HBO Documentary Chronicles the Genesis and Genius of George Carlin’s Humor

Series Makes a Strong Case Carlin Evolved into One of the Greatest Stand-up Comedians of All Time

5/24/22 – – If you were a fan of comedian George Carlin at any point in his evolutionary career, you’ll want to watch the two-part, four-hour HBO documentary, “George Carlin’s American Dream.”  

It’s hard to believe we’ve been without Carlin’s piercing, hilarious commentary on current events and human nature for 14 years (heart disease took him from us in 2008). But the documentary’s directors, Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, bring his genius back to life. In addition to insightful analysis by historians, surviving family members and fellow comedians — many of whom consider Carlin to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time — we’re treated to classic bits from his act and the comedian’s own explanations of his inspirations, creativity and demons.

As you would expect, much of “George Carlin’s American Dream” is dark and brooding. His daughter provides an intimate look into the Carlin family’s complicated life, which while held together by love, was damaged by substance abuse. George favored cocaine; his first wife, who died of liver cancer, was an alcoholic. And we witness the world pissing George off more and more as he delights audiences with his rants into his seventies.  

You might be wondering how Carlin’s story is relevant to crisis management and communication, the theme of this blog. In Chapter 21 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient  (“Performance is the Best Path to Recovery”), I argue that performance — more than apologies, reforms or restitution — is the surest path out of a crisis. Carlin’s up-and-down career supports that thesis. Constantly bumping up against personal problems, cultural change and professional challenges, Carlin recovered from every career crisis by returning to his writing, reinventing himself to be even more relevant and popular. He’d get back on stage with new material and perform.

Of course, the best parts of the documentary are the moments that make you laugh. There are plenty of those. Even if you watch alone, I bet you will laugh out loud. Carlin’s material, especially his unique take on language, makes you think as well as smile. One of his most memorable routines, referenced in the documentary, focused on “redundant phrases.” Carlin wondered in his 2007 book, “Brain Droppings,” why we use these unnecessary word combinations:

Total abstinence

Subject matter

Honest truth

Join together

General public

Harbinger of things to come

New initiative

Audible gasp

Advance warning

Execution-style killing

Future plans

Gather together

Jewish synagogue

Lag behind

Occasional irregularity

Outer rim

Plan ahead

Basic fundamentals

First time ever

Personal friend

Shrug one’s shoulders

It’s too bad Carlin is not around to help us get a handle on such mysteries as monkeypox, gender-neutral pronouns and the Disinformation Governance Board. But the next best thing to having him with us is to watch “George Carlin’s American Dream.” And that’s the honest truth!

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