Bob Saget walked into the lobby of the Hudson Hotel and thrust out his hand. The tall, fit 48-year-old was wearing a zip-up sweatshirt, faded jeans and Converse loafers. I was eager to ask him to tell a famous dirty joke, a joke so well known among comedians it’s the subject of its own documentary, The Aristocrats, which comes out in July.
In the film, Mr. Saget is one of 100 comedians who each tell their own version of the bawdy yarn. His version, I’d been told, was the filthiest-not something you might expect from a guy who beamed into prime time as the sitcom dad on ABC’s Full House and the corny host of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Who was the real Bob Saget?
“Saget was famously dirty in college, 30 years ago,” said the comic magician Penn Jillette, who produced the documentary. “The joke is not that in an R movie, Bob Saget gets dirty; the joke is that in the world, Saget got clean.”
“It’s not appropriate for any mass consumption,” Mr. Saget said. “This joke is like 70 years old, and the point of it is that it’s the most offensive thing that you can make up. The purpose is to offend, and that nothing is too offensive-nothing.”
The joke is so rancid that Mr. Saget demanded to see the finished film before signing the release. “Because it’s damaging,” he said. He ordered a virgin Bloody Mary.
“My justification is that I find stuff that is horrific funny,” he said. “I find things that are terrible-terrible, terrible, terrible- hilarious, because how could people be so horrible? It’s my defense. I could sit around crying all day. I’m a very sensitive person.”
He said that he’d never let his kids or his parents see The Aristocrats.
“I can’t really tell you the joke,” he said. “I’ll explain it. It won’t translate on paper. So, O.K., a family goes into an agent’s office …. ” He paused. “This is not a good joke, by the way …. O.K., a family goes into an agent’s office, and they say, ‘We’d like you to represent us.’ It’s a mother, a father and a few kids. And the agent’s got a cigar, he’s a big guy behind a desk. He says, ‘Whatya do?’ The father says, ‘What do we do? Watch this.’ And they all strip naked and start having sex with each other. The mother and her kids, you know, everybody’s going at it: They’re all having sex. I’m not going to go into the horrible dirty details …. The bottom line is the family is having horrible sex with each other. It goes on and on. And eventually they freeze in place and go, ‘ Ta-dahhhh!’ And the agent says, ‘This is very interesting. Uh, what do you call yourselves?’ And the father goes, ‘The Aristocrats!’ That’s the joke.
“The purpose of the joke, what I thought was funny about it, is that people will do anything to make it in show business,” Mr. Saget said. “Because everybody wants to be famous. Not everybody-smart people don’t. And this is how low someone will go to be famous. They will have sex with their own family. What I find funny about it is the desperation.”
Mr. Saget is in New York because he’s appearing in an Off Broadway comedy, Privilege. The play is set in 1987 and revolves around two brothers, one a capitalist, the other a wisecracking socialist. Mr. Saget plays their clueless nouveau- riche father, who has been arrested for insider trading. As the story progresses, Mr. Saget’s character becomes tragic.
“As soon as somebody talks about the play, I get all verklempt, you know?”he said. “I just tear up.”
The playwright, Paul Weitz, who with his brother Chris directed the first American Pie movie and wrote the script for About a Boy, said he liked the idea of subverting the image people have of Bob Saget. “I liked taking that guy and having him be emotionally dysfunctional,” he said.
It’s in Mr. Saget’s contract to go home to Los Angeles for one night before the run ends, so he’ll get to see his three daughters. “I miss them terribly,” he said, adding that he’ll also attend an event at his synagogue honoring him (“For being a Jew”) and featuring performances by Jewel, Howie Mandel and Paula Poundstone.
In the past month in New York, Mr. Saget has been seeing some friends from Full House: He’s been to the nightclub Bungalow 8 with the Olsen twins, and Ashley Olsen led a standing ovation at the end of one performance of Privilege.
He’s been having fun. “My premise is, if you do theater, you turn gay,” Mr. Saget said. “I go to the gym, I go to Whole Foods, I go to Fluff and Fold.”
