Truly the voice of a generation, George Carlin gave the world some of the most hysterical and iconic comedy routines of the last 50 years. From the “Seven Dirty Words” to “A Place for My Stuff” to “Religion Is Bullshit”, he perfected the art of making audiences double over with laughter while simultaneously making people wake up to the realities (and insanities) of life in the 20th century. Few people glimpsed the inner life of this beloved comedian, but his only child, Kelly, was there to see it all.
Born at the very beginning of his decades-long career in comedy, she slid around the “old Dodge Dart” as he and wife Brenda drove around the country to “hell gigs”. She witnessed his transformation in the ’70s, as he fought back against – and talked back to – the establishment; she even talked him down from a really bad acid trip a time or two. (“Kelly, the sun has exploded and we have eight, no, seven-and-a-half minutes to live!”) Kelly not only watched her father constantly reinvent himself and his comedy, but also had a front-row seat to the roller-coaster turmoil of her family’s inner life – alcoholism, cocaine addiction, life-threatening health scares, and a crushing debt to the IRS. But having been the only “adult” in her family prepared her little for the task of her own adulthood. All the while, Kelly sought to define her own voice as she separated from the shadow of her father’s genius.
With rich humor and deep insight, Kelly Carlin pulls back the curtain on what it was like to grow up as the daughter of one of the most recognizable comedians of our time and become a woman in her own right. This vivid, hilarious, heartbreaking story is at once singular and universal – it is a contemplation of what it takes to move beyond the legacy of childhood and forge a life of your own.
It is an honor to sit down this month and speak with Kelly Carlin, for this month’s edition of Psychology of Aesthetics and Politics Magazine.
Robert Frashure: Thank you so much, Kelly, for taking the time to sit down us this month! It is such a pleasure to finally meet you finally.
Kelly Carlin: It’s great to be here Robert!
Robert Frashure: I learned so much from reading your book, “A Carlin Home Companion: Growing up with George” and from watching your talk at Pacifica Graduate Institute! I could very much relate to having this dual identity as an artist and a psychologist (I studied painting and photography at CalArts). After hearing your talk, I research the professor you talked about, Maureen Murdock, and was inspired to see how she has integrated her photography into her psychology work.
As you mentioned in your talk, you eventually decided that you did not want to be a therapist and would be more fulfilled pursuing your performance career. Was it disappointing or difficult to accept for yourself the realization that you actually wanted to be “on the stage” and pursue autobiographical storytelling instead of clinical practice? Did you see this coming at all?
Kelly Carlin: In some ways, no. This has been my struggle for years – the pull between wanting to be in the spotlight and yet also to make a difference in the world. Lately I’ve come to conclude that I can be a “selfish” artist that focuses on issues of individuation, power, and freedom.
But it in other ways, it did take me some time to accept my true purpose and calling. Right before I went to Pacifica, I had written and performed a one-woman show and I consider that to be my original art form. Spaulding Grey and Karen Finley and other spoken word artists and performance artists really very much interested me, that art form.
When I did my first solo show and it made my dad uncomfortable, I wasn’t quite ready for my spotlight moment in my life yet. I didn’t have enough sense of myself and self-esteem and confidence: this is when I started looking to get my master’s in something. I kind of shopped around in more academic programs at first – philosophy, communication, journalism. I wasn’t quite sure.
I knew about Pacifica already and then I turned towards Pacifica and really dug into it and saw what it was. So coming into Pacifica I knew that I wanted whatever I was going to learn there, I knew I wanted to integrate that into my art no matter what. As you know, going through these academic programs, your job really is to learn how to be a therapist. They’re training you to sit in front of clients and it’s a serious matter. You’re holding people’s psyches.
So with that, in order to graduate, I had to have a certain amount of hours to do it. Then coming out of graduation, I didn’t immediately know what direction I wanted to do so I decided to just stay as an intern until it really kind of dawned on me and I felt more compelled one way or the other. So I gave it a few years and then after two years it was really clear that deep down I missed being a full time creative artist. Ironically, I started getting clients who were all in the entertainment industry and a lot of them were in comedy!
It was like: here I was supporting other people’s creative dreams and I wasn’t supporting my own. I didn’t feel like I could really serve people having that kind of process within me. And I didn’t think I’d be a good therapist. I didn’t think I could do both at the same time. Maybe some people can, but I wanted a bigger spotlight and I don’t think that’s right for clients to have a therapist who wants that kind of life.
Robert Frashure: It was fascinating to hear you describe how Pacifica Graduate Institute provided the space for you to get in contact with your personal mythology, her family story, her origin story, etc.
It also struck me how your professor, Maureen Murdock, at Pacifica encouraged you and your classmates to act the stories and archetypes in drama! Do you think that performance and the expressive arts can be healing in this way?
Kelly Carlin: God, yes! Working with the body and the imagination – non-verbal ways especially – tap into our deepest wounds and our highest potentials as humans. The unconscious mind is way bigger than the conscious mind. Using tools to access its wisdom and self-organizing features is powerful medicine.
