Karith Foster: Hi. I’m Karith Foster for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education. And, today at the Helium Comedy Club in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania we are doing something that has never been done before. We are going to have a conversation about comedy and free speech with the daughters of the Godfathers of Comedy. We are joined by Ms. Kelly Carlin, Ms. Rain Pryor, and Ms. Kitty Bruce. The daughters of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Lenny Bruce. Ladies, thank you for joining us today.
[All say thanks for having us.]
Karith Foster: How do you feel about this actually? This is first time you have all been together in one spot for an actual interview. Together. What is happening right now inside?
Kelly Carlin: Uh, I think our heads are exploding.
Rain Pryor: Probably, yeah. Pretty much.
Kitty Bruce: Yeah, my heart is beating really fast. Whenever we get together we can sometimes finish each other’s sentences.
Kitty Bruce: Well, hello.
Rain Pryor: It’s like – it’s epic. It really truly is.
Kelly Carlin: Well, when I first met Rain and Kitty, separately.
Kelly Carlin: Ah, it just – but, instantly it’s – I don’t have a sister or brother, I’m an only child, and yet these people understand my life experience without me having to say one word. We just understand. So, there’s some – there’s an incredible amount of comfort in that and shared experience even though we have three very different lives. So, yeah. It’s very cool.
Karith Foster: You spoke to something that most people can’t. Your fathers were legends; they were pioneers in the world of comedy and free speech. So, I’m curious how has that lead to your understanding of the role of comedians in the world today?
Kelly Carlin: I think we should start with Kitty on that.
Kitty Bruce: I know, right? That’s sort of all where it started.
Karith Foster: Yeah, your dad was like the godfather of the godfathers.
Kitty Bruce: I think that the role of comedy is to make people sit back and think, and to reflect. The other side of comedy is simply to cause people to laugh. And, usually it’s because people identify with something that makes them laugh. So, that’s what I think.
Rain Pryor: I think that it’s about truth and speaking truth in a way that makes you think. And, then laugh and explore something outside of a comfort zone in a way that all of the sudden the audience feels like, uh. You know, and each of our dads I feel kind of – were able to bring, uh – they weren’t just one group. Our dads kind of crossed the line in bringing different groups together at a time that it wasn’t supposed to be together and I think it’s because of that truth. And so that, to me, is what the comedy is about in the trinity.
Kelly Carlin: Yeah, I always think about what my dad used to say about it which is that he believed that his job was to find the line and to cross it. That was his whole job and I know the reason why he worshipped Lenny and followed him around was because Lenny was crossing lines that no one, no one, had crossed yet except in their living rooms. He was talking about the things that people did not talk about in mixed company, nice company, and certainly not in public. And, so I – the thing about the problem with comedy these days is there’s not a lot of lines left to cross. So, it’s an interesting time for comedy because what is the – what is the edge? What is that new vista we’re all walking towards?
Kelly Carlin: The culture is so permissive and allowing everything. So, therefore, we get someone like Donald Trump running for president.
Rain Pryor: That is pure comedy. Right there. That’s – hello!
Kelly Carlin: Except I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Kitty Bruce: I have heard that lately from a couple of different comedians that I know. One in particular, Margaret Cho. Okay. And, audiences were booing her because of the content of her ad.
Rain Pryor: It was Jersey, though.
Kitty Bruce: So, when I thought about what’s going on just in the climate. Period. Is that people normally don’t – when my father would perform you hear grumbling, and ooh! And they just walk out. Now, in this generation people are getting hands on, up, all up in that and it’s – she’s a comic. She’s a funny comic and she touches on a lot of different areas. But, it just shows how the climate and our culture has changed and it does involve what’s going on in comedy and what’s politically correct and what isn’t. There’s too much correctness going on.
Karith Foster: Do you think your fathers would have the same reception today as they did back in their time because of the climate now, with this outrage culture we’re living in?
Kelly Carlin: Well, I mean I can speak because my dad is doing comedy in 2008 and, but people who came to see him came to see him. He wasn’t out in clubs, like this, having to win over audiences. He had his audience.
Rain Pryor: Right. He was established.
Kelly Carlin: Yeah. People saved their money all year to go see my dad every 18 to 24 months when he would come around into their city. So that’s a luxury. But, in Vegas they weren’t always his audiences. Usually about a third of the audience would get up and walk out if he started talking about abortion or politics or auto erotic asphyxiation. You know.
Rain Pryor: Why? I can’t imagine.
Kelly Carlin: So he was dealing with that. But, that was usually older people who would walk out who thought they were going to see the Hippy, Dippy Weatherman and didn’t really know who he had really turned into in 40 years. So, uh, but if they were coming up today –
Rain Pryor: I think it’s funny as you were speaking – in my head I was seeing my dad doing his stand-up and I think in terms of – I think there would have been less diversity and I think he totally would have had the Black Lives Matter movement behind him. But, it would have been limited. As opposed, because he was so vocal on race and so vocal on the disparity and the inequality. I just think there would have been a line that wasn’t there before.
Kelly Carlin: Yep, yep.
Rain Pryor: You know what I mean? Because I think in comedy now, what I’m finding is that I find how audiences now are so divided because of this thing called political correctness. You know? It’s like we’re afraid to laugh at, at what is painful. Do you know what I mean?
Rain Pryor: We’re afraid to go to that line and cross it and then if we do cross it we’re not crossing it for the sake of enlightenment. We’re now crossing it to say fuck you. And it’s – it puts a bad taste in my mouth. Like the word pussy.
Karith Foster: Figuratively.
