Did George Carlin have the best comedy routine on every political subject? Judd Apatow thinks so

On "Salon Talks," Judd Apatow talks about the two-part HBO documentary he directed on George Carlin's life and work

Published May 21, 2022 2:59PM (EDT)

George Carlin (Courtesy of George Carlin's Estate/HBO)
George Carlin (Courtesy of George Carlin's Estate/HBO)

Legendary comedian George Carlin passed away in 2008, but as you can watch firsthand in HBO Max's new two-part documentary series, "George Carlin's American Dream," his material on issues ranging from racism to gun violence to abortion resonate more today than ever.

I spoke to the co-director of the film, Judd Apatow, a comedy legend in his own right, on "Salon Talks" about his connection to Carlin and the making of the film. For starters, the title of the film is a line from Carlin's material that could've been written today: "The owners of this country known the truth that it's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."  

For Apatow, that line resonated because we are watching an effort by today's Republican Party to move our country backwards. Apatow and his co-director Michael Bonfiglio made an inspired choice with the film to include long chunks of Carlin's material — as opposed to cutting it down to simply a setup and a punchline. That allows you to enjoy Carlin's material in full comedian glory. For example, you can watch Carlin talk at length on abortion and the right's focus on forcing women to carry a fetus but not caring about the women or child that is born.

Apatow also shared that Carlin, who was a well-known advocate for freedom of speech, would understand why today's GOP is banning books. "They're banning books because if you read the books, you will question how the country is set up and the power dynamics that hold people down," Apatow said. "The worst thing that could happen for certain interests in the country is that everyone was educated."

The two-part film charts Carlin's life from childhood through stardom — complete with a brutally honest look at Carlin the father and husband as shared by his daughter Kelly and his widow, Sally Wade. But as a comedian myself, it's Carlin's material that will not just make you laugh, but also make your jaw about how his observations on our country are still spot on today. Watch my "Salon Talks" episode with Apatow here, or read a Q&A of our talk below, to hear more about Carlin and more from Apatow, who opens up about his creative process and insecurities as a comic. "You're always terrified," he shared.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Judd, welcome back on "Salon Talks." You've been putting out a lot of work lately. You have great work ethic, and I'm not joking. 

I tried to get through the pandemic with just very committed workaholism. That was my approach, and I didn't realize it at the time. I thought I was being normal, but I noticed when I was promoting "The Bubble" and then promoting "Sicker in the Head" and now the George Carlin documentary that maybe I was busy.

If I could find a common thread through your recent work it would be deconstructing both the art and the artist. Is that what interests you? 

I think that I'm probably in just some massive existential funk that I'm always trying to deal with. I think for a lot of people, we create to try to understand life, to sort through things. It's also a way to feel like you exist and to be part of the conversation and to be acknowledged. So, there is a connection in a group of people who get through life by dissecting it and looking at what's working, and what's not working. And am I happy? Am I not happy? What happened to me that made me so neurotic that I feel the need to do all this? Am I evolving or am I falling apart?

"Sicker in the Head" is a follow-up to your first bestseller "Sick in the Head." As a reader, I was drawn less to the comedy people that you talked to because I come from a comedy world, but more to other performers like Lin-Manuel Miranda. He talks about being on stage during "Hamilton" and looking out in the audience and seeing celebrities and wanting to know before he goes on stage that they're there and these little things. It reminded me of my years as a stand-up comic and the idea that when you're on stage you're functioning at high levels of multitasking. Were you amazed by that type of creative process or more the people that you interviewed?

On one level I'm always trying to understand how people do it. The interviews for me as a creative person are about, how do you do it? When do you write? What are you thinking about? Why do you talk about the things you talk about? How do you figure out the medium in which to express it? When I think about someone like Lin-Manuel Miranda,

"When the world is such a mess right now, what is the place for comedy?"

I want to understand that whole process of "Hamilton," but I also want to know how he's doing. Did the success slow you down or speed you up? Did it make you neurotic about being judged for the follow-ups? Obviously not, because he's been so productive since, but those issues of mental health and how we keep our s**t together in the face of our own insecurities, trying to be successful, trying to not run out of gas. All of those issues are interesting to me, in addition to how do you be funny? Why should we be funny? When the world is such a mess right now, what is the place for comedy in it?

Being that you are a director, is part of your unique skillset that you hear something and it has this innate quality that you're like, "Hey, that is special"?

