George Carlin is a comedic genius, a brilliant mind with a profound understanding of the human experience. His work remains shockingly relevant, and we need him. Now more than ever.
Arguably, the timelessness of Carlin’s ideas is the central thesis behind the two-part documentary, George Carlin’s American Dream, which chronicles the life, comedy, and legacy of the pioneering, boundary-pushing performer.
Through the use of archival footage paired with interviews with family, friends, and famous faces, directors Michael Bonfiglio and Judd Apatow bring forth a new, deeper understanding of the famously private legend—who he was and the forces that brought him to the forefront of a changing cultural landscape. And explore how Carlin’s insights continue to shape comedy today.
Here Bonfiglio and Apatow explain how their appreciation for Carlin’s work led them to an unprecedented celebration of his legacy.
Awards Daily: Let me just start by saying congratulations on your Emmy nomination.
Michael Bonfiglio: Thank you!
Judd Apatow: We’re so excited mainly because we hoped that the documentary would connect with people. It felt like a lot of George’s ideas were important for people to hear right now. So just the idea that it’s getting out there and being seen a lot is what we’re most happy about.
You know, unfortunately, so much of what he’s talking about matters right now. We wish it didn’t, but he’s definitely talking about a lot of the debates we’re having in this country, at this moment, like Roe vs. Wade, gay marriage, the environment, all the international politics, war. So hopefully, people will watch it, and it will help them form their own opinion.
MB: In the context of the Emmys, what’s neat is that Carlin never won an Emmy. So it’s kind of cool that the film about him is in contention. He was nominated a couple of times, but he never won, so he has another chance.
AD: You’ve found this microniche in your careers with documentaries that dig into these iconic comedians—deconstructing them and their history and lives. How did those previous experiences help prepare you for this? And I just wonder, when you come out of a project, how does that cause you to reflect on your own comedy or other films you’re making? What lessons do you carry away? How do those two things feed one another?
MB: Yeah. I think you always try to bring things that you learn on various projects into everything that you do. Having done a couple of films, looking at the lives of comedians was obviously helpful, going into thinking about telling the George Carlin story. But then it’s also important, I think, to look at what’s different about each of these artists and human beings. I think Garry Shandling and George Carlin were extremely different from one another. Patrice O’Neal, who I did a film about, and George Carlin – extremely different from one another, but all do kind of the same jobs, you know, make us laugh, make us think. And so obviously, I think those previous experiences helped, but you always try to look at each project as an individual undertaking and be true to that particular subject.
JA: I’m always inspired by people who continue to look for ways to challenge themselves and challenge the audience. People like George Carlin were always looking to go deeper and discover more about the human condition. There are people who rest on their laurels, and George Carlin was not one of them. You could say there were five distinct sections in his career because he was always evolving and growing. And it certainly encourages me and other people in comedy to continue to try to get better and be more thoughtful.
AD: How would you describe the George Carlin story? And to that end, did you have an idea of what you wanted to tell from the beginning? Or did you let your footage and your interview sort of shape the ultimate piece?
MB: A little of both. I think that because George Carlin has been gone for 14 years now, we did have the ability to kind of look back at his life in totality and bring some preconceived ideas to the story. One of the things that we wanted to do all along was to show Carlin within the context of the culture that he grew up in, that he forged his work and life in, and how he shaped the culture and how the culture shaped him. You know, he was simultaneously reflecting American culture, and he was also helping shape it. And so that was something that we talked about really wanting to explore, right from the beginning.
AD: Judd, can you tell me a little bit more about that from your perspective, who George was, and the story you wanted to tell?
JA: There are usually a few stories we track at the same time. One is the career story. The other is the family story – the one he came from and the one that he was a part of when he got married and had his daughter, Kelly. And then, we show how he evolved as a person throughout his life, and what he learned. I think we were most interested in trying to understand who he was because his standup act was not an exploration of his life. He made observational jokes. He was a social critic. He did a lot of silly comedy, but he also did heavy political comedy – but none of it was an examination of his own feelings or his own experiences. So all of that was a mystery to us, and we thought that the audience would want to know who this guy was, who they’ve been listening to for so long. Because it’s pretty rare, especially in this era, that people don’t give up the story. You know, now we know everything about everyone; there are a zillion podcasts, people do thousands of interviews. So he was one of the last people that really kept most of his life private.
AD: You do have interviews with family and with friends. How did you approach building that trust, in order to have that collaboration take place?
MB: Well, you know, George actually had a very, very small family. His daughter, his brother, and his widow are the only ones. He also has a nephew, Patrick, his brother’s son, who we did speak with, but we didn’t end up including in the film – not for any specific reason, it just didn’t seem to fit. I think everybody was willing to speak to us. It didn’t take a whole lot of convincing. I think that everybody wanted to talk about George. He clearly had a really profound effect on the people in his life, and people seemed very willing to talk about that. We had basically almost everything that exists, everything that we could find, everything that we could get our hands on. Having the film supported by the estate, having Kelly Carlin and Jerry Hamza as executive producers, and having the cooperation of Sally Wade basically gave us entry into all of George’s personal stuff, that we could find, that people are aware that exists. And George was a hoarder; he kept everything. And so it was really exciting to able to dig into those materials and be able to present them in the film.
