Back in 2004, George Carlin was appearing on The View to promote the movie Jersey Girl, directed by Kevin Smith, in which he plays Ben Affleck’s father and the grandfather to the titular character. The co-hosts were commenting about how he came off as just another grey-haired grandfather.
George Carlin’s American Dream, a two-part documentary on HBO directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio is four hours of a man’s life who more or less shaped stand-up comedy in its current form. Second only to Richard Pryor, George is considered the best stand-up comic of all time. And very nicely, there is a segment of the two together on The Kraft Summer Musical Hall show hosted by Jon Davidson. Both comics look young and clean-shaven. And that’s how America wanted its comics at the time.
Both comics seemed to follow similar career and life paths. They were both raised in abusive toxic households. And they starting out doing clean humor until they decided to walk away from lucrative deals to do their own thing regardless of who it pissed off. But their material wasn’t the same. Pryor was always more personal and seemed to just be winging a lot of it. George seemed to research and work on his material.
Most of the interviewees including his Dogma co-star Chris Rock and Rocco Urbisci, who directed 10 of his stand-up shows, say George was more focused on writing. And Apatow and Bonfiglio use some of these writings in the documentary. Apatow did the same thing on The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. And like that documentary, he goes into great depths to show us things we didn’t really know.
Most of the material was already covered in George’s posthumously-published autobiography Last Words, co-written by writer/actor Tony Hendra, but it’s the little things like the footage with Pryor that make this documentary work. The two best interviews are both from people who knew him the most, his brother, Patrick, who passed away in April, and his daughter, Kelly.
Patrick helps shed light on George’s younger years and we even see old TV footage of the two. But it’s Kelly where we get an inside view of the highs and very lows of her father’s life. George and his wife, Brenda, were married in 1961 and they basically lived on the road in a Dodge Dart, even with Kelly. Brenda, who is shown in pictures, home videos and even an interview, was her husband’s biggest manager, agent, publicist all rolled into one before his career exploded in the early 1970s and she descented into alcoholism so bad it almost killed her. She would eventually rebound and become a producer of a lot of
Appearing on TV shows as the Hippy-Dippy Weather Man or stand-up where he would mock the nepotism in the JFK administration, George seems so different than what he later became. Part of that was he was from a conservative background before he met the more liberal-minded Jack Burns who he’d work with early on.
In the 1970s, George became more famous for his material causing controversy off stage. One of his famous jokes is how he was fired from The Frontier in Las Vegas, Nev. for saying “shit” in a town where one of the biggest games is called Craps. The irony was there. And George would pick up on that irony. And unfortunately, it would be his undoing by the end of the 1970s. Even though the Supreme Court case around his infamous “Seven Dirty Words” bit favored him, comics such as Cheech and Chong and the SCTV cast and writers were dismissing him.
Granted his “Give peas a chance” bit was terrible, but George should’ve taken the Rick Moranis’ impersonations with a grain of salt. SCTV and Saturday Night Live, which George was the first host, were about not showing favoritism toward anyone. Comedy is entertainment and it changes a lot. And watching and listening to some of George’s material from the late 1970s and early 1980s, you can see George was struggling. At one point, he was a guest host on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
And Tony Orlando says George approached him to appear on The Tony Orlando and Dawn Show on a weekly basis. The problem was his famous bits like, “A Place For My Stuff” and “Baseball vs. Football,” they were an attempt to appeal to audiences who didn’t really care to hear about pot smoking or dirty words. And you can’t make both sides happy.
The one issue I wished the documentary would’ve focused more on was George’s agnostic beliefs. It was still taboo in the 1970s and 1980s to say that you don’t believe in God as well as raising a family that believed this way. It’s mentioned here and there but not as much as I feel it should’ve been. I suspect Apatow and Bonfiglio had a lot of material on this but were told to keep it at a minimum out of fear of alienating its subscribers. This is ironic because George used HBO for all of his stand-up shows, many of which were live, probably so HBO wouldn’t censor them as much. This might explain why the Real Sex and other more sex-content shows are MIA on HBO Max.
