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Bob Saget Was Nice to Be Naughty

The sardonic host of ‘America’s Funniest Home Videos’ undermined the viral video as we know it today

Growing up, we didn’t care about Full House. We were an America’s Funniest Home Videos family. Next to The Simpsons, it was the only other can’t-miss TV show. These forebears of Jackass and viral internet clips led me to conscript my little brother in a series we shot on camcorder in the backyard, which I called Daredevil Brendan. The premise was simple: I forced Brendan to do something dangerous, and filmed it, or else faked some exciting footage. In one segment, I engineered a stunt to make it seem as if he’d jumped off the roof of our house and landed on me. To our delight, our parents were horrified, believing the illusion.

But we wouldn’t have been obsessed with America’s Funniest Home Videos — a relentless montage of slapstick domestic injury, embarrassment, adorable babies and rambunctious pets — if it hadn’t been hosted by Bob Saget, the one-of-a-kind comedian who has passed away at 65 during a tour. Saget was infamous, in part, for a split persona: at once a squeaky-clean sitcom dad and the dirtiest working standup artist, capable of spinning the age-old bit “The Aristocrats” into a scenario so horrifically vile yet hysterical as to make his peers blush.     

For AFHV, Saget was required, like on Full House, to present a harmless side, guiding the audience from one catastrophe to the next, the smiling, PG-rated emcee for a thousand compilations of testicular injury. The producers added wacky sound effects to each snippet, but none could match Saget’s wry narration and color commentary. And then, between videos, it would be just Saget, standing in the liminal nightmare of a half-finished living room set, doing a Beckett-level postmodern performance of the guy who made a Faustian bargain in Hollywood.

On the surface, he became all slick charisma, but underneath, there was a gorgeous strain of sardonic self-loathing, arched-eyebrow smarm and can-you-believe-this-shit winking. His attitude ranked among the most subversive stuff on network TV at the time. Where Garry Shandling had sledgehammered the fourth wall with It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and The Larry Sanders Show, Saget secretly embodied the duality of being one person and playing another, or showed that such contradiction is the truth. He’s remembered by his fellow comics as one of the kindest in the business, and this, no doubt, is how he wound up doing Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos — he realized you could justify your naughtiness by being, actually, nice.  

Talking to the audience, Krusty the Clown says, is “always death.” Yet Saget somehow thrived in the moments when his crowd was unwilling to laugh, throwing the writers under the bus (though he was one) and rolling eyes at his own punchlines if it brought everyone back to the table. America’s Funniest Home Videos sat among the lowest common denominators of entertainment in the 1990s, and he clearly knew it, particularly in the later seasons, when his riffs and ad-libs grew more critical and adversarial. At college, a friend and I would smoke weed before watching these rebellious episodes in cable syndication, thrilling at Saget’s brazen refusal to mute his true voice. It was better than anything where someone got hurt bouncing off a trampoline.

And Saget was nothing but genuine, the gentlest man alive, when he went into the stands to interview that week’s winner, the family who had won $10,000. An impossible balance, to check in with a person likely both humiliated and redeemed, whose misfortune had turned into a nice but public windfall. Or maybe a toddler already asleep on a parent’s shoulder. Any family might be sitting there, AFHV being a great cultural melting pot for its era, and Saget never failed to find the right note for the people sitting there. 

It’s comforting, still, to imagine him contributing the voiceover for my failures. How inadequate to be a smartass — you should also be sweet.