AD: So how did you approach coursing through all of that material?
JA: We had a lot of people working on this, and Joe Beshenkovsky has an incredible mind for being able to watch and absorb material and remember it. Six months after he’s looked at an interview, if we said, ‘Did George Carlin ever talk about what it felt like having a heart attack?’ he could go, ‘Oh, there was this interview on Larry King. This is what he said.’ And it was just one skill that allowed so much more to happen because it is an avalanche of videos, audio, and journals. [Laughs] someone needs to be really good at remembering everything, and it’s definitely not me. So, that’s a big part of the process. We’re very lucky to get to work with Joe, who’s a brilliant editor. We worked with him on The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. And we felt that the key to the entire project was the estate and his daughter, Kelly, wanting us to be truthful. Because a lot of times, I think the family wants you to create a version of the subject that doesn’t say anything negative about them. But it was important to her to say, ‘You know, this is what he went through, this is what he struggled with. These were the mistakes he made. This is what he learned from them.’ And because we had that support, we were able to go as deep as we could.
MB: It’s hard [laughter]. You know, we had a really talented team. Our editor, Joe Beshenkovsky, is brilliant. Joe and I would just have a lot of conversations about what was important to us, and what we felt needed to be explored. Carlin lived into his seventies, and even with the luxurious running time of nearly four hours, you can never fit someone’s entire life into a film – even a two-part film like ours. We tried to focus on the things that were most revealing of who Carlin was and what he was about, what was funny to us; and what the broader things are that he had to say that still resonate strongly today, that audiences can connect with. So it’s a very challenging undertaking, but one that we really enjoyed digging into.
AD: Was there something that you were particularly excited about being able to include?
MB: There are a number of things that I felt very excited to be able to include. Some of them were little tiny things: like the letterhead that he used in the early sixties before anybody knew who he was and he’s traveling around the country trying to make it as a comedian. The letterhead that has his mother’s home address on it – that was a cool little thing to discover. There are his notes in his paperback copy of the book “Jurassic Park,” where he has the moment of realization, his iconic piece that ‘The planet is fine, the people are fucked!’. That concept occurred to him while he was reading “Jurassic Park” and we have the notes there in the margins, the genesis of that piece that came out of that. There were so many tiny, little interesting things that were really fun to include.
AD: There’s an ongoing conversation happening now about the relationship between comedy and political correctness’; how do you think George and his comedy fit into that shifting cultural landscape that he was such a big part of? I think George Carlin is an excellent example of someone who was genuinely very, very funny, but also way ahead of his time and very edgy.
JA: He definitely made it clear when he was around that he thought that taking away words was much more dangerous than too many words. He came from the time when people went to jail for saying certain things on stage. He was arrested for causing a public disturbance because he said the seven words you can’t say on television. They didn’t arrest him because there was a public disturbance; they arrested him because certain people were offended. And he was later not charged. The same routine went all the way to the Supreme Court in a debate about what was okay to hear on the radio when children might be listening. He used to say, ‘If you don’t like it, change the channel. That’s what the knob is there for.’ But he wasn’t around at a time when they were algorithms, and people were force-fed content that they’re not necessarily looking for. It’s a very different time. There weren’t YouTube and Facebook wormholes that sent you into conspiracy land when he was around. So, we don’t really know what he would say about this moment with the media and political correctness. He definitely was someone who thought we should be able to debate things and offend each other occasionally. And his comedy was meant to do a lot of things. But one of them was to take a hard look at people who are in power and how they affect our lives. He tried to stand up for people in his work. But there are certainly routines that would not be approved of today, and probably ones that he wouldn’t approve of today.
MB: I think that the main thing when looking at Carlin is that his guiding principles were always his values. And when he crossed lines, he did it consciously. I mean, there’s certainly some material that hasn’t aged tremendously well. My personal opinion, based on some of the things that he did in his evolutions throughout his life and career, is that he probably would have changed with the times. There’s an example of a piece that he did – it’s really just a line. But in the early eighties – and I might get it slightly wrong – the line was: ‘Did you ever notice how most of the women who are against abortion are women you wouldn’t want to fuck in the first place?’ And a couple of years later, he did that same line, but he changed it to ‘Did you ever notice how people who are against abortion are people you wouldn’t want to fuck in the first place?’ And I don’t know why he made that change, because he didn’t specifically say anything about it, or we didn’t find anything in his notes, but I can speculate that he realized that saying ‘women’ in the first version was not really what he wanted to say. That it was not the idea that he wanted to get out there. And so he changed it, and Carlin was so careful with words that I have to believe that that was a deliberate change. He changed it to ‘people’ because he realized that was a better joke; it hit the idea that he wanted to hit better. So I personally think that he would have continued to evolve. We don’t know exactly how, but he was always conscious of the power of words. And he talked about that a lot, and he always was conscious of intent versus just content. So I wish that we had his voice now to weigh in on some of the current issues, particularly regarding speech and comedy.
