July 22, 2022

“George Carlin’s American Dreams” Honors Legendary Comedian

By: Justin Tucker

I grew up in those halcyon days of the 80s and 90s. As with many of my peers, I was first introduced to the legendary comedian George Carlin when he played time-traveler Rufus in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Then he was Mr. Conductor on PBS’s “Shining Time Station.” I don’t think I even knew his name until he starred in his own sitcom called “The George Carlin Show,” which ran for two seasons on Fox starting in 1994. It was about this time that I learned he was also a stand-up comedian but I never heard about his act.

A few years later, I found out that Carlin’s stand-up act was incredibly raunchy. I came into the living room while my father was watching Carlin on HBO. This man, who I knew as the man who helped Bill and Ted pass their history class, was delivering obscenities so filthy that it was one of the most filthy things I had ever heard at that point. It was also extraordinarily hilarious. I had to hold in my laughter for dear life lest I let my dad know I thought that such a nasty thing could be that funny. My father quickly changed the channel to prevent his son from further exposure, but not before letting out a chuckle. I learned something new about my father that night, and that led me on the path to becoming a fan of Carlin’s comic genius. (I became a fan of Dennis Miller by similar means.)

I looked back on that fond memory as filmmaker Kevin Smith shared a similar story in an interview featured in “George Carlin’s American Dream.” Directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, who previously collaborated on May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers, this insightful and relevant two-part documentary series is currently streaming on HBO Max, of course. Making tremendous use of archival footage, family photos, and interviews, the series chronicles the personal and professional life of Carlin and his impact on American culture.

Born into a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family in New York City in 1937, he wanted to be a successful entertainer from his youth. As a young man, he joined the Air Force and became a DJ. He met Jack Burns, who became his comedy partner, and the duo found success on radio and on stage. As the Sixties rolled on, Carlin split with Burns and cut himself a wholesome image that was welcome on television but constraining for him as a comic. He reinvented himself, growing out his hair and beard, and embraced the counter-culture.

His “Seven Words You Can Never Saw on Television” bit tested the bounds of what could be broadcasted over the public airwaves led to Carlin’s arrest for obscenity in 1972. He became an outspoken advocate of freedom of speech and individualism. He was a harsh critic of war, drug prohibition, political correctness, and religion. As the years went on, as exhibited in numerous HBO specials, he became increasingly vulgar, dark, and topical. He left behind some of the most biting, merciless, side-splitting commentary of American society when he died in 2008.

The series is also a love story between Carlin and his wife and collaborator, Brenda Carlin. The couple had many highs, but also shared many deep lows. Both became addicts, which would further complicate their struggles. They, however, stood by each other’s side, supported each other, and were able to keep their family intact.

A highlight of the series is the interviews with some of today’s biggest comedy names. Bill Burr, Stephen Colbert, Jerry Seinfeld, and others provide interesting insight into how Carlin elevated stand-up as an artform and directly influenced their careers. It’s not surprising that many of them started out trying to memorize portions of his albums, as I certainly did with “You Are All Diseased.”

Executive produced by his daughter Kelly Carlin, “George Carlin’s American Dreams” is a family affair and is thus far the definitive documentary of the comedy master. Not only is it captivating, but it’s also funny. The uninitiated will laugh upon hearing Carlin’s material and the die-hard fans will learn something new. “George Carlin’s American Dreams” has something for everybody, except maybe the easily offended.