Directed by: Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio
Premise: A documentary about comedian, author, and actor George Carlin, focusing on his personal life and career as well as his struggles with substance abuse.
What Works: George Carlin was a legendary comedian who is still revered by comics and writers. The documentary George Carlin’s American Dream takes a look at his career and influence. The documentary is quite long—nearly four hours over two parts—but it earns that length. Most people know Carlin from the acerbic and vicious standup routines that defined the late period of his career but Carlin wasn’t always that way. As shown in George Carlin’s American Dream, he started as a respectable act telling polite jokes to family friendly audiences. It wasn’t until halfway through his life that Carlin shifted to his vulgar but smart plays on language and even this phase of Carlin’s career was much goofier than his later work. One of the insightful aspects of George Carlin’s American Dream is the way it tracks Carlin’s development as a writer, thinker, and comedian. He grew and developed his act in ways that paralleled changes in his personal life and in American culture. Especially unique to this film is the way it links Carlin’s evolution to the comedy market; this is a study of the business of being funny and saying relevant which is something we’ve rarely seen in this kind of show business documentary. The filmmakers do an excellent job interweaving the stories of Carlin’s career and his family life and the documentary benefits from testimonials by Carlin’s daughter and brother. The stories about Carlin’s drug problems and marital strife shape our understanding of his work but they also allow the documentary to get beyond hagiography. As shown here, Carlin was a complicated and flawed man and his profession required personal sacrifices that were borne by his family. And as revered as Carlin is among comedians, some of the performers interviewed acknowledge the shortcomings of Carlin’s work, especially the way phases of his act became stale, and the misanthropy of his later performances.
What Doesn’t: George Carlin’s American Dream follows a standard show business biography template. This is partly a result of the facts of Carlin’s life. He went through familiar show business struggles, substance abuse in particular. But the documentary also presents Carlin’s life story in a standard and straightforward way with archival footage intercut with talking heads. The film spends quite a bit of time on the middle years of Carlin’s life which is interesting because it is so different from his late period. However, the documentary rushes through the last years of Carlin’s life. Clips of his later standup shows are now frequently shared on social media as political statements and while the picture addresses that, this development deserves more examination than it is given.
DVD extras: The film is presented on HBO Max in two two-hour parts.
Bottom Line: George Carlin’s American Dream is an insightful and far-reaching look at the comedian’s career. Although it is fairly conventional, the documentary will delight Carlin fans and serve as an introduction to viewers who don’t know Carlin or only know him from clips on YouTube.
Episode: #912 (August 7, 2022)