With regard to how I chose Pacifica, my story is interesting. I did not go to Pacifica to specifically become a therapist. I went to Pacifica to study Jungian psychology and archetypes and mythology and there were many different programs there. I chose the counseling program because it was a good plan B. If my artist life didn’t work or if I needed to work in some capacity part-time in something, I knew I’d have a real life skill. And I knew that I was naturally good at it because I was kind of that person in my circle of people in my life.
But I didn’t have a calling to be a therapist. I really went to Pacifica for a very specific kind of life experience, to really kind of find my path in a deeper way. One of the reasons I picked Pacifica was because, for a lot of classes and for your thesis, you could do artwork because of the Jungian slant of it all, and that really called to me.
For me, psychology and art interact and overlap in so many ways. Psychology is the study of the inner life and creativity comes from the imagination and a response to the environment, as you know. So they’re both very similar in that way because it’s about one’s inner life interacting with the environment and what comes from that.
Robert Frashure: One of the messages I took from your talk is that walking on the path of individuation can be difficult, painful, but ultimately rewarding. What would you say to people who are scared to begin this journey? Is the alternative to not leaving your “safety zone” any better?
Kelly Carlin: If you’re never called, then you don’t know any better. If you are called and don’t answer the call, then that is the most difficult and painful. If you are called and do answer the call, it is the adventure of your life. You will be faced with facing all the things in yourself that keep you from knowing who you are, you’ll have to stand up to roles and definitions that your family and culture have given you.
My first year at Pacifica, Maureen Murdock did a class called “Myths and Memoir.” I had a mother complex going on and I was projecting all my negative mother stuff onto her and all of my need for her to love me and to make me whole and to approve of me. She, because of who she is and the nature of who she was and where she was in her life at that time, she wasn’t interested in that, which was rightly so. She was my professor, not my mother or my therapist. So the way she comported herself pushed some buttons in me but pushed buttons that helped me grow up and individuate because I had to own what was mine, which was all these projections I was putting on her.
The class was an amazing experience. She had us read to act out the hymn to Demeter and people played different roles, the archetypal roles and Zeus and Hades and Persephone and Demeter and all of that. She taught us about the power of using archetypes to speak to aspects of ourselves and to use them in healing ways. It’s what Jung called “active imagination.” It’s a thing that he invented where you use the energy of the imagination in order to connect to aspects of your own psyche to bring it out of unconsciousness and to give it a voice and to have a relationship with it.
At the same time, she, through the class and through teaching us the hymn to Demeter and working with the Persephone-Demeter myth, she gave me a great gift by giving me that myth to kind of live my life into at the time. It was a very deep relationship in that way. She really did change my life in a lot of ways even though we weren’t very close. People can do that for you in your life, as you know.
Robert Frashure: I’ve heard you describe the professor at Pacifica, Maureen Murdock, whose impact and work was especially important to you. Were there any other mentors or professors who were or continue to be particularly impactful in your life?
Kelly Carlin: I have a big list! Are you ready? Mom, Dad, Jill and Odie, Joseph Campbell, Thich Nhat Hahn, Jean Houston, Joanna Macy, Caitriona, Michelle, David Whyte, Gilbert, Genpo Roshi, Buddha, Jung, and many more.
Robert Frashure: That’s quite a unique list! Since you have this fascinating background of both psychology and comedy, I want to ask whether you think humor can be used effectively in a therapeutic context? When can it be useful, and when is just too much? Have you worked with any therapists who were funny that you liked?
Kelly Carlin: That’s a great question, Robert. When I am ever in any situation that’s getting too heavy, I lighten it up with humor. Now, that could be dicey for a therapist and needs to be used very deftly. Creating safety is your first job, and then once that’s established, you can use many tools to help someone see the folly in their thinking.
I had a client who just wanted to entertain me the whole time, that is a defense against going deep, in my mind. What happens when the jokester is not allowed to deflect with humor? You then have to feel the pain, and learn that you can survive it. It makes you more resilient and stronger in the long run, and your sense of humor will always be there. Being able to see the funny is deep.
Being a therapist can be very serious though. There are people’s lives in your hands. For me, it was too much. I didn’t want it. I remember going on vacation for two weeks once and one of my clients who was very clinically depressed really could not handle it, really unraveled himself. That scared me. I didn’t want to be in that position. I didn’t see it . . . the work is important and essential and I’ve had a therapist myself for decades and it’s important work, but I knew that I wanted to work with people who are more functioning and that’s when I decided to pursue my performance career full-time.
Being successful as a creative person is a crapshoot, but it’s essential if you feel drawn to being creative that you express it. On the other hand, I have known know many therapists who come out of Pacifica Graduate Institute and love being both artists and therapists at the same time, like Maureen Murdock. They are photographers and dancers and other kinds of things and therapists at the same time. I think it really makes them a much more interesting therapist because they’re so engaged with the imagination and the creativity and the depths of who they are.
