Judd Apatow On ‘George Carlin’s American Dream’ And The Legendary Comic’s Ceaseless Determination To Get Better At His Craft

“I kept noticing that whenever anything happened in the news, his name would start trending and you would go on Twitter and he would have the perfect routine to comment on something that had happened in the news,” said director Judd Apatow when we spoke recently about his new two-part documentary on the life of George Carlin, George Carlin’s American Dream, which premieres on HBO and HBO Max May 20.

What’s most remarkable about Carlin may not be his unheard-of staying power 14 years after his death, though, it may be how he continued to innovate and reinvent himself over a 50+ year career to get to the point where his words and memory would carry so much weight with so many people; something Apatow explores thoroughly here while exploring the drive, complexity, and artistry of the man as well as the impact on and influence of his family life. A remarkable, oft-ignored side that pushes this documentary from mere comedy nerd nirvana to something greater.

Apatow is quick to praise Carlin’s daughter, Kelly, for her determination to help him tell a story about her family that is clear and unsparing, never tawdry but also never candy-coated. To keep things more in the Carlin vernacular, it’s no bullshit.

We spoke with Apatow about telling this story without bias or in service to choices that might make this all feel saccharine. We also discussed Carlin’s career, a point when he was mocked as outdated, his determination to keep getting better, and the heart behind his late-career hard edge.
The way that some of the clips were cut together, I don’t think I’ve pumped my fist as much to a documentary since like The Last Dance. It was just really exciting to see. It was just really great work.

[Laughs] Thank you.

Is it easier to do something like this where you don’t have a personal connection like you did with Garry Shandling?

I think the key to making these documentaries is that there are people who are willing to be completely honest about the true story of what happened. I think a lot of times there are people who want to protect the subject of a documentary, and in ways that people don’t understand a lot of it is watered down. People avoid certain moments in performers’ lives, where maybe their behavior was questionable or maybe there’s something that the family is embarrassed about. I was very lucky that Kelly Carlin [George Carlin’s daughter] was adamant that we told the truth.

When making the Garry documentary, is that something you found yourself subconsciously doing? Protecting certain things or pulling back in certain ways that you would not have in something like this when you don’t have that much personal connection or understanding?

It’s not so much that you’re trying to protect someone, it’s that you’re worried about emphasizing something too much. So with Garry, he had several lawsuits, some where he was being sued and some where he was suing people. And you can change what the audience thinks about a conflict based on removing an image or one thing that somebody said. It’s so easy to take a side. I think in the old documentaries, whether you like it or not, whether you want to or not, you do by the choices you make. And we just spent untold hours trying to figure out how to present things in the most truthful way. It’s very difficult. It’s like if you were making a documentary about JFK, are you going to say he was the best president ever? Are you going to show what went wrong? And there are thousands of choices that affect that.

Carlin’s politics were pretty clear, but he did seem like someone who was angry at everyone equally, or maybe not equally. But angry at politicians on both sides of the fence. Whereas now there definitely seems to be more of a slant. Is that where his power comes from, that level of anger at both sides?

Well, he definitely distrusted power. But he also said he liked individuals, he didn’t like groups. You know, he said, “When people form groups pretty soon they’re wearing hats.” He had a lot of criticism for both sides of the political spectrum, but he made it very clear that he thought that Democrats were concerned about people and Republicans were concerned about stuff. And he certainly had a lot of progressive points of view. At the same time, he really distrusted the government because he felt like it had been co-opted by big business. And that there were a lot of people running things whose interests were not the same as the citizens of the country.

It’s just shocking watching the documentary and coming across the “America The Beautiful” song that he sang in 1972 or 1973 and realizing how much it all still applies. Shouting into a bullhorn and people just not hearing — was that part of what led to some of his frustration?

Well, I think he was somebody that had more hope in the late sixties and the early seventies that good things would happen as a result of protests and people speaking up and paying attention. And then later in his life, he realized that even though people had been given the opportunity to treat each other better and treat the earth better, they didn’t.

Then his comedy came from a different, much darker stance, which is, “You people have ruined the world, so I’m just going to observe it and laugh as it goes down in flames.” And I always felt that the reason why he did that was, as a way of slapping you in the face to say, “Wake up.” He got so dark that your reaction would either be, “I agree,” or “No, I don’t agree. I want to do something about it.” You know, it is an older man’s way of saying, “Hey, it’s your turn.”

Was that your view of it when it was happening?

