“George Carlin’s American Dream” is an American comedy genius

My dad’s first serious girlfriend after he broke up with my mom was a dream come true for my twin sister, younger brother, and me. Kaye lived just down the block from my grandparents on the Upper West Side, a genial, welcoming woman, and owner of that enviable daily double from 1983: a VHS machine and cable TV (we also didn’t have my mother’s house for at least three years). My sister Sam and I turned twelve the summer Dad lived with Kaye, a cushy, temporary stopover for him. Their relationship didn’t survive the year, but was full of fun for us kids: Eddie Murphy’s Delusional (HBO); Young Frankenstein (VHS); and a documentary about Marilyn Monroe (VHS) which launched Sam’s lifelong fascination with the actress.

It’s also where we first met George Carlin. The one-two punch to see his HBO special, Pug at Carnegie (filmed 1982, broadcast 1983) and listening to his Grammy-winning album in 1972, FM and AM, came at a crucial time. Staying up late to hear swear words was more than an exciting novelty. It was the transition to a secret society. As a co-eldest, I didn’t have the benefit of having an older sibling, cousin, or friend to introduce me to cool bands, movies, magazines, attitudes, and ideas. Stepping into an adult world I didn’t understand, eager to develop my bullshit detector, Carlin provided a reassuring and avuncular presence. He was the bridge between Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor (never mind Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley) – the known and the forbidden.

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My father, born a few months after Carlin and growing up fifty blocks north, drank alcohol and had never done drugs. But he loved the comedian, and I watched closely as he listened to the album with us, studying what made him laugh the most. Divided into two parts, FM and AM was Carlin’s solo record. “He de-transformed into who he really was,” says Patton Oswalt in George Carlin’s American Dream, the stellar new two-part documentary from HBO directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio. (Part one begins airing tonight, May 20.) “It’s that big moment that every comedian wants to achieve…where the person you are offstage is the person you are onstage.”

“He was a road comedian until the day he died, his daughter, Kelly Carlin, says elsewhere in the production. The many milestones of Carlin’s fifty-plus-year career, including his origins as a class clown in a progressive Catholic school, his stints as a radio DJ, coffeehouse comedian, mainstream television comedian, and virtuoso of the long-running stand-up, unfold in this candid, glowing, and hard-hitting documentary. It is an overview of the life and times of a comedian. As Carlin has said many times, he wasn’t on anyone’s side, left or right. Group of all kinds gave him the jitters. But George Carlin’s American Dream is a corrective to any idea that it belongs to the right. He’s also particularly good at detailing Carlin’s case of obscenity in the early ’70s, and does a good job of admiring his subject without turning him into a martyr – that’s not lenny.

The first side of FM and AM begins with a routine on the word “shit” and details Carlin’s fall as a successful middle-class comedian. (“Bad breath, yeah… ‘Anyone can have bad breath, Marge, but you could knock a buzzard out of a shitwagon.'”) Tired of selling himself to an older Republican audience, he pushes his long hair and flourishes – culture cartoon performing in cafes and in colleges. His routines become longer and more flexible. This transformation, the call to be true to yourself – a lesson we had learned on sesame street– rang true, although at the time I heard FM and AM the counterculture was long gone. It didn’t matter. Pug’s unhurried delivery – funny, friendly, fun, and almost always melodic – seeped deep into my pores (to this day, I imitate Pug’s throwaway noises and sound effects). The second side, A Mdidn’t have the look of the curse, but was just as funny and satirical just lighter and faster, one of the biggest hits of Carlin’s work of the 60s.

Carlin was arrested for disorderly conduct and blasphemy for seven works he used in his act at Summerfest ’72 in Milwaukee.

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On FM and AM, Carlin questions conventional wisdom and distrusts authority. It examines obscenity, language and drug culture – not just recreational drugs, but common drugs such as alcohol and caffeine. He investigates pharmaceutical companies and how athletes use drugs. Also about sex, especially sex in advertising. It didn’t matter that most of the cigarette brands he ridiculed in 1971 no longer existed, the irony was true. Here is someone who made me question everything from the pronunciation of a word to the workings of government and big industry. Carlin broke the news to us – the world is incorrigibly corrupt, stupid and prone to evil – with indignation and compassion. We’ve listened to the record again and again, along with the masterpieces that followed, class clown (1972) and occupation: idiot (1973), which we have memorized. He was excellent company.

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We also loved Pug at Carnegie gig even though it was a departure from Carlin’s hippy-dippy persona. The hair cut short, the beard too, he looked thinner, energetic and grumpy. The “Hey, what are you saying?” sweetness replaced by a more restless face – sometimes really pissed off. Carlin’s anger was funny and understandable. It was the Reagan era, after all: the bad guys had won. Mellow wasn’t cutting it anymore. Irritation and indignation were the order of the day, even in his observational and non-political routines.

As we have just appreciated in George Carlin’s American Dream, here is an artist who is not afraid of tact with his time. A decade later, for example, at the height of the first Iraq War, Carlin’s 1992 special, Jammin’ in New York, is a brutal and severe tour de force. Carlin, now slightly stooped, unfurls a firestorm of social commentary and jokes in a stripped-back style befitting the post-Andrew Dice Clay/Howard Stern/Bill Hicks comedy moment.

What remained constant for Carlin was the thoroughness of his routines, or as Jerry Seinfeld marvels in HBO’s new work, “putting every word in the right place.” Carlin, after all, is a writer who has interpreted his material. The filmmakers cleverly use a trove of archival treasures, including home tape recordings (some wistful, some wacky but always hilarious), video footage, and journal entries. Just like in Apatow’s gripping 2018 documentary The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, we get a vivid evocation of the life and creative process of comics. He never veers too much inside baseball, although with Carlin the temptation is palpable; listen to this amazing 2002 interview with Larry Wilde to see how introspective, articulate and intelligent Carlin was in his writing and performance.

doctor george carlin
Kelly, George and Brenda Carlin.


Carlin’s tenderness is revealed in love letters to his first wife, Belinda – their story is heartbreaking and poignant – and in singing lullabies to his daughter, Kelly. They’re especially touching given the constant turmoil in Carlin’s private life. Abandoned by an abusive father, who died when Carlin was young, raised by an overbearing and self-centered scene mother, Carlin struggled with addiction for years. He admitted to living life from the neck down, forever disconnected from his emotions, the darkness never far from the surface. He once sent his older brother a small manila envelope, on which he wrote: “For those days when everything gets you down. Inside was a photograph of their father’s gravestone. Kelly Carlin, in fact, often seemed like the only adult in the room. And in her interviews, she’s an indulgent yet steely-eyed observer, a realist – the heart and soul of the documentary.

In his later years, Carlin’s material was unforgiving and dark, his sense of betrayal and disappointment in the world complete (Carlin would have loved French-Belgian comic artist André Franquin’s late-career comic strip, Dark thoughts). Only a true believer would care so much. I watched Carlin from afar in his last decades, appreciated his evolution, was impressed by his drive and discipline, and never regretted his disappointment with humanity or his deep pessimism. If he didn’t make me laugh as much, that’s okay – it didn’t mean he was any less funny. I had grown up; didn’t need him the way I did when I was a kid. And when I do, it’s forever waiting to rekindle my faith in curiosity, observation, love, and what’s really funny.

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