Judd Apatow Finds His Calling: Documentaries on Seriously Funny Men

The director’s recent Netflix comedy ‘The Bubble’ was slated by critics, but his two HBO series on beloved stand-ups George Carlin and Garry Shandling are things of beauty

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Director-writer-documentarian Judd Apatow at the premiere of his Netflix comedy "The Bubble" last month.
Director-writer-documentarian Judd Apatow at the premiere of his Netflix comedy "The Bubble" last month. Credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan
Adrian Hennigan

Normally if I want to laugh and cry of a weekend, I just follow the fortunes of my favorite sports team. But because they’re only playing on Monday, I had to look elsewhere this week – and was richly rewarded with two brilliant works by Judd Apatow.

No, one of them is not his new Netflix comedy “The Bubble,” which I haven’t worked up the courage to watch after reading reviews calling it “the dumbest, most repulsive movie I’ve seen in a while” and “a disaster and the worst thing Judd Apatow’s ever done.”

I can assure you, though, that “repulsive” and “disaster” will not be words on your lips when you watch his new two-part HBO documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream,” about the revered comedian whose career had more ups and downs than an elevator operator on crack.

I must admit, I hadn’t realized Apatow, now 54, had become quite the documentarian since making “Trainwreck” in 2015. He’s made four since that Amy Schumer comedy, three of them with fellow director Michael Bonfiglio: “Doc & Darryl” (2016), about New York Mets’ World Series winners “Doc” Gooden and Darryl Strawberry; “May it Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers” (2017) – and if you’re not sure who the Avett Brothers are, just imagine the whitest-sounding band in the history of America and you’re pretty close (yes, there is a double bass involved); and now “Carlin.”

Apatow’s other doc was another two-parter for HBO: “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” (2018), of which he was sole director and comprised the second half of my weekend viewing. For reasons unknown, I had failed to see it until now, but was completely blown away by this love letter to Shandling and an attempt to understand a very complicated individual.

What’s fascinating watching both back-to-back is the striking connections between these two seemingly disparate stand-ups. While Carlin slowly evolved into a counterculture figure, raging against the U.S. government machine, Shandling was the quintessential angst-ridden American Jew, beset by a fear of commitment and a spectacularly overbearing mother who wanted to marry him (he kind of joked).

Yet both were driven by the need – the quest – to put their true selves on the stage; to drop the personas and tell their own truths, all while making a real connection with the audience. Throw in the comedy perennials of insecurity, the need to be loved and a certain self-destructive tendency, and you have two hypnotic characters off and on stage.

Apatow had a personal connection with the “Larry Sanders” star and considered him his mentor after he interviewed him while a student back in the 1980s. That’s seemingly a role both Shandling and Carlin played to a lot of budding comedians, with Carlin even playing a pivotal role in Shandling pursuing his stand-up dream.

Both documentaries benefit greatly from having access to the scribbled-down inner thoughts of its subjects: Carlin’s coffee-stained, aspirational notes to himself such as “Everything should be open to questioning” or “I will always mean what I say.” Shandling, meanwhile, kept a journal for four decades in which he was forever questioning his comedic “voice,” his ambitions and inability to commit to relationships. It’s a dream for any documentarian, and these two filmmakers prove faithful chroniclers of complex lives.

George Carlin. His comedy style changed several times during a five-decade career in which he went from mellow to bellower.Credit: HBO / Yes Docu
George Carlin in 1975 and his wordsmith phase.Credit: Photofest / Yes Docu

Comedy custodian

Apatow has become a gatekeeper of sorts, a comedy custodian safeguarding or perhaps even establishing the legacies of entertainment legends (Carlin died in 2008 at age 71; Shandling eight years later at 66). By the time I reached the end of these series, I found a list forming of other legends I’d love to see him document: Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Joan Rivers, Bill Hicks … it’s going to be a major job, which may keep him away from his own comedies for a while. (Detractors of “The Bubble” can add their own snarky comment here.)

There’s nothing radical about either “Carlin” or “Shandling”: Both shows tell their tales in a conventional, chronological order and feature a host of comedy giants – Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno, Sarah Silverman and many others – articulately discussing the artists’ work and lives, and why they matter.

