Today, beards are commonplace, unremarkable bits of facial shrubbery. Even as conservative a figure as Sen. Ted Cruz sports one.
But 50 years ago, a man choosing to wear a beard sent a political message. It signaled participation in the counter-culture, a spurning of orthodoxy. George Carlin captured the threatening act of going bearded in a routine included on his 1972 comedy album FM & AM.
“Here’s my beard. Ain’t it weird? Don’t be skeered, it’s just a beard,” he riffed, continuing, “That’s the thing. The word ‘beard’ shook up a lot of people. BEARD! It’s not American sounding. BEARD! Lenin had a BEARD!”
Carlin told his audience he had sprouted a beard and grown his hair long around 1971. It was a transgressive act that marked a turning point in his life and career, moving from clean-cut comic to culture-defining, acerbic observer. Without him making that fundamental shift, we wouldn’t be talking about Carlin today, nor would Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio have directed the two-part biographical documentary about him for HBO, George Carlin’s American Dream.
“He figured out how to get successful by selling himself out a little bit by trying to be on TV and be safe,” Apatow says, referring to the earlier, 1960s iteration of Carlin—cleanshaven, hair tidied, straightjacketed in a Mad Men-style suit and narrow tie. “Then he ultimately decided, no, I have to be me. And he decided to go against the grain. And that’s when he found his greatest success was when he was true to himself.”
The Emmy-contending film documents Carlin’s less than idyllic childhood in an uptown section of New York City (Carlin would note that he and his pals referred to the neighborhood as “White Harlem” because it “sounded tougher” than its breezier nomenclature, Morningside Heights). Perhaps he was destined to be a comedian because his father bore a stunning resemblance to W.C. Fields. His Irish-born Pa was an alcoholic and Carlin’s mother separated from him when George was an infant, raising George and his older brother Patrick on her own.
“His trajectory is a classic comedian’s story,” says Apatow, the acclaimed director of Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. “He comes from a toxic family, from a childhood where his brother was abused by his father and his mother had to escape. I’m sure it made him question how the world functions.”
The filmmakers interviewed Carlin’s older brother, Patrick, who died earlier this year at the age of 90.
“Yeah, he was high,” Bonfiglio remembers of that sit-down. “Patrick was a daily pot smoker. He’s a fascinating guy, absolutely hilarious and a real muse for George… They were very, very close their whole lives. It was a real privilege to get his take, especially on things like their shared childhood. And Patrick knew their father and George never did.”
Even before he reached his teens, Carlin was making mock radio newscasts and pretending to do baseball play-by-play announcing. Carlin’s daughter Kelly gave Apatow and Bonfiglio the key to her father’s voluminous archives.
“He had a tape recorder when he was a kid back in the ’40s. He would record little routines and things and he saved all that stuff,” Bonfiglio notes. “George was really an obsessive hoarder. He kept everything… As documentary filmmakers, that’s like a dream come true. We were really able to allow George to narrate his own story.”
After a stint in the Air Force (Carlin was ‘invited’ to leave the U.S. military), he became a disc jockey, then formed a comedy team with a fellow DJ, Jack Burns. They performed together for a relatively brief period, but the documentary notes the important role Burns played shaping Carlin’s political outlook.
“Jack Burns was a very progressive person,” Apatow says. “I would assume for the first time in Carlin’s life he thought, Oh, maybe when you’re funny, it should be about something that you care about. You should be trying to say something. And he started experimenting with Jack, with not just silly sketches, but also political satire.”
Carlin became a very successful solo act but didn’t fully blossom creatively until an experience dropping LSD.
“I began to take some acid and some mescaline, and I suddenly was able to see things differently,” Carlin says in the documentary. “What I really was, was an outlaw and a rebel who swam against the tide of what the establishment wants from us. And that person was being suppressed.”
Carlin had always displayed amazing verbal dexterity (a letter from a fan describes him as a “comedian of general semantics”), but in that era of social upheaval at the end of the 1960s and into the ’70s, he transformed into something even greater—an incisive commentator on the fundamental structure of American society.
