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Father Guido Sarducci: How Don Novello Became The Priest Of Late Night TV

Entertainment | January 1, 2021

Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci during the 'Weekend Update' skit on October 13, 1979 -- (Photo by: Fred Hermansky/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Father Guido Sarducci, alter ego of comedy writer Don Novello, rose to fame on Saturday Night Live in the '70s. Speaking in a thick Italian accent, Novello's chain-smoking Catholic priest would tout harebrained schemes for making the church more popular, or explain the minutiae or inner workings of the church. Sarducci became such a convincingly weird character that everything he said was just funny -- he almost didn't even need to crack jokes, as the persona, sometimes billed as a "rock critic" from Vatican City, was so strong and entertaining. Novello was able to take the character beyond SNL, becoming a guest on other late-night TV shows and specials. To this day, Father Guido remains an audience favorite from SNL of the late-'70s and '80s.

Don Novello Had Another Alter Ego: Lazlo Toth

On May 21, 1972, a man named Laszlo Toth attacked Michelangelo's Pieta statue in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Hacking away at the statue with a hammer, he shouted "I am Jesus Christ — risen from the dead!" It was an infamous event that was, at the same time, obscure -- the name Laszlo Toth seemed vaguely familiar for years afterward.

As a young comedy writer, Don Novello experimented with a basic tactic, akin to prank calls -- writing funny letters to famous people or corporations. He signed his letters "Lazlo Toth," and actually got a fair number of genuine responses. These were collected and published in The Lazlo Letters in 1977. Here's an example:

February 18, 1974

To: Mr. Bubble, Gold Seal Company

Dear Gentlemen: I want you to know first of all that I enjoy your product. It's always refreshing to spend some time in the tub with some bubbles. However, I must confess I am puzzled by some of the instructions on the box. It says: "KEEP DRY". How can you use it if you keep it dry? Thought you'd be interested to know someone like me caught the mistake. I thought you'd like to know. Sincerely,

Lazlo Toth

Novello later published the sequels Citizen Lazlo! and From Bush to Bush: The Lazlo Toth Letters.

Father Guido Sarducci Predated Saturday Night Live

Don Novello bought the basic ingredients of the Father Guido Sarducci at a St. Vincent di Paul thrift store in 1973. The items were a hat, a collar, and a cape, and they cost Novello $7.50. He developed the character in San Francisco comedy clubs while also making headway in his real-life career as a comedy writer, and in the mid-'70s, he got the fairly prestigious job of writing for the revived Smothers Brothers Show. The program lasted just one season, but it's where Father Guido Sarducci made his national TV debut, in 1975.

Father Guido Made His 'SNL' Debut On Crutches

When Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels got ahold of The Lazlo Letters, he liked what he read. Michaels hired Novello as  writer on SNL for the show's third season (1977-78). On May 13, 1978, Father Guido Sarducci appeared on Saturday Night Live for the first time in a monologue called "How Do You Pay For Your Sins?" Host Richard Dreyfuss introduced him as "the rock critic and gossip columnist for L’observateur Romano, the Vatican newspaper, and my spiritual advisor — Father Guido Sarducci!" and Novello took the stage wearing his Sarducci costume and leaning on crutches. 

Sarducci often began his chats or monologues with some gripe or tale of woe. On that night in 1978, he explained he'd been in an accident back in Rome -- run over by a nun on a Vespa.

Guido Sarducci's First SNL Bit Later Became A Demotivational Meme

That first night, Sarducci's bit played on the quantifiable nature of Catholic faith. There is a base daily rate of pay for people, Sarducci explained, and then there are penalties for sins:

The Pope’s doing an encyclical. It’s called the “Vita est Lavorum.” In English, that means: “Life, It’s A Job.” ... We’re all getting paid $14.50 a day. It don’t sound like much. I mean, $14.50 a day, but, you know, over a period of, like, 60-70-80 years… it’s nothing to sneeze your nose at. And what happens to you when you die… they pay you. God and his helpers. You know, they bring in all of this money, and then… God goes over all your sins. And you get FINED. You know, it’s like, uh… like, maybe like stealing a car’s like $400. Murder is, maybe, you know, the worst -- it’s like $50,000. And masturbation -- eh, maybe, you know, like twenty-five, thirty-five cents. You know. That’s a cheap sin. But for a lot of people, it can add up. It just shows, you know — there is NO free lunch.

