Bob Saget was pondering his status as comedy’s reigning filth monger at a Santa Monica cafe recently.
“You play a guy who’s clean-cut and never curses for eight years, like I did on ‘Full House,’ and people think that’s who you are,” said Saget, who will be roasted on Comedy Central Aug. 17. “And then you talk really dirty in your act, and people think that’s who you are.”
The 52-year-old pauses, and a sheepish look crosses his still-boyish face. “Ah, I’m still doing it,” he admits. “I talked to Don Rickles last week, and he said, ‘So I watched your HBO special; I really liked it, but you left out two f-words.’ My response was, ‘I know. If I had only put in 200 less.'”
It’s a surprisingly repentant statement from a comic whose stand-up has quashed his wholesome TV image as “Full House” dad Danny Tanner and as the grinning host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in the late 1980s and 1990s.
During the 13 years since “Full House” wrapped its last episode (only to continue in endless syndication), neither Saget nor the Olsen twins, who shared the role of his youngest TV daughter, have lived up to the expectations of some.
While Mary-Kate and Ashley have become billionaire moguls and the targets of vociferous tabloid reportage, Saget has mocked his own sugary image with joke songs, such as “Danny Tanner Is Not Gay.”
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Saget’s stand-up, in his words, has always been “perverted,” but that did not become widely known until he was asked to appear in the 2005 documentary, “The Aristocrats,” in which he out-raunched 100 other comedians. Since then, Saget has sold out stadiums and college theaters with an act so over-the-top nasty that it is outrageous even in a comedy zeitgeist already pushed to Sarah Silverman extremes.
His stream-of-consciousness riffs about incest, date rape, snuff films, bestiality and every possible bodily fluid are “a word salad of language so blisteringly blue that a potential diagnosis, as Saget freely admits on HBO, of Tourette’s syndrome cannot be ruled out,” the Washington Post said.
The promos for his Comedy Central roast feature Saget admonishing a donkey for trying to sniff his privates.
Even when he’s riffing about his synagogue, Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, an animal somehow enters the picture.
“We have a great synagogue — the rabbi will marry a man to a goat,” he said. “It’s Reconstructionist — they’ll do gay marriage if you need it, they’ll do interfaith — and interfaith’s nothing after a goat.”
Saget also has the reputation, among those who know him, to be as kind as he can be crude. A few days after the taping of his Comedy Central roast, he publicly protested the vulgar Olsen jokes proffered by roast master John Stamos (another “Full House” co-star) and dais participants, such as Gilbert Gottfried.
“Anybody who talks about my TV kids — that upsets me,” Saget said in a statement. “I am very protective. I love them very, very much.”
Saget was more measured about the roast several days later: “Some of the comedy for sure crossed the line,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s a roast, and they went for it. I also believe in freedom of speech, and the comedians meant no harm.”
Saget said he gets to look at the final edit and that “Comedy Central has been incredibly collaborative. The director-producer, Joel Gallen, is very talented … and also has helped to talk me off of ledges over many aspects of this roast.
“I think it’s a very funny show, but it’s not for everyone,” he added, delicately.
Saget’s Kehillat Israel shows are far cleaner. He joined the congregation with his ex-wife, Sherri, in 1990, and their three daughters (now ages 15 to 21) had their bat mitzvahs there.
The synagogue’s rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, is a fan: “Bob has appeared at almost every major event we’ve hosted in the last 15 years,” he said. “He once admitted to me that temple shows are the hardest to do, because he has to censor himself.
“Bob is particularly funny because he has this dual, schizophrenic reputation from the G-rated family shows to the X-rated stand-up show,” the rabbi added. “I appreciate his humor, because I know where it comes from: a sweet and loving way of communicating with people.
“Some comedy is cutting, but Bob’s humor is always designed for us to see the funny side of ourselves in difficult situations. He’ll be in the hospital visiting someone and making a joke about people’s catheters. It’s uncomfortable but funny, too.”
In person, Saget is warm and approachable, wears jeans and sneakers and speaks in the same stream-of-consciousness style he uses in his act. Over the course of two hours, he veers from a critical dissection of his neuroses (“I’m ADD for sure,” he said during the interview. “I’ve been Uri Gellering this spoon for half an hour.”); to his 2007 HBO special, “Bob Saget: That Ain’t Right”; to his recent shift to “actor mode,” with a Broadway turn in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and a new CW sitcom, “Surviving Suburbia,” in which he plays a disgruntled family man.
Then there are off-color jokes about his Ministry of Tourism trip to Israel years ago: He apparently got in trouble with his mother after showing a picture of her on a camel to Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” and remarking that she’d never had anything that sizable between her legs.
Saget is alternately rueful about his profane stand-up (he tries to use the words “poo” and “pee” instead of their expletive counterparts, which in itself is hilarious) and describes himself as “self-loathing,” despite his confidence onstage
“I don’t have many things in my act you can look at and go, ‘Oh, someone else is doing that,'” he said. “How many people are claiming that they do my stuff?” he laughed. “It’s a style no one wants.”
But when the Chino-area earthquake interrupts the conversation, Saget sits through it with an almost eerie calm.
