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Judd Apatow Needs To Do All the Dead Comedians

His latest project on George Carlin, co-directed with Michael Bonfiglio, is further proof that this is what he should be doing from now on.
  • George Carlin, in a photo provided by his estate. (HBO)
    George Carlin, in a photo provided by his estate. (HBO)

    Judd Apatow is a busy guy. According to his IMDb page the director of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and other comedy hits is producing Tig Notaro's new film, an untitled movie starring the Lucas Brothers, the LGBTQ-playing-straight-folks sex comedy BROS, and more.

    I'm of the opinion, though, that he should stop everything else he's doing right now and do a deal with HBO to make documentary films about every dead comedian who mattered in the past 50 years. There's nothing better that he and his co-director Michael Bonfiglio could be doing.

    From his early work with Jim Carrey, Ben Stiller, Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold, Garry Shandling and Jon Lovitz to the present day, Apatow has earned a reputation as kind of a Cecil B. De Mille of American humor. No one has a better eye for talent or the skills to bring that talent out to an audience. His beloved Freaks and Geeks (1999) ran only 18 episodes and won just one Emmy — casting. It was before we knew what talents Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Jason Segel and Busy Philipps were… but Judd Apatow knew.

    And yet Apatow's work with dead comics is even better. Granted, I'm working from a small sample — two films for HBO, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling and his new one, George Carlin's American Dream — but you couldn't find two more extraordinary, or tonally different, documentary efforts, ones that will leave aficionados of comedy longing for more.

    Shandling was shy, vulnerable, tortured, consistent, hopeful and spiritually enlightened. Carlin was anything but: loud, assertive, inconsistent, deeply cynical and a famous atheist.

    Yet Apatow and Bonfiglio (a versatile director who's done great stuff with the Avett Brothers, Oprah, Letterman, Ed Sheeran and ESPN), have unrolled masterly portraits that capture each man, the times they lived in, what made them tick and how they turned their roiling internal lives into unique careers that changed comedy.

    The title George Carlin's American Dream, if you know anything about Carlin, is plainly ironic, as cynical as The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling is earnest. The two-part documentary premieres on HBO May 20, with part 2 the following night.

    As in the Shandling film, Apatow had an inside track to Carlin's family and associates, notably his only daughter, Kelly Carlin. And he had access to the gold mine of Carlin's writings: the material he worked on, the letters he wrote to his first wife Brenda and, most crucially, the private journals into which Carlin poured his agony, fury, sturm und drang, feelings that he, like most good comedians, learned to mine for laughs. More effectively than any film I can remember, the directors extract lines from Carlin's handwritten notes and journals and drop them in at perfectly timed moments, using a special effect that makes it seem like they're scribbling right before our eyes.

    Carlin had at least four careers in his 52 years in show business. He started out as a zany Beat comic, first in a duo with Jack Burns in the late 1950s, then on his own with a menagerie of characters like Al Sleet, the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman ("the forecast tonight: dark!"). Next, he grew his hair long and started working the college circuit with routines using the curse words that got him kicked out of Vegas. That included the "seven dirty words" routine that landed him in court and made him ultra-famous.

    Next, Carlin became known as a master wordsmith, writing Braindroppings and churning out one well-crafted HBO special after another. Finally, he became less of a comic and more of an acerbic social commentator, as evidenced by titles for his HBO specials like Life Is Worth Losing and It's Bad for Ya (in which he repeats the mantra, "It's all bullshit and it's bad for ya").

    Being Judd Apatow, he can call up any living comedian on the planet and get great insights into the Carlin craft, and several were happy to oblige. Bill Burr and Jerry Seinfeld are especially incisive. Seinfeld’s observation about what made Carlin's classic bit about people and their "stuff" is still stuck in my brain two weeks later.

    Stephen Colbert is not so helpful. "He lost me," Colbert says about Carlin's later specials when, he asserts, Carlin "went dark." It's one of the rare hiccups in George Carlin's American Dream — Colbert makes his millions telling Trump jokes, for god's sake — but Carlin's hostility to religion irks Colbert. I never agreed with Carlin's views about God, but the routine was hilarious.

    And it's replayed here, at length, as are a few other routines. This is key: There is simply no way to understand George Carlin than to watch a well-chosen extended clip of him performing at the peak of his career. Apatow does this on several occasions in George Carlin's American Dream, including the breathtaking five-minute rant that closes the film. It's set to contemporary news footage that proves the old coot hasn't lost a step, even in death.

    Carlin led a very interesting life, which helps fill out this four-hour film. But that seems to be true of game-changing entertainers in general. What's so satisfying about the Apatow-Bonfiglio method is how they weave together the personal and the professional, the public and the private, so expertly that it feels very intimate and revelatory without being intrusive.

    "I'm a standup comic. It's a vulgar art. It's the people's art. I'll always be that," Carlin is quoted as saying in an interview. "But I'm a writer too. There's an artist in here." This, I feel, is something that only another comedy mind can understand and explain to untrained comedy lovers like me.

    And now, having downed both of these clear-eyed tributes to comedy legends, I want Judd Apatow to make more of them. Richard Pryor. Joan Rivers. Sam Kinison. Bill Hicks. Redd Foxx. Bob Saget. Gilbert Gottfried. There will be more comedy legends passing by the year, each of them deserving of a warts-and-all production that lays bare their unique talent at pulling laughs out of audiences. Comedy may be a vulgar art, but George Carlin's American Dream makes clear that even vulgar art can be a thing of beauty.

    George Carlin's American Dream premieres on HBO Max Friday May 20th. It airs on HBO in two parts, May 20th and May 21st at 8:00 PM ET.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Judd Apatow, HBO, George Carlin’s American Dream, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, George Carlin, Jerry Seinfeld, Michael Bonfiglio, Stephen Colbert, Standup Comedy