what George Carlin had to say more than what newspapers, teachers, or politicians had to offer. Such was the position he held in my life, and I have a feeling that I’m not the only one.
A few months later, I got a phone call: not from a publicist or an assistant or a manager, but from George Carlin himself. I was stunned, to put it mildly. He was happy to do the interview, knowing full well that it would never be seen outside of a small high school classroom in Nowhere, Pennsylvania. It would do nothing for his career; in fact, I’m pretty sure it was entirely counterproductive for him, since he probably could’ve been writing and working in the time he spent on me in the subsequent months, arranging the interview, leaving bizarre and hilarious messages on my voicemail, and finally talking with me on the phone for a half hour. When my friends, my dad, and I went backstage to meet him at his next show, at his invitation, my fate was sealed: whatever I did with my life, it had to involve comedy. So, I’d like to take this moment to blame my current financial situation on George Carlin but mostly to thank him for the continuing inspiration that I have no doubt will last me a lifetime.
It was a great personal joy for me to be able to do a phone interview with George’s daughter, Kelly Carlin. We talked about her dad’s book, his legacy, and her memories of growing up as George Carlin’s daughter.
How much of what your dad writes about in this book was news to you? Did you know all of it?
Oh, I definitely did not know all of the stuff— especially the smaller details of the first 20 years of my dad’s life. I had an understanding of the broader story of my father and had heard some smaller anecdotes here and there about his life, but, certainly, the first chapter about his father was really a poignant thing to read. You could hear his own longing to have some real connection with his father and an understanding of who his father was and his influence, even though they hadn’t met that many times.
I really didn’t understand the depth of his relationship with his brother, Pat, who has been close in my life. But, I never really got the personal connection and meaning that relationship had for my father. The other parts that were revealing to me were more about his own struggle with his career and his place in it, especially in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. I knew he struggled then and in the ‘80s, and that big change that happened in ’69-’70 was huge for him, but he never really talked candidly with me about what that was like, just on a human level, to be dealing with those times. So, it was really wonderful for me, because I felt like I’d deepened my own relationship with my dad by reading the book.
Among the revelations about him in this book is one that even hardcore fans might find particularly shocking: he was a Republican in his youth!
And, even shocking for me! I had known that [Carlin’s former comedy partner] Jack Burns converted him, quote, unquote, but I didn’t know that he just…I guess, I didn’t think he really cared. If you take on your parents’ politics, it’s because you haven’t thought about it yet in some ways. Clearly, Jack’s conversion of him – he didn’t have to wrestle him to the ground or anything. He had a few pot-and-beer-induced deep conversations with my dad, and my dad’s a smart person and clearly a light went off in his head. But, yeah, the shocking reality of this McCarthy Republican, it’s like, “What?!” I love that. I think that makes him all the more human to the world.
It’s striking that in such a large body of work, your dad so rarely talked about himself on stage.
In general, as a rule, he didn’t find it interesting or relevant to have his personal life out there in the world. He was the complete opposite of Richard Pryor, who would go on stage and tell you every thought and detail about his own life and what he was struggling with and use that as the basis of his humor. Whereas, with my father, obviously his life and perspective was on the stage, but he really kept his personal life to himself. To the point where he would go on the Carson show or Leno or Letterman, and he would make up names and sons and weird details about his family, and it was all a routine. It really wasn’t until about five years ago, when I graduated with my master’s in psychology, my dad was on The Tonight Show one night and actually mentioned me and how proud he was of my master’s degree, and I almost fell off the bed. I think, later in his life, he got to feel like it was okay to reveal more of himself, and maybe his time was shorter, and there wasn’t much of it left.
Do you think all of the health problems he had throughout his life were part of what pushed him to be so prolific?
I don’t know. He’s a man who – whether he dealt with it or not, whether he was in denial or not – the reality of mortality came early in his life. His father died at a young age, from a heart attack. My dad had his first heart attack in his forties and had health problems and more heart attacks in the next three decades. I can only guess – I never really talked with him about it specifically – that maybe he knew he only had so much time and was driven to share himself with the world.
Given all of those heart attacks, drug problems, and the one incident in the book where your mother almost stabs him with a sword, it’s hard not to conclude that he was, at the very least, extremely lucky to have lived so long.
I think he was very lucky. After he died, his cardiologist said to me that people who have heart attacks in their forties, their doctors never talk to them about living into their seventies. I think two things kept him alive. His work kept him alive; he was very dedicated to it and got such joy from his work. It wasn’t just about being driven to do it, he got great joy from being clever, putting things together, and showing off on stage, all those things he talked about. And, when my mom died in 1997, he was really depressed the first year after. I was worried about him, I thought, ‘Is he going to start pulling back from the world?’ Then, he met Sally Wade, who was his girlfriend for 10 years, and they had such joy in their relationship that I really, truly believe gave him a new lease on life, at least for 10 years.
Do you remember how old you were the first time you had a sense that your dad was famous?
I have a couple of pretty young memories. I actually wrote a story about this, about being on a bus with my grandmother, I was pretty young. I must have been four years old. My grandmother, who was crazy, was asking some of the people on the bus if they’d ever heard of my father. Of course, they hadn’t. It was pretty early in the ‘60s, ‘66, ‘67, something like that. She was like, ‘Well, he’s been on The Merv Griffin Show…. and take note, he’ll be famous someday.’ I remember looking at her and wondering, ‘Why would anyone know who my dad was?’ I was just so embarrassed by that moment.
Then, I have another memory of being pretty young, around that same time, and seeing my dad on TV and my mom letting me stay up to watch him on, I think, the Della Reese Show or something. So, that was pretty cool, too, realizing that my dad was on the TV.
