‘George Carlin’s American Dream’ Director on Sharing ‘Profound’ Comedian’s Story

George Carlin
Herb Ball/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

On an HBO special in 1978, George Carlin reminded us that “They say the nicest things about you when you die; your popularity goes straight up. They’ll even make stuff up if they have to: ‘Well, he was a real a–hole, but he meant well.’”

George Carlin’s American Dream, a two-part deep dive into Carlin’s nearly 50-year career in stand-up proves he needs no such help. In the 14 years since his passing from heart failure at 71, his uniquely caustic perspective on life feels ever more relevant. “Every time something happens in the news, George Carlin’s name starts trending on Twitter,” says codirector Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The King of Staten Island). “And unlike most comedy, which doesn’t age well, his material feels more prophetic and profound.”

George Carlin

(Credit: Courtesy of George Carlin’s Estate/HBO)

The great gift of American Dream is that it delves into the distinctly divided personal and professional sides of Carlin’s life. As a comedian, the man who Apatow maintains “is on our Mount Rushmore” had at least four incarnations: tie-clad traditional joke-teller; long-haired superstar class clown celebrant with a penchant for profanity; the ultimate linguist who explored words and their meanings; and the angry old man who brought you face-to-face with hard truths. Meanwhile, he maintained a loving marriage with his wife Brenda even as they dealt with addiction (alcohol for her, cocaine for him) and long separations.

“The story is told through the eyes of his daughter, Kelly, who was very close with her father but also went through a harrowing childhood,” Apatow says. “She became that voice.” Carlin’s insightful older brother Patrick, who died last month at 90, is also interviewed, as are fans like Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Bill Burr, Jon Stewart, Bette Midler, and Chris Rock.

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In American Dream, Carlin is celebrated as the comedic voice for generations, fighting the Supreme Court over the “seven words you can’t say on television” in the 1970s and helping kids find their way
in life. “His comedy was important to me growing up,” says Apatow. “In a way, it programs a young comedy person’s mind about how to examine the world through this comedic lens. He was a lot of little kids’ secret friend.”

George Carlin’s American Dream, Documentary Premiere, Friday, May 20, and Saturday, May 21, 8/7c, HBO