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George Carlin’s American Dream

The new two-part documentary George Carlin’s American Dream is a must-see for baby boomers. And a probably-should-see for gen-Xers and millennials. Because Carlin, who died in 2005, has influenced not just other comedians but also for much of our pop culture over the past few decades.

Would there be as many f-bombs in movies and music as we encounter today had Carlin not tested the boundaries with his 7 words you can’t say on TV? Probably yes, but Carlin certainly moved the needle for what’s acceptable. The documentary shows how Carlin and his content evolved in much the same way many of us boomers did.

This retrospective follows the usual pattern: video/audio clips of Carlin’s work, photos, comments from numerous show biz folks. Carlin himself tells parts of the story via recordings he made for his autobiography. The remarks from his older brother Patrick are candid and often hilarious. Those from his daughter Kelly reveal many personal details, especially of George’s relationship with his first wife Brenda and Brenda’s heavy drinking.

Of course, George had his demons, too. Particularly cocaine. The marriage survived their addictions until Brenda’s passing. Interestingly, the doc never hints that either of them was unfaithful. George Carlin’s second wife Sally Wade mentions that Carlin waited until a full year after Brenda’s death before he asked her out.

Carlin mentions in interview clips that he likes people as individuals but does not care for them so much when they form groups and try to exert influence on others. That’s a timely comment considering that one particular group has come down recently on Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais for some of their bits which that particular group finds offensive.

I first became familiar with Carlin in 1966 when he and Richard Pryor were featured on the Kraft Music Hall TV show. I listened to Carlin’s hilarious albums in the early 70s. I saw him at Valley Forge Music Fair near Philly in the early 80s. 

I have enjoyed all the iterations of George Carlin—but I was less enchanted by the last few years of Carlin’s work. Like Mark Twain in his old age, Carlin’s later work was marked with a tinge of bitterness. Parts of his performances became more about pushing an agenda than about getting laughs. But the latter day version of Carlin and his HBO comedy specials resonated with audiences and he went out on top.

It is interesting to recall that even after Carlin went from suits to jeans and grew his hair and a beard, he still hung out with the mainstream talk show hosts: Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore. From the clips included in the doc (and from my personal recollections), it’s obvious why they kept inviting him back: he always had clever things to say.

The main credit for assembling this documentary goes to Judd Apatow, who famously interviewed comedians when he was still a teenager. He and Michael Bonfiglio are the co-directors. The doc is available via HBO Max on cable or stream.

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