“This is the happiest I’ve known Bob to be,” said his longtime friend, the actor Jonathan Silverman. “It’s going to be hard to pry him off that stage. Almost every night, when we talk he says, ‘Johnny I can’t believe how lucky I am, I can’t believe I’m getting the opportunity to do this. This is the most exciting time of my life.’”
“He calls me every day and says, ‘This has changed my life,’” said former Full House co-star John Stamos, currently starring in ABC’s Jake in Progress. “I can hear it in his voice: His confidence is coming back. It’s the beginning of reinvention.”
But is America ready for Bob Saget in The Aristocrats?
“Saget is the dirtiest motherfucking cocksucker that ever walked the face of the earth!” said Mr. Jillette. “Doing those little bullshit family shows, playing the retarded fucking squeaky dickless dad-that’s not Saget! That’s a joke. You go to a restaurant with Saget and before he orders food, he’ll be talking to the waitress about fucking his daughters in the ass.”
Mr. Jillette advanced the theory that there is nothing more American than dirty jokes.
“One of the most important things about The Aristocrats is, when Saget is getting so filthy-dirty, he has no worry,” he said. “We live in a country where we do have freedom of speech. This movie is just a pure dream of Thomas Jefferson, in that it’s a hundred people saying anything that pops into their head, with no fear whatsoever. You know a lot of the Hollywood people-and this pissed me off so much-would say, ‘Oh, your movie’s fine in the blue states, but what about in the red states, where you get to the stupid people?’ And I would say, ‘Oh, by ‘stupid people’ you mean people who can program a machine, fix cars and perform surgeries? As opposed to we who are in Hollywood, who can’t do fucking anything?’
“Saget is really a centerpiece for the movie,” he continued. “It’s purely American for the guy who plays the dad and acts proper on TV and in front of his children and does everything exactly the way he’s supposed to, to be able to cut loose in the proper environment. This is what the movie’s all about! These aren’t demons, this isn’t dark side-this is total celebration of the beauty of being alive.”
Comedian Jeffrey Ross told me a story about one time when he and Saget had been out drinking and decided to visit a friend in the hospital.
“Saget’s banging on the door, and they’re not going to let us in,” Mr. Ross said. “It’s 2 a.m. and the security guards are shrugging their shoulders like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Saget’s shirt is half untucked, he’s all askew-he’s had people hanging on him all night, he peels women off. Saget, they all love a funny guy, especially a big tall rich one-and finally a guy mopping the floor comes over. He knows it’s Bob Saget and he’s like, ‘What?’ and cracks the door open. And Saget goes, ‘Do you know who I am?’ He takes his shoe off and he’s banging it on the door-’ Do you know who I am?’ Me and my buddy are laying on the ground, completely knocked out laughing. There’s no way this guy’s ever going to let us in there. Didn’t matter it was the Pope- anyone this drunk. Saget’s like, ‘ Do you know who I am?’ The guy’s like, ‘Uhhh, Bob Saget?’
“It was so great seeing Saget in his own sort of Anna Nicole moment,” said Mr. Ross. “He needs an audience, you know?”
Growing up in Philadelphia, Norfolk, Va., and Encino, Calif., Bob Saget wanted to be a doctor. His father was a meat executive (“We called him ‘Meathead’”) and his mother worked at a children’s hospital.
“I was not that great a kid,” he said. “My parents think I was, but I would light fires and chop things up. I had some problems. I was Lord of the Flies –ish, but I didn’t kill a person.”
In second grade one day, he repeatedly dropped a pair of scissors so he could look up the skirt of a girl he liked named Krissy. It wasn’t mutual, and the teacher told him to stop. Later, there was some shoplifting and vandalism.
“I mean, I would never do anything to anyone’s property now, but I broke a lot of stuff,” said Mr. Saget, who by 15 was geeky, bespectacled and overweight. “I was the youngest person in history with a comb-over.”
He made friends by casting them in movies he made on a Super 8 camera, with titles like Hitler on the Roof and Past Gas. He’d show the movies to the neighborhood and do standup. With his earnings, he bought film stock and took a pretty girl out to dinner and a movie, “and she became my ex-wife.”
