The new documentary about George Carlin’s life is a behemoth. Length-wise, each of the two parts could be feature films on their own. However, for a man who’s so impacted comedy and American culture, it only feels appropriate to devote nearly four hours to exploring his life and career.
Part one of George Carlin’s American Dream follows his life growing up in New York City amidst and post-World War II, breaking into show business as a clean-cut comic, and transforming into the counterculture comedian of legend, before the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s forced him to reassess his act. Part two is noticeably darker, documenting his health issues, wife’s death, pivot to political and nearly nihilistic comedy, and, ultimately, his own death. Nonetheless, there are touching moments here: his love for his first wife Brenda, meeting his second wife Sally Wade, and the forgiveness of his daughter, Kelly.
Directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio (Patrice O’Neal: Killing Is Easy), George Carlin’s American Dream is fairly standard in form. Audio of Carlin, taken from different points in time, are patchworked together and played over archival footage of his life and contemporary news stories. Great pains are made to contextualize his life and how he responded to political movements and the prevailing comedy culture of the day. It’s incredible just how many notes, videos, and audio clips from his personal life there are, and they give real color to the documentary. Talking heads of Carlin’s family members and business associates, along with comedians influenced by his work, are interspersed throughout, along with his own interviews and performances.
The result is a comprehensive, if sometimes a little dry, look into Carlin’s life. Most of the talking heads are men—especially when looking at the comedians (Bill Burr, Jerry Seinfeld, Stephen Colbert, W. Kamau Bell, and more) who cite Carlin as an influence (notable exceptions include Judy Gold and Sam Jay). Gender imbalance aside, the most compelling interviews come from his family members, including Kelly and his brother, Patrick (who died last month at the age of 90), who give real insight into Carlin as a person rather than a performer. Patrick just seems like One Cool Dude, leaning back in a lawn chair and decked out in a 420 t-shirt, flannel, and a single hoop earring.
George Carlin’s American Dream effectively shows all sides of Carlin—a class clown, a rebel, a former idealist, a husband, a loner, a father, an artist—and reiterates his lasting legacy as a talented comedian who keenly understood the human condition. Towards the end of part two, news clips from past and present flash before us as Carlin rails against the powers-that-be in the United States. The issues he saw plaguing us—greed, racism, and sexism, to name a few—are still horribly extant.
The directors want to elevate Carlin as some sort of prophet, and you can hardly blame them; people speak so highly of Carlin that it doesn’t take much faith to believe. Funnily enough, the fervor with which interview subjects speak of Carlin, like he’s some sort of comedy divinity, runs counter to his logic of thinking for yourself and questioning authority. Carlin’s continued relevance is partly due to his sharp observational skills, but also has to do with the fact that we’re still living under the same capitalist, racist, and patriarchal structures. That’s not to say Carlin isn’t brilliant; he’s just not quite as prescient as the documentary makes him out to be. The aggrandizing of a documentary subject is a fairly predictable move, and proves more justified here than in other cases.
Because Carlin is dead, he can be all things to all people. For decriers of cancel culture, he’s the free speech advocate who would condemn people for demanding accountability. For avid leftists, he can be held up as the type of person who spoke truth to power and would surely do so today. Both of those arguments are beside the point. We can’t suppose the opinions of a man who’s no longer alive. All we can do is absorb his legacy, whatever that means to us, and let it inform our work and our outlooks. And if you want an in-depth look at his life, it doesn’t get more thorough than George Carlin’s American Dream.
Both parts of George Carlin’s American Dream are now available to stream on HBO Max. You can also check out our archive video of George Carlin performing on April 13, 1979 at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J. below.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.