How ‘George Carlin’s American Dream’ Preserved the Prescience of the Late Comedian

Emmy-winning editor Joe Beshenkovsky culled through hours and hours of footage to create HBO’s defining portrait of the late truth-teller

George Carlin (HBO)

“There’s no such thing as rights!”, beckons George Carlin in stark black-and-white to the camera at the very beginning of HBO’s “George Carlin’s American Dream” and editor Joe Beshenkovsky indicates that this was a very deliberate choice he made with co-directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio.

“He’s right in your face”, says “American Dream” editor Joe Beshenkovsky, “which I don’t think anybody’s seen him that up close and personal. It’s also beautiful, it was shot in 35mm and something about it feels like it’s he’s giving a personal performance just to you. It felt to me like a really great way to draw the audience in.”

And over the course of nearly four hours (told in two installments), we’re treated to Carlin’s panoramic career, starting with his early, suit-wearing days with fellow comic Jack Burns in a much more conservative patois all the way up to the pony-tailed, wild-eyed guy many of us know who famously decried institutional racism, virtue-signaling and “the seven dirty words” you could never say on television (unless it’s, of course, cable television).

But encapsulating the life of a famed comedian and actor for a documentary is, thankfully, something Beshenkovsky and his colleagues are succinct at doing, having been reunited after winning Emmys for HBO’s hugely-acclaimed “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling”, a valentine from Apatow to his departed friend who also reshaped the stand-up comedy genre, and like Carlin, comedy on television. But for the latter, the approach proved not as easily attainable.

“The Garry Shandling doc just kind of came together like butter, it felt very effortless to me”, says Beshenkovsky, who is also a previous Emmy winner for his work on Showtime’s “This American Life.” “He was very curious and an open book, whereas Carlin was very guarded emotionally. So, we had very little, apart from these random interviews, where he was open and kind of candid about his emotions and wasn’t just speaking with talking points.”

Finding these gems, as well as a late-breaking find — several boxes of love letters from Carlin to his wife Brenda — when they were very nearly wrapped, was crucial to creating the narrative crux of the often-harrowing documentary, which had full involvement of Carlin’s family including daughter Kelly Carlin and his recently departed, scene-stealing brother Patrick, who all but gives sibling George a run on vulgar, blunt hilarity.

“I haven’t gone through the process of like having anybody count up all the hours of material because it’s terrifying”, jokes Beshenkovsky, “I spent about a month and a half just screening because outside of the picture material you also have all the audio, his performances, the interviews, which he did tons of, and then in addition to that, about 15,000 pieces of ephemera, not just photos but notes and scribbles and his posts.” Carlin’s carefully mounted joke-telling style also proved to be a challenge for the editing bay in that you can’t showcase the material in short bursts, much like you see in a standard documentary.

“Carlin’s jokes aren’t punchline jokes”, Beshenkovsky says. “It’s not like bump, bump, bump, bump. He goes off for, like, five minutes. So, we felt the need to plant all this historical stuff so that you actually understood the jokes. A 20-year-old kid might not know that Muhammad Ali wasn’t allowed to fight [because of his refusal to go to Vietnam], but you need to have that information, so that you understand George’s joke when he tells it. So, there was all that little kind of interweaving of historical information to pay off the jokes, which ordinarily you wouldn’t have to do.”

Beshenkovsky insists his involvement in documentary projects about famous comedians is strictly coincidental (he also served as an editor on Showtime’s “Belushi” film that aired in 2020), yet definitely sees the similarities in both Shandling and Carlin, his recent subjects. Says the busy editor: “strangely enough, they were both very spiritual people. And they had that same issue where they had a sense of how to live their life, but saying that intellectually and actually doing it are two different things. And it took them both a long time.”

“George Carlin’s American Dream” is now streaming on HBO Max