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George Carlin’s American Dream


‘…offers a fairly complete picture that should serve as a springboard to those keen for further mental stimulation…’

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.’


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  1. Like you, growing up in the UK meant I didn’t hear about him until the first Bill & Ted movie. I’ve watched Carlin clips on YouTube and always enjoyed what he had to say. I will definitely look out for this documentary. It sounds excellent. Thanks for the review.

    • That’s exactly the same for me. A name that you might see in reference books or journalism rather than see his routines or shows. So it was a blind spot for me, and this doc fixes that pretty soundly.

  2. George Carlin was a comic genius. I do agree he’d have a field day with the current goings-on in the world. He really hit his stride as I was coming out of high school, and many of his bits from back then I still recall to this day. I never got to see him in person, but through the magic of television I did see a lot of his concert specials. I have not seen this documentary but have to believe it is very special indeed.

    • This uses a lot from his concert specials, and I’ve been chasing them up on YouTube. On this evidence, he really did hit the high spots, and this film does feel like a greatest hit compilation with lots of context. Enjoy!

  3. I will humble brag and say I’m glad I saw him in person in 70’s (Shady Grove Theatre, MD). He knew there was $ to be made doing films & TV–his magic was being live on stage–it took its toll. His film and TV career was varied, had his own TV show as NYC wisecracking cab driver 94-95. He was gayly delightful in Prince of Tides, and quirky in Dogma, Outrageous Fortune. In the states, he was on lots of late night TV Flip Wilson, Carson, Leno, and later comers… Vulgarly hilarious, a hard combo to pull off. Lots of his raw material went into books- Napalm & Silly Putty, Class Clown, Will Jesus bring pork chops. My fav is Brain Droppings, consummate Carlin. “If ‘I am’ is the shortest sentence is ‘I do’ the longest one?’

    • There’s clips of him here in Dogma and Prince of Tides, and his 90’s tv show gets some time as well; that’s what I really liked about this doc, it really devles into his work. So I’m suitably impressed you saw him live, and the wonderfully named Shady Grove theatre, so that it a humble-brag worth sharing. I can’t express how unknown Carlin is in the UK, hopefully this doc will enlighten us. But there are people who are funny that you want to forget; Carlin was one whose words cannot be forgotten, and really need to be clung onto today as sage.

  4. Thank you for recognizing this treasure of a being! IMO he was a philosopher first, comedic great second. Fabulous words ‘a crash course in Carlin is a treat for the mind.’ This is one of my fav Carlin skits, lightly edited:
    We’re so self-important. Everybody’s going to save something now. “Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save those snails.” And the greatest arrogance of all: “save the planet.” What? Are these f#&$ing people kidding me? Save the planet, we don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet! We don’t care for one another, we’re gonna save the planet? I’m getting tired of that sh$&. I’m tired of f#$&ing Earth Day. I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists, these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is that there aren’t enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos. Besides, environmentalists don’t give a sh$& about the planet. Not in the abstract, they don’t. You know what they’re interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They’re worried that some day in the future they might be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn’t impress me.
    The planet has been through a lot worse than us…earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!
    We’re going away. Pack your sh$& folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam … The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance.
    The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ’cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place. It wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old egocentric philosophical question, “Why are we here?”
    “Plastic… asshole.”

    • I think what makes this doc so compelling is seeing the development of a mind that was top tier from the get-go. He was funny, he used words ingeniously, but he was forced to reinvent himself over and over again and didn’t step away from the challenge. Oddly enough, his regale comedy partner Richard Pryor was a household name for me growing up, but all I knew about Carlin was growing up was Bill and Ted. And there are areas where his words strike home; as you say, putting the emphasis on us using plastic bags is nothing but thought-control, putting the guilt on ordinary people rather than those of make fortunes from decimating our planet. And if I say ‘our planet’, I mean the planet were are temporary custodians of, and making a real bodge of it. Sheer areangance to imagine we’re saving the planet, we’re the ones the planet needs saved from. I’m a Carlin novice, but watching this film made my brain tingle.

  5. He’s one of the people I wish was around today to make us laugh at some of the crazy things we’re doing . I don’t know much about his life, but have spent many a night on You Tube watching his clips. Will watch if/when it comes out on DVD.

    • While I’m not down with everything he says, some of his attitudes and insights are genuinely startling, and I’m now tracking down classic clips on YouTube. This doc really helpfully shows where the best stuff is, but the whole picture of Carlin, warts and all, is presented in a genuinely holistic manner!

  6. Hey, this was in the right place in the feed. Good job, you get a digital breakfast cutlet!

    I only saw Carlin in Bill & Ted and he fit in perfectly there. I really missed him in the final one 🙁

    • I think there was a point where Bill and Ted was all I knew him from. Anyone involved in that universe is OK by me.

  7. Is shit one of the seven words you can’t say on the Internets?

    I’ll look for this on DVD, if it comes out. Interesting how comedians have become our news anchors, public intellectuals, and politicians.

    had access all areas, helped to some famous

    • Sigh. I had to cut several of Carlin’s best lines from being quoted here; the first rule of the internets is that if you think it might cause offence, it will. This is a monumental piece of work, and well worth your time. carlin was ahead of his time, to coin a cliche, and goodness knows what he’d have thought of today’s ongoing rammy…

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