Two years before the beloved family sitcom Full House began airing on ABC, Bob Saget appeared on HBO’s The Ninth Annual Young Comedians Special. Though his role as Danny Tanner—that affectionate, straitlaced father to three young girls—would eventually define his acting career, his stand-up set showcased a much bawdier side.
Speaking about living in California, Saget said with a smirk, “I’m scared there’s going to be, like, a major quake, and I’ll be getting a vasectomy at the time … It was a 7.3, but now it’s a 4.1.” Saget’s dirty lines couldn’t have been further from Tanner’s persona, or from his later role as the host of America’s Funniest Home Videos, a show that used dad jokes to stitch together clips of unintentional crotch punches. Inspired by free-speaking legends such as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin, Saget often worked blue, crowding his sets with filthy innuendo and Rabelaisian wit. Yet those two sides of Saget, who died yesterday at 65, were what made him so compelling. Many entertainers have played against type or shirked the roles that made them famous, but Saget was a lesson in authentic complexity. “You’re a good guy,” Conan O’Brien once told him. “But your mind goes sometimes to dirty places.”
Saget’s dichotomy perhaps even helped him land the role of Tanner. Full House’s creator, Jeff Franklin, first became friends with Saget when the budding comic warmed up studio audiences for the short-lived 1980s series Bosom Buddies. Franklin knew about Saget’s ribald comedic style, but he also saw something universal in him. Saget was an “everyman,” according to Franklin. He was one of the guys audiences could “root for.”
Whether you knew him pre– or post–Full House, Saget’s duality was sometimes bewildering. How could the father who helped his daughters navigate questions about body image and boyfriends also be the comic who joked about copulating with a goat? Saget mostly kept it clean for the young actors he worked with on Full House. But at moments his stand-up personality poked through, like the time a donkey accidentally became aroused during taping, and he kept calling the animal “pepper mill”—referring to its erection—in front of the entire cast, children and all.
Saget called this trait his “sick silliness.” In his 2014 autobiography, Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian, he wrote, “I never do it to shock anyone, even though people have sometimes thought of me as a shock comic … It’s not something I’m proud of. But I’m not ashamed of it either. It’s more of a handicap. Or, depending on your perspective, a gift.”
Finding the funny wasn’t just a career choice for Saget; it was a necessity. He credited his dark humor with helping him survive the loss of several family members: One sister, Andrea, died of a brain aneurysm in 1985 and another, Gay, died of scleroderma in 1994. There were many more. “I’ve lost a lot of people, and throughout my childhood—almost every two years—someone in my family died at an unnaturally young age,” Saget wrote in Dirty Daddy. Tragedy regularly—almost stereotypically—informs a great deal of comedy, and Saget knew them both well.
Saget embodied contradictions. Yet through them, he was perhaps entertainment’s consummate father figure. Many kids grow up understanding their parents from one perspective, only to realize, in time, that moms and dads have desires, needs, and even personalities outside of the expected strictures. Saget was a reminder that humans are so much more than any one script. We do—and can and should—play all sorts of roles.