Since losing his sister Gay to scleroderma, Saget has served on the Scleroderma Research Foundation’s board of directors, and today hosts the organization’s charity-packed benefits around the country. He sat down with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Regina Hall to discuss his upcoming benefit, “Cool Comedy/Hot Cuisine,” and shared insight into how he managed to keep laughing in the midst of family tragedy.
Chet Cooper: Thanks for meeting with us.
Bob Saget: I thought this was Alimony Magazine! That’s why I agreed to the interview. I didn’t know this was actually called ABILITY.
Cooper: Half of the article will be about alimony.
Saget: You’ll need to interview people I’ve split up with.
Regina Hall: That’s why I’m here!
Saget: Yes. My future ex.
Cooper: How did you find your way into the entertainment business?
Saget: Oh, my career is very sordid and hard to pin down. I started making eight-millimeter movies when I was nine. Later I made 60 hours of really bad student movies. I realize “really bad student movie” is redundant. Anyway, I went to Temple University film school and made an 11-minute documentary, called Through Adam’s Eyes, about someone to whom I’m very close who had reconstructive facial surgery. It won a Student Academy Award.
I did a lot of filmmaking around that time, and I’d take the train into New York from Philadelphia, where I’d started winning radio contests as a stand-up comic. At 17, I performed at The Improv. And then at 21, I moved to Los Angeles to go to USC film school. I quit school after three days. I figured I’d already gotten my undergrad degree, anyway. So I went back into comedy, performing at The Comedy Store and The Improv.
Cooper: So if someone is planning to follow in your footsteps, he or she should only go to grad school for three days.
Saget: (laughs) Well, the Comedy Store had offered to pay me nothing for eight years!
Cooper: (laughs) Can’t say no to that!
Saget: That’s what this is all about: giving. (laughs) Anyway, I decided to give most of my money to the Comedy Store and The Improv. I found work right away as a comedian, and I also studied acting. I did the Groundlings workshop for a year, where, again, you pay them. Kevin Costner and Barbi Benton were in my first Groundlings class, which should give you an idea of how long ago this all was.
Cooper: Barbi! I haven’t heard her name in a long time!
Saget: She was funny. We did a lot of improvisation involving sex and drugs. Of course, that stuff still takes up most of our lives now.
Cooper: Sex, drugs, and alimony!
Saget: Right! The first thing I ever did of consequence was a Richard Pryor movie called Critical Condition. Then I got a PBS TV show called The Morning Program, which went up against Good Morning, America. I did that for about five months and was fired.
After that, I got Full House, which I did for eight years, and then a year into that, I was asked if I wanted to host a clip show of people getting hit in the nuts—so I did America’s Funniest Home Videos for eight years.
I was working 80 hours a week at two very commercial shows, both of which were family friendly. At the end of Full House, I directed an ABC television movie called For Hope, which is still run on Lifetime. It starred Dana Delany and was based on my sister, Gay, who died of scleroderma.
Cooper: How old was Gay when she died?
Saget: She was diagnosed at 43, and died at 47. Before that, she had been misdiagnosed many times. Unfortunately, rheumatologists in a lot of places don’t have very many scleroderma patients come through their labs, and no one knew what to do with her. I wish I’d known then what I know now.
Hall: My mother has scleroderma. At first the doctors had thought she had lupus.
Saget: Yup. That’s how it was with my sister, too. The doctors put her on cortisones, which make a person nutty. My sister had a psychotic episode, and I put that in For Hope. That was a crazy time.
Anyway, I then moved to directing television for about four years, while continuing to do stand-up. I’ve been a stand-up comic now for 35 years. So now I’m on tour and I have a new show.
Hall: And you’re a complete dirty-mouth.
Saget: I do talk ill. If you see me on HBO or Comedy Central, you know that. But talk about filthy: I directed a movie four years ago called Farce of the Penguins, which Sam Jackson narrated. Christina Applegate, Tracy Morgan, Lewis Black and Mo’Nique were the main voices.
Mo’Nique and Tracy had sex in the film, as penguins. I wrote a song for the film called “He Loved Her in a Way I Never Did,” which was really filthy.
Cooper: You don’t seem to shy away from anything taboo.
Saget: After a lot of tragedy comes gallows humor. Even in the TV movie I did, For Hope, the first half-hour of the TV movie was really funny, but it also helped raise awareness of this disease that affects
hundreds of thousands of people.