An appearance of Carlin’s in San Diego in 1972 is included in the film where he references Muhammad Ali resuming his boxing career, after being barred from the sport for several years for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
“For three years, the cat couldn’t work—Muhammad Ali,” he said. “And, of course, he had an unusual job—beating people up. But the government wanted him to change jobs. The government wanted him to kill people… The government got spiteful. They said, ‘Look, if you won’t kill ‘em, we won’t let you beat ‘em up.’”
“For the most part, he didn’t do jokes about what happened that day in politics… He tried to talk about the big picture. I think that’s why the material holds up,” Apatow says. “He talks about the root of what’s wrong in the country and what’s wrong with how people behave. He was talking about the environment in the late ’60s, in a way that people are just beginning to now. And he was very aware of the problem of the danger to a woman’s right to choose… I think that’s why his material holds up, as opposed to a lot of comedians whose material ages out.”
Apatow notes that when the U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion reversing Roe v. Wade was leaked recently, commentators immediately revisited a Carlin bit from years earlier. In an HBO comedy special Carlin had observed, “Boy, these conservatives are really something, aren’t they? They’re all in favor of the unborn. They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you.”
“Everyone turned to George Carlin for what he said about it,” Apatow marvels. “I was fascinated by the fact that there wasn’t a routine from another comedian that went around. It wasn’t just that George Carlin had a piece that summed up a lot of what we’re all thinking. It was that no one else has a competitive piece. He was just on a completely different level.”
Apatow won the Emmy for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special for his 2018 film The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. He had been very close with Shandling, working with him on The Larry Sanders Show. Apatow didn’t know Carlin on that level but did interact with him decades ago.
“I interviewed him for Canadian television in the early ’90s, and I remember him being so thoughtful and kind,” Apatow recalls. “He wasn’t someone who tried to be funny in that setting. He saved that for the stage… He was just a kind, deep thinker.”
A few years before that, Apatow had assisted with the production of Comic Relief, a fundraising effort by major comedians to fight poverty. Carlin performed in a Comic Relief special in the mid-1980s.
“I was just so blown away that at this telethon he did this remarkable, insightful, hilarious routine,” Apatow remembers, “how golf is a racist game where white people get together to carve up the country and screw people over and we should give the golf courses to the homeless. And it felt very exciting to witness that.”
Bonfiglio, who shared an Emmy with Apatow for the Garry Shandling documentary, cherishes one of Carlin’s routines related to the environment. He quotes from it: “‘The planet is fine. The people are fucked.’ To me, it’s just such an extraordinary piece of writing and insight and performance. When you watch that in [George Carlin’s American Dream] and you listen to the audience, they’re not quite sure where he’s going because he takes you on such a ride… It’s so deep and insightful. It’s probably my favorite piece of his.”
There are so many to choose from. There’s “The Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television”, “My Stuff vs. Your Shit”, or his observation, in a 1992 comedy special, that America doesn’t manufacture much of anything anymore but still excels at war: “We can bomb the shit out of your country, all right. Especially if your country is full of brown people. Oh, we like that, don’t we? That’s our hobby… Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Libya. You got some brown people in your country, tell them to watch the fuck out.”
Carlin suffered three heart attacks over the years and died of heart failure in 2008 at the age of 71. Some say he became embittered about America as he got older. That’s a matter of opinion, but unquestionably he had soured on our species.
“He did have contempt for the choices that he saw his fellow humans making,” Bonfiglio says. “And you see in the film the evolution of that disappointment… He wasn’t seeing progress. He continued to see people, as he put it, choosing competition over cooperation and seeing his fellow humans treating each other poorly. The rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer… He was aware of his own mortality for quite a while after his heart attacks and realized he wasn’t going to live to see a better world. He wasn’t going to live to see humans behaving better. And I think he was angry about it.”
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