Did we really need four hours dedicated to each comedian, given that Alex Gibney told the entire story of the Oxycontin/Sackler crisis in exactly the same time in another recent HBO documentary, “The Crime of the Century”? Of course not, but there wasn’t a moment I would cut from either “Carlin” or “Shandling,” or a second when I wasn’t entranced.

"Larry Sanders" star Garry Shandling in "The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling."Credit: HBO / Yes Docu

These documentaries unfold in a deliberately leisurely manner, allowing us to enjoy the genius of the performers on stage and to better understand the men themselves, what made them tick and what gave them their mental tics (both grew up in, shall we say, complicated family dynamics). They were also the funniest things I’ve seen on TV in months – even more hilarious than Madison Cawthorn losing his Republican primary race last week.

I was more familiar with Shandling’s work than Carlin’s prior to watching the shows, and probably did laugh more at the former’s material. His first-ever appearance on “The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson,” in 1981, remains a thing of wonder, but even his final routines still had me howling with laughter – perhaps even more because it felt like he’d returned after years in the comedy wilderness (“I can be funny at the drop of a hat, but sometimes you can’t find a hat – then you’re fucked,” as he explained during the lost years).

Carlin is still best known for his “Seven words you can’t say on television” routine from 1972, which memorably got him arrested while on tour in Milwaukee. And yet there was so much more to the man than just shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. As Colbert puts it, “He’s the Beatles of comedy. At a certain point in his career, there’s this huge shift. He’s doing the comedic version of ‘Love Me Do’ for the first part of his career, and then suddenly he fucking puts out the comedic ‘White Album.’”

Actually, Carlin would experience several metamorphoses as a comedian: from suit-and-tie performer on 1960s network TV, to counterculture voice in the early ’70s, to hippie wordsmith in the late ’70s, to his “true voice” of agitator and rebel from the mid-’80s on, right up till his final HBO special in 2008.

What’s truly remarkable about Carlin is how salient and fresh his material still sounds today, decades on. You may have seen his material on abortion resurface in recent weeks following the furor over Justice Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade. As comedian W. Kamau Bell notes, no one’s sharing Lenny Bruce on social media, but they are sharing Carlin’s scarily prescient thoughts – way back in 1992, he was talking of a virus wiping out humankind. Indeed, he did go to some very dark, nihilistic places toward the end of his life, when he appeared to be rooting for the planet over the people.

Apatow summed that up when he told Variety recently: “Most comedians’ material ages really badly, but his work was so deep that it just gets better with age. Also, a lot of it feels like a warning.”

Carlin and Shandling both endured troubled relationships with their mothers – there’s one hell of a joke about that at Shandling’s wake. Unlike him, Carlin also had a 35-year marriage that endured various hardships – his cocaine addiction; wife Brenda’s alcohol addiction – but ultimately proved a true partnership of equals and a rather moving love story. Shandling’s biggest committed relationship, by contrast, appears to have been with his dogs.

Both titles reveal something about each man and their work, one looking inward for answers and enlightenment (trading Judaism for Buddhism); the other increasingly angry at the U.S. establishment. As Carlin laments at the end, “it’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Kelly Carlin with her parents George and Brenda Carlin. Chaotic homelife in the 1960s and '70s. Credit: HBO / Yes Docu

Apatow is proving himself – with the aid of Bonfiglio – a master of the genre, and while I’ve enjoyed pretty much all of his comedies, from “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” to “The King of Staten Island,” none have moved or entertained me as much as these two labors of love.

No one ever watched an Apatow comedy for subtlety, but “Garry Shandling” and “George Carlin” have that, plus craft and ace storytelling, in spades.

I can’t wait to see what he does next as a documentarian, but until then I’m still going to pass on “The Bubble.”

“George Carlin’s American Dream” is on Cellcom tv, Sting TV, Hot and Yes VOD now, and on Yes Docu on Monday at 10 P.M. and Hot 8 on Tuesday at 10 P.M. “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling” is available on Prime Video on Hot and Yes VOD.

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