When I was in my early to mid-twenties, I came to discover the comedy styling of George Carlin via a “Top 100 Greatest Comedians” list I happened upon online. He was listed as #1, just above Richard Pryor. Curious, I decided to look into some clips via YouTube of his specials. To say it changed my life would be hyperbolic—it did, however, have a pretty big impact on the way I thought at the time.
Somewhat ashamedly, a lot of what I took from his stand-up is that everything is garbage and that humanity deserves to be ashamed. He made it seem “cool” to not care, to not want to deal with anything. It wasn’t until years later that I got to watch him in interviews and various appearances and listen to how sophisticated of a person he is, and that his act was just that—an act. These deeper insinuations are further explored here in this documentary concerning his life.
“This two-part documentary chronicles the life and work of the legendary comedian, tracking George Carlin’s rise to fame and opens an intimate window into Carlin’s personal life, including his childhood in New York City, his long struggle with drugs that took its toll on his health, his brushes with the law, his loving relationship with Brenda, his wife of 36 years, and his second marriage to Sally Wade.
“Intimate interviews with Carlin and Brenda’s daughter, Kelly Carlin, offer unique insight into her family’s story and her parents enduring love and partnership.”
To elaborate a tad further on my history with Carlin’s stand-up, I’ve seen nothing prior to Jammin’ in New York from ’92, so his older material is somewhat lost on me. I know him more for his viscerally sharp commentary on political events at the time and the class structures of society. A lot of this American Dream documentary provided a lot of new material for me that I had not seen before.
That said, from a comedy standpoint, I’ve found Carlin very hit-or-miss. Generally speaking, he doesn’t make me laugh, yet his presence is so powerful and convincing that it almost doesn’t matter. At the same time, I feel the vitriol he uses to perform his stand-up to be tiring after a certain point (one of my short reviews described a special of his as “old man complains about stupid shit”). Highly dependent on the topic, in fairness to him, because above all else, he’s captivating.
For this reason, it’s a little unfortunate that, even despite the fairly large quantity of content provided in this special (roughly three and a half hours in length), it wasn’t all that riveting to me. I almost think back to the documentary I watched on Andre the Giant last year. Did a decent job of highlighting his life and the development in his home as he grew older, providing a lot of nice montages to his performances. There just wasn’t much “oomph” to it.
Some people would call it “Cookie-cutter.” I would agree. Not much of this really distinguishes it from “standard documentary fodder,” from the in-person interviews to sentimental recordings of Carlin or his vocal messages playing on an answering machine. Only bits of the whole manifest into something outside of “George Carlin’s life”; perhaps most poignant was a montage of political figures being presented at rapid-pace near the end as Carlin’s words about politicians not giving a fuck about you pound your eardrums.
Then there’s the question of whether Carlin, himself, would have approved of the way that message was handled. At least based on what I took from the documentary, Carlin just seemed defeated. He despised how things were and seemed to release that anger onstage, yet never seemed deliberately against any “side.” He “hated” everyone. “And fuck everyone, now that I think about it,” he states during a ’90s special. Seemed almost self-indulgent for the directors.
Otherwise, pretty basic for the genre. Probably overhyped. People just think Carlin is great, which is hard to disagree with. From the technical and influential standpoints, he was a master at his craft.
For those who adore George Carlin. This American Dream documentary does provide a good recap of how the man came to be and his occasionally self-destructive journey to stardom (multiple times). By the end, though, as someone who finds Carlin fascinating but no longer “an icon,” it didn’t strike too much of a chord with me. I did like hearing from his brother and daughter, though. Those were the emotional highpoints for me.
Final Score: 6/10
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