Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio dissect the career of legend George Carlin – Deadline

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Today, beards are mundane, unremarkable facial shrubs. Even a figure as conservative as Senator Ted Cruz sports one.

But 50 years ago, a man choosing to wear a beard sent a political message. It signaled a participation in the counterculture, a disregard for orthodoxy. George Carlin captured the threatening act of going bearded in a routine included in his 1972 comedy album FM and AM.

“Here is my beard. Isn’t it weird? Don’t be hassled, it’s just a beard,” he riffed, continuing, “That’s the thing. The word “beard” shook a lot of people. BEARD! It’s not an American sound. BEARD! Lenin had a BEARD!

Carlin told his audience that he grew a beard and grew out his hair around 1971. It was a transgressive act that marked a turning point in his life and career, going from a stripped-down cartoonist to an acerbic watcher. that defines culture. Without him making this fundamental change, we wouldn’t be talking about Carlin today, and Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio wouldn’t have made the two-part biographical documentary about him for HBO, George Carlin’s American Dream.

“He figured out how to be successful by selling himself a bit trying to be on TV and be safe,” Apatow says, referring to the previous 1960s iteration of Carlin – clean-shaven, combed hair, straitjacket in a Mad Mensuit and narrow tie style. “Then he finally decided, no, I have to be me. And he decided to go against the grain. And that’s when he found his greatest success was when he was true to himself.

Judd Apatow (left) and Michael Bonfiglio.
Lev Radin/Everett Collection

The Emmy-nominated film documents Carlin’s less-than-idyllic childhood in an upscale New York neighborhood (Carlin would note that he and his friends called the neighborhood “White Harlem” because it “seemed tougher” than its windier nomenclature, Morningside Heights). Perhaps he was destined to be an actor because his father looked amazingly like WC Fields. His Irish-born father was an alcoholic, and Carlin’s mother separated from him when George was a child, raising George and his older brother Patrick alone.

“His trajectory is the story of a classic comedian,” says Apatow, the acclaimed director of knocked up and The 40 year old virgin. “He comes from a toxic family, a childhood where his brother was abused by his father and his mother had to run away. I’m sure that made him wonder how the world works.

The filmmakers interviewed Carlin’s older brother, Patrick, who died earlier this year at the age of 90.

“Yeah, he was stoned,” Bonfiglio recalled of that encounter. “Patrick was a daily pot smoker. He’s a fascinating guy, absolutely hilarious and a real muse to George… They’ve been very, very close their whole lives. It’s been a real privilege to have his perspective, in particular about things like their childhood together, and Patrick knew their father and George never knew him.

Even before he reached his teens, Carlin was doing mock radio newscasts and pretending to make play-by-play baseball announcements. Carlin’s daughter, Kelly, gave Apatow and Bonfiglio the key to her father’s voluminous archive.

“He had a tape recorder when he was a kid in the 1940s. He would record little routines and things and he would keep it all,” Bonfiglio notes. “George was really an obsessive hoarder. it’s like a dream come true. We were really able to allow George to tell his own story.

After a stint in the Air Force (Carlin was “invited” to leave the U.S. Army), he became a disc jockey, then formed a comedy crew with fellow DJ, Jack Burns. They played together for a relatively brief period, but the documentary notes the significant role Burns played in shaping Carlin’s political outlook.

“Jack Burns was a very progressive person,” says Apatow. “I guess for the first time in Carlin’s life he thought, Oh, maybe when you’re funny it should be about something you care about. You should try to say something. And he started experimenting with Jack, with not only silly sketches, but also political satire.

Carlin became a very successful solo act but did not fully blossom creatively until an experiment gave up LSD.

“I started taking acid and mescaline, and suddenly I could see things differently,” Carlin explains in the documentary. “What I really was was an outlaw and a rebel who was swimming against what the establishment wants from us. And that person was deleted.

Carlin always displayed amazing verbal dexterity (a fan letter describes him as a “general semantics comic”), but in this era of social upheaval in the late 1960s and 1970s, he turned into something even bigger. – an incisive commentator on the fundamental structure of American society.

