Judd Apatow discusses his HBO documentary: “Carlin was so loved and respected by the comics”
One of the most intimidating documentaries to tackle is the life of George Carlin. The late, iconic comedian was not only a complex individual, but his fascinating existence also featured a number of different acts.
Carlin, who was as much a philosopher as an artist, continually reinvented himself during his extraordinary journey from 1959 as a stripped-down comic until his death in 2008 as a counterculture icon. Carlin, who died aged 71 in 2008, was a blacksmith, a loner, a social engineer, a faithful husband and father and much more.
Writer, director and producer Judd Apatow and director Michael Bonfiglio crafted the two-part, four-hour documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream,” which debuted May 20 on HBO and details the life of Mark Twain from the 20th century.
Apatow, 54, explains what surprised him about the project, what he wished he could have included in the documentary and what made him nervous about the project.
I heard about your documentary shortly after you contacted me in March 2020 when you read my article on Carlin and the pandemic, and requested the audio of my interviews with Carlin.
(Laughs) yes. We were looking for as much Carlin content as possible.
Carlin is fascinating. As Jon Stewart points out in your documentary, most comedy is fleeting, but much of Carlin’s work from a generation ago, particularly around abortion, gun rights and a America Divided, is just as relevant today.
Yeah (laughs). It’s true. George Carlin was a great comedian. He said topical things, but he talked about things in a broader way. He has the best routine on all subjects of political and social life.
But it’s so rare. I can’t think of a comedian who quite compares to Carlin, who was as much a philosopher as a humorist.
When you make jokes about everyday events, those jokes quickly fade away, no matter how brilliant. He wanted to talk about systemic issues. He talked about military spending, abortion rights, civil rights and gun rights. People don’t come back and listen to Lenny Bruce or even Bill Hicks anymore. And Bill Hicks was hilarious, but his material doesn’t resonate today.
But George’s rants about our rights feel like he could have written the tracks yesterday.
Yes. When he talks about Roe v. Wade, it’s like that since Roe v. Wade is attacked. He points out that these are not rights, they are privileges, and we have fewer and fewer of them every day.
When I interviewed Carlin, he was proud to see that he shunned the Hollywood scene.
You haven’t seen George Carlin anywhere in Hollywood. You would never meet him at a party. You might see it in a restaurant. But he was very nice with the actors. He was very nice. George was not looking to attend Hollywood parties and was trying to make those connections to his detriment. He was outside. He loved to play and be his own boss. Comedians do it today with their shows and podcasts.
What did you learn while making the documentary that surprised you about Carlin?
Little did I know that when he first saw Sam Kinison he felt he needed to up his game. That was an incredible detail. George decided to dig deeper, and he had another 20 amazing years after that.
The common denominator between Carlin and Kinison is that they were both fearless.
We need our actors to be brave.
Has anyone refused to be interviewed?
No. Carlin was so loved and respected by the comics. I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I’m not a Pug guy.”
You effectively conveyed through your interviews with comedians that Carlin offers something to every comedian.
I wanted to represent all aspects of his comedy. It’s interesting how the comics react to Pug. Jerry Seinfeld loved Carlin as a wordsmith. Jerry loved his sense of observation. Bill Burr and Chris Rock are in his ideas and political statements. Bette Midler, who was his first part (in the early 1970s), learned a lot from him about creative bravery.
The “American Dream” interviews you did with Rock, Stewart and Seinfeld are enlightening. But such discussions with comics are nothing new to you since you’ve been interviewing top comics since you were a high school student. You could have become a journalist.
I was the director of my high school radio station and I was doing interviews at the time. I continued to interview my favorite comics for my book “Sick in the Head” and the follow-up “Sicker in the Head”. These books are the closest thing to my career as a journalist.
You’ve made a number of acclaimed films, such as ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘This Is 40’, but you’ve also created a number of gripping documentaries, such as ‘The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling’ and ‘May It Last. “. : A portrait of the Avett brothers. Are you more enthusiastic about making feature films or documentaries at this stage?
As I get older, I’m more interested in documentaries. I love looking at a career and organizing it and looking into the portal of that creative person’s life.
What inspired the Carlin documentary?
HBO asked me to do it. I met Kelly Carlin (George Carlin’s daughter), and she wanted to do something innovative, daring and completely honest. It made me nervous because the bar was set very high (laughs). It had to be in two parts. The second part was to be his darkest period. But it had to be more than his comic life. It was about a man who was a parent and a husband. Also, Carlin didn’t tell you about his personal life on stage.
No. What was great about Carlin’s interview is that he revealed who he was during our chats. It was fascinating to experience Carlin’s formative years with the impact of his mother.
He grew up in difficult circumstances. His brother was beaten by his father and his mother left when George was a baby. It shaped his life. He was very comfortable on the road. He didn’t have many friends.
How long have you known Kelly Carlin?
I met her through Garry Shandling years ago. I knew her a little. We both had a close bond with Garry, so there was some security there. Her childhood was difficult with a coke-addicted father and an alcoholic mother. We felt it was worth noting that her mother had no outlet for her creative dreams. It’s a sad story. But her mother and father overcame their demons and became very close before she died of liver cancer. They never gave up trying to make their marriage work.
Is there anything you didn’t include in the documentary that you would like to be part of?
Yes. The saddest thing is that I interviewed Carlin for Canadian television when I was 21. It’s the only interview that I couldn’t locate (laughs). It was depressing.
What was it like interviewing Carlin at such a young age?
He was very serious and very intelligent. I liked that, but I wasn’t equipped at that age to go overboard with him like what I’ve seen in other interviews that I’ll come across later, like your interview with him. These interviews are way better than I imagined, but I still wish I could go back and see what I did back then.
But you covered a lot of ground in four hours. Even though it’s an epic project, it didn’t seem long enough yet.
I say. I tried. I want to do these things full size.
“George Carlin’s American Dream” can be seen on HBO or streamed on HBO Max.