At 17, he took the train to New York and waited in line for 10 hours to perform at open-mike night at the Improv. He sang perverted songs. “I had one about a woman you thought was a man. It was called ‘She’s a Man.’ Terrible song.”
In 1978 at Temple University, he won an award for an 11-minute documentary he’d made about his nephew’s facial reconstructive surgery. He enrolled at U.S.C.’s film school but quit because Mitzi Shore at the Comedy Store offered him a gig. He toured colleges, and one night in Buffalo he was signed by a 20-year-old guy named Brad Grey and his partner, a rock-concert promoter named Harvey Weinstein. “I liked Brad and I thought Harvey was a mover and a shaker, and he looked like he knew what he was talking about,” Mr. Saget said. “It’s very strange. They’re giants now.”
Mr. Grey, who remained his manager until last year, when he became chairman of Paramount, got him standup gigs on The Merv Griffin Show and other programs. Mr. Saget served as house M.C. at the Comedy Store, where in 1985 he met Rodney Dangerfield.
“Rodney came in and said, ‘I’ve seen you on Merv Griffin, I dig you, I like your head, you got a Jew head-you can’t stop thinking,’” Mr. Saget recalled. Dangerfield selected him for his special on HBO, along with Sam Kinison, Rita Rudner and Louie Anderson. Then Garry Shandling got him on The Tonight Show. “The first time with Carson, I remember it vividly,” said Mr. Saget. He told Carson about a dream he’d had, in which the two of them were up front in a limousine, with Carson driving and Buddy Hackett, Buddy Rich and Buddy Ebsen in the back. The limo crashes into a lake, and Mr. Saget saves everyone, but waits 45 minutes to retrieve Mr. Ebsen.
“I looked in the camera and said, ‘Sorry, Mr. Ebsen,’” he said. “Then I said to Carson, ‘We all went back to your house and we had milk and cookies, and you gave us slippers and pajamas.’ And Johnny just stared at me, thinking, ‘Who the fuck is this kid?’”
He did the show 11 more times, always on the couch, never for standup.
In 1987, he got a job on the CBS Morning Program but was fired after six months. He was 28. “The truth of it, I was crazy happy,” he said. “I had a new baby.”
In comedy circles, there’s a famous Saget story about the night his first daughter was born. After a very difficult birth, during which Sherri Saget and her baby almost died, a friend showed up to find Mr. Saget looking utterly destroyed, unshaven, unrecognizable, but holding his newborn.
“Oh my God, Bob, she’s beautiful,” the friend said.
“For a dollar, you can finger her,” Mr. Saget replied.
“This story continually comes back to me,” he said, groaning. “Oh boy, I was a wreck, and I was just operating on whatever sick mode I’m always in anyway. I don’t remember, but I don’t think a dollar is enough money for something that crosses the line that much. I would have said $5. The option for me was to go, ‘Oh my God, we just went through the worst thing, it was horrific, it was terrible.’ I said all that stuff. And then I capped it with that. But there’s no way this is going to play properly, and pretty much I would say my life is doomed and they’ll be taking me away.”
Three weeks after getting fired from the morning show, Mr. Saget was hired to play Danny Tanner on Full House. Ten minutes into the first episode, Mr. Saget corners Uncle Jesse, gives him a bear hug, saying, “O.K., let’s face it: I’m a lean, mean hugging machine.” Later, Mr. Saget reassures his two eldest TV daughters that in spite of their mother’s death, everything’s going to be all right.
” Now is when we really need to stick together,” he tells them with tears in his eyes. “Nothing is going to break up this team. I love you, angel. You too, little ballerina.”
He tried to broaden his role by making him a clean freak like Felix Unger.
“When I was doing it, people would go, ‘Oh, your character’s gay, right?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know-I don’t think so. I have a girlfriend.’ But they’d go, ‘He’s gay, right?’”
Mr. Saget had to wear lots of goofy costumes, and recently his 12-year-old caught a rerun and told him, “You were in a dinosaur costume this afternoon.”
Critics hated Full House. It never won any awards, but ABC ran it twice a week and it became a hit. Eventually, however, “Bob Saget” evolved into something between Fonzie and a human punch line.