Karith Foster: Well, ok. I want to ask you this. I want to ask you this because you touch on something. I’m going to combine two things that you just mentioned. Vegas, which was a turning point in both Rain, your father, and Kelly, your father’s careers. They both had experiences in Vegas where they were like, “You know what? Enough of this safe stuff. I’m going to get real.” And even in your father’s autobiography you talked about being more than happy to sell out to make some money, but he had to live his truth. What do you think was the trigger for that and why they couldn’t go back?
Kitty Bruce: Why, why our fathers couldn’t go back?
Karith Foster: To the same, like, they – their mission was to live in their truth.
Rain Pryor: So, why couldn’t they go back? Like the Vegas thing, why was that for our dads. Why was that so important? Why was it important for Lenny?
Kitty Bruce: I think it was important, first of all, because it inhabited what my father was and what he said and what he thought. He got thrown out of Las Vegas and the reason he got thrown out was because Pearl Bailey was singing and he was very shy. And, uh, she would say, “And then Mr. Lenny Bruce. Mr. Lenny Bruce is in the audience. Come on Lenny. Stand up. Stand up. Lenny Bruce.” And, my father was doing one of these. He thought that he was going to do something funny. So, he took a fire extinguisher and was playing. The fricking thing goes off and goes all over Ms. Bailey’s gown and everything else. Okay.
Kelly Carlin: That’s terrible.
Kitty Bruce: Alright. And the Tony the Fish and Jerry the Butcher guys. Okay. It’s time to – he split. So, that was that.
Karith Foster: Wow! That was a unique experience.
Kelly Carlin: I’m just getting a visual of it.
Kitty Bruce: I know, right?
Kelly Carlin: I know my dad was inspired by Richard, by Richard’s turn. Richard made the turn first before my dad, and Richard was younger than my dad. So, but Richard had the balls first to turn us back.
Rain Pryor: I think he had the balls, though, because he had just finished hanging out with Huey P. Newton in Berkeley. And it’s like once you hang out with Huey –
Kelly Carlin: Yeah. You can’t go back.
Rain Pryor: It’s like suicide. You can’t go back. It’s like you’re either going to be the black man and say you are Richard or you’re not. And I think here you are in Vegas with predominately, I think a white crowd –
Kelly Carlin: For sure.
Rain Pryor: – that trigger went off in his head. Plus he was married to my mom, and you know my mom. She’s a white woman who thinks she’s a black militant and it wasn’t going to fly even with her. Because she’s hanging out with the Black Panthers Party feeding black children because she really felt down and she’s still is that, an activist, and so I think he had no choice.
Kelly Carlin: Yeah, that’s interesting, yeah, because for my dad what was happening was he was hanging out with musicians mostly who had all made the change. They were all speaking their truth. Their insides matched their outsides. Whereas my dad, his outsides did not match his inside because he’d been smoking weed since he was 14 and he was basically a radical head hanging out with all of these guys and playing along and playing the game. Once he dropped acid in ’69 it really, and he dropped acid a bunch that year, it really was like kind of his come to Jesus moment. Which was like –
Rain Pryor: Acid would do that to you.
Kelly Carlin: – he was like, “Oh, I really can’t pretend this anymore.” And he was still had a bunch of gigs that he had to do and I guess he had dropped acid one weekend and he was doing the Playboy Club, or something like that, and he was so bored he didn’t want to do his regular act that he just laid on the floor and described the bottom of the piano to the audience. He was trying to get fired desperately. And, once that turn happened he couldn’t go back either. It’s one of things where you – the revolution is out inside of yourself and there’s, there is no turning back.
Karith Foster: How had that impacted your lives? Um, your, your view of free speech in America and your mission. Do you feel responsible for carrying on that, that legacy?
Kelly Carlin: Yeah, yeah. We were talking about this earlier where it’s just in our DNA to feed these people. And, my dad kind of had these daddy teaching moments with me where he would make sure I understand in the 60’s, especially I was born in ’63. So, by ’69 I was 6, 7 during all of that stuff. Um, my dad went to do Kent State and we went with him and he took me to the memorial where the kids had been shot earlier. My dad made sure that I understood what was going on. I was there at Summer Fest when my dad got arrested for saying the Seven Dirty Words on stage. So, it was a real life day to day thing for me and it felt very dangerous to life the life we were living at that time.
And, we were on the side of the freaks. Nixon was in the White House. This was not an easy time to be different in this country and so for me I’ve always had a passion for it. I think building on my father’s shoulders, but also understanding that it is the marketplace of ideas. That whether you like someone else’s speech or not, I will die to protect your right to say it because then I’m hoping you’ll protect my right to say it, too. And, it’s hard being an American with that because you have to let the Nazis march through Skokie, Illinois. Without it none of us have the freedom to speak. And, if you don’t have the freedom to speak then you don’t have the freedom to think, either. So it’s just – it’s part of my DNA. Absolutely.
Rain Pryor: Right, and it’s definitely a part of mine and my dad. Like I said, comedy is about truth. And so we grew up with the rawness of baring our souls. As Pryor children I would say sometimes, sometimes it’s almost like diarrhea of the mouth. We’ve just learned how to bare who, who we are authentically. And, I’m realizing in the world today that’s, that’s so rare – that people actually questions the authenticity instead of welcoming that because we are – Actually, it’s funny that we’re talking about freedom of speech because I feel like everything is less freedom oriented in terms of our speech.
Because I think political correctness kind of cuts us off at the knees and doesn’t allow us to be our authentic selves. Every show that we watch is not about authenticity, it’s about being other than who we are. When our dads were so much of who they are. You know, my dad was social media. Your dad was social media. Your dad was social media before there was social media. They put it out there on the stage for everyone to see. Exposed and all. Their foibles, their grand moments. Do you know what I mean? And, here we are today and I think you’re right. Yeah, the Nazis do need to march through Skokie. One, for the education of it. I need to be able to show my daughter and explain to her what that means and –
Kelly Carlin: Exactly.
