George Carlin’s enduring comedic legacy inspired Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio to make HBO’s upcoming documentary about the counterculture icon, whose observations remain eerily topical nearly 14 years after his death.
Carlin, who appeared on “The Tonight Show” more than 130 times during his lengthy career, riffed about abortion, the planet, police brutality and organized religion in his stand-up sets and also appeared in movies such as “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” His legendary 1972 routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” is still regularly invoked in media circles.
“We were always so surprised that anytime something happened in the news, George would start trending,” says Apatow, who co-directed “George Carlin’s American Dream” with Bonfiglio, a frequent collaborator. “Most comedians’ material ages really badly, but his work was so deep — and he also liked to talk about the big picture — that it just gets better with age. Also, a lot of it feels like a warning.”
During his 1992 HBO comedy special, “Jammin’ in New York,” for example, Carlin joked about the planet defending itself against human pollution with a virus. Footage of that bit is one of many clips featured in the two-part HBO doc debuting May 20.
“George Carlin’s American Dream” explores the stand-up’s rise to fame, his struggle with cocaine, his two marriages and his arrest in 1972 after performing his “Seven Words” routine. Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Stephen Colbert, Bette Midler and Jon Stewart appear, along with Carlin’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, and his manager Jerry Hamza. The documentary incorporates never-before-seen home videos, photos and diaries; Carlin’s daughter serves as an executive producer and provided most of the archival material but did not have final cut.
“People who really know nothing about George Carlin will be surprised at how prescient so much of his work was and how relevant it still is,” says Bonfiglio. “And for the people who know more about him, I think that they will be fascinated by the early days of his career where he was really trying to find himself and made the famous transition from suit-and-tie George to hippie George.”
Apatow didn’t know Carlin, but his comedy had a lasting influence on the director, who performed stand-up as a teenager before branching out into TV and film.
“Listening to him over and over again, in an era where there weren’t 10,000 channels and the internet, was really impactful,” says Apatow. “It programmed me to understand how to break down ideas. How to have critical thinking. How to turn observations into humor. How to use voice. How to question authority. So, in ways that even I don’t understand, I think it was a massive influence, and I can’t even think of anyone who did it as much afterwards.”
The co-directors previously teamed up on ESPN’s “Doc & Darryl” (2016) and HBO’s “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers” (2017). Bonfiglio produced Apatow’s doc “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling,” which HBO debuted in 2018.
Apatow relishes his work on nonfiction projects, considering them to be less nerve-racking, but still rewarding, creative challenges.
“I love documentaries more than anything,” Apatow says. “It’s a little less stressful for me because with a joke you never know if it’s going to work. You’ll be up all night for years thinking, ‘I wonder how this is going to play.’ But with a documentary we’re assembling footage and trying to find the best way to tell a story, and there’s something for me that’s way less painful and stressful about the process.
“I’m also a hoarder, and I love these [subjects], and I like the idea of organizing their lives and their work as a path in for people to explore everything that they’ve done.”