The Sublime Beauty of My Friend Bob Saget’s Filthy Comedy
My children are teenagers, ages 15 and 16, and they know the comic Bob Saget was my friend. They know he died earlier this week, and that I’m grieving. They want to comfort me. But when they saw clips of Bob on the internet, making hard-core jokes about pedophilia and incest, they were offended. They thought my friend must have been a bad person, and it was hard for them to understand how I could have loved him.
I don’t know if I can blame them. How could they understand that doing transgressive comedy was, in Bob’s hands, not about hate and pain but, rather, a daredevil act of mutual trust?
We now consume much of our art in bite-size hunks, sometimes just seconds of video stripped of context: the message without the messenger. When my children watched little snippets of Bob and read some quotes, they couldn’t know that Bob Saget didn’t do transgressive comedy to be mean. He didn’t even do it to shock. He did it to make people laugh, to test himself, to let the audience test him and to form a connection with them.
He had a big smile and joy for the world in “Full House” and on “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” Everyone loved and trusted Bob in those roles. You wanted to hug him.
Some people are saying now that the real Bob was very different from that good-guy image, but I disagree. Offstage he was loving, kind, open, funny, a great friend and a great father. He also told filthy, disgusting, offensive jokes.
What Bob Saget practiced was emotional stage diving. He would fall face-first into the audience’s arms. If the audience didn’t trust him enough to catch him with their laughs, it would be worse than smashing onto a concrete floor.
The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg understood that this kind of gamble was intrinsic to great art. He is said to have said, “The poet always stands naked before the world.” I think there’s more to it. The artist must bravely say, “I am going to show the world who I am, and I trust that someone will understand.”
Real art, beautiful art, is always a scary act of trust. We look to art to see another person’s heart. That human connection is all that matters. For me, it is a reason to live.
I first got to know Bob when we were shooting “The Aristocrats,” an arty documentary from 2005 where we recorded comics telling the filthiest version they could of an inside comedy joke. It was a joke that comics loved — Johnny Carson was a big fan — but was never told to the public. It was meant for other comedians — siblings who understood the fun challenge of pushing boundaries while keeping trust.
We recorded Bob backstage at a comedy club right before he went on for his set. The director, Paul Provenza, and I had told Bob that we were comparing comedy improvisation to jazz improvisation. We hear musicians improvise solos over the same chord changes, and we wanted to watch comedians improvise over the same joke. We were shooting with home equipment and didn’t know if the movie would ever come out for the public. We thought it might just be a document for the 100-plus people who were in it.
Before we started rolling, Bob said, “Who do I have to beat?” He meant, who had been the most outrageous so far? “George? Robin?” he asked. We said that yes, George Carlin and Robin Williams had taken it pretty far out, but the ones he should be gunning for were Gilbert Gottfried and Carrie Fisher. Bob said, “OK.” He inhaled a deep breath and took off.
Oh, my goodness gracious! There wasn’t a taboo that Bob didn’t roll around in. His storytelling was so skilled and brilliant, his timing impeccable. He even threw in a Three Stooges impersonation. The images he put in our minds were as shocking as anything I had ever imagined.
Time froze. He went on forever. Every few minutes he’d start giggling, ask what he was doing and drop his head. Then he’d pop up with that beautiful, honest smile and go deeper. The biggest expense in turning our home movie into a feature film was filtering out my constant, loud, cackling laugh.
Bob was as naked and vulnerable as any artist I’ve ever seen. He stripped down. He showed us his insides. His comedy proved his nice-guy image. Bob said the most offensive things anyone had ever heard, and we loved him not despite it, but because of it.
That kind of artist has become rarer, and some say with good reason. I don’t know. I still trust comics, but the jokes, memes and comments of internet trolls are different. Trolls don’t seek to demonstrate and celebrate trust; they strive to destroy it. The troll does not want to use offense as a tool to get to shared humanity. There is no bravery.
I have heard some thoughtful arguments against the transgressive comedy that I love. One problem is that it is often the same groups of people who are being asked to take the joke. I never heard Bob insult people who were marginalized, but other comedians do, and I don’t think that’s really fair. Even if everyone is equally fair game for comedy, our culture makes these jokes land unevenly. I see that. I don’t have the right to say to someone else: “It’s a joke. Get over it.”
I want to teach my children what was beautiful about Bob Saget, but I also want to learn from them. Maybe trust and kindness are getting a little too scarce. We might need more unnuanced, unartistic, simple respect. I’m happy my children care so much about how we treat one another.
But I hope their generation, which is pushing to have speech be more careful, can understand that artists like Bob were never trading in hate. He loved the world, and I loved him.
Penn Jillette is a magician and comedian. He produced the 2005 documentary “The Aristocrats.” As one half of the magic act Penn & Teller, he performs in Las Vegas and hosts “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” on TV.
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