One of the most daunting documentaries to tackle is the life of George Carlin. The late iconic comedian was not only a complex individual, but also his fascinating existence had a number of different acts.
Carlin, who was as much philosopher as entertainer, kept reinventing himself during his extraordinary run from 1959 as a clean-cut comic to his death in 2008 as a counterculture icon. Carlin, who died at age 71 in 2008, was a wordsmith, loner, social engineer, loyal husband and father and so much more.
Writer, director and producer Judd Apatow and director Michael Bonfiglio crafted the two-part, four-hour documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream,” which debuted May 20 on HBO and details the life of the Mark Twain of the 20th Century.
Apatow, 54, discusses what surprised him about the project, what he wishes he could have included in the documentary and what made him nervous about the project.
I learned about your documentary not long after you reached out in March 2020 when you read my feature on Carlin and the pandemic, and you asked for audio from my Carlin interviews.
(Laughs) yes. We were looking for as much Carlin content as possible.
Carlin is fascinating. Like Jon Stewart points out in your documentary, most comedy is ephemeral, but much of Carlin’s work from a generation ago, especially when it comes to abortion, gun rights and a divided America, is just as relevant today.
Yeah (laughs). It’s true. George Carlin was a big picture comedian. He did say some topical stuff, but he talked about things in a larger fashion. He has the best routine about every subject in political and social life.
But it’s so rare. I can’t think of a comic that quite compares with Carlin, who was just as much philosopher as humorist.
When you do jokes about daily events, those jokes disappear quickly no matter how brilliant they are. He made a point to talk about systemic problems. He talked about military spending, abortion rights, civil rights and gun rights. People aren’t going back and listening to Lenny Bruce or even Bill Hicks anymore. And Bill Hicks was hilarious, but his material doesn’t resonate today.
But George’s rants on our rights sound like he could have written the bits yesterday.
Yes. When he talks about Roe v. Wade, it is just like that since Roe v. Wade is under attack. He points out that it’s not rights, it’s privileges, and we’re getting less and less of them every day.
When I interviewed Carlin, he was proud to note that he avoided the Hollywood scene.
You didn’t see George Carlin anywhere in Hollywood. You would never bump into him at a party. You might see him at a diner. But he was very nice to comedians. He was very sweet. George wasn’t looking to be at Hollywood parties and trying to make those connections to his detriment. He was on the outside. He liked performing and being his own boss. Comedians are doing that today with their shows and their podcasts.
What did you learn while making the documentary that surprised you about Carlin?
I didn’t know that when he saw Sam Kinison for the first time that he felt that he needed to up his game. It was an incredible detail. George decided to dig deeper, and he had another incredible 20 years after that.
The common denominator for Carlin and Kinison is that they were both fearless.
We need our comedians to be brave.
Did anyone refuse to be interviewed?
No. Carlin was so beloved and respected by comics. I never once heard someone say, “You know, I’m not a Carlin guy.”
You effectively conveyed through your interviews with comedians that Carlin offered something to each humorist.
I wanted to represent all sides of his comedy. It’s interesting how comics react to Carlin. Jerry Seinfeld loved Carlin as a wordsmith. Jerry loved his observational flair. Bill Burr and Chris Rock are into his ideas and political statements. Bette Midler, who was his opening act (during the early 1970s), learned a lot about creative bravery from him.
The interviews for “American Dream” you did with Rock, Stewart and Seinfeld are enlightening. But such chats with comics are nothing new for you since you’ve been interviewing prominent comics since you were a high school student. You could have become a journalist.
I was the station manager of my high school radio station, and I did interviews back then. I continued interviewing my favorite comics for my book “Sick in the Head” and the follow-up “Sicker in the Head.” Those books are the closest I’ve come to being a journalist.
You’ve made a number of acclaimed films, such as “Knocked Up” and “This Is 40,” but you’ve also created a number of compelling documentaries, such as “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” and “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers.” Are you more excited about making feature films or documentaries at this point?
As I get older, I’m more interested in documentaries. I enjoy looking at a career and organizing it and looking into the portal of that creative person’s life.
What inspired the Carlin documentary?
I was asked by HBO to do it. I met with (George Carlin’s daughter) Kelly Carlin, and she wanted to do something innovative, bold and completely honest. That made me nervous because the bar was set very high (laughs). It had to be two parts. The second part had to be his darker period. But it had to be about more than his life as a comic. It was about a man who was a parent and husband. Also, Carlin didn’t tell you about his personal life onstage.
No. What was great about interviewing Carlin was that he revealed who he was during our chats. It was fascinating finding out about Carlin’s formative years with the impact his mother had.
He grew up under difficult circumstances. His brother was beaten by his father, and his mother left when George was a baby. It shaped his life. He was very comfortable being on the road. He didn’t have many friends.
How long have you known Kelly Carlin?
I met her through Garry Shandling years ago. I knew her a little. We both had a close bond with Garry, so there was some safety there. Her childhood was harrowing with a father who was a coke addict and a mother who was an alcoholic. We felt it was worth noting that her mother didn’t have an outlet for her creative dreams. It’s a sad story. But her mother and father overcame their demons and became very close before she died of liver cancer. They never gave up trying to make their marriage work.
Is there anything that you didn’t include in the documentary that you wish was part of it?
Yes. The saddest thing is that I interviewed Carlin for Canadian television when I was 21. It was the only interview I couldn’t locate (laughs). That was depressing.
What was it like interviewing Carlin at such a young age?
He was very serious and highly intelligent. I enjoyed it, but I was not equipped at that age to get too deep with him like what I saw in other interviews I would locate later, like your interview with him. Those interviews are way better than what I came up with, but I still wish I could go back and see what I did then.
But you covered a lot of ground in four hours. Even though it’s an epic project, it still didn’t seem like it was long enough.
I know. I tried. I want to do these things in actual size.
”George Carlin’s American Dream” can be see on HBO or streamed on HBO Max.