Bob Saget became famous for starring in a very popular sitcom that did not let the public see the full breadth of his skills as a comedian.
As Danny Tanner, the widowed father on ABC’s TGIF classic Full House, Saget, who died unexpectedly on January 9 at the age of 65, was amusing and affable. But he tended to play the responsible straight man to the somewhat wilder children (his three daughters D.J., Stephanie, and Michelle) and man-children (his brother-in-law Jesse and friend Joey) in his unconventional household. What most viewers in the ’80s and ’90s, who also watched Saget as host of ABC’s America’s Funniest Home Videos, didn’t realize was how wry, filthy, and hilarious he could be outside of the constraints of a broadcast-network comedy attempting to be clean enough for the whole family to enjoy. Members of the comedy community may have known Saget for the full measure of the dirty-joke teller that he was. But it took the rest of America and the world a little while to realize it.
For some, it happened when they saw Dave Chappelle’s stoner comedy Half Baked in 1998, in which Saget, less than three years after Full House ended its eight-season run, played a recovering addict who stood up and announced, “Marijuana is not a drug. I used to suck dick for coke.” For others, the awareness came with the first of Saget’s numerous appearances on HBO’s Entourage, where he played a version of himself who lived next door to Vincent Chase, took hits off a bong, had sex with prostitutes, and shocked the Entourage boys with his ability to cockblock Kevin Dillon’s Drama.
Saget showed off his filthy side again in The Aristocrats, the 2005 documentary about a joke with a deliberately lengthy setup that dares comedians to push the boundaries of taste. The guy formerly known as Danny Tanner pushed them pretty far, spinning an incredibly twisted yarn that involved an intense amount of incest, diarrhea, sodomy, a flattened penis, and the loss of an eyeball, sometimes cracking himself up the longer and lewder he went. “What the fuck am I doing?” he asks at one point while telling the joke. Then he raises another tongue-in-cheek question: “Can I get a copy of this? I’d like to send it to the kids on Full House.”
For a stretch in the mid- to late 2000s, it seemed like Saget was on a deliberate mission to separate himself from all the nice-dad stuff he had done on that series. His 2007 HBO stand-up special Bob Saget: That Ain’t Right made that abundantly clear via bits where he subverted his years of engaging in gentle, family-friendly good humor — “I have three daughters. There’s D.J., Stephanie, Michelle … that little bitch Kimmy Gibbler. I feel bad I banged her, but anyway …” — and sang an irony-laden song, to the tune of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” called “Danny Tanner Is Not Gay.” His fellow comedians seemed to love him all the more for it, as they demonstrated, in their way, during the Comedy Central Roast of Bob Saget in 2008. “One thing that bonds us as comedians is we’re bitter and jealous and we hate everyone else who has any success,” said the now-late Norm Macdonald at the end of his performance at that roast. “But Bob honestly has never had an unkind word for anybody, and I love him and I hope everybody else does.”
That hard skid into more “adult” humor was less a turn for Saget than a return. In his early days as a comic, Saget often worked pretty blue. “I had it rough when I was a kid. I never got to go to camp,” he says in a 1984 set at Dangerfield’s, where he was introduced by Rodney himself. “My mom thought I’d get embarrassed undressing in front of little boys, but I’ve changed because I kinda like it now.” After a pause: “That’s not true, I’m no senator.” Saget did this often when he told an off-color joke: He undercut it so you’d know he was not really a sicko, just a guy pretending to be one for laughs.
Despite that tendency, Saget got cast as Danny because the Full House producers Jeff Franklin, Thomas L. Miller, and Robert L. Boyett knew him from their work on the Tom Hanks/Peter Scolari sitcom Bosom Buddies, where Saget was the warm-up comic for the studio audience and appeared in one episode as Bob the Comic. (So basically, himself.) According to this Screen Rant piece, Miller was convinced Saget would be right for the role after seeing him in the 1987 Richard Pryor film Critical Condition.
Once he was established as a doting dad, the reputation stuck. The Full House projects added another dimension to what had become Saget’s public persona, but they didn’t erase his association with Danny Tanner, approachable sportscaster and caring father. If anything, they made it possible to appreciate what he did on Full House more because it was so far afield from his own instincts as a comic. The most important quality that Saget needed to bring to Danny wasn’t quick-wittedness or perfect timing, though Saget had both. It was sincerity. No matter how corny the dialogue or situations he found himself in, it was imperative that the audience believe Danny was a genuinely good man raising his daughters with supreme love and care in a land where the filthiest jokes were “Oh Mylanta!” and “You got it, dude.” As goofy as Full House could be, a lot of kids — maybe kids who had negligent dads or no dads at all — watched it and saw, in Saget’s version of fatherhood, a model of parenthood that brought them comfort for a half-hour a week. There was value in that.
Saget certainly saw that value, too, as evidenced by his enthusiastic participation in the Fuller House reboot that ran on Netflix from 2016–2020. While Saget was obviously acting when he played Danny, the affection and sincerity he displayed in both series didn’t seem like a stretch. They seemed like an extension of who he was.
That felt all the more true when tributes began to pour forth from Hollywood following the news of Saget’s death. Two words kept coming up: “nice” and “kind.” “Just wanted you guys to know that Bob Saget was one of the nicest men on the planet,” wrote Pete Davidson in a post shared by Dave Sirus. “This guy definitely made ‘being nice’ a thing,” said Natasha Leggero on Instagram. “Bob Saget was the kindest, warmest male comic there was,” tweeted Chelsea Handler. “He was the guy that everyone loved.”
In an interview with Vulture a few years ago, Saget even talked about kindness and how his own father embodied it:
One time I was hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos and my dad came on the set. I said, “Dad, what would you like to say to people?” and he took two minutes of ABC network time at 7:20 at night to say, “You’ve got to be kind to each other.” He gave this speech and said that people need to treat people the way they would like to be treated. Kindness was something that was incredibly important to him. He was 100 percent right.
The fact that Saget was kind wasn’t just essential to his work on Full House, it was also crucial to his humor. Part of what made you spit up laughing when Saget went on one of his more profane runs was knowing those nasty words were coming out of the same mouth that cooed reassuring words at the Olsen twins when they were toddlers. But it was also funny because you knew he didn’t really mean what he was saying. Saget uttered unspeakably horrible things while radiating niceness, which reassured us that we also could have a wicked side and still remain fundamentally decent. It was exactly the kind of lesson that only a really great dad could teach.