Michael Bonfiglio was very eager to explore the personal life George Carlin for the documentary, “George Carlin’s American Dream.” He especially enjoyed looking at how Carlin’s style transitioned and evolved over his nearly 50 years as a stand-up comic. “I, personally, loved looking into his early days when he’s kind of finding his voice before the transition to the counterculture guy,” he tells Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: TV Documentary panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). One of the reasons it was so fascinating for Bonfiglio is because he could see Carlin taking cues from the comics that inspired him. “The early days of when he is wearing a suit and tie and he is trying to kind of emulate Lenny Bruce, but he’s also trying to get mainstream success and he is just a struggling artist. That was really fascinating.”
“George Carlin’s American Dream,” which aired on HBO, was co-directed by Bonfiglio and Judd Apatow. The two-part documentary dives deep into Carlin’s life and examines how he came to prominence through the traditional comedic channels, finding huge success as a counterculture figure, becoming an afterthought and then rising again to re-establish himself as one of the best stand-ups in the country. It also explores Carlin’s struggles with drugs and his first wife’s struggle with alcoholism. Bonfiglio is nominated for two Emmys this year for the doc: Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special and Directing for a Documentary. He previously won an Emmy in the former category in 2018 for “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.”
One of the touches that brings Carlin’s inner thoughts to life are the huge amount of handwritten notes that he never got rid of and his daughter Kelly kept. “Carlin was a hoarder and he kept everything throughout his life, even little childhood drawings and things that we have in the film. Those were all real.” In asking Kelly to do some last-minute fact checking, she even made a surprise discovery of love letters that Carlin and Brenda wrote to each other when they had first started dating in the early 1960s. “You feel a little bit like a voyeur because these people are sharing these very intimate thoughts on their love and at the same time it humanized and illuminated other sides of Carlin.”
Even though the film shows how Carlin’s material became even more brutally savage in his later years, Bonfiglio doesn’t believe that the comedian was a nihilist at heart. “I believe that he expressed nihilistic views… but I believe that he was using that nihilism to illuminate other truths and to try and wake people up, look at our behavior, how we treat each other, how we treat the planet and how we organize ourselves as a society.” He adds that it was more of a comedic stance that made his ideas come across more effectively.
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