Rain Pryor: – what that’s about. And, I hope their kids get to see it. It’s like the young man who on CNN, what’s his name that spoke with the KKK?
Kelly Carlin: Uh, yeah.
Karith Foster: W. Kamau Bell.
Kelly Carlin: Yeah, yeah. He’s great.
Rain Pryor: Yeah, I thought that was a great, it was a very great teachable moment on both parts, even if the wall was up. To me that is freedom of speech. To me, you know what I mean, being able to say whatever words we want to say but having the awareness of explanation, the awareness of the authenticity of it, is what our pops really support and it’s ingrained who we really are. You’ll never, I’ll never not be able to be Rain. I’ve tried for a moment, because Hollywood said not to be. But, can you imagine? Right? Can you imagine me being a Karda –? We would never work. We, we’d –
Kelly Carlin: When we first met we were like, “Oh my God, we should do, like, a fake reality show –
Rain Pryor: A fake reality show.
Kelly Carlin: – and give them exactly what they want. Absolutely. Because it would be so awesome to be those girls that walk in the room. “Oh, don’t you know who I am? I’m Richard Pryor’s daughter with a Coke.
Kitty Bruce: Nice.
Rain Pryor: Because that’s exactly what people want to see. Instead we’re down to Earth. We’re so much a part of who –
Kelly Carlin: Normal lives.
Rain Pryor: – our. It’s like you with everything that you do with Lenny’s House and everything.
Karith Foster: Will you talk about that? Kitty, will you talk about what you’re, what you’re doing now in, in honoring your father’s legacy? Please share.
Kitty Bruce: Sure. Okay. What—. What I wanted to do was to honor my father’s memory in a way that was going to change lives. Not with anything dopey.
Rain Pryor: No pun intended.
Kitty Bruce: Oh, shit.
Rain Pryor: I had to point that out.
Kitty Bruce: So, I wanted, I wanted something to change lives for the greater good. And, I had found that women in early recovery, from drug and alcohol addiction, either when they’re incarcerated, either when they’re just in an addiction, or in a treatment center, their minds, and this is for male and female, their minds they don’t know what to do with spare time. And, they’re used to being told where to go and what to do. And, the people that needed help didn’t have insurance. They needed – there’s exorbitant costs for treatment centers. Places to go, to get straightened out. So, I took it to the next level because I wanted to find. I wanted to put out there all the things that nobody ever told me when I got clean and sober.
You know, I wish they would have given me a handbook. And, so what I did was I went all over this world; to Belize, to Paris, to here. And I took, from each and every place, the uh –
Rain Pryor: – modalities
Kitty Bruce: – the module of what I thought was going to help. So, we opened Lenny’s House and uh, next thing I know there’s women coming in shackles and they’re maxing out and they’re doing their last six months for drug and alcohol crimes. The DA would put them here or drug court. And, I purposely would be the banker, the head of the bank with the woman that just came in shackles. And, what I had found is that to explain, to explain to a person who’s suffering from that disease. They need to be – they need their brain scrubbed. Okay? And, everything has to change.
Kitty Bruce: And so, what Lenny’s House did was opened an opportunity and a platform for showing these women, and now men, a direction, how to navigate, and what to do with their minds. And, we helped a lot of people and we still do. We scholarship. It’s a non for profit and uh –
Rain Pryor: That’s so awesome.
Karith Foster: That’s phenomenal.
Kitty Bruce: It’s so good. It’s so good.
Karith Foster: Speaking about the mind. Um, all of your fathers, I think, can be considered geniuses. Yet, what’s fascinating to me, from the research that I did, I don’t think they had a formal education past 9th to 10th grade. Yet, they were seen in the world as these incredible intellectuals and they found homes, and the university world where, I think, is where they really felt comfortable, ironically. And where they got to spread their ideas and their messages. How do you feel that things have changed from when they were doing it then to the climate on college campuses now?
Kitty Bruce: I think there’s a huge difference. My father’s favorite place to go to perform, was to college campus. He loved young people. When the Lenny Bruce archives that are donated to uh, Brandeis University. So, the unveiling will be October 27th and 28th. So, now I’m starting to find. I’m calling different comics and I’m saying, “Listen, can you come up and do a set for this, for the opening?” And, I’m hearing a lot of rumbling. And, I’m thinking, “What’s going on?” because I didn’t know what was going on. And they said, “Kitty, they want our comedy to be beige. They want beige. They do not – we are being censored.” I said, “You’re being censored. What do you mean you’re being censored?”
“Yeah, they want to know what our material.” So now I’m hearing this and I’m going, “Oh my God. This is a flashback. This is my father getting arrested for content and using the law on Puritan or anything that is sexually… This has gone in reverse. What is happening here? This is a college campus. This is where ideas should be open. Censorship is big time. Then, I’m thinking, “Wow, wait a minute.” I thought about George Carlin. I saw him doing a clip. And, Geo – this is where the idea popped off. And George was talking about that we don’t have a choice in elections. In other words, it’s like it’s a done deal.
And, so I’m thinking about it and I’m saying, “Well, wait a second.” Our news is beige and it’s all spoon fed to the American public so we can take our eye off the ball. And, they’ll lighten up the dark things to make it a prettier and shinier lie of a truth. So, with that being said, it’s handy to have an epidemic every couple of years, if you notice. Because. Well, it’s true. Every couple years you’re going to have some kind of disease. Why? Because it takes our eye off the ball of what really is going on.
Karith Foster: Kelly, would you, would you weigh in?