A 1972 appearance by Carlin in San Diego is included in the film where he references Muhammad Ali resuming his boxing career, after being banned from the sport for several years for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.

“For three years the cat could not work – Muhammad Ali,” he said. “And, of course, he had an unusual job: beating people up. But the government wanted him to change jobs. The government wanted him to kill people… The government got mean. They said, ‘Look, if you don’t kill them, we won’t let you beat them.’ »

“For the most part, he didn’t make jokes about what happened that day in politics…He tried to talk about the big picture. I think that’s why the material holds up,” says Apatow. “He talks about the root of what is wrong with the country and what is wrong with the way people behave. He was talking about the environment in the late 60s, in a way that people are just starting to do now. And he was very aware of the problem of the danger to the right to choose women… I think that’s why his material holds up, unlike a lot of comedians whose material is getting old.

Apatow notes that when the United States Supreme Court’s draft opinion reversing Roe v. Wade leaked recently, commentators immediately revisited a Carlin snippet from previous years. In an HBO comedy special, Carlin observed, “Man, these preservatives are really something, aren’t they? They are all in favor of the unborn child. They will do anything for the unborn child. But once you’re born, you’re on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know anything about you anymore.

“Everyone looked to George Carlin for what he said about it,” marvels Apatow. “I was fascinated that there wasn’t another comedian’s routine going around. It wasn’t just that George Carlin had an article that summed up a lot of what we all think. was that no one else has a competitive piece. He was just on a whole different level.

George Carlin

Carlin with his daughter Kelly, left, and his wife Brenda.
Courtesy of George Carlin’s Estate/HBO

Apatow won the Emmy for Best Nonfiction Documentary or Special for his 2018 film. The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. He had been very close to Shandling, working with him on The Larry Sanders Show. Apatow didn’t know Carlin on that level but interacted with him decades ago.

“I interviewed him for Canadian TV in the early 90s, and I remember him being so caring and kind,” Apatow recalled. “He wasn’t someone trying to be funny in that context. He saved that for the stage…He was just a kind, deep thinker.

A few years earlier, Apatow had helped produce Comic Relief, a fundraising effort by top comedians to fight poverty. Carlin starred in a Comic Relief special in the mid-1980s.

“I was so blown away that on that telethon he did this remarkable, insightful, hilarious routine,” Apatow recalled, “how golf is a racist game where white people come together to carve up the country and screw up people and we should give the golf courses to the homeless and it was very exciting to witness that.

Bonfiglio, who shared an Emmy with Apatow for the documentary Garry Shandling, cherishes one of Carlin’s routines related to the environment. He quotes: “’The planet is fine. People are screwed. To me, it’s just such amazing writing, insight and performance. When you look at this in [George Carlin’s American Dream] and you listen to the audience, they’re not sure where it’s going because it takes you on such a ride… It’s so deep and insightful. This is probably my favorite piece from him.

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Read the digital edition of Deadline’s Emmy Comedy magazine here.

There are so many choices. There’s “The Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television,” “My Stuff vs. Your Shit,” or his observation, in a 1992 comedy special, that America no longer makes much but still excels at war: “We can bomb your country’s shit, okay. Especially if your country is full of brown people. Oh, we love that, don’t we? It’s our hobby… Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Libya. You have brown people in your country, tell them to beware.

Carlin suffered three heart attacks over the years and died of heart failure in 2008 at the age of 71. Some say he became embittered about America as he got older. It’s a matter of opinion, but unquestionably he had soured on our species.

“He had contempt for the choices he saw people make,” says Bonfiglio. “And you see in the film the evolution of that disappointment… He didn’t see any progress. He continued to see people, as he said, choosing competition over cooperation and seeing his fellow human beings treat each other badly. The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer… He was aware of his own mortality for a time after his heart attacks and realized he was not going to live to see a better world. He wasn’t going to live long enough to see humans behaving any better. And I think he was angry about it.

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