Authors: Kelly Carlin
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This book is dedicated to my husband Bob McCall. You have given me the ground to stand on and the wings to fly. Thank God you came along.
ARLIN LEGEND HOLDS
that all it took for me to come into the world was a little sperm, a little egg, a little weed, a little scotch, and something called the limbo.
“We'd been trying to get pregnant for months, but no luck,” explained my mom to me, seven-year-old Kelly, as I sat on the bed watching my dad pack for the road.
Just moments earlier he'd said to me, “When I'm down in New Orleans, I'll get a postcard from the hotel you were conceived in and send it to you.”
Confused by the word “conceived,” I looked at my mom, and she quickly filled in the details. “We were down in New Orleans, must've been what, October of '62? We were at a club hanging out with some musicians we'd met, when someone announced a limbo contest. Well, it sounded like fun, and so I did it. Next thing I knew, I was pregnant.”
Mom didn't mention the weed or scotch in her telling of my fateful beginning because she didn't need to. They were a given. Dad had been smoking weed and drinking beer since he was fourteen, and Mom started sneaking sips off her daddy's drinks at around the same age. And as far as the limbo goes, I'm still not clear about the mechanics of it all, but that's never mattered. It clearly worked. I am here.
For the two years leading up to the night of the limbo, my mom, Brenda, and my dad, George, had been constant companions, starving artists, and comrades-in-arms, chasing my dad's comedy dreams. They did hell gigs, packed and unpacked their suitcases hundreds of times, and traveled to almost every state in the country in their '57 Dodge Dart. My mom loved playing the role of on-the-road partner in crime to my dad's rebel artist on a mission. She was Dad's lover, party girl, and press agent all rolled into oneâhis full partner in lifeâand always his best audience. You could always hear her great laugh above the din of clinking glasses and mumbling patrons in every club they visited.
Because Dad was a complete unknown, on some nights she was the only person in the audience.
One night in Baltimore, no one was in the audience, not even Mom. Dad asked the club owner, “So exactly why am I going on?”
“Cuz if people come in, I want them to know we gots some entertainment,” he was told.
I hear Dad killed that night.
During those lean years, Dad paid his dues but also got lucky. One night Lenny Bruce caught his act in Chicago, loved what he saw, and introduced him to his manager, Murray Becker. This was huge. My dad worshipped Lenny.
Taking every opportunity to soak up Lenny's presence, my mom and dad would often drive from New York to the Gate of Horn Club in Chicago, just to see him perform. One night while they were there, Lenny got arrested halfway through his set. This had become the norm. That night the cops did not like his use of the word “cocksucker.” Looking to hassle the club, the cops began to ask everyone for their IDs. When they got to my dad, he defiantly told them, “I don't believe in âidentification,'” and the cops promptly threw him into the back of the paddy wagon with Lenny. When my dad proudly told Lenny what he'd done, Lenny looked at him and said, “What are you, a schmuck?”
My mom chased after their paddy wagonâon footâall the way to the police station and bailed them both out of jail that night.
Growing up surrounded by stories like these, and living through many others myself, I've always felt as if my family's journey has unfolded like some kind of mythological legend. Our lives together have felt shaped by a force, threads of fate, or maybe even what my dad called the “Big Electron.” Something was calling us forth, and interweaving exactly the right people, places, and things to form one amazing life together.
It's just always seemed so destined.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
My dad should never, ever have come to be.
In 1936, a year before he was born, his parents, Mary and Patrick Carlin, had separated. Not for the first time, but for the fourth. Patrick, as my dad would say, “couldn't metabolize the ethyl alcohol,” which meant he was a mean drunk. No longer able to take the verbal and physical abuse he doled out to her or their four-year-old son, also named Patrick (who the fuck hits a child across the face with a slipper?), Mary left him for what she wanted to believe was the last time.
But Mary could never stay away for too long. When Patrick wasn't drinking and raging, he was witty, handsome, and one of the top national salesmen of ad space for the biggest newspapers in the country. He had the Irish gift of gab and had even won a national Dale Carnegie speech contest. He was funny, smart, and charmingâand irresistible. So irresistible that once again in the summer of 1936 Mary found herself in bed with him, at a motel in Rockaway Beach.
Six weeks later, at the age of forty, Mary realized she was pregnant. She knew she didn't want to bring another child into this already complicated situation, so she decided the best thing to do was to get rid of it.
