A version of this story about “George Carlin’s American Dream” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio began making “George Carlin’s American Dream,” their two-part HBO documentary series about the pioneering comic, they were working under a big request from Carlin’s daughter, Kelly. “She said, ‘You really have to do something bold and innovative,’” Apatow said. “My dad wouldn’t like the generic version of this. And that scared the hell out of me, because I didn’t quite know what it meant.”
Apatow and Bonfiglio never did figure out what Kelly meant, but they figured they should just make a film that dealt with George Carlin honestly. The result is a close to four-hour look at the man who started as a suit-and-tied comic with a knack for wordplay in the 1960s and then morphed into a long-haired countercultural icon in the ’70s, famous first for his seven words you can’t say on TV and later for his angry eviscerations of American society and politics.
“I had his comedy albums when I was in the fourth or fifth grade,” Apatow said of the comic who died in 2008 after years of heart problems that may have been exacerbated by his raging cocaine habit in the ’70s and ’80s. “He was one of the earliest voices that I head. I loved some of the routines that were just silly and dirty – obviously, when you’re a kid, to hear the seven words (Carlin’s 1972 routine “seven words you can never say on television”) delights you.
“But I also feel like he taught me how to look at the world, break it down and turn it into comedy.”
Bonfiglio, who didn’t discover Carlin until he was in his teens in the 1990s, said the appeal was simple: “At that time, when you’re forming your thoughts about the world and realizing that a lot of it is bulls— and lies, to have a grown-up say, ‘Hey, you’re right’ was huge.”
The directors drew liberally from more than 20 hours of interview tapes that Carlin made when he was working on his autobiography with the late Tony Hendra, but they also kept returning to footage of Carlin’s standup routines over the years.
“That was my problem,” Apatow said, laughing. “That’s the only thing we would argue over — when to get out of the bit. I would always want to go longer. Some of it is so incredible, and I would want people to see the rest of it. That’s one of my pet peeves with documentaries about music and comedy: cutting out of things too fast. I don’t want the four-second clip. I can handle 40 seconds!
“Luckily,” he added, “HBO’s gonna put five or six of his specials up on HBO Max when the movie comes out. So after watching the documentary, you could see the full routines.”
They also relied on producer Wayne Federman, a comic and professor of comedy whose job, Apatow said, was “to listen to every album, every special, every joke George ever told” and let the filmmakers know if they were leaving out anything vital.
“Part of it, too, is finding the pieces that fit with what is going on in the narrative, or what part of his personality we were trying to explore,” Bonfiglio added. “We were always looking to see what fits with what other bigger thing we’re saying beyond what he’s doing on stage.”
But what Carlin did on stage also reflected what was going on in society around him and what is going on now, as you can hear in his many routines about abortion, birth control and the consolidation of power in the hands of a few. Toward the end of the second episode, Apatow and Bonfiglio assemble a virtuoso montage that sets Carlin’s words — many in a routine from which the series takes its title — against footage from today’s America.
“That was always one of our earliest ideas, which was to create some sort of montage of what he was talking about then and how it applies to now,” Apatow said. “I think we worked harder on that than any other part of the documentary. Once there was a cut, we spent another month on nothing but that five minutes because we wanted to make sure that it reflects the complexity of his opinions.”