A version of the gag would later show up on the internet in meme form.

The Character Lampoons The Transactional Nature Of Catholicism

In another famous SNL bit, Sarducci took issue with the canonization of Elizabeth Ann Seton, which was big news at the time, as she would become the first Catholic saint born in what would become the United States. Anyone who grew up in the Roman Catholic faith is familiar with rules -- rules, rules and more rules. Not only are there a lot of rules, there are also consequences -- the well-known saying of Our Fathers and Hail Marys. 

Guido Sarducci is grounded in the culture of rules and quantifiable offenses, and he pulls the veil off of the mysticism by reducing church policy to bureaucratic hoops and "politics." When the late Seton (who died in 1821) was in the canonization process, Sarducci broke it down like an aggrieved TV-news talking head:

To be made a saint in the Catholic church, you have to have four miracles. That's the rules. ... Well, this Mother Seton, now they could only prove three miracles. But the Pope -- he just waived the fourth one. He just waived it! And do you know why? It's because she was American. It's all politics. We got some Italian people, they got 40, 50, 60 miracles to their name. They can't get in just cause they say there's already too many Italian saints, and this woman comes along with three lousy miracles. I understand that two of them was card tricks.

Italian people with 60 miracles who can't get canonized -- because they're Italian. Brilliant.

Father Guido Was Arrested By The Vatican Police

How did the Catholic church feel about Father Guido -- or were they even aware of the act? Novello got a clue on May 2, 1981, as he was arrested by the Vatican Police when he visited St. Peter's Basilica in costume. "Mr. Novello was also wearing a spaghetti-plate hat, cowboy boots and pink glasses," said the report in the New York Times. Novello was charged with impersonating a Catholic priest and taking photos without authorization. He was held for six hours, then released.

Sarducci (Like Everyone) Covered 'Macarthur Park'

Source: discogs

In 1980, Father Guido Sarducci put out his first comedy album, Live At St. Douglas Convent. It included his famous bit "Five Minute University," which was a proposal for a school that would teach you everything a typical college grad remembers five years down the road -- which can be covered in about five minutes, including a snack break and graduation ceremony. In the same year, he also released the holiday novelty single "I Won't Be Twisting This Christmas." It wasn't his best work, although the B-side was conceptual comedy gold: "Parco Macarthur," an Italian-language cover of "Macarthur Park."

By the early '80s, Sarducci had a life outside of SNL, with Novello appearing in character on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and David Letterman's Late Night. Sarducci also made cameo appearances in music videos by Rodney Dangerfield's ("Rappin' Rodney," 1983) and Jefferson Starship ("No Way Out," 1984).

Father Guido Sarducci continues to pop up as needed -- for example, when Pope John Paul II died in 2005, Sarducci did regular reports as a "Special Vatican Reporter" on Al Franken's Air America Radio while the Vatican elected Pope Benedict XVI. 

In 2010, Sarducci gave the opening benediction at Comedy Central's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," a live event starring The Daily Show's Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert.

Tags: Catholicism | Don Novello | Father Guido Sarducci | Saturday Night Live

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Josh Robertson

Writer

Josh Robertson is a freelance writer who lives in the past -- and likes it there. He's a former Playboy and Yahoo! Internet Life editor and current social media whiz/hack. He prefers Martin Denny to Herb Alpert, still reads his Kurtzman-era Mad magazines, thinks margarita mix is an abomination and believes Lazenby was the second-best Bond, deal with it.