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Judd Apatow on Documenting the Legacy (and Fart Jokes) of George Carlin

Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

If Judd Apatow had only released one new feature this year (The Bubble) and put out one new book (Sicker in the Head), then, as people say at Passover Seder, dayenu — it would have been more than enough. But before the pandemic, the writer, director, and man of a bunch of other titles had already started working on another project that is now seeing the light of day. The release of the docuseries George Carlin’s American Dream couldn’t be more timely — considering the multiple conversations on the state of stand-up comedy in America. From discussions of freedom of speech to comedians getting attacked onstage, it is hard to figure out where Carlin would fit in today’s comedy landscape or how he’d approach it.

Unlike in his last doc on a comedian, 2018’s The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, Apatow — a person who knows the comedy world from just about every possible point — lets Carlin’s words and stand-up bits do most of the talking. While there are appearances by modern comedians like W. Kamau Bell and Jon Stewart as well as Carlin’s daughter, Kelly, that help fill in some blanks, Apatow mostly lets the late comedian’s work and actions tell the story. He just put the pieces in place in a way that offers a compelling, full picture of a person whose legacy can be both misunderstood and misrepresented.

Apatow discussed what drew him to that legacy on a rainy day in his native New York City; he was in a good mood, because he’d made it to a Mets game the day before.

Certain filmmakers seem intent on documenting the culture they love and trying to keep it alive. I’m thinking of Scorsese with his Film Foundation or Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock. You’ve been interviewing comedians for years and doing these documentaries lately — which I know isn’t what pays your bills, but you still do it. Where does your need to document come from?
You know, I’m not sure, because I was always interested in how things get made and who the people were who made them. When I was in sixth grade, I wrote this 30-page report about the Marx Brothers, but it wasn’t an assignment for school. I just did it for myself. Looking back, that seems like a really strange thing for a young person to do. I paid my friend to write it in, because he had better handwriting than me. [Laughs.]

I’m a bit of a hoarder. I like organizing all of the material and finding a way to tell the story of somebody’s life. It makes me sad to think of these experiences and performances disappearing down the digital black hole. I’m sure on many levels, by examining people’s work — but more importantly their life choices and their evolution — I’m trying to figure out how I’m supposed to behave in the world.

Something that popped out to me was Carlin talking about how doing acid changed the way he did comedy. It made me think of your Garry Shandling doc, because so much of it is about Shandling working on himself and meditation — and meditation and psychedelics are similar in that they’re both about expanding consciousness. How else do you think Shandling and Carlin are similar?
Both of them seem to exist in their own worlds. They were both part of the tribe of comedians, but they blazed their own paths. You didn’t see George at the clubs; he wasn’t hanging around. He was very nice to comedians, but he wasn’t part of the social world of it. Garry was someone who created his own shows and invented a type of career that not many people had up until that point. They both had overbearing mother figures that affected how they moved through the world. They liked to be alone, but George loved being on the road. And coming from a house where his mom divorced her husband because he was beating up Carlin’s brother (when his brother was between the ages of 2 and 6) — I’m sure it changes how you look at reality when you’re hiding from the beginning of your life. Garry lost his brother to cystic fibrosis. So it certainly makes for very sensitive, thoughtful people who are looking at the world suspiciously.

They definitely were critical thinkers, and at the end of their lives, both of them came to a place of thinking that we’re all connected in some way. They weren’t classically religious. They weren’t people who believed in heaven and hell. They were people who believed that we are all in this together.

Something I was happy to see was that you made room to talk about Carlin’s fart jokes.
The only aspect of his career that I probably didn’t spend enough time on was his silly, dirty, puerile material. He would spend an enormous amount of time on farts and boogers and pooping your pants, and oftentimes that was the first half of his set. Then he had more thoughtful political and philosophical ideas in the second part. So he had an approach to pleasing an audience and doing a lot of different styles of comedy within one set. That’s what is really amazing about him: He succeeded at high comedy and low comedy.

