In the final few minutes of the Season 3 Saturday Night Live episode hosted by then-recent Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss, a character made the first of what would become the most appearances of any recurring character in the show’s history.
That Father Guido Sarducci’s five-plus minute piece was greeted with a pleasantly amused response from the studio audience is only fitting, as writer Don Novello’s creation remains one of the most comfortably amusing and welcome minor-key characters Saturday Night Live has ever featured.
Novello, a former Chicago ad copywriter, was hired for the Saturday Night Live writing staff in 1977 (following the infamous and short-lived “Black Friday” writers’ uprising), bringing along tales of a certain Chicago diner that would become a popular SNL recurring sketch and a character he’d been performing onstage and on TV in influential San Francisco-based The Chicken Little Comedy Show and The Smothers Brothers Show. Sporting priestly garb he purchased for $7.50 at a thrift store and appropriately rose-tinted sunglasses, Father Guido Sarducci presented himself as the gossip columnist and rock critic for real-life Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano and delivered his reports from inside the Vatican walls in a softly exaggerated Italian accent.
On the night of his first SNL outing as Sarducci, Novello was forced to come up with an in-universe explanation for the very real crutches he hobbled out on (after host Dreyfuss introduced him as the actor’s “spiritual advisor”). And while the anecdote about being knocked off his motorcycle by an Italian nun on a Vespa makes for an amusing SNL introduction for Father Guido, the reality is even stranger. Novello, newly hired and ready to fill in at Saturday Night Live wherever necessary, had broken his hip a few episodes before, when, as an extra, he fell off his skates in a hockey sketch featuring host Michael Sarrazin.
The hobbled but uncomplaining Sarducci’s demeanor carried through his few minutes of in-character stand-up, as the priest, true to his gossip columnist roots, offered up a sneak peek of a new Catholic encyclical about to be sent from Pope Paul VI. In a tone less conspiratorial than admiring, Sarducci praises the pontiff’s “guts” in revealing that Jesus had a brother, “Billy Christ,” who, according to unearthed artistic evidence, aided his stepbrother in faking that whole “walking on water” stunt. Sarducci expressed his continued respect for his Savior while admonishing fellow believers to not believe everything they read, even in the Bible. “Come on, grow up,” Sarducci told the audience, chuckling and taking a drag from his cigarette.
It’s the sort of lightly blasphemous comedy that Novello’s creation trafficked in. NBC’s censors, always on alert for any material they felt might alienate segments of the viewing public, weren’t successful in keeping Sarducci off of SNL, since he’d been on network TV already, but Novello’s brand of mischievous mockery of Catholic dogma got its share of pushback from in and outside of Rockefeller Center.
Sarducci’s initial bombshell about Jesus’ true nature and family was merely a warm-up, however, as the bulk of this first appearance saw Novello explain another, perhaps even bigger, universal truth. Introduced under the Latin title “Vita Est Lavorum,” Sarducci told the audience that the pope’s new proclamation translates to “Life Is Work.” He then went on to spin an elaborate system of moral measurement where we’re all paid (on account) the sum of $14.50 for each day of our lives (“Nothing to sneeze your nose at,” notes Sarducci), and the resulting sum would be weighed against the fines we rack up from our earthly sinfulness.
Novello’s math is sound enough: $400 for stealing a car, $10,000 for each murder. The priest’s 1978 discussion of masturbation fines was about as edgy as the material got otherwise, with Sarducci noting that, even at just 25 or 30 cents a pop, “for a lot of people that can mount up.” Another stealth bit of heresy is that the Catholic Church now endorses reincarnation, Sarducci explaining that, should your fines outweigh your cash reserves, you get sent back to make amends. Circling back to the supposed Vespa accident that put him on those crutches, Sarducci noted that Mafia types have to spend four or five lifetimes as nuns to even their balance sheet, explaining that “most nuns are former Mafiosi.”
Watch Father Guido Sarducci on a Season 4 Episode of ‘Saturday Night Live’
Rooted in the puncturing of Catholic dogma, Novello’s creation could have come across as much more caustic and confrontational a character if not for the person behind him. Novello was a thoughtful and gentle jokester, whose whimsically prankish humor had previously seen him create the fictitious persona of Lazlo Toth, a fiercely patriotic yet woefully misinformed citizen who, over the years, pestered public figures with irate letters, often until the fictitious Toth finally received satisfaction. Published in 1977 as The Lazlo Letters, Novello’s bit of epistolary confrontation comedy was what caught the eye of SNL producer Lorne Michaels, who, among other stunts, appreciated how the angry and persistent Toth managed to wheedle a $10 refund from former President Richard Nixon’s office for an abortive tour of Nixon’s San Clemente home.
Father Guido was Novello’s most popular addition to Saturday Night Live (although the “Cheezburger, cheezburger” Olympia Diner sketches were a close second), with the fake priest ultimately making an astonishing 31 appearances over the years, his last coming in 1995 when Sarducci reported on visiting Pope John Paul II’s missing wallet to “Weekend Update” anchor Norm Macdonald. Novello as Sarducci even hosted the show twice during the early ’80s reign of interim producer Dick Ebersol.
Usually appearing as an “Update” correspondent, however, Sarducci would invariably comment on some current event, ecclesiastical or not, with perhaps his most memorable outing seeing him attempt to awaken a sleeping Paul McCartney in London (Sarducci had forgotten about the time change) by singing a deliriously silly Beatles medley and hurling rocks at the pop star’s window. Further pursuing his rock critic duties, Sarducci also flew to the then-arrested McCartney’s aid after the Wings frontman’s 1980 Japanese pot possession arrest, only to find himself locked up thanks to the emergency weed stash he’d brought along. (McCartney himself had already been deported back to England, turning Father Guido’s mission into a plea for help from a Tokyo jail cell.)
Overall, those who were offended by Novello’s gentle skewering of organized religious stuffiness were far outnumbered by those charmed by Sarducci’s innate sweetness and guilelessness. Indeed, the character became ubiquitous enough in the show’s fourth and fifth seasons that Sarducci’s lower-register humor started to wear a little thin with familiarity. Novello has brought his favorite creation out into the wider world over the decades, putting out a pair of predictably charming comedy albums and even offering up the opening benediction at Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear at the National Mall in 2010.
On a show where recurring characters so often rely on boisterous, over-the-top bellowing and pratfalls, Father Guido Sarducci remains, to this day, an endearing and fondly remembered bit of Saturday Night Live satirical character tomfoolery.