In HBO’s two-part documentary George Carlin’s American Dream, directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio chart the distinctive career of the bombastic iconoclast whose material frequently challenged the establishment and inspired generations of comedians who came up after him. From his early days as a straitlaced funnyman to his later years as a cantankerous observer of modern culture, Carlin’s comedy career is like no other. The directors spoke to THR about getting his family’s seal of approval, the treasure trove of archives at their disposal and why Carlin remains such a powerful voice 14 years after his death.
When did you first encounter George Carlin, and what did you think of his material?
JUDD APATOW I started listening to him when I was 9 or 10 years old. It was mind-blowing as a little kid, because so much of it was about questioning authority. And as Carlin said, that’s the one thing that parents don’t teach their kids, to question authority — because they are authority.
MICHAEL BONFIGLIO As a teenager, it was the greatest: He was saying all these things that you’re already feeling and questioning. To have a grown-up saying those things and articulating them in a way that my brain could take in was very exciting.
How did this film project begin?
APATOW I got a call from HBO asking if I was interested in doing something about Carlin. I was nervous because I didn’t know him personally. [His daughter] Kelly also told us that we needed to do something really bold and innovative, that her dad wouldn’t like some boring boilerplate approach. That also terrified me. Slowly, we realized it was a very personal story about their family and the challenges that they faced. He was dealing with his career, addiction, the ups and downs of his ride as a comic during many eras. We always knew we could talk about his politics and how they apply to the present day — that always seemed essential.
BONFIGLIO It was very clear from the onset that there’s a great documentary to be made about George Carlin. He had this incredible career, a personal life that nobody really knew much about and this massive trove of archival material from over half a century.
Was his family ready to participate and offer his archive as a resource?
APATOW It was only possible because Kelly wanted it to be completely honest. She never told us to protect him. And there were rough aspects to his life. He had a very serious cocaine addiction. He didn’t behave the way you would ever want a parent to behave for long periods of time. He encouraged his wife not to work, because he wanted her to take care of Kelly. That was all part of his journey as a man to mature and to evolve into a better person. These types of documentaries aren’t worth doing unless you can go all the way. And they did keep everything — there were recordings of him on cocaine, ranting in the middle of a six-day binge. There were letters apologizing for having substance abuse problems. That made that personal journey come alive, because he was someone who didn’t talk about any of that in his act.
In the film, Chris Rock argues that comedians are our era’s philosophers. On the other hand, Jerry Seinfeld says that a joke has never changed his mind. How do the two of you see Carlin in that respect? Was he a public intellectual with the power to influence an audience, or simply an entertainer?
APATOW In one of his notes, he wrote, “I just want the audience to know that I’ve been thinking.” He was definitely trying to stir the pot and make people consider issues from many angles. I don’t think he thought he was changing everybody’s mind. That wasn’t really his intention. Unfortunately, comedy doesn’t change people’s minds — I wish it would. I do think when you’re young, like I was [when] I was introduced to a mind like his, that it helps shape values and a way of examining the world.
BONFIGLIO There’s a place for comedy to push people to think differently, or to think bigger and broader. But comedy is not just philosophy — it has to be funny. And sometimes you have to sacrifice logic to get to the funny premise. Putting that pressure on comedians to be anything but funny is maybe asking too much.
You feature talking heads of different generations to speak to Carlin’s impact and influence. Did you find that someone like Sam Jay had a different perspective than a veteran like Seinfeld?
BONFIGLIO That diversity of people was always really important to us. Carlin influenced so many generations of people and a diversity of comedic styles. It was especially interesting to find somebody like Hasan Minhaj or Sam Jay, who discovered a different version of him than Seinfeld and Steven Wright [did]. It was a fascinating phenomenon that I don’t think is really true of very many other comics. He had so many different phases, and each of those phases influenced different people in different ways.
The film resists the easy temptation to imagine what Carlin would have to say about our current time. How did you avoid that?
BONFIGLIO It’s pointless to speculate. The world has changed a lot since George died, but it’s also very much the same. He already put out there what he thought about so many [topics].
APATOW He talked a lot about financial interests controlling the media and government. He was very worried about the influence of religion in politics. He was definitely pro-choice, for gun control. A lot of what’s happening in the country right now feels like the logical result of the large issues that he was concerned about. I don’t think something like January 6 would have surprised him, because he did feel like the country was getting out of control.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the July 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.