George Carlin documentary lets the comic speak to a new era

Before becoming a counterculture hero by publicly invoking “The Seven Words You Must Never Say on TV,” George Carlin dropped out of high school, DJed in the Air Force, and hooked up with Lenny Bruce as a show of solidarity in the back of a rice truck after the comedian was arrested at a Chicago nightclub, lost a $250,000-a-year gig in Las Vegas for swearing on stage, took LSD at home in the presence of his wife and daughter, had two heart attacks survived and used cocaine heavily.

Also, before his death 14 years ago at the age of 71, Carlin helped revolutionize stand-up comedy.

“Carlin did comedy in so many different ways,” says comedy kingpin Judd Apatow. “He made funny voices; he examined the language; he has made epic tirades; He made characters – if you watch a lot of George Carlin, listen to his records, that’s it the Playbook on how to be a comedian.”

Writer, director and producer Apatow, who received an Emmy in 2018 for The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, teamed up with Michael Bonfiglio, director of the recent Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman specials, to create George Carlin’s American Dream turn. The two-part HBO documentary, which was nominated for five Emmy Awards, celebrates the comedian’s scathingly funny observations and examines his not-so-funny personal life through rare archive footage, interviews with family members and comments from fans – including Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert, W Kamau Bell and Jon Stewart.

Apatow, zooming in from a film shoot in North Carolina, and Bonfiglio, speaking from his New York home, spoke to The Envelope about their two-year journey into the private heart and colorful mind of the late George Carlin.

George Carlin died in 2008. When did you have the aha moment that now is the time to make a documentary about him?

Apatov: We didn’t have that aha moment. Our producer Teddy [Leifer] did. But when HBO came to me and asked if Mike and I would be interested in this topic, it became clear in seconds that George Carlin is a much-needed voice at this special time.

That voice comes through loud and clear at the end of the film, where you punctuate this montage of current crises with one of Carlin’s eerily prescient tirades. How did that happen?

Apatov: We put this sequence together late in our edit. Our brilliant editor, Joe Beshenkovsky, did the first cut and then we all just got into just those five minutes for another month because it was important to us to get George Carlin’s point of view on these big issues. He was clearly pro-gun control, pro-choice, pro-separation of church and state, anti-financial interests controlling the media and government, and so on.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about George Carlin that you didn’t know before making this documentary?

Apatov: I hardly knew anything about his private life. George Carlin had a career similar to many people in comedy, coming from a traumatic childhood. His father abused his brother Patrick. His mother got divorced in her 30s when people didn’t and ran away to protect George and his brother. He was raised by a domineering mother who felt that everything he did was a reflection of hers. I love George Carlin as a comedian and care about his career, but I’m much more interested in his journey and development as a person.

Part of that development is directly related to his 36-year marriage to Brenda Carlin, whom he met in a 1960s nightclub in Dayton, Ohio. Ultimately, it’s a touching love story, but your film also documents the turbulence.

Apatov: We have taken great care to portray Carlin’s relationship with his wife, Brenda Carlin. They went through many turbulent times, but in the end they overcame their addiction and healed.

Michael, you interviewed Carlin’s daughter, Kelly, about this volatile family dynamic?

Bonfiglio: In the film, Kelly tells the story of how bad things were for him at the time [acid] Travel when she was a little kid and she had to calm him down with her mother. It was wonderful to get her insights because Kelly was willing to put up with anything and not worry so much about what people think of her father. That allowed for a great deal of honesty.

Carlin kept his personal life, including a happy second marriage to Sally Wade, backstage. In his professional life, Carlin made headlines in 1969 when he was fired from a lucrative gig in Las Vegas, grew a beard and reinvented his act.

Bonfiglio: Carlin knew how to use those reliable show business techniques, which he had honed over a long period of time in nightclubs and on television, to present this countercultural material. This wasn’t just a gimmick. It was an almost spiritual transformation that Carlin goes through to really find his voice.

Apatov: There are actually four or five phases. After deciding to “be himself” and do a more honest, slightly more political act, Carlin has some drug problems and heart attacks, so his act softens a bit because he doesn’t want to get upset and have another heart attack! But eventually he sees Sam Kinison and decides, as he says in the movie, “I don’t want to breathe his dust for the rest of my career.” Then Carlin goes real hard. And then there’s that last phase where he gets even tougher and takes on the point of view of someone who has given up humanity.

Some fans of Carlin’s earlier work, including Stephen Colbert, found the final phase to be just too bleak.

Apatov: A lot of people thought the final evolution was too dark, but looking back now, you look at these specials and think, “Maybe not dark enough!” George Carlin documentary lets the comic speak to a new era

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