“I’m so tired of people coming up to me and saying, ‘I never liked you until I saw your standup,’ he said. “Or they’ll come see me perform and say, ‘You were really great-I always hated you.’ And I say, ‘Whoa. I don’t think that’s a compliment, is it?’ They’ll go, ‘No, I really hated you.’”
He said he isn’t fazed by criticism of the show.
“If anyone’s savvy about the television business, they would love to be blessed with a beautifully bad show,” he said. “Because they will then find out, 10 years later, it’s not bad. It’s an art.”
Full House was not his only beautifully bad show. In a Tonight Show appearance, he showed a video of his wedding; a producer thought he’d be a good host for a project in the works called America’s Funniest Home Videos. Soon after, he was the star of two hit shows simultaneously. Was anyone more successful than Bob Saget circa 1990?
” Everybody,” he said. “I was a hired hand. I made a lot of money, and it’s a nice thing. But you look at the Friends money and the Seinfeld money and Happy Days money, they were all more successful-everybody that had a hit show. They owned their shows. I didn’t.”
There are some who believe that Mr. Saget wasn’t acting on Full House.
“They’re insane,” he said, adding that he wasn’t playing himself on Home Videos, either. “That was me as a standup comedian, being put on network television on church night, in America, acting a role of that host in that time spot with these constraints. We had censors all over us. Again, the show became No. 1 and I would never complain.”
In 1996, Mr. Saget made For Hope, a TV movie based on the life of his sister Gay, who had died three years earlier from the auto-immune disease scleroderma.
“I think that’s one of the most times I’ve ever been in the zone until this play,” he said. “That project was obviously so personal to me, and I was crying the whole time I was working on it. All diseases are bad, but this one is terrible, terrible, terrible. It goes into your internal organs, and you can turn to stone-literally.” Mr. Saget has hosted numerous benefits for a cure, including one at Caroline’s Comedy Club that raised almost $700,000.
In 1997, Mr. Saget and his wife divorced, but they remain close. Now he’s “way single” and claims he hasn’t had sex in “dog years.”
“I could use a date,” he said. “I’m busy. I’m doing eight shows a week, and nothing’s gonna interfere with that, you know?
“Women come around me-I just don’t know what it means,” Mr. Saget added. “When I meet a girl in a club, sometimes I’ll just scrape off with a fingernail clipper some of their DNA and go home and create what I need, in a lab situation. I need a woman that I can stitch together. I want to sew a woman. You know, Silence of the Lambs was the funniest movie I ever saw.”
In 1997, he roasted Rodney Dangerfield at the Aspen Comedy Festival and had him over for Thanksgiving. Dangerfield ate a drumstick like Henry VIII, and one of Mr. Saget’s kids caught him smoking pot in the den.
Another time, he went to pick his mentor up for dinner.
“I show up at his place, and Rodney’s naked in his bathrobe,” Mr. Saget said.
“He’s always naked in his bathrobe with his balls hanging out. He goes, ‘Bob, you didn’t call to confirm. I got Ron Jeremy coming up with two hookers.’”
Mr. Saget wasn’t too keen about meeting the porn star. “I said, ‘Rodney, I really don’t want to see Ron Jeremy and I don’t want to see hookers. No offense-I’m sure he’s a lovely man.’”
Dangerfield walked him out, apologizing profusely.
“I say, ‘That’s O.K. I’m O.K., Rodney, it’s fine-don’t worry about it. How are you doing?’ And Rodney says, ‘You want to know how I’m doing? You’re leaving, and I’m waiting up here alone for a guy who can suck his own cock-that’s how I’m doing.’ I laughed pretty damned hard.”
He officiated at Dangerfield’s funeral in 2004. “That was my least favorite thing I ever did,” Mr. Saget said.
Another old-timer dear to him is Don Rickles.
“He happens to be an outstanding guy,” Mr. Rickles said of Mr. Saget. “He’s always been most gracious, and he’s still a comparatively young man, and I still think that something really will pop open for him to prove all his abilities.”
What pops into Mr. Rickles’ mind when he hears the name Bob Saget?