Kelly Carlin: You know; it’s really interesting I think about political correctness on campus. Um, this was a big issue in the early ‘90s also is really when it started. It’s actually when I was on – I went back to UCLA later at 25. And, by ’91 to ’92 I was part of the Communications Department and I actually ended up doing a symposium on political correctness. My dad came and was a part of it because it had just started to rear its head back then. And, here’s the interesting thing about it. Political correctness is based on identity politics. It’s about people wanting to claim the right to speak from their own subjective point of view. Ah – I’m a gay person, a black person, I’m a woman.
Whatever it is, it’s all identity politics. It’s all about I am this and this is my life experience. This is a really important thing for our civilization and society to be able to have that voice for all these oppressed voices to finally speak out and to define themselves. The problem that happens is that then it becomes the thought police. Then it becomes, “I want to define myself this way and I want to make sure that you define me this way, too. And, you don’t get to define me any other way.” That’s when we get into trouble because now I’m controlling what you think and what you want to say. And, yes we can pretend that will make a better world because we’ll all be pleasant with each other.
But, like we said earlier if you don’t know about the Nazis and who they are then they become the hidden enemy. And, people pretend that everything is fine and isn’t it all lovely and daisies and yet people are plotting horrible things in dark rooms. So, it’s actually going backwards. And, I think one of the most –. I mean studying the things; I talk a lot about it. And, one of the things I love about what my father said about it was that it’s about tolerance, ultimately. Identity politics is about tolerance. But, not tolerating someone’s speech in service of tolerance? So, intolerance in service of tolerance does not work. And, like we said earlier it’s about the marketplace of ideas.
It’s not just about me declaring, “I am a woman and this is my perspective. But, it’s about learning to have conversation and because of identity politics we no longer know how to have a conversation in this con – culture anymore. It is completely divided us between right and left and no one knows how to sit down and that’s why Congress does not function anymore. We don’t have a government that functions and that’s why we’re getting an election that we’re getting right now. And everyone is getting more cynical and more and more turned off by it all. So, it comes from a great place. Its’ intentions are good and it’s important for our culture.
But, shutting down what our people can say and what their comedy is and making everything beige is not good for democracy in the end. And, I know, so I think we’re going through some difficult growing pains around all of this stuff and it will play out. It’s, it’s fascinating. And I mentioned Trump earlier. This is why we got Trump. He’s not politically correct. It is refreshing. He says what’s on his mind. It’s not pleasant to listen to, but this is America and politicians don’t speak. They’ve become so beige and we all sit there watching most politicians going, “Yeah, he doesn’t really mean that. Yeah, he doesn’t really mean that. Yeah, he doesn’t really mean that.” So, you know. It’s, it’s –
Karith Foster: Do you think your father would support Trump based on who –?
Kelly Carlin: Oh, God no. No, no, no, no, no. My dad would see him for who he really is, which is misogynistic, and racist, and all that kind of stuff. I mean he, he’d love the freak show of it all because –
Rain Pryor: Absolutely.
Kelly Carlin: – it is a real freak show. He loved the freak show aspect of American politics. But, my dad didn’t vote. He stopped voting in ’72 when McGovern broke his heart. You know, he’d be a San – my dad would love Bernie Sanders. My dad was very progressive. You know, so, but that’s, that’s my take on it. It’s, it’s an interesting mixing of progressive ideals with fascist tactics and political incorrectness in general. Yeah.
Rain Pryor: In my head you’re talking, when you were talking about identifying as a woman and having the other point of view. And, then my head popped out the word bitch. So, because I was like that’s the other side like being able to listen to that other person. And, I was like, “Oh, that’s how –” Then, I’m seeing the word play. Anyway – my head is now creating in my head. That’s what happens. So, in terms of the like the whole college scenario and being able – I think, and again, we’re in a different place than we were back in those days where it was like shock and awe. We could say we wanted. People like my father didn’t have to be educated, proper education, whatever.
But, they were great observers of the world and great commentators on that. And, I think even to be great at what you do even in, on a college level you have to be a great observer. You go to the guy who studied medicine who’s going to be the doctor is cutting open the cadaver learning how to do the operation and learning what to do inside the body doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be a good doctor – or a great doctor. Do you know what I mean? But, it’s all a part of the observation. It’s all a part of the practice. And, so our dads were of an era that allowed for – because no one had heard it before. The problem is everyone’s heard it.
So, how then do you express this newness and a way when we are in a fragile point in our lives. I think our country in general is at this very fragile – it’s like an in, infancy all over again. So, what information do we put in? What do we take out in order to be stronger and better so at first it does become a little beige? It does have that uncomfortable like, “Can I say this? Can I not say this?” Which is why I think comedy, it’s going to be interesting after the election, to me, to see what then comedy turns into, what our world turns into. What kind of words do we start using for ourselves? Like, what are we really commenting on now. What becomes funny now? If that makes any kind of sense.
But, that’s kind of where I feel like where we’re at from where our dads were at a time when you could be this. You could march down the street, you get hosed, you could show up on the news. But, you knew what it was about. And we told our stories orally. It wasn’t all reflected on our phones 24/7 which changes that because again, it’s the whole telephone thing.
Karith Foster: Yeah.
Rain Pryor: Then it was different. We saw it, Uncle Marty saw it, then Uncle Marty talked about it, then we talked about it. But, then we became a part of it because we were in it. I grew up in my. You know, it’s like when I wrote a letter to the KKK and President Carter. It’s like I could do that then. You know what I mean? Barely would my letter get to Obama or whoever becomes the next – Do you know what I’m saying? It’s a different thing. Be careful with who we are in general. It has to go through this. We’re going through this interesting – like I said, it’s interesting.
Karith Foster: How do you think censorship affected your father’s lives and careers?
