I’m late to the party when it comes to the late, great George Carlin; growing up in the UK, access to any of his work was something of an issue, and so this monumental HBO documentary, nearly four hours in length, serves as a perfect primer to one of the most controversial but also venerated comics ever to grace the airwaves. Carlin was a funny man from the get-go, but having surfed wave after wave of comic styles, he eventually became one of a handful of rare artists who transcend their genre and become something of a national treasure, a truth-teller who can still blow our minds long after his demise.
Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio have clearly had access to all areas, and have turned over a remarkable trove of resources, but one that never becomes a clip-reel and focuses instead on Carlin the man, and his family. Carlin’s father was a celebrated after-dinner speaker, but died young; Carlin took inspiration from the likes of Danny Kaye, and found humour in the area of New York he grew up in, which he calls White Harlem because it sounds ‘a lot tougher’ than its real name, Morningside Heights.
The small screen beckoned, and Carlin found success, first as part of a duo, and then as a solo artist, and the first ever host of Saturday Night Live. Carlin’s career had ups and downs, as those fuelled by cocaine often do, and ended up briefly as a resident ‘funnyman’ on The Tony Orlando and Dawn Show. But his ability when it came to the ‘dissembling of the ordinary’ as Jerry Seinfeld puts it, couldn’t be suppressed, and Carlin was soon to scale far greater heights, largely helped by some famous HBO specials that showcased his growing philosophical insights into life, love and swearing.
Whether you agree with his sentiments, and Carlin could play devil’s advocate, his articulation is dynamic. ‘My sht is stuff, and your stuff is sht’ or ‘God is the major cause of death’ are standard issue Carlin quotes, but still stir knee-jerk reactions to this day. His railing against the sport of golf seems particularly apposite to our culture in 2022. ‘We don’t have philosophers today, we have comedians’ offers Chris Rock as a contribution, but Carlin was both, and his railing against the endless plutocracy is firmly caught here.
On Disney+ in the States, and Sky Arts in the UK, a crash-course in George Carlin is a treat for the mind, and this meticulous film offers so much more than an evening spent on YouTube. Kevin Smith pops up with a couple of killer stories, and Carlin’s late brother Patrick also adds some pithy tribute. This is an honest, warts and all film, which doesn’t shy aware from Carlin’s domestic issues or substance abuses, but offers a fairly complete picture that should serve as a springboard to those keen for further mental stimulation.
Carlin was an individualist who didn’t see why he should sacrifice his own individuality for the sake of the mindless group-think of his era. So this is four hours of your life you absolutely won’t regret spending in his company, and whatever you make of his rapidly evoking philosophies, we can agree on his all-encompassing conclusion ‘Take care of yourself, and take care of somebody else too.’