That's part of why I direct because I want to create spaces where people are trusted and they're part of the collaboration in a big way. They're helping create their characters. They're letting them grow. Many of my favorite scenes suddenly blossomed. Maybe it was in a rehearsal. Maybe it was while we were shooting and someone said something. Maybe it was hilarious, maybe it was heartbreaking. I remember when Paul Rudd and my wife, Leslie Mann, were shooting a scene in "Knocked Up" and she's mad at him because he snuck out to watch "Spider-Man" with his friends without her and she's crying. And she goes, "I like 'Spider-Man,'" and that's an improvisation. It happens because you trust people and you're hoping that all these connections suddenly pay off.

When I used to do comedy full-time in New York, doing four spots a night was typical. I love trial and error. I love giving a chance to the audience and going up with four punch lines to a joke and trying it over a few days. Do you come from that kind of background in terms of when you were directing?

I come from stand-up. That's all I ever wanted to do. I didn't want to do anything but stand-up, I just started getting jobs in other areas and thought, "Oh, I guess I should follow where the world is pulling me." But, I do like the trial and error of jokes. It's fun. I just hosted the Directors Guild Awards. I had thought about it for months for my monologue. How do I entertain these people while making them feel happy and respected? And that process of working on the jokes and doing them at Largo and at comedy clubs and perfecting them is really fun. But I think it's more fun for me to allow something else to happen. I like when the train goes off the rails and something new suddenly reveals itself.

In your remarkable documentary on HBO, "George Carlin's American Dream," there's a line in it where the title comes from. And Carlin says, "The owners of this country know the truth that it's called, the American dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it." When you hear that line, how does it resonate with you?

It is a country that's supposed to be evolving — that's what they tell us. That's why it's interesting because you have these people who are like, "No, we are only supposed to listen to the original documents." And, these originalists, it has to be exactly what they thought of in the 1700s, but that's not what the country was supposed to do. It was supposed to grow and evolve. In thought, we were supposed to get smarter and treat each other better and adjust it as we went along. But it was a country created by slave owners and land owners who were trying to prevent a lot of people from having a say in how the country was run.

Even though we were born a democracy, it was a democracy that kept a lot of people out of the democracy. And what are we seeing happening right now? There are a lot of people that are saying, "We'd like some of these people not to vote who might not allow us to hold power, and let's figure out ways to discourage them from voting." Because if we were a true democracy, then we would only be talking about having a national holiday where everyone can vote. And we make it as easy as possible for people to all legally vote. And we never have that conversation.

We would have automatic voter registration. They wouldn't have that extra game where we're going make it even harder to register to vote now.

It's illegal to give someone a glass of water if they've been on line for seven hours in some states.

RELATED: George Carlin's dark genius: From his 1957 "dirty, stupid" cop take-downs to the jokes that 9/11 made too raw to release

During the second part of the Carlin documentary, you leave in his long comedy bits, which I think is so important. Those jokes are relevant and resonate, as if they were written by a comedian today. Carlin talks about banning toy guns, but not real guns. He talks about forced birth by the Republicans.

I think that the reason why people are interested in George Carlin is because every time something happens in the country, he trends on Twitter because he has the best routine about almost every subject in modern political life.

How do you think Carlin would react today? This GOP has gone further than talking about banning abortion. They're literally passing laws in Oklahoma that ban abortion at day one. It would force a woman who is raped to carry the fetus to term. They are banning books and banning subjects from school, like Black history or talking about the LGBTQ community.

He has routines about how they want you uneducated. They want you to know just enough to run the machines, but not enough to ask hard questions. That was the core of his beliefs. Of course they're banning books because if you read the books, you will question how the country is set up and the power dynamics that hold people down. It has to lead to burning books. The worst thing that could happen for certain interests in the country, is that everyone was educated. That people understood how screwed over so many communities have been and continue to be.

People will get a chance to hear the story of George Carlin's seven dirty words, the curse words that you cannot say on TV in America. It culminates with him getting arrested in Milwaukee for saying dirty words. And there was a case going to the Supreme Court about the Seven Dirty Words and indecency. How do you think Carlin would respond to what some people today call cancel culture, where comedians are actually compelled to apologize for jokes that offend some. If they're hateful, it's one thing, but some people take it the wrong way, and comedians are called out for it. 

He came from another era. When he talked about a lot of this, he thought, "Well, just change a channel if you don't like it." That was what he said. He's like, "That's why you're allowed to change a channel." I think in a lot of culture now, though, things are pushed down your throat with algorithms. There's a lot that you wouldn't watch or you wouldn't hear or ever know about if an algorithm didn't force it in front of you.

He wasn't around in a time where algorithms could hypnotize people and change their minds. We understand the psychology of how your positions can be changed by the way you are fed information. So, we're not sure what his opinion would be. I know that he felt like, "You're allowed to be a bad comedian. You're allowed to have bad thoughts and that's OK."