Kitty Bruce: He almost died and then he did. He was constantly, constantly being arrested for his act.
Rain Pryor: In that time, yeah.
Kitty Bruce: For the con – his content. It made people so uncomfortable that it, it came to a point to where. And this is hard to even, it’s hard for me to even believe that something like this could go on. Because my father, in the beginning, he was funny. Then, he got really funny because he was hitting different ideas that people could relate to, or shock people. He never used obscenity for shock value. Um, when they started to have cops come into the clubs and a district attorney would say, “Lenny, Lenny, you better bring your toothbrush. Okay?” And my dad started wearing a trench coat on stage because he knew, okay, that he was definitely going to get hauled off in one way, shape, or form. So, the whole scene.
The coming in with axes and busting up toilets because it’s illegal to have a place that serves any type of liquid. It has to have a working bathroom. So, now he’s got cops on his back. He’s got detectives, the LAPD, and we don’t even have to say anymore. The LAPD and Sheriff’s Department all of the sudden became his very best friend and they just kept whittling, and whittling, and whittling away at him.
Rain Pryor: At who he was.
Kitty Bruce: To shut him down. As long as we can shut him down. As long as we can keep him quiet. For God’s sake, don’t let him talk. And as a result we now fast forward. 2003. There were two men. One was a college professor. David, um, David Scover and Ron Collins.
And there was a class. And, their assignment was to try to get a posthumous pardon because when my father got busted. His last bust, he was looking at four months in jail for talking. And so, and he died with that black mark on his memory. So, these young people got together, my father’s favorite audiences, and they put their heads together and they started to campaign. And they had these little buttons and it said, “Pardon Lenny Bruce.” So, Bob Corn-Revere was involved in that seriously, who’s also involved with FIRE. And next thing I know there’s this – a statement with a seal on it, from the Governor, from Michael Pataki, in 2003. It made history. It was the first time in history that anyone was given a posthumous pardon and the conviction was overturned.
Rain Pryor: See? That’s beautiful.
Karith Foster: That is beautiful.
Kelly Carlin: And, what’s amazing about that is that – So, my dad got arrested with Lenny in ’62 at the Gate of Horn. My mother was there, also. I told Kitty this story earlier, which I just love this story which is my parents drove from New York to Chicago to see Lenny. And, they go into the club and Lenny gets hassled and the cops start hassling everyone in the club. They’re trying to find underage drinkers so they can shut the club down and punish the Gate of Horn for putting Lenny on stage. So, Lenny’s in the paddy wagon. The cops ask my dad for his ID and he declares to the policeman that he doesn’t believe in identification. My mother’s rolling her eyes, basically.
My dad gets thrown in the back of the paddy wagon with Lenny and my dad sits there and proudly told Lenny what he has just done. And Lenny looks at him and says, “What are you, a schmuck?” You know, which I just love that. But, 10 years later and it’s now 1972 and my dad’s Class Clown album is, he’s recorded it, but it’s not out yet. And, he gets hired to open for Arlo Guthrie at Summerfest, which is a big outdoor fest in Milwaukee. And, he’s on stage and he’s trying to do his Class Clown material in front of, like, 20,000 drunk people, basically. It’s not going well. He keeps saying, “You need to listen more.” That’ll work.
And so my dad is doing his routine and it’s peppered with language. And his routine is going out, throughout the fairground, so everyone can hear it. The promoter comes up to my mother, we’re in the wings, and says to my mother, “The minute George gets off the stage they’re going to arrest him for language and because the cops were watching and they didn’t like what was going on. And, so my mom knew he had drugs in his pocket. So, she took a glass of water and walked out on stage to warn him to go offstage: stage left, because the cops were over here and to try to get backstage so that they could hid everything. So, we, that happens.
Dad wraps it. Oh. The thing is my mom comes out to tell him to get off stage. Does my dad just wrap it up? No, this is when he starts the Seven Dirty Words routine.
Rain Pryor: Of course.
Karith Foster: Go big or go home?
Kelly Carlin: Yeah, exactly. Go big or go home. And, basically we have the recording of this concert. You hear him talking and then you hear his volume just slowly going down and they start to play music over him. And he realizes, “Oh the concert must be done and he leaves the stage and were stashing drugs.
Karith Foster: What an awards show.
Kelly Carlin: Exactly. They did, they ended up arresting him. Thank God not for drugs, but he went to jail for disturbing the peace, or something like that. But, so there was a disturbing the peace charge and 250 bucks to bail him out. But, we knew because of Lenny’s arrest in ‘62, my mom knew that when this happens you get a First Amendment attorney. You get a Civil Rights attorney. You don’t just hire any attorney. This is now a Civil Rights issue and Milwaukee backed off and just dropped the charges and all of that. But, yeah. So, it was interesting because it was still just the end of that era.
It was clearly a different era, it was ’72 and people were marching in the streets and there was a lot of free speech issues going on. So, now the government in the time we live now, the government isn’t doing the censoring; it’s now corporations, and big media, and colleges and universities, and diversity groups basically.
And, which this is such an interesting political spectrum because most of the diversity groups are very progressive and very left. The rest of these folks are more on the right so, it, it’s interesting.
We’re self-censoring now. You were talking about it earlier. This chilling effect. I get it on social media all the time. I’m always thinking about it, “How do I couch this? How do I do it because if you don’t do it correctly you get people from the left attacking you or you get the people from the right attacking you.”
Rain Pryor: Or, my mother, “Why did you say that? That could ruin your chance.” I’m like; I give a fuck, Mom. I’m speaking my truth, Mom.
Karith Foster: Now we have the cloak of invisibility with the Internet.
Kelly Carlin: Yes, certainly.
Karith Foster: That’s a huge factor.
Kelly Carlin: That doesn’t help things at all.
