HBO Doc Places George Carlin at Origins of the Pot Legalization Movement

The many faces of "George Carlin’s American Dream" (via HBO)

"I was a pot smoker when I was 13," George Carlin says in Judd Apatow and Mike Bonfiglio two-part HBO documentary, George Carlin's American Dream.

Later, when he took acid and mescaline, "I suddenly was able to see things differently," Carlin explains.

In his early years, Carlin grew up in what he called "White Harlem," the Western section of the famous Black neighborhood in Manhattan. 

George and his family lived at 519 W. 121 St. It was several blocks away from where my father was born at 88 LaSalle St. Despite dad being 10 years Carlin's senior, he recalled time spent with "Little Georgie," mostly playing baseball on local diamonds.

RELATED: "George Carlin Way" Street Named in New York

In 1998, while I was an editor at High Times, we did a cover story on Carlin. He was playing at Westbury Music Fair on Long Island and I took my dad to the show. We went backstage and visited Carlin before he went on. Dad and George immediately knew each other and hit it off like the old friends they were. I, meanwhile, chatted with Carlin's stoner brother, Patrick.

Carlin's fifth album, Occupation: Foole, from 1973, includes one of my favorite Carlin bits, "Grass Swept the Neighborhood," on which he explains: "In 1951, I was 14 when grass swept the neighborhood. We hadn't been into grass before. We were into gang fighting and wine and beer in the park, punching the shit out of people… Then pot came along and gang fighting went away. In one semester in shop class guys went from making zip guns to hash pipes."

Unfortuartely, it's not included in the documentary.

"What I really was was an outlaw and a rebel who swam against the tide of what the establishment wants from us," Carlin expressed. "I was in the middle of it and had to come to terms with what I really wanted to do. What changed everything was acid."

Carlin's initial career had a mainstream arc, but he wasn't happy trying to fit in with the squares, so the comic ditched the jackets and ties, grew a beard, let his his hair spill out into a ponytail and became the "Hippie Dippie Weatherman" who liked Mexican highs.

Carlin on Cannabis: "It's really quite safe. It's going to be part of the future of this country. It's part of our culture."

When Carlin started cursing in his act, it drew the attention of the police who began monitoring his shows like they did with Lenny Bruce in the '60s.

"I usually don't say 'shit' - I smoke it, but I don't usually say it," he joked. "So they fired me. I was free."

Carlin was full of pot humor:

• "Marijuana's having trouble getting decriminalized because a lot of guys can't remember where they left the petitiions."

• "No one ever says Mary Jane. It's in all the dictionaries for pot. 'Hey, got any Mary Jane?' 'I don't know, does it get you high?'"

• "All I need is fruit juice and a little marijuana. It's probably the safest of any of the things you can put in yourself, including booze and tobacco. It's really quite safe. It's going to be part of the future of this country. It's part of our culture."

Ok, that last one's more of a statement than a joke. It shows how far Carlin was ahead of his time.

Part 1 covers this territory. Part 2 introduces cocaine, which his daughter Kelly says, "Really changed everything."

The backstory to the doc is Carlin's alcoholic and often distraught wife Brenda. Drugs and alcohol damaged their marriage and home life in the '70s and '80s. "A few blows of coke makes you feel like a new man," he noted and stayed up as many as six days in a row on benders to prove it.

This led to a bust when police showed up at the house, but there is no record of it online. "Maybe the pot all these years was an unconscious form of therapy," he surmised.

Carlin grew angrier as the years passed, and crowds loved his rants. Most of the footage in Part 2 is from HBO specials. It's almost too easy for the filmmakers. But their points are made in Part 1, that Carlin was an American comedy genius, right up there with Bruce and Richard Pryor. 


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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.