There's a great clip that goes around a lot of him talking about Andrew Dice Clay. And he had a lot of, I think, compassion and respect for Andrew Dice Clay. But he also thought that some of the material at that time was punching down. But yet he said, I would definitely defend his right to do it, he should be allowed to do it. And that's what I've always felt. Comedians could be criticized; nobody should be canceled. Everyone should be allowed to work, but occasionally we make mistakes and not all comedy is for everybody. 

"The lesson from Carlin is to keep pushing yourself."

Some people want really dark, intense, nasty stuff. And some people don't, and that's OK. There should be places for people to see different types of comedy, the same way you might want to go see heavy metal and someone else would rather go see a country band.

You show a clip of a young Richard Pryor and a young George Carlin on the set together with John Davidson. When you see the documentary, you'll see this, but the evolution of Carlin wasn't just about comedy. It was him as a person, he evolved several times. Do you get a sense he was searching for who he was? Or as he got older, he organically evolved, and then it manifested in the way he looked the way he talked?

He came from a post-war America. He had an abusive father. So, his mom took him and his older brother, Patrick, who sadly just passed away last week, upstate. He's amazing in the documentary. He's such a funny, wonderful person. And so, he was five years older than George. George was one or less than one. And their mom took them away because they thought they were in a dangerous situation.

He had this dream of being Danny Kaye, that was the original dream. He met people like Jack Burns and got more politically interested. As the '60s went on, he was kind of a corny comedian and he slowly realized he couldn't say the things he wanted to say and had to take this big leap to grow his hair and curse and grow a beard and say, I'm not going to be someone that goes down easy, that plays by the rules and is very vanilla.

He became a big star, but then he got vanilla again. He ran out of gas and he had a heart attack. And I think he just lost the sense of who he was. I think in the same way musicians do. People put up three or four great records, then like three or four terrible records and then suddenly they find it again. 

He saw Sam Kinison at some point and thought to himself, "I don't want to be a corny comedian next to this guy. If this is the bar, I want to redefine who I am and go farther and get better." And it is funny that Sam Kinison was the person who lit a fire under his ass and he got competitive. And that was when he wrote those amazing specials at the end of his life.

RELATED: Dirty old man: George Carlin on obscenity in the age of Ashcroft

What I've found with Carlin and in your book is that comedians are driven, but they're also fragile. There's insecurity underneath the surface when you're in this world. 

That's the terrifying part about a creative life. You got to keep it going. If I have a hit movie, it doesn't mean the next one will be good. Every movie is an experiment. When I start something and I think, "Oh, I'm going to make a movie about the pandemic." When I made "The Bubble" for Netflix, I'm taking a huge leap and nothing I've done before, preps me for that. And then I go into the next one and that one will not succeed because of what works in "The Bubble." 

You're always terrified. Will I have the next idea? Do I have anything left to say? Am I repeating myself? Am I becoming a bore? And some people do run out of gas. We've seen them where we go, "Oh, how come all the good steps in this eight-year period and nothing is good afterwards." And that's why I'm always impressed by people like George Carlin who fight through that and stay current and edgy and interesting. And it really is about being engaged and passionate about what you're doing.

The lesson from Carlin is to keep pushing yourself and you're going to reinvent yourself. Don't fear that, don't stay in your comfort zone because you've had success, if that's not true to who you want to be for the rest of your career. 

Last thing, in your book, you interview some Muslim comedians who I've known for years, like Ramy Youssef, I know him since he was a 19-year-old kid, and Hasan Minhaj, who I know, not as well but I've interviewed him several times. What impresses me about them is they're like philosophers on some level. There's something very innately talented about them and their understanding of the world. And I think Carlin had that as well.

With the first book, it was a lot of people I interviewed when I was a kid and that was certainly a very white, mainly Jewish comedy world. I talked to all the people that I looked up to growing up, people like Paul Reiser and Jerry Seinfeld and Leno and Howard Stern. And for this book, I thought it really should reflect the world right now. People Ramy and Hasan, they're great storytellers. They are philosophers. They have to look at the world through this lens of their culture. 

"You're always terrified. Will I have the next idea? Do I have anything left to say? Am I repeating myself? Am I becoming a bore?"

They're compassionate about their experience and they're looking at how they're navigating the world, but they're also looking how other people are looking at them and how people are relating to them. They're seeing everything in both directions. They just have a level of insight that other people don't have. They're very rare, special, important people at this moment. And riotously funny. I did a talk in New York with Ramy about the book and we have a project we're working on together and I couldn't be more impressed with his work and his approach to the work.

"George Carlin's American Dream" is now streaming on HBO Max. Watch a trailer for it below, via YouTube.

Watch more "Salon Talks" about comedy: 

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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