George Carlin’s comedic journey takes the stage in HBO doc

This undated image shows the late comedian George Carlin, star of the HBO documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream,” which aired Friday on HBO. (George Carlin Estate/HBO via AP)

NEW YORK — For comedians of a certain age, there was one album that was worn out on the turntable, dutifully memorized and acted out. That was George Carlin’s signature “Class Clown.”

“The way George Carlin looked at the world and broke it down taught so many of us how to be comedians,” said Judd Apatow. “He injected the software into our brains about how to think as a comic.”

Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio have teamed up to honor Carlin, the dean of counterculture comedians, by directing the two-part HBO documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream.” The first half aired Friday, with the second on Saturday.

“For most people, he is on our Mount Rushmore of comedy,” said Apatow, whose contributions include “The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” “He is definitely one of the best thinkers but also writers and performers that comedy has ever had.”

The documentary traces the rise and multiple rebirths of Carlin, from mainstream, groomed comic in a skinny tie and slicked-back hair to bearded, long-haired provocateur.

That change — from playing a mocking hippie-dippy weatherman on variety shows to a more authentic comedian talking about power, language and human foibles — took its toll.

“He took a big hit financially,” said Apatow. “He was making $12,500 a week in Las Vegas in the late ’60s. That’s crazy money. And it went from that to getting paid almost nothing in coffeehouses in Greenwich Village.”

The documentary also plainly discusses Carlin’s wicked coke habit and personal turmoil. Kelly Carlin, the comedian’s daughter, would have it no other way.

“I think we’re all better off when we take people off a pedestal — not to take them down, but to raise ourselves up to their level. We are all humans here trying to figure out our way,” said Kelly Carlin, who co-executive produced the series.

An A-list of comedians are interviewed, all attesting to Carlin’s genius, including Jon Stewart, Paul Reiser, Stephen Wright, Alex Winter, Paul Provenza, Robert Klein, Bill Burr, Bette Midler, Kevin Smith, Stephen Colbert, Hasan Minhaj and Judy Gold. “I wanted to be just like him,” says Jerry Seinfeld in the film.

“It wasn’t hard to get people to talk. It was hard to decide who to ask because I think so many people were influenced by him,” said Judd. Added Bonfiglio: “It was fascinating to see the breadth of comedians of different ages and different backgrounds and the influence that he’s had over people.”

Carlin’s biting insights on life and language reached its zenith with his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV” routine, which appeared on “Class Clown.” When he uttered all seven at a show in Milwaukee in 1972, he was arrested for disturbing the peace.

When the words were played on a New York radio station, they resulted in a Supreme Court ruling in 1978 upholding the government’s authority to sanction stations for broadcasting offensive language. “It’s extraordinary that his material actually created a new category of speech in our country,” said Bonfiglio.

The HBO portrait is wonderfully enhanced by the Carlin archives, which include Post-It notes of joke ideas, scripts, home footage, letters and TV clips.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today