It’s actually not even known how many people are affected, because there are so many other ways scleroderma can morph. There are many different ways a person can get it. I first found out about scleroderma when I was asked to do a benefit, before my sister got sick.
Cooper: That’s a weird coincidence.
Saget: Nobody knew about the disease at that time. Rosie O’Donnell, Ellen DeGeneres, and myself all got involved in the benefit, but this was 25 years ago, and none of us had any real television life to speak of. Sharon Monsky, who founded the Scleroderma Research Foundation, organized that benefit.
There’s also a Scleroderma Foundation, and we’re separate from them, but one of the Scleroderma Foundation board heads is also on the Scleroderma Research Foundation board. We’re all basically trying to cure the same thing. Our organization has raised $25 million for research. Our chairman, Luke Evnin, is an amazing man, and lives up in San Francisco with his wife, Deann Wright. They’re both brilliant scientists and doctors.
Dana Delany’s on the board, Caryn Zucker, Kristen Baker Bellamy, who lost her mother to scleroderma, and is married to Bill Bellamy. Robin Williams worked our first benefit. A number of celebrities sign on, which helps to give the disease a higher profile. As you may know, Regina, a significant number of the people who get scleroderma are African-American.
Cooper: Was your sister black?
Saget: (laughs) If it will help raise money, yes. My black sister and my white sister passed away from this disease, but my Asian sister is still on the fence.
During the times I’ve been to Washington, DC, to lobby, I’ve seen everybody fighting for their own causes. They’re like, “Why are you giving money to that foundation? Don’t give money to cystic fibrosis! We have to help multiple sclerosis!” They’re all competing for national funds, but we’ve resolved that issue because we’re privately funded.
Hall: Do you find it’s harder to get funding to fight a disease that predominantly affects women, many of whom are black?
Saget: We believed that for a while, yes. I’d like not to believe it, personally. I’ve met so many people—including Jeff Mace, one of our board members, and a brilliant lawyer—who have the disease. I’ve met a lot of men with scleroderma.
Fortunately more people now than ever are in remission, thanks to advances in the drugs. I just hosted a thing for my heart doctor at Cedars Sinai, where researchers are rebuilding the heart with stem cells. The progress in science is amazing.
Cooper: Do you know if the centers you fund share their research? Sometimes all this money goes into the research and development, and then no one shares the information.
Saget: There is some clashing here and there, sure, but our research is shared. Everything is about the research. I don’t care about anyone’s quality of life but my own. [laughter] I hurt my knee, I hurt my toe, my hair’s messed up. I’m having some problems of my own. I can’t even ride a motorcycle with a guitar anymore.
Seriously, though, we’ve really done some amazing stuff. My part of the effort has been to host benefits that raise consciousness and make a lot of money. Robin Williams has done our event six or seven times, and Dana Carvey is doing our San Francisco event on May 4th, at the Palace Hotel. One year, Dana performed, walked offstage and bid ten grand on a painting that I don’t even think he wanted.
This May, Counting Crows is going to perform. At the last event we did in New York, I had Brian Regan, Seth Meyers, Brian Williams, Jeff Ross and Jerry Seinfeld. Jerry said yes within a week. We raised $700,000 at Caroline’s. We did an event in Los Angeles a couple years ago, and I asked John Mayer to perform. He said yes within a week.
I am such a starf--ker, I can’t even tell you. For a lot of people who do my benefits, I agree to do their benefits, too. It’s great because you know you get to help people in a real way. There’s such tragic stuff out there.
Cooper: It must feel good to know you’re having an impact and raising awareness..... continued in ABILITY Magazine
Excerpts from the Bob Saget Issue Apr/May 2011:
Bob Saget — Interview
AJ Green — The Wish That Made a Star
Ashley’s Column — Spring in My Step
Greg Mortenson — Schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Zach Anner — Oprah’s Globetrotter
Senator Harkin — Advancing the Civil Rights Movement
Dyspraxia — Real Emotions
Articles in the Bob Saget Issue; Ashley’s Column — Spring in My Step; Senator Harkin — Advancing the Civil Rights Movement; Moon Feris — Sounding Off for the Deaf?; Arts — The Craft of Education; AJ Green — The Wish That Made a Star; Humor — Fraying Genes; Dyspraxia — Real Emotions; Building Futures — Schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan; Zach Anner — Oprah’s Globetrotter; Bob Saget — America’s Funniest Philanthropist; Good Food — We’ve Got Taste; ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences... subscribe