When it comes to cultural satire, it seems you can’t shake a stick today without hitting a ‘prankster’. Whether that pranking comes in the form of phone calls, fake documentaries, ‘gotcha’ style interviews, (not in the dumb Sarah Palin way, but the cheeky Borat way), or fake newspapers, it’s all about making fun of this stupid society that we live in…or as The Onion cleverly put it in their amazingly funny atlas– Our Dumb World. The prankster satirist’s premise is typically this: Come off as completely sincere in your inane questions or statements and you can get the subject to fall into your trap, hopefully exposing THEIR idiocy by fooling them with YOUR idiocy. A sort of “Come hither, moron”.
One of the first innovators of this satirical styling, in my pop-cultural lifetime anyway, was Don Novello. You may know him better as his alter ego, the hip and supremely chilled priest and editor of The Vatican Enquirer, Father Guido Sarducci.
Long before he worked, in that guise– as a regular on SNL’s Weekend Update segment– he was just a regular old stand-up and satirist. One of his projects was a book that my Dad, a humor enthusiast, gave me for a birthday. The book was called The Lazlo Letters. I was about twelve or thirteen and was skeptical of this text with its late seventies and early eighties references and faded cover. I figured that he probably found it at a used book store and assumed I would be interested because I was all into SNL at the time. (It was the Phil Hartman years, after all). He was one for weird gifts–though they always came wrapped in fun and exciting superhero paper. One time, he gave me a brush that the head came off of to reveal a hardened plastic shiv. Like this:
I was 12. What can I say? He was protective. To be fair, he was very encouraging of my interest in martial arts. He bought me my sparring equipment, my kickpads, and even a hanging bag. I think he got the brush out of the back of a kung-fu magazine.
Anyway, back to the book. The Lazlo Letters actually wound up being a terrific present. Thanks Dad! Laughs from cover to cover. And that’s today’s great thing:
142. The Lazlo Letters by Don Novello
The Lazlo Letters was a collection of correspondences from Don Novello to famous people and corporations. He wrote them in the guise of a character called Lazlo Toth. (Laszlo Toth was actually the name of a deranged man who took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta. Apparently, he proclaimed himself to be Jesus and then started battering the ‘His Mom’ part of the sculpture. He was obviously the rebellious teenage Jesus.) Novello’s Toth was more of a well-meaning consumer rights advocate and man of the people. He wrote letters of compliments and complaints to businesses like Kentucky Fried Chicken and figures like Richard Nixon.
When he received an actual response, he’d print that too…but even if he didn’t, you could still get a giggle from the ridiculous contents of the letter and the knowledge that someone at the organization at which it was directed had actually held it in their hands and read it.
Why not have a look, this helpful website reprints some of the letters: Sullivansfarms
I suggest clicking on the McDonald’s link at the top of the page and then perusing those bits of correspondence. That should give you a taste. Then, get the books, of course. There are three volumes now. There’s the original…then, there’s the follow-up Citizen Lazlo!, and the third–From Bush to Bush: The Lazlo Toth Letters.
There’s something special about The Lazlo books. I think that unlike prank calling shows like The Jerky Boys and Crank Yankers, The Lazlo books never seemed mean. Just smart and silly. First of all, Lazlo Toth’s targets were always deserving. He never threw sucker punches. But maybe the likeablity also has something to do with the elegance of letter-writing. The question of whether or not Novello would ever consider emailing Lazlo letters instead of sending them through the post came up in an interview and he responded with: “No I haven’t. But with email you don’t get the letterhead, you don’t get the sense of who sent it. Anyone could have written it. It all looks like the same thing.” Not to over-romanticize the concept, but I think letter-writing is a lost art and that Novello values the tactile aspect of it. Anyone can be an idiot on the Internet. I’m doing it right now! But, an actual typed or printed letter will elicit a different response.
The rest of that interview, which is a good read, can be found here: thesneeze
In wrapping today’s great thing up, two bits of fun. First of all, here’s the website for another letter-writing humorist. The author messes with folks a bit more full-on then Lazlo does. Though one might find it derivative of the Lazlo stuff, this guy gets a pass. First of all, he’s Australian. Secondly, the author is of a very different generation. So, it’s unlikely that it’s a direct idea-swipe–unlike the Letters from a Nut books that came out a few years ago. Seinfeld is more of Novello’s comedy class and will (or SHOULD) have been familiar with his work. Now, I haven’t read the Nut series of books but I sort of don’t want to, on principle. I’m loyal. I don’t mean to Seinfeld-bash…but the guy, in promoting these books, never really seemed to comment on how similar it all was to the Lazlo projects…come on now…
Anyway, I think you’ll find that there’s some very funny stuff here: 27b/6
Secondly, here’s a recent appearance by Don Novello on The Colbert Report. He’s in Fr. Sarducci mode. It makes me feel good to know that he’s still out there being funny. Additionally, he soooo looks like my Dad in this here clip. Enjoy: