The sudden death of actor and comedian Bob Saget has felt personal to the generations of TV viewers who grew up with him as a ubiquitous and comforting presence as sitcom dad Danny Tanner on “Full House” and as the original host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” two of the most popular prime-time shows of the 1990s.
Saget’s death Sunday, at age 65, has struck a particular chord among many immigrants and children of immigrants. In an era when most people watched the same handful of shows on the major broadcast networks, “Full House” and “AFV” were a unifying force. With their broad humor and wide appeal, the shows helped us learn about American culture, build new traditions in a new country and feel less alone.
“It just helped me to demystify the U.S. culture a little bit,” said Dave Chan, whose family immigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area from Hong Kong when he was 7, in the mid-1980s, shortly before “Full House” premiered. “Here I am at school, getting picked on a lot for looking different, not speaking English well. But then I would still have people that were kind to me. I just couldn’t relate to this new culture that well. Watching this family, I think I was too young to understand the premise of the show. I just thought it was an American family. This is what they do, and here’s a cool uncle, and here’s a cool friend.”
He remembered feeling a connection to Saget, who radiated warmth as patriarch Danny Tanner.
“The way he spoke was very intentional and slow and deliberate, and he seemed to spend a lot of time trying his best,” Chan said. “It turns out he’s like that in real life. I think it was the way he spoke that was so eloquent to me. And even not knowing the language as a kid, I don’t know. I was drawn to it.”
For Akchita, a teacher in South Carolina who didn’t want to use her last name to protect her privacy, watching “Full House” similarly helped her fit in and find comfort after she and her family emigrated from India.
“We came here in 2001, right before the Sept. 11 attacks, so the atmosphere changed drastically,” she said. “Shows like ‘Full House’ really helped me learn English, learn about American culture, and get away from the racism and xenophobia at that time.”
For generations, immigrant kids have often looked to TV shows to pick up colloquialisms, figure out what to wear and other aspects of American life that our immigrant parents couldn’t teach us. Growing up in Houston after emigrating from Bangladesh just before his 9th birthday, Rahat Ahmed said he found refuge in “Full House” and the other hit sitcoms that aired during ABC’s “TGIF” block, including “Family Matters” and “Perfect Strangers.”
He remembered “emulating how people on these shows acted.”
“Of all the shows, ‘Full House’ always stood out as the most wholesome, and I remember really appreciating the loving nature of the whole family.”
That wholesomeness and the squeaky-clean jokes gave immigrant parents and children something they could watch together, transcending cultural, generational and language divides. In addition, both “Full House” and “AFV” had relatively simple premises and broad humor, making them easy to understand.
For Nimmy Simon and her Indian American family in the Chicago suburbs, “Full House” on Fridays and “AFV” on Sundays were often mandatory viewing.
“My parents worked all the time, and my dad never had a chance to sit down and watch TV. But if we were all home together on a Sunday, where that was the one day he would have off, we’d sit down and we’d watch the show,” said Simon, 33, who’s now a physician in Columbia, South Carolina. “There’s not a lot of traditions I had with my parents growing up. But that was the one thing I always remember. If it was on and it was a Sunday, and he was off, we were sitting there and watching it.”
“Full House” lives on, thanks to syndication, streaming (including the recent Netflix reboot, “Fuller House”) and the show’s timeless themes. As a result, multiple generations of immigrants and children of immigrants have discovered it. Even though it went off the air years before her childhood, Sammy Parvatini, 19, and her Indian immigrant parents watched reruns when she was growing up in Northern Virginia.
“It’s hard to raise a child in a country that you weren’t raised in before,” said Parvatini, who is now in college. “My parents basically got an insight from ‘Full House’ to know, like, ‘OK, this is how it works.’”
Her parents would use the show for educational moments. For example, she recalled them citing an episode in which Danny tells Stephanie not to smoke cigarettes just because the cool kids at school were doing it as an example of not giving in to peer pressure.
On a more basic level, she thought “Full House” lives on simply because “it has that unity vibe that helps you take your mind off the bad times, knowing you can just have fun in that show and feel good.”
Chan said it occurs to him now that back then he never really considered how Danny Tanner was white. As a kid, it didn’t matter all that much because the show felt so relatable, and the Tanners reminded him of members of his own family.
“I never thought of him as white, for some reason. I don’t know why,” Chan said. “Maybe it’s because he seemed like a father figure to me. I never thought of him as this white guy. It was just like, ‘I know him.’”
Ahmed, the founder of a company that invests in Bangladeshi startups who splits his time between New York and Dhaka, recalled that back in the 1990s, immigrants of color had a pretty limited set of options on TV. In a time when one of the only representations of South Asian people in U.S. culture was a racist caricature (Apu on “The Simpsons”), “we found ways to identify with those closest to us,” he said, citing, for example, Steve Urkel on “Family Matters.”
“My own personal realization of how much my life has been shaped by media from my youth is a bit staggering,” he added. “This, if anything, is especially important on why we need better representation of minorities in the media. I’ve been amazed to see how far Indians and Pakistanis, for instance, have progressed — but remain disappointed by the lack of Bangladeshi representation. Hopefully that will change soon.”
Of course, there are so many ways in which these shows now feel dated. “Full House” and its punchlines and studio audience are a formula from a bygone era. Similarly, the early seasons of “AFV” are strange to think about now: The show was like YouTube and TikTok, but with VHS tapes (remember those?) submitted by mail.
There’s another key way in which both shows feel like products of a particular time. Now, when we’re inundated with new TV shows and streaming platforms, it’s hard to imagine so many people having a shared experience over the same few programs. It’s striking that a lot of TV shows that first- and second-generation Americans often describe as having similar effects — teaching us English, showing us aspects of American life and making us feel less like outsiders — also come from a pre-streaming, pre-“peak TV” era, such as “Friends” and “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
Multiple people in this story mentioned that in their working-class immigrant households they didn’t have cable. So they just watched whatever was on: often, a rerun of “Full House.”
“Maybe 50 or 40% of the channels were all just fuzzy, and you couldn’t see anything,” Chan recalled. “And you had fewer distractions, no internet. You had a schedule. You got home, turned the TV on. You didn’t have that many selections, and this was the show that everyone was watching.”
Yet in some ways “Full House” and the Tanner family also helped viewers look to the future. As Simon pointed out, it subverted the image of a conventional nuclear family: mom and dad and a couple of kids. “Full House” and its “three dudes raising three girls” premise was relatable to many immigrant families, who often consider their close friends as members of their family and help raise each other’s kids. Simultaneously, it gave viewers more definitions of what an American family is.
“I wonder if watching shows like ‘Full House,’ where you see how things are different, really shows you the world is different, and it’s not always mom, dad, kids,” Simon said. “It’s OK for it to be three dudes raising three girls. And it’s very normal. That was like the first glimpse into, this is a normal family, and it’s different than your family. But it’s still a normal family.”
For some immigrants and children of immigrants, the experience of growing up with Saget as “America’s Dad” has now come full circle. Chan, who is a UX designer in Seattle and a father to a 3-year-old son, said Saget’s death made him think he’s perhaps channeling what he learned from watching “Full House” — without even realizing it.
“I guess it kind of made me proud that I ended up being the parent that I thought Bob Saget was in that show, being this warm, loving figure and showing lots of affection, kissing my son, hoping to do things with him,” Chan said. “The moment I learned of [Saget’s] passing, I think that those are some of the emotions I felt. Like, ’Oh my God, ‘Full House.’ I remember this guy was this really warm, caring dad. And holy shit, I’m a dad now, and I want to be that.’ And I think I am being that warm, loving, caring dad.”