For comedians of a certain age, there was one album that was worn out on the turntable, dutifully memorized and acted out. That was George Carlin’s signature “Class Clown.”
“The way George Carlin looked at the world and broke it down taught so many of us how to be comedians,” said Judd Apatow. “He injected the software into our brains about how to think as a comic.”
Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio have teamed up to honor Carlin, the dean of counterculture comedians, by directing the two-part HBO documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream.” The first half aired last Friday, with the second on Saturday.
“For most people, he is on our Mount Rushmore of comedy,” said Apatow, whose contributions include “The 40-Year Old Virgin” and “Knocked Up.” “He is definitely one of the best thinkers but also writers and performers that comedy has ever had.”
The documentary traces the rise and multiple rebirths of Carlin, from mainstream, groomed comic in a skinny tie and slicked-back hair to bearded, long-haired provocateur.
That change — from playing a mocking hippie-dippy weatherman on variety shows to a more authentic comedian talking about power, language and human foibles — took its toll.
“He took a big hit financially,” said Apatow. “He was making $12,500 a week in Las Vegas in the late ’60s. That’s crazy money. And it went from that to getting paid almost nothing in coffeehouses in Greenwich Village.”
The documentary also plainly discusses Carlin’s wicked coke habit and personal turmoil. Kelly Carlin, the comedian’s daughter, would have it no other way.
“I think we’re all better off when we take people off a pedestal — not to take them down, but to raise ourselves up to their level. We are all humans here trying to figure out our way,” said Kelly Carlin, who co-executive produced the series.
An A-list of comedians are interviewed, all attesting to Carlin’s genius, including Jon Stewart, Paul Reiser, Stephen Wright, Alex Winter, Paul Provenza, Robert Klein, Bill Burr, Bette Midler, Kevin Smith, Stephen Colbert, Hasan Minhaj and Judy Gold. “I wanted to be just like him,” says Jerry Seinfeld in the film.
“It wasn’t hard to get people to talk. It was hard to decide who to ask because I think so many people were influenced by him,” said Judd. Added Bonfiglio: “It was fascinating to see the breadth of comedians of different ages and different backgrounds and the influence that he’s had over people.”
Carlin’s biting insights on life and language reached its zenith with his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV″ routine, which appeared on “Class Clown.” When he uttered all seven at a show in Milwaukee in 1972, he was arrested for disturbing the peace.
When the words were played on a New York radio station, they resulted in a Supreme Court ruling in 1978 upholding the government’s authority to sanction stations for broadcasting offensive language. “It’s extraordinary that his material actually created a new category of speech in our country,” said Bonfiglio.
The HBO portrait is wonderfully enhanced by the Carlin archives, which include Post-It notes of joke ideas, scripts, home footage, letters and TV clips. Carlin held onto everything, from an Air Force letter kicking him out of the service to the legal papers his mother filed to divorce her abusive husband. The filmmakers also got lucky when they discovered 23 hours of brutally honest interviews he did for an autobiography.
Kelly Carlin wanted to put it all in the right hands. She says she found in Apatow a great storyteller and one who tells them from his heart. She was a particular fan of his four-hour 2018 HBO documentary on comedian Garry Shandling.
“I knew that Judd was working through his own grief around it, but also brought to the world the pieces of Garry that Garry would have never shared — did never share out loud or directly, was reticent to share — but did it in a way that was so respectful and let people see the full man,” she said.
“So I knew 100% that Judd was going to do my father’s career right, the story part of it, and that he was going to take care of the more tender parts of this man’s story in a way with real respect.”
Kelly Carlin said she actually leaned a few things from the documentary, like the savvy way her dad got a spot on the show “Tony Orlando and Dawn” to keep his profile up during a lean patch and how he handled interviews.
“Any time when he was interviewed, whether it was the bigger interviews or even the small interviews with college kids, he would reveal something about his heart or his thinking or his intention,” she said. “I always loved a glimpse of that because my dad and I didn’t have a lot of those conversations. He didn’t share his inner life much with people.”
The documentary charts Carlin’s reinventions against the backdrop of huge social changes — Watergate, Vietnam, Reaganomics, hippie culture, among them. It also documents his fallow early ’80s when he was in the comic wilderness before a Carnegie Hall show reignited his career. Carlin died in 2008.
“It was always important to us that we show how he was both reflecting and being shaped by the culture,” said Bonfiglio. “It was kind of a two -way sort of a thing.”
The documentary comes at a time when Carlin’s observations are making a comeback. The late stand-up went viral earlier this month thanks to a widely shared routine about abortion from his 1996 HBO special “Back In Town.”
“I really do feel like one of the things that’s happening in our world right now is we are looking for our moral center,” said Kelly Carlin. “And I think why he keeps showing up is because he was someone who we would get to check in with. It’s interesting how hungry we are for his voice right now.”