By Richard Harris
Growing up in the ’60s, Sunday nights on CBS was appointment viewing in our house to keep current with mainstream culture.
“The Ed Sullivan Show” had introduced American audiences to the Beatles in 1964. Three years later and less well known, a clean-cut comedian named George Carlin made his debut on the same stage doing a bit as Al Sleet, the Hippy Dippy weatherman. He pointed to the big L on the weather map, saying in a stoned-out voice, “This is a Canadian Low, not to be confused with a Mexican High…Tonight’s forecast: dark, continued dark overnight, turning to partly light in the morning.”
You can track the evolution of Carlin’s social criticism and the growing complexity of his rapid-fire performance skills, along with his professional and personal ups and downs over his 50-year career, in an engaging two-part documentary, “George Carlin’s American Dream,” on HBO and HBO Max.
In the documentary, Stephen Colbert, no comedic slouch himself, declares Carlin “the Beatles of comedy,” adding “at a certain point in his career, he’s doing the comedic version of ‘Love Me Do’ for the first part of his career and then suddenly he puts out the comedic ‘White Album.'”
And Jerry Seinfeld once said, “George Carlin was ‘the total package of what a comedian’s skills could be.'”
Judd Apatow, who has been interviewing comics since his days on his high school radio station, directed and co-wrote the Carlin documentary. Apatow’s latest collection of interviews with comedians is “Sicker In the Head.”
Next Avenue interviewed Apatow via Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM +2.78% from Los Angeles.
Next Avenue: You caught the comedy bug early. Where did it come from?
Judd Apatow: My family loved comedy. My grandmother was very close to (comedian) Totie Fields. There was a lot of respect for comedy in the house. We had Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby and George Carlin records when I was eight, nine, 10 years old. So those are the first albums where I understood what a comedian does. And I think that Carlin was probably the most impactful because here he was breaking down what it meant to be a kid.
In his 1972 album “Class Clown,” he talked about everything I was going through — what it meant to be the class clown, which was my dream. And then he liked to call out authority and attack hypocrisies. He also had a lot of really dirty material where [he] discussed filthy things. And as a little kid, there’s nothing more fun than someone cursing and talking about curses and being amused that anyone thinks it’s bad to curse. That was a big deal to find a voice of an adult who said it’s ridiculous that you’re not allowed to curse. And I think that programed my mind for comedy.
Did you ever get to see him perform live?
I saw him a bunch of times — at LA comedy clubs, working on new sets, and saw him in concert a few times. And it was always really remarkable because he was tough. He would say to the crowd, there are certain things you’re not supposed to joke about. Well, I’m going to do that now. And then he would run all the topics that people say you’re never allowed to make jokes about and do five minutes of each. And he did his act more like a one-man show. He didn’t want to talk to the crowd. It really was about presenting his material in the best possible way. He was trying to do a great performance of something that he had written.
About two minutes into part one of your HBO Carlin documentary, a disembodied voice says ‘Carlin changed comedy three or four times in his career and he still seems to be talking to us’ [14 years after his death]. Shortly after I heard that, the news broke of the leaked draft opinion that could overturn Roe v. Wade. And it didn’t take long for cable news to turn to Carlin’s 1996 riff on abortion:
This abortion routine has been around for 25 years but it’s had a new life since the news broke on the Supreme Court’s draft decision. This can’t have been easy to convert to comedy?
I challenge any comedian to do the hilarious abortion in America routine. And what I found most interesting is that that piece of comedy from George went viral again in the past few weeks, but nobody else’s material went viral. George’s take on it was so much better than everyone else that he was the only comedic voice that really spread at that time.
And for someone who died in 2008, it really says a lot about his work as a deep thinker and a comedy writer that his work is standing up and not disappearing because most comedy, especially politics comedy, ages very badly. There aren’t many people listening to Lenny Bruce records anymore, or Mort Sahl or even some of the people from recent years like Bill Hicks who tend to fade away, even when they did similarly brilliant work. Carlin’s a needed voice. And even though he’s not here, we still keep going back to him for his take.
This wasn’t the only time comedy has been in the news of late. Scott Simon recently did an essay on his weekly NPR show on the aggression that’s being aimed at comedians — not just Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars or Dave Chappelle being tackled at the Hollywood Bowl. The man who runs the Chicago Laugh Factory said he’s noticed an increase in audience members charging the stage. So what’s going on — is this coincidence, copycat behavior or something else?
I think it started when Donald Trump was running for president in 2016 and he encouraged the crowd to attack people. There was a rally where he said that he would pay for someone’s lawyer bills if they beat up a protester at the event. And he said that over and over as a mantra. He would point out the press in the back to jack up the crowd to be hostile to the press. He was very comfortable with violence. And I think that just got into the psyche of the country, that violence is the answer.
Even now, as books on Trump come out, they reveal Trump wanted to shoot protesters in the legs. And that type of toxic energy gets out there and it kicks around. And so now the country is polarized. And it’s not so much that it’s happening in the world of comedy, it’s happening everywhere. A comedy club is no different than being on an airplane when someone flips out and attacks the stewardess, other than it’s a place where people are speaking openly about their opinions and feelings and that becomes a dangerous space.