'George Carlin's American Dream' profiles a comic for all times

George Carlin, he of the "seven dirty words" that once got him thrown into a Milwaukee jail, was a comic ahead of his time. Just how far ahead and what drove his comedy is explored in a two-part documentary on HBO.

"George Carlin's American Dream," premiering Friday, May 20, chronicles the life and work of the man dubbed "the dean of counterculture comedians," whose career spanned a half century and included thousands of stand-up engagements, more than 130 appearances on "The Tonight Show," 20 comedy albums, 14 HBO comedy specials and a half-dozen books.

It also tracks his rise to fame and explores his personal life, including his childhood in New York City, his long struggle with drugs that took a toll on his health, his brushes with the law, and his home life with wives Brenda and Sally and daughter Kelly.

"George Carlin's American Dream" premieres Friday, May 20, on HBO. Courtesy of George Carlin's Estate, HBO

Directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, the film features archival material and interviews with fellow comics Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Patton Oswalt, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, among others. Also, Carlin's manager Jerry Hamza joins Kelly and Sally Carlin to share their memories of the comic, who died in 2008.

"I think that one of the reasons why we wanted to make the documentary," Apatow explains, "was because he kept trending on Twitter, and has for a really long time. Whenever anything happens in the news, people start putting clips up on the internet, and it's really shocking how many subjects he has the best routine about and the best insight about. So it really felt like, even though some of this material is decades old, it really applies to all of the divisions and the problems that we're seeing right now."

"George Carlin's American Dream" premieres Friday, May 20, on HBO. Courtesy of George Carlin's Estate, HBO

Indeed, the film leans on a wealth of archival material to show how much of Carlin's comedy is relevant today. Routines on the environment, political divisions, religion and taboo subjects all seem like they could have been recorded last week, even though they go back as far as the 1970s. His point of view was always unique, and some fans felt they really knew him.

But despite that, Kelly Carlin points out that her father never revealed much about himself on stage, which distinguished him from a lot of comics past and present.

"(People) used to call him like, 'He's like my uncle,' and they really felt very close to him," she says. "And yet when you really look at his material, except for 'Class Clown,' he never spoke about his personal life on stage. ...

"And that's why this documentary is really so exciting because ... this is going to be like the big stage for this man," she continues, "the revelation of this man's personal struggles and triumphs and all of that. So, I'm thrilled to bring the human George Carlin forward through this project."

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