Karith Foster: Well, speaking of corporate censorship. Your father had to deal with that at NBC with his show.
Rain Pryor: He did. Well, that’s why it only lasted what four shows.
Kitty Bruce: What happened?
Rain Pryor: Well, he –
Karith Foster: Yes, please. Explain that to people.
Rain Pryor: Here he is on; he has his own show, Richard Pryor something. Right? Something like that. He did four amazing – that Robin Williams was in it, started the career of, of – oh my God, I love her. Come on help me out.
Karith Foster: Sandra Bernhard.
Rain Pryor: Sandra Bernahrd. Right. Marsha Warfield, like some great talents are on there. So, he comes out and they’re like, “You can’t do this and you can’t do that.” They were always afraid of him. By the way, which is why Saturday Night Live started the first five-minute delay was because of dad.
Karith Foster: Yeah?
Rain Pryor: Because the show –
Kelly Carlin: Because didn’t he walk out naked?
Rain Pryor: That was on his show. But, it was in a suit. It was actually, yeah. So, that’s part of it. He was saying, “Fuck you,” which is why they cancelled it. But, I think that’s so brilliant. That’s who, that’s who he was. It was like. He knew – my dad wasn’t stupid, first off. Yeah, he was risky, but my dad wasn’t stupid. So, it’s not like he was going to necessarily cross that line. Do you know what I mean? But, it was that. We still live in that. We still have that delay. We still have that, “What can we, again, what can we say? What can we not say?” Now, it’s so in your face. We don’t have the people who are willing to walk out naked and be like, “Fuck you. Suck this.” We don’t have… Lick this I guess would be –
You know, we don’t have anyone willing necessarily willing to take that, that risk because of the corporations and because of running things. Yes, do we need to eat? Yes, we need to eat. But, I think what is so interesting. First of all, having the three of us here who are these very highly conscious, living in consciousness kind of women, I think is great in terms of not only for what our dads stood for, but we are the generation of we are going to continue to speak our truth up against that wall. I don’t think I’d come out naked because I’m self-conscious. But, if I wasn’t I think I actually would. I don’t give a fuck and I don’t give a fuck because of who they were.
Those are the shoulders I stand on and to deny that is to denying my right as a human being. That’s denying my right as a woman of many colors, as a woman period. Do you know what I mean? I have to be about that. I think you live that. I think you live that. That we are about going up there. We’re not afraid to come against whatever it is.
Kitty Bruce: Yeah, we will come with hard. We will come hard. We will definitely come hard for the common good.
Rain Pryor: Dad had an FBI list. I’m not afraid of the FBI. I’m not afraid of the police.
Kelly Carlin: I am.
Rain Pryor: I’m not. I’m not because they already know where I live. They know we’re standing here at the Helium. We’re still here, right? Like, I’m not –
Kitty Bruce: But, wait! But, wait.
Kelly Carlin: It’s so funny, though…
Rain Pryor: …because I mean I’m more afraid of my phone when I go on Facebook and it knows I like a certain item. How the fuck do you know that? I didn’t talk about that on Facebook. Why are you putting it there for me to read the ad?
Kelly Carlin: Because you Google searched it earlier.
Rain Pryor: Asshole.
Kitty Bruce: Flat Earth theory.
Rain Pryor: I’m afraid, more afraid of that, them tracking me, than I am of a file on me for speaking my truth. Does that make sense?
Kelly Carlin: Yes, totally.
Karith Foster: What were you going to say Kelly?
Kelly Carlin: I just, it’s funny that, yeah, because I think, because I think also because of my upbringing I bring more of my – and I see it in my dad, too. Even though my dad was in your face kind of person. He was a man who wanted to make sure he had a really logical argument and a reason to be in your face. That was his particular genius. Like, he didn’t do what Richard did and unzip his soul and pour it out on the stage. Or, even what Lenny did and which was talk about things that people were not allowed to talk about. But, my dad was always made sure he had a backup argument to why he was talking about things. There was always this incredible logic that he would use in his humor.
Rain Pryor: Intellectual.
Kelly Carlin: Yeah, a very intellectual.
Rain Pryor: Yeah.
Kelly Carlin: He would end up taking you logically to a premise where you were like – you wouldn’t normally agree with it, but it was so logically and beautifully done that you were like, “Well, I guess we should turn all the square states into prisons. It makes perfect sense to me now.” And, it’s interesting because I think I come from that school, too. It’s like, I want to bring people – my dad would talk about that line that he wanted to bring the audience across. But, when he talked about he said, “I always want to bring them in such a way across the line that when they get to the other side – the way I gotten them there, they have to stay there.” That’s what I love to do. That’s how each of us can’t help ourselves.
No matter what group I speak in front of now I always want to figure out where’s their slightly uncomfortable line and how can I bring the group with me in such a way, because I’m speaking from my heart, but that when we get there they can’t deny that we’re now over there. And, that for me is the victory. Boy, we made it across the line today?
Kelly Carlin: Exactly.
Rain Pryor: And we truly cannot help ourselves.
Karith Foster: Do you think that’s your way of kind of combatting this – because it seems like there’s almost an unwillingness to explore uncomfortable topics now. People are still uncomfortable they don’t’ even want to go there. But, it seems like you all have found it to be part of your mission and your purpose on this planet to take people there. Do you think there’s hope in what you’re doing?
Kitty Bruce: Yes
Rain Pryor: Yes, absolutely.
Kelly Carlin: Absolutely. Exactly
Rain Pryor: I told you we finish each other’s sentences.
Kelly Carlin: When you take them there. Like in my solo –
Kitty Bruce: I’ll take you there.
Rain Pryor: I’ll take you there. There.