It was, it was. I always thought there was a big heart behind it. And he decided to take a very strong comedic stance, but I never for a second thought that he would ever want one person to suffer in any way. It was a way to exaggerate everything, to get people to look at how awful certain things were and hopefully to make a choice to treat each other better.

Going into this and going through all these materials, diaries, journals, and things — what was the biggest revelation for you?

Well, what I connected to emotionally was that he met his wife, Brenda, when he was working at a comedy club, and she was an employee there. They got married a few months later, and he was completely broke. We found a letter where they were writing her parents because they had $7 in the bank. And a lot of this story is about this relationship. And also about a woman in the sixties and seventies who had a husband who left town to work and [she] was left alone and didn’t see the possibility of pursuing her own dreams for a long time. And they both fell into terrible addiction. And how they climbed out of it and stayed together until her death. Kelly Carlin was so honest about what it was like to grow up in that type of house that was going through so many struggles.

I wasn’t aware of how much he was kind of dragged at one point in the eighties. Was that something that you were aware of at the time, that he had kind of fallen out of vogue and become uncool?

I don’t think I realized in that period that anyone considered him uncool. When I would see SCTV rake someone over the coals, I always thought, “That’s the point of SCTV.” They made fun of everyone. So it didn’t seem especially specific or cruel. But when you are the subject of it and people are looking at what you’re doing and finding what’s funny about it, it’s certainly painful.

I think it’s more like a musician who put out five great albums and then people are wondering why six is weaker. It’s very hard to keep up that quality. And he had been at it for a long time at that point, 15 years or so. And he was addicted to cocaine, and it’s hard to continue to do your best work in that mode. And the culture moves on, and suddenly Steve Martin arrives and Andy Kaufman and Richard Pryor is peeking. And you realize, “I’m not at the top of this form.” But what’s amazing about George Carlin is he takes a breath and says, “Okay, I have to get better.” And he did that a few times in his life. He didn’t look at it like, “Oh no, the world was passing me by.” He said, “I need to do the work.”

The ability to not just dominate, but then to drop and then rise back up. To use the Jordan reference again, Jordan not being able to dominate in the paint, becoming somebody with more of an outside shot. Ali finding ways to fight as he got older.

It’s like, Bob Dylan putting out Time Out Of Mind.

Yeah. Adaptability is, to me, the defining aspect of greatness. Would you agree?

Yes, because he never looked at it like some people do, which is, “I guess that was my time. And now I’ll coast.” You know, he saw Sam Kinison and thought, “I’m not going to eat this guy’s dust.” That’s what he said. And he spent the rest of his life trying to out-Kinison Kinison. And it’s really remarkable, the energy and the focus he put into improving and going deeper. That’s very rare. It reminds me of Sydney Lumet directing Until The Devil Knows You’re Dead when he was 80. And it was so edgy and incredible. It’s such an inspiration for me, people who just keep looking for ways to get better.

Are you looking to do more documentaries down the road?

I’m going to do more. I like documentaries, I find them a lot less stressful. Because when you write jokes, you just never know if they’re going to work. So in a way you’re just scared all the time. You know, if you make a TV show or movie, you don’t know how people react. But with a documentary, you’re in a constant exploration of everything somebody left behind. And you’re trying to find a way to put it together, to tell the story of their life. And you feel a responsibility to do it well, but it’s not that terror of a joke bombing.

Is that responsibility solely the idea of getting it right? Or is it also the idea of, “This is a signal into the future, this is something that helps to preserve this person so I want to get it right?”

Yes. I feel like, when these types of movies exist, they are the path in for people to discover an artist. You know, one of my favorite ones was the two-part Martin Scorsese/Bob Dylan documentary. He also did an incredible one about George Harrison. I think that in the future, when people have been drowned under millions more hours of content, they will discover who they want to learn about through documentaries. So someone will watch the Bob Dylan documentary, maybe even before they go deep into listening to all of his music. And I think to have your life and career organized in that way, creates a possibility that someone will watch The Larry Sanders Show or watch the George Carlin specials, because they have some sense of the environment they were made in.

I don’t want to fracture your worldview, but that seems like a hell of a lot more pressure than just if a joke is funny.

[Laughs] Well, it’s less pressure because George made all those specials. He left behind all these interviews. He left behind 23 hours of conversations that he made in order to write his autobiography. All the brilliance is there. It’s just me finding a way to present it logically and in a way where it reaches you and moves you. But the raw materials are great.

Judd Apatow’s two-part ‘George Carlin’s American Dream’ documentary releases on May 20 on HBO Max and on consecutive nights on HBO with Part one on May 20 and Part two May 21