Documentary Review: ‘George Carlin’s American Dream’

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By Ben Miles

“George Carlin’s American Dream” is an HBO documentary, team-directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, which explores Carlin’s unlikely rise from necktie- wearing, beardless punchline-prone, run-of-the-mill comic to the comedy guru who specialized in the irony of words and the meaning of profanity. Indeed, George Carlin might be (and probably is) the funniest semanticists the world has ever seen.

In two parts, totaling nearly four-hours, “George Carlin’s American Dream” is not only a captivating biography of the late comedian, it is an exploration of excess and obsession and the all consuming demands of life under the scrutiny of the limelight.

Inspired by the energetic, fast-talking, triple-threat entertainer Danny Kaye. Carlin aspired to be a disc jockey, a comic and an actor. And though his career path strayed from the road that Kaye traveled, Carlin did spend time as a disc jockey, an actor and most notably an irreverent comedian.

He did act on television and in several films, but as he admits in the documentary, he had no training and no acting technique to call upon in building a character and, therefore, never considered himself an accomplished actor.

Nevertheless, as this documentary makes evident, few comics have achieved the iconic level of acclaim as Carlin. Starting out as a straight laced comedian, who early in his career made up a comedy duo with Jack Burns (Burns later teamed with Avery Schreiber, forming the Burns & Schreiber comedy act), Carlin’s longing for distinction and led by an intellectualism matched by few others, was brought to blossom when he witnessed the arrest of Lenny Bruce for using profanity in his act.

Carlin was also arrested that night for refusing to show his identification card to police officials. Put in the same police vehicle with Bruce, Carlin told Bruce of the circumstances of his arrest; upon hearing Carlin’s story, Bruce replied with one word to Carlin: “Schmuck.”

Interestingly, Carlin ended up with a longer, more influential comedy career than the profanity-pioneer Bruce, though he also followed the downsides of Bruce’s life through addiction and financial pressures. As Carlin observes in a clip included in the documentary, “Cocaine makes you feel like a new man. The problem is that new man needs another line of cocaine.”

With interviews of Patrick Carlin (George’s older brother), Kelly Carlin (George’s only child) and Sally (George’s second wife; his first long marriage to Brenda Carlin ended when Brenda died of liver cancer), along with insightful conversations about Carlin with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and Chris Rock, the documentary is not only a well told life story of a most unique individual, it is a brilliant display of comedic genius and the courage and resilience it requires to achieve such a status in the cutthroat culture of professional comedy.

What: “George Carlin’s American Dream,” Documentary

Where: HBO MAX

When: Now streaming, anytime.

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