Kitty Bruce: So, what’s her name? Come on. Mavis Staples right now –
Kelly Carlin: So, in my show what I do, my solo show, is I make people cry.
Rain Pryor: Oh my God.
Kelly Carlin: And, people don’t want to go there and I bring people into places of grief with me and there’s such an incredible sense of relief from people that I took them there. They pretend they don’t want to go there, but we all want to go across the line because that’s the enticement. Whatever it is, even if it’s a thing that we so reject as a culture, or personally and don’t want to see, but we know once we gather there it’s like, “Oh, it’s not as scary as I once thought it was.” And, that’s kind of my mission in life is to do.
Rain Pryor: It’s the horror film. It’s like the horror film syndrome. You don’t want to watch what happens, but you know at the end the killer’s going to die.
Kelly Carlin: Yeah.
Rain Pryor: You know what I mean? So, it’s like you’re taking us, but yeah, that’s what’s beautiful about who I think who they created. And what. You know what I mean? And, what it’s about is to, like Kelly said, it is about taking you to that edge and each one of us does it. And yes, like I said, there is a possibility for that to change because you have very – like I live in that consciousness. I don’t. As soon as you tell me I can’t, I’m the person that’s going to be like, watch. Watch. I got to make it happen. Do you know what I mean? Because I believe it’s over there.
Karith Foster: So, where do you think we are in this cycle of free speech in society? Because I think we all agree there is, there is a cycle to it. Right? Where do you think we are right now?
Kelly Carlin: I think everyone has free of speech, they have these phones, and everyone gets to speak right now. Everyone gets a say. We have this social media for seven or eight years now. We’re just starting to come to terms with the fact of how this is affecting our life. The echo chamber of it, the weirdness of Googling something and then it’s up on your Facebook feed. The first time that happened my husband was like looking at something on EBay and then suddenly it was on my Facebook. I was like, “What the –?” So, we all have a right to say things and we’re all planted in that right. But, like I said earlier.
No one’s listening to each other. We’re screaming at each other. We’re yelling at each other. We’re blocking each other. We’re trolling each other. But, no one’s conversing right now. So, it is this infancy thing. We’re all kind of just narcissistic kids out there, all of us. And at some point, in order to make this world go round and continue going round, as a human society, we are going to have to start listening to each other again. And, decide how much of this little thing we want in our life. I’m about to go on a three-month sabbatical from my social media because I’m tired of the echo chamber. I’m tired of this deciding what I think about all day and what I’m conversing about.
So, original thought. I’d like some of that back, please. So, I think it’s an ultimate democracy in that we all have a voice. But, there is something. You know the difference between a democracy and a republic? It’s like we haven’t figured out the republic part of social media, which is like there needs to be some rules around this. And, rules don’t mean that it’s unfair. It’s that rules are as fair as possible for everyone else. But, we need to figure out some rules around us for ourselves individually and as a culture. So, but it’s exciting times. It’s messy; it’s really messy right now.
But, there are a lot of amazing organizations in this country, like FIRE, that are working to make sure that people are educated about the First Amendment. And the thing I love about this conversation, and about our fathers, is that people don’t remember the fight. People don’t remember that her father got arrested for talking about religion on stage. Religion. You know? It makes my head explode. That we could go back there, if we’re not careful. But, we’re not there. We have moved on from that. But, people, kids need, young people need to know about her father and what happened and what happened in the ‘50s to shut that and all of that.
And, the evolution, and how our fathers stood on Lenny’s shoulders and how we all stand on their shoulders. This is important. Education and history is really essential around this issue.
Karith Foster: And, that’s another reason why people should read your father’s books.
Kelly Carlin: Absolutely. And see all of our fathers’ material and read their biographies
Rain Pryor: Autobiographies, right.
Kelly Carlin: – and know who they are and know history.
Karith Foster: And you yourself wrote a book called –
Kelly Carlin: I did.
Karith Foster: – called A Carlin Home Companion.
Kelly Carlin: Yes, a memoir.
Karith Foster: Which made me laugh and sob uncontrollably and laugh again. People on the airplane thought I was completely nuts.
Kelly Carlin: Yay!
Karith Foster: They thought I was bipolar. But, what, how – share a little bit about your book real quick.
Kelly Carlin: Yeah, so it’s, it’s the story. It’s my story. Obviously, part of it’s with my father and my mother growing up with them. And, part of what I investigate in my story, with my father, is this concept of truth. And with my father was a truth teller on stage and was a hero as a truth teller. And yet we were a typical alcoholic, drug addicted family and didn’t know how to speak the truth to each other. And, that familial truth and intimate truth telling is much more difficult sometimes than being on a stage and telling our truth. And so some of that was part of the friction between my father and I later in his life. And, but it really is a story about love and our family surviving a hell of a lot and coming through it always with a lot of joy and a lot of love. But, it wasn’t always easy. So, yeah.
Karith Foster: Right, right. And you two, you wrote an amazing autobiography.
Rain Pryor: Thank you.
Karith Foster: Will you tell, share a little bit about that?
Rain Pryor: So, well Jokes My Father Never Taught Me: Life, Love and Loss with Richard Pryor was the book I wanted to write because I wanted to show I understood who this man, Richard Pryor, was. I didn’t want to write the daddy dearest. We all knew about his stuff. I didn’t want to write that. I wanted to write that I understood him, what he was like as a dad, what he wasn’t like as a dad at moments. You know, also growing up being a biracial woman at a time when being a biracial woman wasn’t acceptable. My parents married four years after it was declared legal for interracial couples. I think the first couple was the Loves, then cam. So, it was a different era. So, my story is about growing up in this era.
