Growing up as the daughter of comedian George Carlin, Kelly Carlin saw some of the glamorous aspects of a successful career in entertainment. What defined her family much more, though, was a far out, counter-culture lifestyle punctuated by mercurial behavior, even while her parents were fiercely loyal and caring. If there was a typical wealthy, L.A. celebrity family, hers was not it.
After holding some TV production jobs, and getting a master’s degree in Jungian philosophy, and even working for a while as a therapist, Carlin felt the pull to write more — about her upbringing in a celebrity family and her identity as a creative force in her own right. Along with her forthcoming memoir, Carlin has written and stars in the one-person show A Carlin Home Companion, now playing at the Falcon Theater in Burbank through March 1.
The first spark of this show came more than 15 years ago, after her mother passed away. She was inspired by autobiographical stage performers such as Spaulding Gray and Whoopi Goldberg.
By 2000 she had written a solo show, mainly about her mother's death and her own subsequent spiritual transformation and awakening. While she touched on her parents' drug life and her own drug-taking phase and problematic first marriage, Carlin backed off from doing a full run because it made her father very uncomfortable.
“I was still very attached to making him feel okay at that point,” says Carlin. “We were very codependent.”
Carlin then became immersed in L.A.'s storytelling scene, a circuit of live shows where a performer's presentation need not adhere to the jokes-per-minute requirements of standup. “I had around ten different stories about my life that I'd share, but it was a hobby,” she says.
And then, in 2008, her father died. Shortly after the loss, comedian Lewis Black called up Carlin, inviting her to join a comedy cruise he was doing with a half dozen other standup comedians that could use an alternative-format performer such as Carlin, telling stories, showing videos and talking about her father.
“I filled in some other stories and did seventy five minutes off the top of my head in front of four hundred people and they loved it — laughing, crying, the whole thing,” she says.
She was hesitant at first about pursuing it further. “I was trying to find my own voice after my Dad died, and I didn't want it to look like I was riding on his coattails — that Hollywood cliché,” she says.
But others emphatically told Carlin that she needed to develop this concept and take it on the road. The comedian/writer/director and old family friend Paul Provenza offered to direct the show. Over the last few years, Carlin has enjoyed well-received theatrical runs in L.A. and beyond.
Carlin reveals emotionally wrenching truths while still keeping the show entertaining, funny, and, ultimately, uplifting. She's been influenced by Sandra Tsing Loh's solo show in Hollywood, the performance artist Karen Finley and, as before, one of the founders of the form: “Spalding Gray put his neurosis right on the table and unpacked it — a lot of anxiety and self-hatred. Growing up, I never felt really fit for anything.”
In the show, Carlin relates fascinating passages from her youth, such as her dad hurling insults at conservative Pacific Palisades neighbors across the driveway, or, while on an incendiary family vacation in Hawaii, her trying to get her drug-taking father and alcohol-imbibing mother to sign a “peace treaty.”
While Carlin and Provenza haven't changed the script for this production, some recent acting adjustments felt like a revelation. “I was telling the story of it but wasn't really connecting with the pain and anger,” she says. “That's been the emotion that's hard to express in public.”
Carlin says people often show up at her performances because of her father's name, but then connect with her story and the very serious family moments. “They come up afterward and tell me, 'I was an only child and my parents were addicts, too, so it made me grow up fast.' Or that they had done drugs and been agoraphobic. It's why we do this work — to know that we're not alone.”
While Carlin thinks that anger at parents is healthy to express and to feel, to her it is part of the process, not the endpoint.
She says, “Express it, feel it, then move into real unconditional love, which is a really powerful place to be.”
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