Did you think that maybe everyone’s dad was on the TV?
I don’t remember having that thought. I remember thinking ‘There’s Daddy. Doing that…thing. It was rather confusing, I think, for me.
How old were you when you first realized what he meant to other people?
I went to these west side of L.A. private schools, and there were a lot of celebrity kids in these schools. It was junior high that some other kids knew who my dad was, and their parents were fans of my dad. I was friends with Carol Burnett’s daughter, and I knew that my dad had done Carol’s show, and they were friends. Then, in high school, there were young boys who would memorize whole routines of my dad’s and then do them for me in class, and I always found that very strange. I don’t think it was until my 20s, if I had a moment at all, that I was realizing that he was having an impact on the culture. It was more of a gradual awakening.
What about your father’s work do you think people connect with most?
His truth. That he really does not tolerate bullshit. Like anyone who discovered my dad in the last 40 years, he gives them hope that they’re not crazy and that the rest of the world is. That there’s ‘this moron thing he does called ‘thinking,’’ and you get to do it for yourself, too. That there are people out there who think this way, and don’t buy into the bullshit. And, his concerts, especially over the last 20 years, have been filled with people from age 12 to 90. The generations keep discovering him, because he’s a man who reveals the truth of the world.
In the book, he mentions that you’d take exception to some of his attitudes and positions. Like what?
The thing I took exception to was his complete and total claim that he had given up on the human race. I basically said to him, ‘If that’s true, why do you bother going up on stage?’ And, he said, ‘You’re right.’ [Laughs] I totally nailed him on it. If he’d really given up on the human race, why bother with anything? Why not go in the woods somewhere in a cabin? I let him know that I’m going to be on this planet a couple more decades after him, and I can’t give up on the human race. And, I believe everything he says is true, on some level. Yet, the stance he took on giving up on it all, that we’re all just going down the drain – which may absolutely be true, who knows? – at the same time, but yeah, you still get pleasure from the sunset. You’re participating on some level.
In interviews he did, he would never admit that he was trying to make a difference or even to make people think. But, I suspect that he must’ve known something about the impact he was having.
I think artistically he couldn’t take the stance that he was trying to make a difference, because it would’ve affected his pure, free ability to express himself. He had to have full permission in order to express himself. And, I’m just sort of guessing at this. But, I think, as an artist, it was important for him to have this very radical stance way outside the species and the planet. At the same time, he was getting feedback from not only his audience, but the people around him would actually talk to him and say, ‘You do make me think. You have changed my mind about things.’
In the book, he talks about realizing that laughter wasn’t necessary to know he was being successful at his job. He says, ‘I got that as long as the audience is willing to sit there and nod their heads and I knew that the wheels were turning in their heads, that I was doing my job.’ So, there’s a man who is acknowledging that he is making people think, and he’s okay with it.
That section refers to Jammin’ in New York (1992), which was his favorite special of his. What did he like about it?
That one and the one before it is when he became a different comic. ‘88, ‘90, ’92… those three shows were the transition for him, but ’92 is really the pinnacle of that, because it’s pure performance. It’s just so beautiful. We just screened it last week, and I saw it again, and I hadn’t seen it in a while. It’s just perfection. It’s a show where there were long silences. He was starting to get that in his act, and yet the audience was sticking with him, because then he knew he had to go back to something funny and clever and play in that arena for a few minutes, and then he could go back and make them think.
What’s next – is there still more work to be done on what he’s left behind?
There is work to do. We’re still finishing up the estate and closing that, even though it’s almost been a year and a half. That takes time. Once that is all settled, we’re going to very carefully, very respectfully look at what’s there of my dad’s material that’s unfinished and see if there is a way to share it with the world and see if we can do it in a way that lives up to his most impeccable standards. And, we’ll see if we can do it. If not, it will just sit in his computer.
One thing that will be emerging in the next few years is something that we started last year, which is an oral history of my dad. The telling of his life story not through his eyes and his voice, but through loved ones, family, friends, colleagues, peers, people like that. It’s an amazing piece of work, because you get 30 or 40 perspectives on these events that he talks about in this book. That’ll probably be happening late next year.
And, also, I’m working on my own personal memoir, which will not be ‘This is my memoir about being George Carlin’s daughter but will be about my own journey through my childhood, which includes my mother, my father, and all that insanity, through my 20, my 30s, and now my 40s, in finding my own voice as an artist, both in the shadow of my father and in these crazy times, and as a woman. It’s partly about my own spiritual journey and finding my own relationship with the big questions of life.
What’s the most common misconception about George Carlin?
I think that people think he was an angry old man. He really wasn’t. That was his stage persona. That was the stance he took to do his art, to speak a perspective that he felt the world needed to hear. He talks about Sam Kinison in the book, and that Sam shocked him, in a sense, into being a better comic, because he realized that you need to scream louder, because there’s so much noise out there. And, that was his version of screaming louder, getting angry and getting curmudgeon-like.
The biggest and most interesting revelation of this book is that George Carlin was generous, sentimental, nostalgic, and really a lover of people. There are endless stories out there of the personal kindness and generosity – well, you’ve got one. You know. And, how different that is from that stage persona. And, yet, that is where he lived. He lived in that big heart of his. That’s the biggest revelation.
Buy Last Words by clicking the image below.
Last Words, by George Carlin and Tony Hendra, is out now. Kelly Carlin is a writer and essayist; you can track her down on the interwebs at thekellycarlinsite.com. And as always, check out georgecarlin.com for all of your Carlin needs.