In many ways if the Reagan/Bush Administration hadn’t been around, it’s likely George would’ve spent his remaining years in those grandfather roles. Bill Burr, a comic I don’t really care for, does show some respect to George as he says that his 1988 show What Am I Doing in New Jersey surprised him in its rawness. That stand-up series showed a glimpse of the next 20 years of George’s career. In this show, George comes out with a lot of disgust about how the Ronald Reagan Administration was in trouble with the Iran-Contra Affair and other shady and corrupt matters.
George, himself, said he was inspired by Sam Kinison to have some more anger and criticism about how people were expected to behave. His 1992 series, Jammin’ in New York, was the first of his live shows. And it aired just a few weeks after Kinison was killed in a car wreck and George dedicated it to him. Jammin‘ is one of the best comedy specials I’ve seen. George was angry. He was upset over how America had gotten in the Reagan/Bush administration.
And it had aired less than a week before The L.A. Riots. I woldn’t call it a rallying call. But George was expressing his frustration and the frustration of others. You can’t watch Jammin‘, released 30 years ago, without seeing similarities nowadays. And many people say that George’s material is more relevant now more than ever. I wouldn’t say George was a conservative nor a liberal. He believed both sides were really just in it for themselves.
George’s final 30 years as a stand-up and comic is where people are divided on what he felt the world was becoming. Stephen Colbert said he felt George was going to a darker place. George even named his comedy specials Life is Worth Losing and You Are All Diseased. He spoke of wanting to see a tornado hit a church on Sunday and people in streets killing police officers. Some would say this anger was too much.
But George was really mad at how religion, particularly Christianity, was being forced on people and how commercialism was growing out of control in the final 25 years of the 20th Century. It’s almost ironic the title is called American Dream because Carlin said “you have to be asleep to believe” the idea of the American Dream. And Apatow and Bonfiglio use images of the last few years over much of George’s material to show how relevant it is.
I know they probably had enough material for a longer documentary but four hours is adequate. His diverse acting career appearing in everything from the critically acclaimed The Prince of Tides to the TV kids show Thomas the Tank Engine might make you think why was he appearing in this mainstream material. George’s second wife, Sally Wade, said the comedy specials were George’s ways to release it all.
And this juxtaposed against the very intimate details, such as his relationship with Kelly, make George feel like just another father who tried to do everything he could. He made mistakes but he’s tried to make up or learn from it. Kevin Smith, who directed George in Dogma, Jersey Girl as well as Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, almost holds back tears as he recalls filming George in Dogma. Brenda died on Mother’s Day in 1997 and George was filming his role as Cardinal Glick less than a year later. Smith says George asked if he could wrap a bandage around the wedding band on his left hand because he wasn’t ready yet to take it off. And a Cardinal wouldn’t be married.
The devotion George still had to Brenda that he wouldn’t even remove it for a few minutes of film time project George in a different light. We all need to vent our frustrations. But we also need to smile and laugh and enjoy life. I think George appeared in the first two Bill & Ted movies as well as kids shows because it was his way to enjoy life. If you remain bitter and angry all the time, you’re just turning into Alex Jones or Tucker Carlson.
There’s a brief mention of The George Carlin Show, which he co-created with TV show icon Sam Simon, which also received rave reviews. George is notorious for mentioning how much he hated it and even though he thought Simon was a very funny and brilliant person, he was awful to be around. If anything else, the show which ran for two seasons from 1994 to 1995 explores why a lot of sitcom with comics failed because it’s hard to tell a comic to work as a team. Jerry Seinfeld expresses this.
With so many interviewees, I was glad to see Steven Wright, who like George, never did have a big film and TV career. Yet, they both knew how to work language and mix words and phrases around. And Patton Oswalt said he was inspired by George to behave on stage the way you would off-stage.
If you’re not a fan of George, you probably won’t see this as nothing more than a glamorized version of someone with a potty mouth. But it’s really a fitting tribute to a man who not only changed comedy but American discourse for the past 50 years. George was saying what a lot of people were afraid to say. And while people say Donald Trump, Joe Rogan and Rush Limbaugh were the same way, I disagree. They’re all biased and bigoted. George was trying to bring the hard truth to people, the one they’ve been denied and still are being denied in education and from politicians.
What do you think? Please comment.