But that “Big Electron” had different plans. While Mary sat in the waiting room of “Dr. Sunshine,” the Gramercy Park gynecologist who took care of such things for most ladies of import in New York City, she looked up at a picture of the Virgin Mary hanging on the wall and saw her own dead mother's face. A good Catholic, she knew a sign when she saw one. She promptly stood up and declared to Patrick, “I am keeping this child.”
On May 12, 1937, George Denis Patrick Carlin was born. Eight weeks later, after months of trying to make the marriage work, Mary sneaked out the fire escape in the middle of the night with her two young boys, leaving Patrick Carlin and his rage for good. She'd seen the damage that her husband had already done to little Patrick, and she was not going to let sweet George be another victim.
This time it stuck. Even though Patrick tried to woo her back, she held strong. George never saw his dad again. In 1945 his father died of a massive heart attack at the age of fifty-seven. My dad was eight years old.
Without a man around to keep my dad out of trouble on the streets of the Upper West Side of Manhattan (or what he and his friends liked to call Irish Harlem), Mary took her job as both mother and father very seriously. She looked for ways to shape and control young George's mind and life. She succeeded in only one areaâa love of language and words.
Mary encouraged my dad to look up words he didn't know in the dictionary, and then use them in conversation. One morning young George, wanting to show off a new word he had learned, excitedly asked his mother if she had “perused” the paper that morning. He anticipated her approval. Slowly she turned, sharpened her gaze onto him, and said, “I have not. Actually, I've only given it a cursory glance.” George, chagrined, turned around and marched right back to the dictionary to learn the new word, “cursory.”
This was Mary to a tee. Just when you thought you had the upper hand, she let you know who was really in charge.
Mary had big dreams for my dad. She wanted him to be an upstanding member of the Better Business Bureau somedayâa man in a pin-striped suit who had a key to the executive washroom. But that was not his destiny.
When my dad was ten years old, he went to the movies, saw Danny Kaye on the big screen, and decided right there and then that he wanted to be just like him one day. And so he came up with his big “Danny Kaye plan”: Step oneâbecome a disc jockey; step twoâbecome a stand-up; step threeâbecome an actor.
By the time he was eleven, my dad was doing stand-up on the stoops on his block, imitating the priests, cops, and shopkeepers of the neighborhood. He also did his impressions of famous people on the radio, and even made up his own radio shows, dialogue and all. At Camp Notre Dame, where he went for three summers, he won the drama award for his routines every single year.
Mary saw the writing on the wall, and in 1951, for his fourteenth birthday, she bought him a reel-to-reel tape recorder so he could practice his voices, impressions, and routines. Who buys a reel-to-reel tape recorder in 1951? Mary Carlin. Her son might not become exactly who she wanted him to be, but her commitment to his excellence was fierce.
Growing up in the 1940s and '50s, my dad had plenty to inspire him: the verbal gymnastics of guys like Spike Jones and Danny Kaye, and the musical rhythms of guys like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. He frequently hopped on the subway or onto the back of a truck heading downtown to Times Square to collect autographs of his heroes. These men of comedy and music were living his dreamâexpressing their souls and at the top of their game. He knew what he wanted, and he knew how he'd get there. His life was set. There was never a plan B.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
By 1960, at age twenty-three, my dad was in the flow of his destiny. He was already at step two of his big “Danny Kaye plan”âbecoming a stand-up. He was part of a fledgling comedy teamâBurns and Carlin. Dad and Jack Burns had met in radio, hit it off, and soon went on the road as a comedy duo. They were quickly building momentum in their careers, doing smart, “modern” comedyâwhich meant that they weren't telling mother-in-law jokes but using material that commented on the times.
In August they booked a two-week gig at the Racquet Clubâthe Dayton, Ohio, version of a supper club. It wasn't the Playboy Club of Chicago, but it was a decent-enough gig back then. And in Dayton it was the
place to find quality entertainment, especially comedy. Most nights there was some shining new talent coming throughâPhyllis Diller, Jonathan Winters, and even Lenny Bruce.
A week before their gig, the hostess of the club, Brenda Florence Hosbrook, looked at the promo picture of Burns and Carlin in the foyer, and said to her best friend, Elaine, “You can have the one on the top [Burns]. I'll take the one on the bottom [Carlin]. He's really cute.”