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New documentary shows how comedy legend George Carlin went from genial to cynical

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A new HBO documentary on the late comedy legend George Carlin charts his evolving style over a lifetime of performing. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says "George Carlin's American Dream," which debuts tonight, shows how Carlin's comedy persona sharpened over the years from genial jokester to hardened cynic.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GEORGE CARLIN'S AMERICAN DREAM")

GEORGE CARLIN: Four hundred thousand words in the English language, and there are only seven of them that you can't say on television.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: That's the beginning of one of George Carlin's most famous comedy bits, featured in HBO's documentary through audio recorded at a performance that led to Carlin's arrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GEORGE CARLIN'S AMERICAN DREAM")

CARLIN: Those are the words that will infect your mind, curve your spine and lose the war for the Allies.

DEGGANS: We can't say the actual words Carlin highlighted in his routine thanks to the kind of broadcast regulations that led the comic to create his groundbreaking bit in the first place. But HBO's documentary offers a masterful exploration of how Carlin evolved from an establishment-friendly comic to an urgent commentator on social ills, becoming one of stand-up comedy's most influential figures in the process. The program often makes this point by talking directly to the comics he inspired, from Jerry Seinfeld to W. Kamau Bell, who speaks here about how Carlin's routines remain relevant in modern times.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GEORGE CARLIN'S AMERICAN DREAM")

W KAMAU BELL: Because George Carlin bits are still being shared on social media. We go, you don't understand how rights work? Look at this bit.

CARLIN: This country is only 200 years old, and already we've had 10 major wars, so we're good at it.

DEGGANS: The documentary uses lots of sly techniques to bring in the voice of Carlin, who died in 2008, including audio from an interview for an autobiography recorded on cassette tape where Carlin talks about his early problems with authority figures.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GEORGE CARLIN'S AMERICAN DREAM")

CARLIN: My own experience of authority is one of opposition to it - not just questioning authority but actively opposing it. And I was a pot smoker when I was 13. I was saying, your values suck. I don't buy that an authority comes on the direct line from God. All authority comes from within.

DEGGANS: That disdain for authority wasn't apparent in his early comedy career in the 1960s, where he became a fixture on straight-laced variety and talk shows. By the early 1970s, Carlin would ditch his suits and clean-cut image for a more hippie-influenced approach, with long hair, a beard and routines that challenged capitalism, militarism and consumerism. He hosted the first episode of "Saturday Night Live," recorded comedy albums that went gold and appeared on "The Tonight Show" over 130 times.

Co-director Judd Apatow previously directed a more reverent HBO documentary about Garry Shandling that could feel a bit too worshipful at times. But Apatow doesn't make that mistake here, including Carlin's dark moments and poignant tales from the comic's daughter, Kelly Carlin, on the drug and alcohol addictions of both her parents. Toward the end of his life, Carlin's routines applauded natural disasters and could sound a bit like nihilistic rants, which lost fans like talk show host Stephen Colbert.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GEORGE CARLIN'S AMERICAN DREAM")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, he did go really dark, and he lost me a bit at the end. It was too dark for me. If it's a bit, then God bless him. But to pursue that level of darkness is expecting a lot from your audience.

DEGGANS: By being honest about the comic's triumphs and failures, "George Carlin's American Dream" truly soars, creating a nuanced, insightful portrait of one of stand-up comedy's most thoughtful iconoclasts.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTEZA'S "LIQUID PYRAMIDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.