Judd Apatow’s new two-part documentary, George Carlin’s American Dream, offers a comprehensive, sprawling account of the late comedian’s life — drawn in part from a treasure trove of Carlin’s personal archives and memorabilia.
“We were so lucky because he was a bit of a hoarder and existed so much,” Apatow, 54, told The Post. “We have his parents’ divorce papers from the late ’30s, his discharge papers when he was kicked out of the Air Force… he kept all his love letters, all his sticky notes and notebooks with all his jokes.
“We have tapes of him writing routines and also tapes of him just ranting cocaine into a tape recorder,” he said. “That really allowed us to paint a pretty complete picture of him.”
The “we” to whom Apatow referenced is co-producer Michael Bonfigliothe acclaimed documentary filmmaker (“30 for 30: Bo Jackson”) with whom he collaborated on the 2018 HBO documentary The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.
Their study of the seminal Carlin, who died in 2008 at the age of 71, unfolds in a similar vein to The Zen Diaries and includes interviews with Carlin’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, and a bevy of other comics peers including Paul Reiser, W Kamau Bell, Steven Wright, Judy Gold, Robert Klein, and Patton Oswalt.
Viewers familiar only with the bare bones of Carlin’s life will delve deep into his professional and personal journey – from the clean-cut, suit-wearing ’60s stand-up comedian who reluctantly embraced the ways of television “establishment” ( including a guest role on the 1966 ABC sitcom That Girl) — to embracing his inner voice and morphing into the bearded, ponytailed comic voice known for his innovative record albums and stand-up acts (The “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”), which made him a household name – and plunged him into an abyss of substance abuse.
Apatow and Bonfiglio also shed light on Carlin’s personal life, including his childhood on West 121st Street and his nearly 40-year marriage to his wife Brenda, who died of liver cancer in 1997.
“It’s interesting that he’s changed [performing] styles five times. He really was like the Madonna of comedy,” Apatow said. “He was on a comedy team [Burns and Carlin, with Jack Burns], then he was a very “safe” and clean comedian, then he became a “hippie” comedian and then a wordsmith and at the end of his career a very dark philosopher/prophet comedian. He was always trying to stay fresh and relevant, and he succeeded – and his work grew stronger and stronger.
“A lot of the documentary is about how he met his wife Brenda in 1960 when he was working in a club and they got married very quickly and then had a baby [Kelly] very quickly,” he says. “He was traveling and he was broke and Brenda was at home watching Kelly and her situation and time meant she wasn’t able to pursue her dreams and she became an alcoholic – and George became addicted to cocaine.
“Their house was very toxic and a lot of the story is about how they overcame that and found each other again later in life – but at the heart of it is a harrowing love story.”
Carlin’s comedy took a darker turn toward the end of his life, Apatow said.
“He had several heart attacks, was trying to sober up, and I think he was disappointed that our country wasn’t moving in a more positive direction,” he said. “He genuinely believed that our democratic values were being overtaken by business interests… and his action became more and more of a warning, and eventually it became the point of view of someone who said he’d given up and was just watching the destruction and laughing.
“It was a weird attitude meant to wake you up,” he said. “The essence was, ‘Take care of yourselves and take care of each other.’ I think that was his key point.”
George Carlin’s American Dream airs Friday, May 20 at 8 p.m. on HBO.