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Inside the lasting friendship between Bob Saget and Norm Macdonald

They first met as fledgling stand-ups, rocketed to national fame in the 1990s and died within four months of each other.
Norm Macdonald and Bob Saget in 2004.Eric Charbonneau / Berliner Studio via Shutterstock

The celebrity roasts that air on Comedy Central are usually bawdy affairs where insults zip around the room like poisoned darts. Nobody is spared.

But when Norm Macdonald took the stage in 2008 at the roast of the late Bob Saget, he delighted the audience with a decidedly family-friendly set: deliberately corny and antiquated one-liners that he read off index cards.

"Bob has a beautiful face, like a flower — yeah, a cauliflower," Macdonald deadpanned.

Macdonald, in his typically sardonic style, upended the foul-mouthed formula of the Friars Club. But his turn at the podium hinted at the well of affection he felt for Saget, his friend for decades.

"In all seriousness, Bob was the first comedian that I ever saw perform, when I was a boy, live — and I loved him," Macdonald told the crowd. "But one thing that bonds us as comedians is we're bitter and jealous, and we hate everyone else that has any success.

"Bob, honestly, has never had an unkind word for anybody. I love him, and I hope everybody else does."

Saget seemed to fight back tears.

In a business where rivalries run deep and cutting jokes often contain kernels of truth, Saget and Macdonald — who died within four months of each other — enjoyed a lasting friendship.

The genuine sentiments they shared may surprise some of their fans: Saget, post-"Full House," reveled in raunchy stand-up; Macdonald sometimes adopted a caustic persona. But their public comments about each other revealed the abiding kindness at their cores.

In a podcast recorded shortly after Macdonald's death, Saget paid tribute to his friend in personal terms. Saget recalled how Macdonald explained his G-rated roast: "I can't say mean things about you because you're my friend."

"We'd gone through so much together, ups and downs," Saget said in a 37-minute tribute to Macdonald.

"He called me a week out and said, 'I’m just gonna read jokes from a '40s joke book,' and I said, 'Norm, that's fine. I mean, you know what you're doing, but you gotta curse.' [Macdonald replied:] 'I don’t want to do that.'"

Saget and Macdonald first met on the stand-up circuit in Ottawa, Canada. (Macdonald was born and raised in Quebec.) They plied their trade in comedy clubs, bonding over similar sensibilities.

Eventually, Hollywood came calling. "Full House" premiered in 1987, and Saget soon became a household name as the squeaky-clean widower Danny Tanner. Six years later, Macdonald debuted on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," where he anchored "Weekend Update."

While these big breaks catapulted both men to national fame, neither venture was a tailor-made fit. Saget clearly relished chances to shake off the trappings of sitcom stardom and indulge in NSFW humor. Macdonald often chafed against network limits on what he could say from the "Update" anchor chair.

The two teamed up for the 1998 film "Dirty Work," an 82-minute revenge comedy. The film marked Macdonald's first starring role after he was fired from "SNL" and Saget's directorial debut, a year after he left his role as host of "America's Funniest Home Videos."

The gleefully vulgar film drew largely negative reviews and disappointed at the box office. But the on-set collaboration between the two friends was said to be fruitful, and the movie eventually became a cult classic through under-the-radar DVD sales and cable TV airings.

The film critic Nathan Rabin, for example, once described "Dirty Work" as "the ironic dumb comedy, the slyly postmodern lowbrow gag-fest that so lustily, nakedly embraces and exposes the machinations and conventions of stupid laffers that it becomes a sort of sublime bit of meta-comedy."

Macdonald's stint as a Hollywood leading man was short-lived, and Saget went on to direct only two more feature films. But they both continued to hone their craft as comedians and general smart alecks, touring the U.S. and reaching fans through podcasts, late-night talk show appearances and memorable cameos.

Saget was evidently gutted by Macdonald's death last fall. The former "SNL" player's death felt like "a knife in the heart for all of us who were close to him and all of you who loved him," Saget said at the time.

"Last week, I got a text and it just said 'I love you.' And I didn't say much back," Saget said. "I just said, 'I love you, Norm.' And that was my [final] communication with him.

"One of the gifts of my life is that he loved me, and that I loved him."