- Movie Rating -

George Carlin’s American Dream (2022)

| May 20, 2022

I have a feeling that if George Carlin had espoused his views in any medium other than comedy, then he might have been assassinated.  Yet, because his views were couched in the comforts of the format of stand-up, his tirades against such collar-tugging issues as politics, religion, sex, death, greed, corruption and the general backwards idiocy of mankind itself, he was regarded as a revolutionary.  The irony is that neither the left nor the right could claim him – his rage seemed equally pointed at both sides.

This is the Carlin that we remember, an angry and bitter old soul whose words were lyrical, vulgar and seemed to move a cynical American populace that saw itself circling the drain.  He was an expert at pointing out our backward logic, and what is interesting about Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s new HBO Max documentary George Carlin’s American Dream is that this wasn’t always so.  There was an evolution to Carlin’s act from a suit-and-tie act on Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin which are seen today as treacly nonsense, but in the 60s were seen as something revolutionary.  Did anyone take issue with the fact that the Hippy-Dippy Weather Man was stoned at a moment when drug humor on television was taboo?  Did anyone take issue with his bit on Merv Griffin about protesters and their signs?

This was boiling under Carlin’s skin the whole time and what is revealed in this documentary is that he had to fall before he could rise.  By the 1970s, he was seen as a revolutionary, a shaggy young comic who seemed capable of completing the unfinished journey of Lenny Bruce.  His act seemed to alternate between the real world politics and nonsensical word play – jokes about peas that by the end of the decade nearly shut down his career.  The most shocking moment is a quote from Cheech Marin that “George Carlin is obsolete.”  But by the early 80s that near-fatal fall from grace would be his launching pad thanks to a fledgling pay cable service that was interested in more than just re-running blockbuster movies.  That, of course, was HBO and from there, the public at large got to see the Carlin that appearances on Carson and Griffin and Sullivan just weren’t allowed, the angrier and much more raw comic that had been tooling around in night clubs for years.

Carlin’s journey is fascinating because his personal history seems parallel to the times he was living in.  Apatow and Bonfiglio’s reveals a very sensitive and passionate man and what you come away with is a sense that if he were none of these things, then he act would mean nothing.  You get a sense that George Carlin loved the world that he was living in and had a generally good sense of his fellow man, but he was befuddled by who we were and what we had done to ourselves.  The documentary is loaded with not only bits from his comedy act but also his television interviews and a few pieces of writing that he kept private.  At nearly four-hours (it runs in two parts) we get all we ever really needed from this man, and at that length we get to spend time with him and see who he was in his insular life and the impact that he had on nearly every comic that would follow.  The most intuitive, for me, is Jerry Seinfeld who remarks that Carlin seemed to have a gift that every comic seeks, to find the right baseline for every single word that he said on stage.  When Carlin went into a rant, every word dropped exactly where it was suppose to be.  It was like music.  This is an unreachable goal for most comedians.

The first half is more energetic than the second half.  We experience Carlin’s difficult childhood, his difficulties with his father whose discord and whose early death left a bitterness that his son never seemed to shake.  What saved him was his mother Mary whose sense of humor he inherited.  A need to express himself led to building a career in comedy which, we learn, came in phases.  His comedy had to evolve over time and change with the emerging post-war culture.

The second half isn’t quite as compelling but it does contain footage of his best-known work – the stuff he did for HBO, i.e. the stuff we remember.  One decision that I liked was over the opening credits of this second act, we see Carlin amping up his familiar rage over-top the inauguration of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the Moral Majority lorded over by the likes of Jerry Falwell.  It’s a sign that the decade will be his decade, that this will be his greatest moment – and it was.  It’s also not as compelling largely because much of the segment is given over to simply showing Carlin’s act with less commentary by contemporaries like Stephen Colbert, Bill Burr, John Steward and Jerry Seinfeld that were so beautifully interwoven into the material in the first chapter.  This was the point at which he lost his wife, but we wonder what it did to his comedy?  What did it do to him personally as a performer?

And yet, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t moving, it just means that it isn’t as revealing as the first act.  You never get bored with Carlin no matter how he is presented and I never got restless with his personal journey.  Carlin died in 2008 and the great effect afterwards is to wonder how this very passionate and very complicated man might have looked at the nightmare clown circus that American has been mired in since Donald Trump took office.  How would Carlin have looked at Trump?  How would he have seen COVID?  The election?  Joe Biden?  Gender politics?  Black Lives Matter? #metoo?  The SOCTUS leak?  The border wall?  January 6th?  The Ukraine?  Will Smith?  Johnny Depp?  Elon Musk?  Putin?  To watch this film is to understand that perhaps we need him now more than ever.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2022) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary