‘George Carlin’s American Dream’ reminds us the comedian could be a riot while also being right

Documentary on HBO digs up a treasure trove of great performances and artifacts but doesn’t sugarcoat his problems.

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George Carlin was adept at both lightweight comedy and Big Picture Statements.

Estate of George Carlin/HBO

On any given day you might see “George Carlin” trending on Twitter even though the legendarily impactful comedian has been gone for some 14 years, as someone will unearth a vintage Carlin routine that fits their agenda in order to say, “See? George Carlin saw this all coming! And he was on MY side!”

One of the reasons Carlin remains so timely today is we’re still facing the very issues and controversies that have plagued this country for decades, so yes, as the new HBO two-part documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream” reminds us, there’s a treasure trove of material in which Carlin offers up his brilliantly constructed commentary on war, race, abortion, religion, politics, you name it.

Carlin on climate change: “The planet isn’t going anywhere, WE are. We’re going away. Pack your s--- folks, we’re going away.”

‘George Carlin’s American Dream’

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A documentary airing in two parts, from 7 to 8:55 p.m. Friday and Saturday on HBO, and available Friday on HBO Max.

Carlin on war: “We like war … because we’re good at it. And it’s good thing we are, we’re not very good at anything else anymore.… Can’t educate our young people, can’t get health care to our old people, but we can bomb the s--- of your country all right!”

Carlin on abortion: “Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you … no neonatal care, no day care … no school lunch, no food stamps. … If you’re pre-born, you’re fine, if you’re preschool, you’re f---ed.”

No doubt Carlin’s observations are as relevant as ever in 2022, and that’s all laid out in the entertainingly comprehensive documentary from Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio—but I also love that this film is the definitive reminder that whether Carlin was making Big Picture Statements or engaging in relatively lightweight stand-up antics, he was flat-out effing funny. With his rubbery face and his gift for mimicry and creating believable characters with just a few lines of dialogue, Carlin was one of the most magnetic personalities ever to grace the stand-up stage. He made us think, but his true gift was in making us LAUGH.

Employing a refreshingly linear chronology and allowing the clips and home audio recordings to speak for themselves, directors Apatow and Bonfiglio take us through Carlin’s rollercoaster career, from his early days as a traditional stand-up comic through his transformation to counter-culture hippie commentator through a number of professional and personal ups and downs. We see snippets of Carlin’s handwritten notes and glean invaluable, admirably honest and often quite moving insights from Carlin’s daughter, Kelly. Comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Burr, Patton Oswalt, Chris Rock, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart offer thoughtful reflections on Carlin’s work and his legacy, and we’re treated to a steady stream of clips from Carlin’s guest appearances on talk shows and his specials.

There is no sugarcoating Carlin’s problems with addiction or the darkness that threatened to overtake his comedy in his later years, when his anger and disappointment with the human race sometimes superseded the comedy. (Carlin’s final, posthumous album was actually titled, “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die.”) Mostly, though, this is a celebration of an incredibly smart, undeniably funny man who had an amazing way with words—and a beautiful, lifelong disdain for any powerful institution or individual that oppressed and exploited others.

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