The harsh details of his biography are broken up by Carlin’s own best stand-up clips (including, of course, the legendary “7 Dirty Words” routine that shot him to superstardom in 1978.) Those incredibly clever, mostly hilarious bits are enhanced with insightful commentary from fellow comedians, including Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Bette Midler, Bill Burr and Patton Oswalt. What’s more, close-ups of his hand-written notes-to-self provide insight into Carlin’s thought process and working style. These glimpses feel revelatory. (One says simply: “ABORTION, GUNS, GOD and GAYS should be: JOBS, EDUCATION and HEALTHCARE.”) His love notes to Brenda Carlin, his wife of 36 years, also appear here, surprisingly intimate and sometimes shockingly gooey.
At the end of it all, one is left with the impression that Carlin’s famous caustic persona was the result of a perfect storm. High IQ plus unsatisfied idealism, plus deep sensitivity, plus rebellious spirit all added up to the George Carlin many of his peers and successors consider one of the greatest comedians of all time. And there is ample evidence in the documentary to convincingly back up that claim.
In one scene, Jon Stewart sums up the reason for Carlin’s longevity best. “I still refer to him all the time,” Stewart says. “Which for a comic… I mean, comedy is so ephemeral in so many ways. It takes him out of the class of pop star and puts him in the class of Bach and Beethoven and classicists—people that created something that was timeless because it wasn’t based on a moment, it was based on a deeper truth.”
George Carlin’s American Dream will expose you to myriad truths—about life, about comedy, about power, about pain. Some of them hurt, some of them entertain, but all, presented through Carlin’s eyes, feel inspiring, motivating and, frankly, like a kick in the ass. Even 14 years after his death, Carlin’s words still have the power to give us a jolt. It’s up to us now to figure out what to do with them.
‘George Carlin’s American Dream’ premieres on HBO Max on Friday, May 20 at 8pm. Details here.