“Catastrophes calm me down,” he said. “The Jew has to be on game; you can’t mess up. But God forbid you said no salt in your food, and the waiter gives it to you. It’s like, ‘I distinctly said no croutons in my salad.’ The Jew wants his order correct.”
Saget traces his resilience and his particular brand of comedy to his late father, Ben, who had a “gallows sense of humor” shaped by painful events. The elder Saget had to go to work as a youth to support five younger siblings after their father died of cancer. Ben Saget survived all four of his brothers, some of whom died young.
By the time Bob Saget was in his 30s, both of his own siblings — his sisters — had died, one of a brain aneurism after a fall, the other after a three-year struggle with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease. Ben Saget’s humor helped keep the family sane through those deaths: “If we were at a shiva and dad heard a loud sound, he would mention the departed’s name, like, ‘Here she comes.'” the comic recalled.
“My dad also loved livestock jokes, because he was in the meat business,” Saget said of the origins of his own penchant for such humor. “His delivery was wry, deadpan, with a Cheshire cat grin. He always looked as if he were up to something perverted in his mind.”
When Bob Saget was young, humor also proved to be his own survival mechanism. The family relocated several times as Ben Saget set up businesses in various cities.
Bob Saget was born in Philadelphia but also lived in Virgina and in Encino, where he attended Birmingham High for two years. He said he was “the least funny person in the world” from the time of his bar mitzvah until he was in his late teens.
“I was miserable because we moved a lot, and I just was nerdy and overweight and didn’t have any friends,” he said.
In high school, he made friends by casting them in his own Super-8 films, with titles such as “Hitler on the Roof” and “Beach Blanket Blintzes,” which starred “a big blintz who turned people into sour cream. It wasn’t a film, it was garbage,” he said.
“But the first time I ever did stand-up was when I introduced that movie to an audience in the neighborhood. Then when I was 17, I started going to comedy clubs in New York, to Catch a Rising Star and The Improv, where I’d stand in line for 10 hours to sign the open-mic sheet.”
He attended Temple University and then moved to Los Angeles to attend USC but gave that up after Mitzi Shore offered him a gig at the Comedy Store, where he eventually served as emcee.
Saget hung out with Sam Kinnison and partied.
“It was like ‘Boogie Nights,’ except we didn’t go into the Valley,” he said.
A number of comedians recognized Saget’s talent: Rodney Dangerfield told him, “I like your head, you got a Jew head, you can’t stop thinking”; and Garry Shandling got him on “The Tonight Show,” where he returned numerous times, always on the couch, not for stand-up.
It was Saget’s role in the Richard Pryor film, “Critical Condition” that drew the attention of television producers: The result: In 1987, he was cast as Danny Tanner in “Full House” — “the most non-Jewish character in the world,” he said. “They tried to get me to say grace once, but I couldn’t. I was laughing too hard; so they had to give it to John [Stamos].”
Saget and Stamos proved raunchy on the set. There was a donkey in one episode they called Pepper Mill (use your imagination), and Saget could not resist lewdly playing with the life-sized stand-in doll while the Olsens were at school.
Some critics trashed his character, which still makes Saget bristle.
“The show was on for eight years, so I think they appreciated me just fine,” he said.
A number of people have told Saget that they hated him until they saw his dirtier side in “The Aristocrats,” the documentary that transformed his image in the popular culture. In the film, 100 comics were asked to perform their own version of an old vaudeville joke about a family auditioning for an agent with an incestuous act.
But the humor is not really about the grotesquerie. “To me, the joke is about the sweaty desperation of show business,” Saget said. “What’s funny is that a family, a family — I can’t say that word enough — would do that, not to get a job but to get an agent to represent them. You can’t lower the bar on humanity much further. That’s a turd on a turd on a turd.”
Saget said he can talk about unspeakable acts, but the idea of real abuse revolts him.
“I don’t like to see violence. It’s like a form of pornography,” he said. “I take things so heavy, like politics and where the world is at, and where we are with kids. I mean, it’s just absurd; 99 percent of what we’re doing — it’s all a sin.
“I just find it so upsetting that I go to another place; I become a 12-year-old,” he continued. “I talk about poo and pee because it makes me laugh — and because anything we can’t control can be amusing. So when things come out of our bodies are air driven or liquid or solid — it’s funny. I was going to say that I’m holding a mirror up to people, but you don’t really want to look at yourself while you’re doing it.”
When Saget isn’t being serious — and sometimes when he is — he punctuates a horrific statement with a low, devilish-sounding laugh: “heh heh heh.”
“If you turn the sound off my HBO special it just looks like that nice guy from TV,” he said, with his laugh. “It’s demonic, it’s what Satan does — though I don’t believe in Satan. He lures people in with his kind ways and his smiling face, and then he says terrible things and bursts people into flames.”
But unlike Satan, he said, “I don’t do anything harmful to anyone. I’m here to save the world by telling them that the real problems aren’t language or perversions, it’s acting on those things.”
For information about the roast or how to purchase Saget’s HBO DVD, you can visit Comedy Central and BobSaget.com
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Comedy Central