George Carlin rose to prominence as a stand-up comedian in the 1960s and ’70s, reinventing himself multiple times over a career that reveled in the use of language and took sharp aim at society. The complexity of that life and resonance of those words, dirty or otherwise, is neatly distilled into “George Carlin’s American Dream,” a perceptive two-part look at a comedy legend who, as W. Kamau Bell observes, “still seems to be talking to us.”
Indeed, Carlin’s granular dissection of US politics is still widely quoted today, and the who’s who of comedians who weigh in on his legacy reflect how his influence has echoed well beyond his death in 2008.
“I wanted to be just like him, getting every word in the right spot,” Jerry Seinfeld says. “Because when he did it, it thrilled me.”
Assembled with a level of ambition worthy of Carlin’s verbal dexterity, directors Judd Apatow (who not long ago produced a similar ode to Garry Shandling) and Michael Bonfiglio have endeavored to contextualize the comic’s work through key events that framed those years, beginning with the clean-cut Carlin of the ’60s who rebelled against Vietnam and assassinations before growing his hair and striking an anti-establishment tone.
Originally inspired by comic actors like Danny Kaye, Carlin, in the extensive interviews with him woven into the four hours, says, “I only knew that I loved standing up in front of people and having their attention,” having grown up raised by a single mother without knowing his abusive father.
Influenced by Lenny Bruce, who also championed his early career, Carlin made the obligatory compromises (it’s strange to see him and Richard Pryor participating in sketches on hokey variety shows) before flexing his comedic muscles, freely rattling off the “filthy words” that won legions of young fans while putting his right to say them in front of the Supreme Court.
Made with considerable input from Carlin’s daughter, Kelly, “American Dream” is also a love story, recounting his whirlwind romance with wife Brenda, their respective struggles with drugs and alcohol, the pain he experienced in losing her to cancer and his second marriage after her death.
As Stephen Colbert notes, Carlin was in many respects the Beatles of comedy. After producing a string of bestselling albums in the ’70s, he was deemed increasingly irrelevant as that decade came to a close, before reintroducing himself, yet again, in part through the relatively nascent format of HBO standup specials.
Carlin also recognized shifts in the comedic tides, responding to a standup flamethrower like Sam Kinison and evolving his act in ways that grew darker and more pessimistic about the prospects for humanity in the twilight of his career and life.
Simply as an act of curation, some of the clips are pretty spectacular, such as seeing Carlin with John Lennon and Yoko Ono on “The Mike Douglas Show,” cracking up Dinah Shore, or the gamut of his appearances on “The Tonight Show” through the years.
As noted, Carlin’s mastery of the standup craft has resonated across decades, and continues to do so as news events prompt admirers to quote and recirculate his old routines. “”I still refer to him all the time,” Jon Stewart says.
While the title is intended to be slightly ironic, in that sense, Carlin’s “American Dream” marches on.
“George Carlin’s American Dream” will air May 20-21 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery.