Do you remember the first time you heard your dad tell a dirty joke?
However you felt, it was likely a moment when your entire universe rearranged itself.
For anyone who grew up knowing Bob Saget as Danny Tanner — the buttoned-up, kindhearted, widowed father of three daughters on “Full House” — discovering his stand-up felt like that moment.
There was always a delightfully bewildering duality to Saget, who died on Sunday at 65 in an Orlando hotel room. His “Full House” role earned him the moniker America’s Dad. On the show, which ran from 1987 to 1995 (and was rebooted by Netflix as “Fuller House” in 2016), he was a neat freak who was fully devoted to his kids. He’d do anything for them, which often meant he was a stick-in-the-mud compared with his suave brother-in-law Jesse (John Stamos) and goofball best friend, Joey (Dave Coulier), who live in the house and raise the girls.
In one episode, a horse gets into the house. Joey and Jesse try to hide it from Danny by telling him they have a surprise for him, but he has to close his eyes as not to ruin it. “Wait,” says Danny, sniffing the air. “I know what the surprise is. Joey, you’re making that chili again!”
That sort of gag was typical for the family-friendly show. Saget further bolstered his Dad image in 1989 as the first host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” where he would use wacky voices and goofy noises to narrate clips of people taking a hit to their groins or falling off trampolines.
The comedy he wrote and performed onstage, however, was a very different beast. After he died, stories flooded Twitter of parents who assumed his stand-up would make for a good family night movie watch. As one user remembered: “My family watched Full House every week. I remember my dad found a video of his stand up & thought it would be nice to watch as a family, it surely was family friendly, right? My mom was across the living room, yanking the tape from the vcr in .2 seconds.”
From the beginning of his career, Saget enjoyed walking up to the line and giggling as he leaped over it. Taboo was his Tao. Raunch was his religion. “I’m a happy guy, because I got married. Married my girlfriend of seven years. That’s her age. I’m going to jail,” he joked in a 1984 set at Rodney Dangerfield’s club. “I told her when I come home, I wanna make love to you badly. She said, ‘At least you don’t overestimate yourself.’”
Andrea Barber, who played Kimmy Gibbler on “Full House,” wrote on Instagram on Sunday that Saget had “the biggest heart in Hollywood.” He may have also had the filthiest mouth. Perhaps Conan O’Brien said it best, just before Saget told a story about an aroused donkey who (partially) resembled “a pepper mill”: “You’re a good guy, but your mind goes sometimes to dirty places.”
It wasn’t just that he played a genial guy on TV. By seemingly all accounts, he was one of the nicest people in show business. After his death, “Raising Dad” actress Kat Dennings called him “the loveliest man,” adding “I was his TV daughter for one season and he was always so kind and protective.” Billy Crystal called him “one of the funniest and sweetest people I have ever known.” Candace Cameron Bure, who played one of his daughters on “Full House,” wrote that he was “was one of the best humans beings I’ve ever known in my life.”
He was the kind of man who would interrupt his own interview to ask his interviewer about his family. He served as a board member of the Scleroderma Research Foundation and raised awareness of the disease after it took his sister’s life.
All this kindness — both the golly gee television persona and the grace he showed in his private life — only served to sharpen the blade of his comedy. It felt incongruous watching Saget, knowing twinkle in his eye, say the most disgusting things imaginable. It didn’t make sense. It was like watching a cat bark or a dog meow. Even when you expected him to tell a dirty joke, there was always some part of your brain thinking, Oh my God, that’s Danny Tanner!
Which brings us to The Joke.
There’s an old joke that dates back to vaudeville theater in the 19th century that comedians love putting their own spin on. The construction is simple: A family is trying to get their stage act booked. When the talent agent asks what the act is — and here’s where comedians toy with the joke — the family usually describes a lurid, generally offensive act. The punchline comes when the agent asks the name of the act, and the family answers, “The Aristocrats!”
The joke has such a storied history that it inspired a 2005 documentary naturally called “The Aristocrats,” in which dozens upon dozens of comedians tell their version. The doc features Chris Rock, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Buffett, Margaret Cho, Jon Stewart, George Carlin and Eric Idle, among many, many others, yet Saget was the one who made headlines for what Rolling Stone dubbed “possibly the filthiest joke in history.”
He breaks in the middle of painting a seven-minute, Virgil-style epic of hardcore depravity to ask, “What the f--- am I doing?” He quickly resumes. It made him a Dostoevsky of smut.
But it was not vulgarity without purpose. “Like with any good art form, if you can entertain people and make them think, it’s an honor. It’s just an honor to be a comedian,” he once said.
Saget could — and always would — pummel decency so vigorously, so joyfully, that our cheeks would redden while our hang-ups began to feel more and more ridiculous. His assault on our inhibitions was a gift. Imagine as he moves on now to new, unknown pastures, which are ready to be muddied and fouled by his wit. As Henry Winkler tweeted, “Oh are you going to make God blush.”