Bob Saget’s death on Sunday came as a shock partly because of his age, 65, and because he had been of late so publicly concerned with other people’s death.* He had been mourning his friend Norm Macdonald’s passing (in September of last year) nonstop, in podcasts and interviews and even in his stand-up. (He began a set in Oregon by inviting the audience to applaud Norm and waited as they gave him a five-minute standing ovation.) He had stated in an interview just three days before his death that one of his goals is to keep another, troubled friend, Artie Lange, alive. But his final communications don’t suggest that he was particularly worried about himself, and as of this writing, his cause of death has not been made public. “Loved tonight’s show,” his final tweet reads. “Appreciative audience. … Check http://BobSaget.com for my dates in 2022.”
During the peak of Saget’s TV career, the rumor was that he had a secret side. The more public side was the boyish and gangly America’s dad the country loved from his long stints hosting America’s Funniest Home Videos and playing Danny Tanner, the sweet and wholesome dad in Full House. He seemed easy enough to read; his face was open and earnest, his smile sincere. But that on stage as a stand-up, Saget was dirty, I remember hearing, as if it were almost but not quite a scandal. Dark. His filthiness is now of course legendary and a matter of public record: Saget’s Comedy Central roast was notoriously raunchy—save for one noteworthy exception—and he was more or less crowned the king of “the Aristocrats,” that competitive exercise in obscene comedic one-upmanship masquerading as a joke. For a long time, this was the “in-the-know” story about Saget: The man had, if not a double life, at least a double image.
This is the kind of faux-revelation that inclines people to believe that the darker version is the real person and the sitcom dad the socially sanctioned mask. The truth seems to be more complicated. Penn Jillette, who directed The Aristocrats documentary, described Saget’s more transgressive humor as drawing power—and safety—from his actual sweetness. And one of the things that comes through clearly in Saget’s many interviews and podcasts—places where one might garner a glimpse of the man off-stage and off-camera, as it were (here I’ll admit I’m unfamiliar with his stand-up)—is how much it clearly meant to him to show care, and to be a good friend.
A big part of that comes through in his friendship with Norm Macdonald. A self-professed workaholic, Saget was—besides being on tour and working on a special—in the middle of several projects including an R-rated version of the ’90s comedy Dirty Work in Macdonald’s honor, and a script for Dirty Work 2, which he had finished and gotten Macdonald’s input on before the latter’s death. On Saget’s podcast in November, Artie Lange, who also appeared in Dirty Work, asked, “What does it make you feel, going to all that trouble to write?” now that the project wouldn’t move forward. “I don’t care,” Saget says. “All that trouble? I did something and Norm read it and fell in love with it.” Saget’s tone is reverential; it’s clear that what mattered to him was getting to work with Norm, to connect with someone he loved who was famously difficult to connect with.
“Yeah, we were going,” Saget says of Dirty Work 2. “And Norm didn’t think he was gonna die, and I didn’t know.”
There’s a subtext there: that Saget was the one reaching out, with mixed success, endlessly reasserting his care amid the jokes. It’s a dynamic that comes through in Saget’s conversation with Lange, too.
“Writing a sequel for a guy who has leukemia is not a smart move,” Lange says, needling Saget.
“Well, nobody knew and he wanted it that way and I think it was also him being a gambler at heart,” Saget replies earnestly. “So I think it’s those last few weeks, I think he was really thinking he was gonna beat it and we were set to go, so you were gonna be getting a phone call.”
“You were gonna be getting a phone call” is I love you in Hollywood speak. That mismatch—Saget responding to Artie’s playful barb with sincere affection—reminds me of a moment on Norm Macdonald Live when Saget, gamely trying to hold his own against Norm in full trickster mode, alluded to his and Norm’s shared history of pain. At one point, Saget, who lost two sisters and his parents, gets choked up after Norm reads Saget’s dedication to his mother in his book Dirty Daddy: The Chronicles of a Family Man Turned Filthy Comedian. “You can’t just cry,” Norm says to Saget, who tries to joke but instead says: “I don’t want to. I did, I started to cry. It’s my mom.” But when Saget brings up Norm’s own history of loss, Norm shuts down, muttering and chuckling a bit before yelling, “It’s time to do JOKES!”
On a Jan. 6 interview on the radio show A Corporate Time, the hosts ask Saget about Macdonald’s not telling him about his leukemia. Saget never takes it personally that his friend—whom he describes elsewhere as a “complex carbohydrate”—didn’t confide in him; he describes it as a question of dignity, of not wanting to be restricted or pitied. “I knew something was wrong because I was close enough to him to know that, and I just thought that it was other stuff that was serious, but I didn’t realize that he’d been going through so much. … We had a silent language. We would just be able to—we’d be in a room and people would do something and we’d look at each other and we didn’t need to say anything.”
The podcast conversation between Lange and Saget is notable for how much Saget believes himself to be talking to a friend close to death—trying to reach him just as he did Norm. “I love you,” he says to Lange. “I always love you. I always reach out a lot, you know that. And you stay silent and I get it, so I have to give you your space.” Lange eventually takes up the obvious subtext of the discussion: “Dirty Work is becoming like one of those cursed movies, I think,” he says. “Like Poltergeist, everyone’s dead. I’m saying for Dirty Work 2, you don’t have Jack Warden, you don’t have Chris Farley, you don’t have Norm Macdonald.”
“Well I’ve got you,” Saget says to Lange. “You better stay alive.”
Correction, Jan. 11, 2022: This article originally misstated when Saget died. It was Sunday, not Monday.