Every once in a while, you might see something online about how the late comedian George Carlin was ahead of his time. That if he was still around he would eviscerate America in its current state. That he in some ways already did eviscerate modern America by criticizing topics decades ago that are still relevant today. These sorts of comments speak to the staying power of a singular comic figure. Similarly influential and boundary pushing comics — Lenny Bruce, for instance — don’t seem to get the same retrospective appreciation. What did Carlin do, exactly, to allow his comedy to seemingly transcend time?
The new documentary from Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, George Carlin’s American Dream, seeks to tap into this question as it examines the standard biographical doc talking points of life, career, and philosophy. The filmmakers attempt to be comprehensive, too, with a nearly 4-hour runtime filled with archival footage and interviews with Carlin’s friends, colleagues, and surviving family.
It is similar to Apatow’s 2018 epic-length doc on the late Gary Shandling, The Zen Diaries of Gary Shandling. Both films attempt to get inside the mind of comedy genius, a highly reverential nevertheless warts and all examination of personalities which were introspective and enigmatic. The major difference between the two films is the sheer level of access, with Zen Diaries benefiting from its subjects uncensored personal reflections on the events of his life as they happened. It is a truly unique and fascinating subject matter.
George Carlin’s American Dream relies more heavily on archival footage. There are cutaways to Carlin’s scribblings, but it is not at the same level of Shandling’s exhaustive diaries. As a result, American Dream comes off more boilerplate by comparison. Not that it is an awful boilerplate. It is a sturdy boilerplate, a good foundation so long as the subject is engaging enough.
Fans of Carlin will find engagement here from start to finish. Those unfamiliar with the man’s career will probably learn a thing or two about his early years and how his comedy evolved in phases. He slowly built his craft to the point where he became the George Carlin most people know him to be. Documenting this progression is the most compelling aspect of the film. The first half of the film, which track the ups and downs of Carlin’s comedy and personal life, makes for an interesting piece in its own right.
The second half, meanwhile, loses its way as it navigates Carlin’s late-career renaissance. Carlin’s ’90s was his peak period, in terms of his ability to generate large audiences out of highly political and transgressive material. This segment of the film, however, is the biggest lull. The doc gets too caught up in the fiery comedy, at one point showing large segments from the 1992 special “Jammin’ in New York” with minimal commentary. The film relies too heavily on these clips, which give viewers a sense of the changes in Carlin’s act, but which ultimately distract from the intimate look into the comedian’s family life and mental state.
So while there may not be three and a half hours of revelatory material in American Dream, there are moments of insight in the doc to justify it to the comedy fan or Carlin enthusiast. Particularly when it zooms in on Carlin’s relationship to his first wife Brenda and his daughter Kelly, the film shows an intimacy that cannot be found in simply replaying comedy special footage.
George Carlin’s American Dream: B
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)