Being a black, Jewish girl finding herself, finding her own voice with this iconic father who was known for his drugs as much as he was known for his brilliant comedy in the world. And that I understood that brilliance. I also understood he was a young man. He was in his ‘20s when he – by that time, he had three kids already at 20, you know, and stardom coming at him. So, yeah. So that’s what the book, that’s what it deals with. And also with my mom; understanding who they are as individuals. That was the story for me and that’s what my book talks about. Because someone else is going to write the other book. Do you know what I mean? I don’t need to live that.
Karith Foster: Right, right.
Kelly Carlin: I think part of what I got to tell, too, is that interesting cultural context that our parents met in, what they were facing, and that incredible ride as an artist. I mean, all of our fathers had no choice in what they did. As we don’t in what we do. But, it’s almost like you get on a train and it’s going 500 miles an hour and there’s no stopping it and you, know –
Karith Foster: Silver string.
Kelly Carlin: Yeah. One of my favorite activities. And as a family member you’re getting on the ride also. Whether you like it or not you’re on this ride with them and you’re –
Rain Pryor: And you’re going.
Kelly Carlin: And you’re going and your life is forever affected by that ride. I think that’s part of the story that we got to tell is what that’s like to be on the ride of that and then to figure out, “Hey, I need to pull the cord and get off here for a while because I need to go have my ride, also.”
Kelly Carlin: And, that’s part of it.
Karith Foster: And, Kitty your father, I mean Lenny Bruce; his autobiography is getting ready to be re-released –
Kitty Bruce: It is.
Karith Foster: – on the 50th anniversary.
Kitty Bruce: It is.
Kitty Bruce: I’m very, I’m really, really proud and happy that it’s being re-released. This is my dad’s autobiography –
Kelly Carlin: That’s a great title.
Kitty Bruce: – and Louis Black wrote the preface. A very, hip Jazz critic from the Chicago Tribune. Howard Reich, and then we have Richard Lewis, and Penn Jillette, and different, different people sharing what they thought of the book. I wanted a whole new generation to get to know my dad and when you read it – when I read it sometimes I’ll think, “You know what, he’s just talking and I feel like he’s just talking to me.” So, I feel like he’s talking to me then chances are that’s what other people are going to feel like. And, that’s what he did in his act. He was very charming. Very seductive. Very rhythmic. And, part of the proceeds is going to the Lenny Bruce Foundation to help those who can’t help themselves. So, ta da! Ta da! Ta da!
Karith Foster: I like the title, Lenny Bruce and How to Talk Dirty and –
[All say: How to Influence People]
Kelly Carlin: Which is the old Dale Carnegie thing. It’s so fantastic.
Karith Foster: It’s brilliant. It’s brilliant. So, I want to wrap this up in such a beautiful way because this to me, is such a phenomenal experience. I mean to be sitting here with you ladies who are so in your own. You are your own spirits, your own people who are continuing with grace and with strength to carry on the message – the messages of your fathers, but in your own way. How do you want to leave your imprint on the world?
Kitty Bruce: Aye, yai, yai.
Kelly Carlin: Put a foot up their ass!
Kitty Bruce: I want to leave the footprint of helping the greater good. To focus on letting people know. All we ever really want to ever know is that we’re being heard and that we matter. That’s really basically what all this fuss is, because people just want to be heard. They just want to hear that they matter. That’s all. And it’s not, that’s not such a big thing to do. We need to have a kinder, gentler world.
Rain Pryor: Right.
Kitty Bruce: That’s the footprint and I’ll keep on stomping and keep on stomping. But, I’m sure the three of us together. Oh, Lord.
Rain Pryor: Yeah, for me. I think for me the footprint is to keep speaking truth to power. I mean, that’s why we’re here being interviewed for FIRE. You know what I mean? It’s speaking truth, truth to power, and I would say we need to keep that.
Kelly Carlin: And, I would say part of it, too, it has to do with authenticity. And that’s a word that gets batted around a lot. But, there’s something about taking off our masks of persona and being able to really see our humanity with each other. And, that’s what all of our fathers did, ultimately, was take off the mask; the cultural mask that was put on all of us and say, “Look who we are really underneath. And, this is what I think about all day, and this is what I’m obsessed with, and this is what we laugh about, and this is who we are. And, sometimes it’s ugly, and sometimes it’s messy, and sometimes it’s beautiful. But, we are all human here and let’s stop pretending.”
Rain Pryor: Right?
Karith Foster: You’re going to make me cry. Because that’s, I believe that whole heartedly. What advice do you have for comedians today?
Kelly Carlin: Write it all down.
[Two say: Write everything down.]
Kelly Carlin: My dad was a note taker. Trust and respect your own thoughts and write them down and don’t be afraid to fail.
Rain Pryor: I would say, yeah, same thing. Write it all down and again write from your truth. Don’t try to be something else. Write from your truth, your experiences. And go from that place and don’t be afraid to fail, because you’re going to fail. No matter what level you’re on.
Karith Foster: Kitty?
Kitty Bruce: I would think to be themselves. To be their own identity and not to get swayed. And, it’s okay to have the 8:00 spot in a comedy club. It’s okay and it’s okay to have the 11:00 spot. Just to be authentic.
Rain Pryor: The 1:00 a.m. sucks.
Kitty Bruce: Yeah –
Karith Foster: Yeah, it’s pretty awful.
Kitty Bruce: I think to be authentic. Oh yeah, by that time everyone is drunk and heckling, hollering.
Kitty Bruce: Unh-unh. Nobody wants that slot.
Karith Foster: Well, ladies on behalf for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, I, and as a comedian, and as someone who is just in awe of all that your fathers have done and all that you are doing. I thank you.
Kelly Carlin: I think we should give a really big round of applause to Karith Foster.
Karith Foster: Thank you.