GEORGE CARLIN'S AMERICAN DREAM. Given his insistence on examining words and everything else in context, it would be disrespectful to talk about the comedic life and legacy of George Carlin without noting the moment in which the HBO documentary about him debuts. OK, wait — there's too much. Let's just look at comedy. Last week, comic John Mulaney surprised his audience in Ohio by bringing out recent NIMBY convert Dave Chappelle, who reportedly leaned into his transphobic period, as his opening act. Then Ricky Gervais dropped a competitively anti-trans bit. Before they respond to the backlash by declaring themselves sacred vessels of free speech and decrying "cancel culture," all three of these men (none of whom seem to be struggling for gigs in the wake of previous personal and professional criticism) would do well to watch the two-part documentary on Carlin directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio. Though it's unlikely they'll see how making transgender people, who are already subject to discrimination and violence, the butt of their jokes looks in comparison to punching up at church, state and corporate power. Nor is it likely seeing another comic arrested for obscenity or at the center of a U.S. Supreme Court case about regulation of indecent speech will show them that the "censorship" they believe themselves to be suffering at the hands of the "woke mob" is merely dispersed booing. But Carlin offers a vital example for comedians in his willingness to challenge himself, not just his audience.
George Carlin's American Dream draws on interviews with family and comedians (W. Kamau Bell, Jon Stewart, Chris Rock, Patton Oswalt, Bette Midler and others) archival footage, performance clips, old home audio, as well as an abundance of the comedian's notes, enlivened by animation of his scribbles and annotations. Carlin's delightfully foul-mouthed brother Patrick helps flesh out his childhood, including their mother's escape from their violent, alcoholic father, growing up with other Irish American Catholic kids in Morningside Heights and swimming in the filthy Hudson River. We learn how George came by his distrust of authority (Catholic school and the U.S. Air Force) and got into radio, teaming up with Jack Burns. We meet his first wife and greatest booster Brenda via old interviews and letters home describing touring coffeehouses flat broke before landing steady work on TV variety shows, doing ostensibly wholesome comic skits in a suit and tie. When that façade became unbearable, things get interesting and Carlin starts working as his authentic self, turning his analytical mind toward the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and the intergenerational upheaval of the times. Stephen Colbert comments that Carlin's transformation from straight-laced jokes to counter-culture commentary is something like the Beatles going from "Love Me Do" to The White Album (dropping acid, it turns out, was involved in both). It's not Carlin's last evolution, either, and we see him go from a firebrand tackling birth control, war and drugs on Flip Wilson's record label to tame observational word games before realizing he has to push himself to find his voice again. And yes, we hear a lot of the seven words you can't say on TV.
There are setbacks and comebacks and enough cocaine to make one marvel at his making it to 2008 before his fatal heart attack. Brenda, too, struggles with substance abuse as an alcoholic and cocaine user. And there are scenes of the couple talking both honestly and dishonestly about their addictions and the damage it did to their lives, the latter echoed in interview with their daughter Kelly Carlin. The family's emergence from this grim and terrifying era is told with George and Brenda's love story as its central thread and its happy ending, at least until Brenda's death.
That Carlin is still so steadily referenced now on social media and elsewhere is testimony both to his keen insights and our country's continued infatuation with drugs (legal and otherwise), "bombing brown people," capitalism, corporate power over government, police brutality, guns, the hypocrisy of the founding fathers and organized religion. Carlin's late material, having taken a disturbingly dark and misanthropic (OK, more misanthropic) turn after Brenda's death can be hard to hear, as he pretends (?) glee at disaster and death, and tells Charlie Rose he has opted to no longer emotionally invest in how things turn out for the world and its people. Whether it was a cathartic release of rage or true surrender to hopelessness is open to speculation.
But again, context: As I typed this review, news broke that an 18-year-old gunman in Uvalde, Texas, killed 18 children and three adults. Only 10 days ago, an 18-year-old racist white gunman killed 10 Black people at a market in Buffalo, New York. It feels, in the wake of this particularly American horror, repeated again and again and spurring no meaningful action from our leadership, a monumental act of willful optimism that Carlin called out while bidding his audience goodnight, "Take care of yourself. And take care of somebody else." It's unlikely but worth asking for. TVMA. 215M. HBO MAX.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.
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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.