Along with Richard Pryor, George Carlin was a groundbreaker in the comedy world. As Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream” shows, the comedian had a comic vision of Nostradamus-like proportions.
The film digs deep and gets to the soul of Carlin’s philosophies. The man could be called a comedic prophet, as his political and social work observations are relevant to this day.
Apatow and Bonfiglio’s film expertly covers the entirety of Carlin’s professional and personal life, showing the sometimes-surprising range and variety of Carlin’s career.
Through great archival footage, the documentary examines his early partnership with fellow comedian Jack Burns in the early sixties. This was a time when Carlin was prone to performing safe character comedy bits in a suit and tie.
As the film moves through his life, the audience is witness to the comedian’s self-discovery, tapping into the real George Carlin that had been homogenized for too long.
Carlin’s career took many different roads and as the country was changing, so did the man.
It is inspiring to watch his emergence as THE counterculture voice for almost fifty years until his death in 2008.
The filmmakers contextualize Carlin’s career through important events that defined their respective years. We see the beginnings of the comedian’s rebellion as the sixties became the decade of assassinations and protests.
Carlin’s eyes were opening and his world view growing. His long hair and facial hair followed; his look forever solidified. He became a student of human nature and the hypocrisy of political theater.
George Carlin was truly a man who had a willingness to change.
Not only is the film a deep dive into Carlin’s career, one of its biggest strengths is the story of his marriage to wife Brenda.
Their relationship was pure and the two had a deep love and respect for one another. The marriage was tested as Carlin steadfastly pursued his career while Brenda felt alone and useless (even once they had their daughter Kelly).
Brenda stumbled into a drinking problem. As Carlin’s star rose, both fell victim to drug abuse. While drugs opened his mind to the world, his marriage began showing signs of wear and tear.
The two beat their demons and stayed married (renewing their love once both got sober). It is here where the film becomes more than a documentary and becomes a love story filled with inspiration and hope.
Daughter Kelly’s testimony to the survival of her parent’s lives and relationship plays a big part in the shaping of the film. She speaks openly of the pain and heartbreak watching her parents almost destroy one another and the joy of seeing them rekindle their bond.
Kelly Carlin’s honest and unfiltered input is invaluable and a key to this film’s success.
The documentary shines a sharp light on the comedian’s respect for semantics. Carlin absolutely loved words and could dissect them better than anyone, getting to their truth.
From his “7 Words You Can’t Say on Television” classic to his ever-evolving bits on the poetry of wordplay, Carlin’s subjects hit harder, and his specials received more and more praise. Through his hit comedy albums and 14 HBO specials, Carlin became the Lenny Bruce of the seventies and eighties and by the nineties, the man became perhaps the greatest sociopolitical comedian to ever do it.
The filmmakers prove themselves to be adept at interviews. Many celebrities (and Carlin’s brother) are interviewed but it is probably Stephen Colbert who says it best, “He was The Beatles of comedy.” As did the legendary group, Carlin was constantly reinventing himself; each time, taking the country with him.
Carlin was harsh to both sides of the political spectrum and suffered no fools. The most fascinating thing about his comedy was his ability to bring everyone together. The truths he spoke were too important to ignore and impossible to spin.
Sometimes, documentaries about comedians or musicians are just excuses to wallow in their pain and revel in their hits.
Apatow and Bonfiglio trace Carlin’s life skillfully, showing a man who craved truth and despised hypocrisy.
“George Carlin’s American Dream” is a great documentary that skips the usual fan service, film examines what made the man a genius and shows us the bits that make him resonate today.
The man is gone. His words are eternal.