Robert Frashure: That is great to hear! I’m also wondering about how, in therapy, there have to be moments when you laugh with your clients. It’s part of life, why try to hide that from therapy? I remember therapists I’ve had that I’ve liked have been funny at times.
Kelly Carlin: Yes, agreed. You’re being trained as a therapist, you’re understanding this. There’s a real careful line you have to walk there because your first job is to create safety for the client to feel safe enough to turn their vision in towards themselves and their experience in the moment and to reveal things that usually carry a lot of shame or that kind of stuff around. I used to be a person that wasn’t able to laugh at myself easily. I took everything really seriously and was overly sensitive about things, and I think that’s rooted in perfectionism. My mother used to say, “When you can learn to laugh at yourself, a lot of healing comes from that.”
Robert Frashure: Exactly, I agree with your mother!
Kelly Carlin: There’s a grip we sometimes some of us get on our pain and suffering and our past and our wounding that we over-identify with it. If we laugh at it, we’re saying, “Oh, I’m laughing at myself, which means my victimhood isn’t all of who I am.”
Robert Frashure: Exactly.
Kelly Carlin: Therefore, then, you are on the road to healing because then if you can see yourself more than just a victim, aha, now you’ve got the place to move into that is much more vital and creative and is resourceful than being a victim.
Robert Frashure: Exactly. I think it’s less isolating too if you can get out of your own head, your own attachment to your own problems.
Kelly: It also makes me think about this whole controversy the last few years about comedians crossing the line and the censorship and political correctness around comedy. I think this has to do with this talk of over-identification as a victim. There’s a point where even people who are fighting for social justice – feminists, people of minorities, the transgender, queer, whatever it is, whatever the minority is – there’s a point where what you’re fighting for can’t come from victimhood anymore.
I think that’s part of the crux of why comedy steps on their toes, and why this whole political correctness and this whole other conversation we were talking about earlier about Trump and his supporters, comes around that. The right doesn’t allow for any victimhood and the left says we’re all victims. There is a sweet spot in the middle of all of that and I think comedy and humor, personally and collectively as a society, can really play that role for us to help us pull ourselves out of either of those camps in some ways.
Robert Frashure: A question that I often think about is why are some people funny, and others not?
Kelly Carlin: I think it comes down to the whole nature-nurture question. I think it’s both. I know genetically I come from very funny people. I know people who are musical usually come from some sort of a musical genetic kind of a situation. So I think part of it is hard-wired – both comedy and music or about rhythm and timing and construction and things like that. I also think that there’s something about being able to take an outsider stance .
The thing about humor and one of the essential elements of being able to be a humorist is the ability to be an outsider and to look at society or even your own life as an outsider, like that witnessing stance. There is something powerful about being able to step away from life – see it from a witnessing perspective, and not take it all so seriously.
Robert Frashure: I agree with you.
Kelly Carlin: There’s a lot of self-awareness necessary for humor. So I think part of that too can come from a life experience, can come from a difficult childhood, it can be a defense mechanism certainly. But I don’t think there’s a single answer for what makes some people funny, and what makes people laugh. It is kind of a big, complex, and existential question. Once again, I’m sure somebody’s studied it!
But I know my dad’s mom could tell a great story and had a wicked sense of humor. My dad, George, was a prominent public speaker and won awards for it, so he was a great orator. There’s that. And there’s the whole tradition of Jewish families and Jewish humor. There’s something about suffering, which we talked earlier about it. If you’re facing grim stuff, one of the ways you deal with grim shit is by laughing at it.
Robert Frashure: Absolutely! It’s just there’s always some people who try so hard to be funny. I have friends who try to be funny and they’re really not funny. That’s what I was thinking about. I can’t figure out why.
Kelly Carlin: I know. It’s like they didn’t get that chip, that one little chip or something and it just lands with such a thud. When people really do try and it’s not funny . . .
Robert Frashure: It’s awful, right?
Kelly Carlin: It’s so awful, horrible.
Robert Frashure: Yeah, I know. They keep trying though.
Kelly Carlin: Exactly. Oh yeah, they do because getting a laugh, that’s a powerful, powerful moment when you get a laugh in your life.
Robert Frashure: You feel validated, right, when someone laughs?
Kelly Carlin: You sure do. Yes. There’s a power in that. “I made you react that way.” And the thing about laughter is that it’s an involuntary response. You have no control over it. So there’s something magical about, “Oh my god, I made your brain do that without you wanting to.”
When I’m on stage, when I do my solo show when I go out there and within the first minute you always kind of put in a laugh. And whenever I get the laugh in that moment, I always relax. It’s instant relax because you’re like, okay, the audience gets me, they’re on my side and I have a way into them that is . ..it’s like, I have that little line into them now, and that’s powerful for sure.
Robert Frashure: We have to stop for now, Kelly, but I just wanted to thank you from all of us at Psychology of Aesthetics and Politics Magazine for taking the time to share your life and wisdom with us!
Kelly Carlin: It’s been a pleasure, Robert.
Robert Frashure: And we will see you soon for part two of our interview, in which we discuss the current affairs of politics and comedy in 2016.