You spend some time in the documentary exploring the idea of the stand-up as a modern-day philosopher with Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld weighing in. Where do you stand on the idea of looking to comedians for guidance?
When I did my book Sicker in the Head, I interviewed Samantha Bee and she said that she didn’t think that her show changed anyone’s mind, but it was a way of telling people that they’re not crazy — showing that they’re understood. I’ve always believed that for young people, if you’re between 10 and 25 and you’re watching a lot of the current political comics, it might help you form your philosophies right after that. Probably you’re not going to suddenly think women should have the right to choose if you’re a 50-year-old. I wish people listened to George Carlin in 1970 when he warned us about what was happening to our environment.

Are there comedians you see carrying on his legacy?
There are people who do brilliant work. Trevor Noah could not have been better at the Correspondents’ Dinner. What Seth Meyers does is a really remarkable feat. John Oliver. Bill Maher. Samantha Bee. Jimmy Kimmel. But people don’t watch television in the same way, so it’s not like 10 million people are watching it. It’s not like when the entire world was watching Johnny Carson, and if he seemed to be leaning a certain way on an issue, it affected people. I wish that more people would listen, because comedians are finding a way to express a lot of concerns that we all have about the direction of the country and how corrupt so much of our government and political life has become.

It feels like Carlin has the same problem as George Orwell when it comes to people trying to claim his legacy. People he’d totally disagree with seem to misinterpret his work.
His positions on most of the major issues are clear. He was certainly for gun control and a woman’s right to choose. He was very concerned about the behavior of the military and our interventions around the world. He thought there was something immoral about the drug war.

Sometimes the right wing tries to claim him, because he had such a distrust for the government. He talked a lot about how it was all a grift. But his main point of view was that we should all be taking care of each other. He felt that the earth was a great gift — and the opportunity that we have here with each other on this planet was something that people weren’t handling correctly. He seemed to be distraught about the behavior of people.

With everything going on, from conversations about freedom of speech to Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle getting attacked onstage, what do you think Carlin would make of this moment in stand-up comedy?
I think he would love what people are doing. There’s an enormous amount of incredible stand-up happening, and comedians are selling out a lot of tickets in enormous places and challenging themselves. He was always for punching up, not punching down, but he also believed comedians were allowed to make mistakes. He said, “My job is to find the line, take you over it, and make you glad you did.”

You famously used to cold-call a lot of comedians when you were growing up. Did you ever call him up?
I interviewed him once for Canadian television when I was 21, but that was the one interview I couldn’t find.

Oh wow!
That really depressed me, although I’m sure I did a terrible job. [Laughs.] And the other interviews I found were much better. It’s lost to history.

If he were alive today and you were interviewing him, what’s the first question you’d ask him?
Everybody debates if he got too dark. I always thought his hope was that by watching him in this comedic stance of someone who was rooting for the destruction of people and humanity, it was a comic way of pushing people toward the light. He said that if you scratch the cynic, you’d find a disappointed idealist, and that’s how I always took his darkest material. He was definitely disappointed that people weren’t taking care of each other and the planet better, and by being so exaggerated in his anger, he was challenging people to live differently. So I probably would ask him if I’m right or wrong about that.

Totally off topic: There are legions of people who say, “I wish Freaks and Geeks had another season” or “I want Superbad 2,” but is there one thing people ask you for more than any other projects — regardless of whether it could happen?
I get asked a lot about making This Is 50. That movie seems to have gotten a much larger audience, because everyone who turns 40 watches it. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to make that. The only problem is Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd don’t look like they’ve aged. It might look like This Is 41, and we may have to use reverse-Irishman technology to make them look older.

I’m all for it. Since you were a writer on The Critic, do you think we could get that back? I feel like it would do great today.
I follow an Instagram account that just posted some clips from The Critic, which I’m so happy to see, because I thought that show was so funny. The first jobs I got on scripted shows were The Larry Sanders Show and The Critic. I was doing half a week on each show in 1993 and ’94. I learned so much from Mike Reiss, Al Jean, and James L. Brooks with how they approached that show. Then the other days, I was with Garry — learning his way of writing comedy. That was really the most formative year of my career. There was nothing funnier than watching Jon Lovitz in a table read.

Anything else?
The Bubble is still up on Netflix. It will be there for the rest of people’s lives.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Judd Apatow on Documenting Carlin’s Legacy (and Fart Jokes)