George Carlin’s American Dream: This Doc Is Superb

Courtesy of George Carlin's Estate/HBO.

George Carlin’s American Dream is a two-documentary about the late comedian premiering on HBO and available to stream on HBO Max.

While interviews with contemporary comedians are nice, this documentary does not work without the archival footage of the late George Carlin, the dean of the counterculture comedians. It’s this footage that drives the bulk of the documentary. It’s best to learn about Carlin’s life from the man himself. Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, who co-direct the documentary, do a wonderful job of weaving it all together and telling George Carlin’s story in about four hours. Apatow’s own history in comedy makes him one of the perfect filmmakers for the job.

When George Carlin was growing up, he wanted to be Danny Kaye, Bob Hope, or Red Skeleton. But later on, he described his early years in comedy as being “a victim of my own success.” He had no choice but to be a clean comedian before really showing himself. “What I really was was an outlaw and a rebel who swam against the tide of what the establishment wants from us.” Carlin found himself entertaining parents at nightclubs at a time when their children were at war against them. The culture was changing in the 1960s, no thanks to Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. Of course, you can’t discuss this era without showing a montage of clips. Thankfully, the film makes the smart decision to show them.

Carlin has a resume that very much speaks for itself: 14 HBO comedy specials and 130+ appearances on The Tonight Show are some of the highlights. His performances evolved with the ever-changing culture around him. It isn’t just that Carlin evolved with the times but that many of his observations remain eerily relevant and resonate with us today. I’ll talk about this here in a moment but there’s a reason why Carlin is one of the greatest stand-up comedians to ever live. No list of the top stand-ups is complete without the likes of Carlin or Richard Pryor.

There are no shortage of Carlin’s performances throughout the film. Many of these sets may have been observational in nature about the day’s politics but they are still just as topical today as they were then. It just proves to show that George Carlin is still right when it comes to conservatives on abortion rights. The clip from Carlin’s 1996 HBO special, Back in Town, recently made the waves in light of the recent Supreme Court draft announcing the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to 9 months. After that, they don’t wanna know about you. They don’t wanna hear from you. No nothing! No neonatal care, no daycare, no Head Start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If you’re pre-born, you’re fine, if you’re preschool, you’re fucked.

The inclusion of the clip in the film feels like a genius decision in hindsight.

If you aren’t familiar with the man, one sad thing to learn is that his parents separated when he was just two months out. Later on in life, she wanted to control his life. As his brother Patrick says, George needed to get away from her. Without this, Carlin never becomes the comedian that we knew him to be. And so, he ends up enlisting in the Air Force and becomes a disc jockey in the process. He later met Jack Burns, moved to California, and the rest is history. This is not a Wikipedia documentary even though it covers Carlin’s entire life.

Carlin met his wife, Brenda, while on your in Dayton. They got married and had one child, Kelly. As Kelly describes it, “they were comrades in arms.” Unfortunately, Brenda turned to alcohol during the early years of their marriage. Kelly talks a bit about what it was like to grow up as their child. Vacations were challenging with George snorting cocaine and Brenda drinking alcohol. Even though they had their problems, as George Carlin says, they always had their sense of humor and loyalty to each other. Everything would change for the family with Brenda’s diagnosis of liver cancer. Ultimately, she would pass away before the comedian turned 60 years old. Carlin would later marry Sally Wade, who discusses their relationship.

The Late Show‘s Stephen Colbert has one of the money quotes in his description of Carlin’s career in comedy. He describes the first part of Carlin’s comedy as being the “comedic version of ‘Love Me Do'” before transitioning into the comedic White Album phase of his career.

No documentary about Carlin is complete without discussing his 1972 arrest for performing the seven dirty words routine. Interestingly enough, the judge had to cover his face so that nobody saw him laughing. In the end, the case was dismissed. Carlin could perform the routine provided it didn’t set off any disturbances. This is the difference between comedy in the early 1970s and how things are now. You can get away with so much more material in 2022 but we don’t get there without the likes of George Carlin or Lenny Bruce testing the limits. We certainly don’t get the likes of Steve Martin or Andy Kaufman without Carlin coming before them.

Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio pack a lot of punch into the documentary’s closing minutes. We have the audio from Carlin routines going up against visuals from recent years in American politics, especially the right-wing fascism of late. Credit to editor Joe Beshenkovsky for the editing because the presentation is perfect.

If you know absolutely nothing about George Carlin, George Carlin’s American Dream will be quite the treat. For casual or die-hard Carlin fans, this is a very entertaining and insightful documentary. This doc is a must-watch for anybody who calls themselves a fan of comedy.

DIRECTORS: Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio
FEATURING: George Carlin, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Colbert, Bill Burr, Bette Midler, W. Kamau Bell, Sam Jay, Judy Gold, Jon Stewart, Kevin Smith, Alex Winter, Kelly Carlin, Jerry Hamza, Sally Wade, Patrick Carlin

HBO will air George Carlin’s American Dream on May 20-21, 2022 at 8 PM ET/PT. Both parts will start streaming May 20 on HBO Max. Grade: 5/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.