AD: And how conscious do you think he was of his public persona? And do you think he felt any sort of responsibility for the big role he had within our culture at the time?
MB: I don’t know. I know he said he didn’t want to try and make people think – that was not his goal. But he wanted them to know that he was thinking. And there’s a difference there, you know? So I don’t know whether he was consciously aware of the responsibility he did or didn’t have. I think he recognized that when he spoke, people listened, and I think he knew that people didn’t always agree with what he said. Certainly, when it’s anything he’s doing on stage, it’s a performance, and there can be positions that are taken for comedic effect and dramatic effect, which may not have been exactly what he felt at any given moment. They may not have been taken if he didn’t have that layer of performance involved. Who knows, really? But what I do think he made clear throughout his life were his values and the fundamental values of human beings not doing enough to take care of one another. He talked about how, as a species, we’ve prioritized profit over people and competition over cooperation. And he felt that those were fundamental errors in human behavior.
AD: Earlier you mentioned, George Carlin’s role within the culture. And I just wonder how you feel about that now? How would you describe his legacy and his ultimate footprint?
JA: As a person, I think the most important and lasting legacy was that he was someone who came from a traumatic childhood and had a lot of challenges as a result of that – challenges with addiction, with learning how to be a good husband and a good parent. And he worked and fought through and evolved and grew to overcome a lot of those challenges. So that’s what I think is most inspiring about his life as an artist. He used to say, ‘I just want people to know I’ve been thinking,’ and he thought it was very important that people question authority, and he looked very closely at what was happening. He didn’t take a lot of things at face value. That’s why a lot of his routines hold up so well: because he was questioning what was happening at a time when a lot of people took certain things for granted. And now he seems like someone who tried to warn us, and now we’re seeing results of ignoring those works.
MB: Well, I think his legacy is really broad. He’s affected so many parts of our culture in many different ways; I think certainly in terms of comedy. We’ve spoken with so many different comedians of different generations and different comedic styles who were all influenced by various elements of Carlin’s work. As far as things outside of comedy, I think one of the things that we were excited about with this film, from the beginning, was the fact that every few weeks or so, people on social media are sharing clips of Carlin talking about current day issues. That’s a pretty unique thing for a comedian who has not given us any new work in like 15 years. That’s very unique. And so I think people are still finding things in his work that resonates today, and that’s very powerful and it’s very unique.
In regards to what people take away [from the film] is, one thing is that Carlin is not forgotten. I think in our culture now, when there’s just so much content and so many choices of things, and the culture moves so quickly, we want to make sure that Carlin is remembered. Even somebody as iconic as him always risks being lost.
And then, more important than that, we want people to take away why he is still remembered – his artistic journey, what it said about our culture, and what it said about where we’re now, where his ideas still have so much relevance and are important to talk about. So, there are just so many exciting things I think about this film that we hope people take away.
AD: Judd, you mentioned wanting to take on new projects and push yourself. And looking to people who you feel inspired by. And I just wondered, in terms of your own comedy and filmmaking, how have you evolved with age? And where do you think you are now? What are you looking to do?
JA: I’m not sure. I’m probably in some period of transition, which I don’t understand yet. I’m trying to be open to the next idea that I’m very passionate about. The most important thing for me in my creative life is to only do things I really care about. I try not to do anything just to make something. I’m usually not sure why I’m doing something, and then when it’s done, or years after it’s done, it makes sense why, at that moment, I felt like putting years into developing this.
AD: Is there an example of that that you can share?
JA: Well, I worked for several years on the Garry Shandling documentary. And on one level, it was about my friend and his life, but it was probably a way for me to work through my grief about losing a friend and a mentor. And then, as years go by, you realize that examining his struggles and what he learned, or was trying to learn, was a way for me to try to learn something that would help me get to a place in my development. Thinking about George, and how he overcame so much and continued to do great work very late in life is very inspiring for me. Because I feel like hopefully, we all can use whatever wisdom we have to get better, not just burn out and become a bore. As George Carlin said, ‘I don’t want to be sitting around freezing to death’. And he used it to get even stronger.
AD: Michael, what about you? Do you have another project brewing about another icon? As you mentioned, there are lessons from your previous work that you bring to other projects. So is there something that you learned from this project that you’ll bring into your next deep dive?
MB: I think that’s still to be determined. I learn stuff on every single project, and sometimes it’s not even quite clear what you learned until you find yourself in your next situation, and you realize, ‘Oh wait! That’s a lesson I can take from the last thing.’ And in terms of what the next project is, I don’t really have anything to announce now.
George Carlin’s American Dream is available via HBO.