Saturday Night’s Children: Don Novello (1979-1980; 1985-1986)

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Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

There’s always been a blurry line between writers and cast members on Saturday Night Live, and one of the first SNL writers to cross over was Don Novello, known best for his alter-ego Father Guido Sarducci, the chain-smoking Italian-Catholic priest he created long before SNL and would continue to showcase years after.

Novello started out as an advertising copywriter in Chicago, but his comedic career began at a St. Vincent de Paul thrift shop where he purchased a monsignor’s outfit for $7.50. After adding what would become his character’s signature tinted glasses, mustache, cigarette, and Italian accent, Father Guido Sarducci was born. Novello gained popularity as the monsignor at San Francisco coffeehouses and nightclubs and The Comedy Store in Los Angeles throughout the 70s. Sarducci also earned Novello an appearance on San Francisco’s Chicken Little Comedy Show as well as The Smothers Brothers Show in 1975.

In 1977, Novello published his book The Lazlo Letters, in which he writes strange letters to various celebrities and companies like Richard Nixon, Mobil Oil, and the New York subway commissioner under the pseudonym of famous art vandal Lazlo Toth. The book caught the attention of Lorne Michaels, who hired Novello as a SNL writer the same year alongside Brian Doyle-Murray – they were the first writers to be hired since the show’s premiere – and by his second week, Novello already created a hit sketch with the Olympia Restaurant, or “Cheeburger Cheeburger” sketch, based on a restaurant he knew back from his Chicago advertising days.

Though Novello was primarily a writer, he was also credited as a featured player from both 1979-1980 and 1985-1986. He appeared as Mike in the Olympia sketches as well as Abdul Asad in The Bel Airabs, a Beverly Hillbillies spoof that aired twice. His over thirty SNL appearances as Father Guido Sarducci solidified his popularity on the show as a character who spanned across seasons, and he went on to appear as Sarducci in Married…with Children, Unhappily Ever After, Blossom, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Square Pegs, The Colbert Report, and more, most recently at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010, where he performed the Rally Benediction.

After his first SNL stint, Novello wrote the Gilda Radner documentary “Gilda Live” then went on to write and produce SCTV Network in 1982. He returned to SNL again from 1985-1986 and has since appeared in The Godfather Part III, Jack, Factory Girl, and Clone High in addition to all his appearances as Sarducci above. He also co-wrote the screenplay Noble Rot alongside John Belushi, whose death halted the film from being made. In probably his most infamous Sarducci moment, Novello was arrested by Swiss Guards in 1981 for impersonating a priest and taking photographs in an area of Vatican City where photography was prohibited. Perhaps the key ingredient to Novello’s success as Sarducci was the way he treated his character and audience with respect – the humor was good-natured and kid-friendly, almost like a Mr. Rogers figure for the late night comedy crowd. “I never made fun of the religion,” he says in Live from New York. “I never did the sign of the cross or talked about Jesus or anything like that. I just made fun of the hierarchy.” To ape a religious figure while still being simultaneously respectful and hilarious is a pretty hard trick to pull off on a show like SNL, and Novello managed to succeed year after year without making Sarducci – the most recurring recurring character in SNL history – ever become quaint, stale, or obsolete.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.