November 23, 2003
An Interview with DON NOVELLO
Most people might know Don Novello as "Father Guido Sarducci." But I don't think nearly enough people know that he has also been writing collections of brilliantly funny letters to politicians and corporate America as "Lazlo Toth" for the last 30 years.
Lately a lot of extremely similar books have been published, and I feel compelled to let the world know that when it comes to this stuff, Don Novello is the trailblazer, the godfather, and the original gangsta of the prank letter.
He recently published his latest edition called "From Bush to Bush: The Lazlo Toth Letters," and I had the great pleasure of speaking with him.
What I have always loved about the Lazlo books is that even though some of the letters date back to 1974, the comedy really holds up.
Well, thanks. I worked a lot harder on this new one than the others. I don't know if you can tell, but there's more "writing" in it.
You know there are other books that try to do the same thing, so I tried to change it. One thing I did was that I have all the companies that I made up. I even tried to write different letters in different tones. You know what I mean? Like I wrote to the Vatican, and the way [the letters] look -- it's kind of like a mad man wrote them. Others I wanted to look more professional, with a unique letterhead.
Do you ever send letters as Lazlo through email?
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.
But I got a letter from Gabe Kaplan recently-- I like Gabe Kaplan. One of the reasons I liked him was he talked slower than I do. I always thought my Sarducci was the slowest. But I get a letter from him saying he wanted to do something similar with e-mail. Only it would be different with his because he wanted to do it as himself.
Well, over the years some books have come out that are disturbingly similar to yours. What do you make of them?
Well, I have some thoughts on it. I think it's great that people write letters-- and to have helped inspire that. Especially with kids, because I was, and am, dyslexic. I never thought I'd be a writer. I never thought I'd be able to read a book, let alone write one. So if books like this inspire kids to write, or even read a whole book, I think it's good.
But I'm kind of surprised that so many of those other books were almost exactly like mine. They even follow the form. Even like where I had the "NO REPLY" stamp I used to use. I quit using it, but there were some books that even copied the stamp. It shows so little imagination.
So that's why I wanted to change it. You know, to make letterheads and things like that. I've changed it more than anyone has.
The book "Letters from a Nut" was a big one. Seinfeld was behind that, right?
You know, the Seinfeld thing is pretty interesting, from a marketing standpoint. The story is that Jerry "found" these letters, and took them to the publisher. So here's the interesting thing. Jerry goes on TV and denies writing them. But he promotes these books. The thing is, you never see who was writing them. If you want to do an interview with these people, you can't, because if they did people would know for sure that Jerry didn't write it.
So he says he didn't, but people still wanted to know who did.
You know, the one thing that I found with these other books was that it did make it harder for me to sell the later Lazlo books. I found that I got a lot of comments that they thought the genre is over. It's overexposed.
You'd think those other books could have at least mentioned Lazlo Toth in the dedications.
There was one guy in England who did something similar, and he did mention me in print.
So how did it all start with the Lazlo letters?
It started with one letter. I thought it would be funny to write to Spiro Agnew. And sign it "Lazlo Toth."
Is there any significance to that name?
Lazlo Toth is the name of the guy who attacked Michealangelo's Pieta in 1972 or 1973. It was only because he was in the news at the time. And I kinda thought it would be like from "culprit to culprit."
So that's how it started. I wrote that letter, and the one to Nixon.
At that point, did you already know it was going to be a book?
No, at that point I knew it was just the one letter.
But you had the foresight to save the copies of the outgoing letters.
Yes. And I wrote more letters, and I thought it might be a magazine article. At that time I sent it to Esquire and Playboy, and somebody had said "Maybe it's a book. and not a magazine article." But anyway, for whatever reason I kept writing, and all of sudden I had enough and thought, well maybe it is a book.
It's been 30 years. Did you ever think you'd keep it going for so long?
No. I never did. It was really important to me when I started, you know, because of Watergate. Who would know that would happen? And even in this book (Bush to Bush) you never know where it's going to go. It's pretty interesting to me that you have letters following it all, you know?
In a way, these books take their own direction. And that's why in this book, everything is like a big pallette of what's happened -- The O.J. trial and Monica Lewinsky, and Gary Condit. So I see all 3 books as really an oveview of the times.
Tell me about the San Francisco Giants and the Canine Baseball Retrieval Team. How's that going?
Well, I go down there once a year for the first time that they introduce the new team.
(LAUGHS) No, I go there as myself. But it worked out great. The Giants used a "no-kill" shelter called Pets in Need, where they got the dogs.
Did you ever make any money off of the idea?
No, but I hope to. I get some of the merchandising from the t-shirts, but we haven't done much. Hopefully it will grow into a bigger thing. But they give money to Pets in Need every year, which is a good thing. And they've had so many more dogs adopted, and everybody loves it.
Baseball is so boring, it's like a little sidebar to baseball.
Well, there's the proof that even though these letters were sent as a joke, a lot of the ideas in there are not bad at all.
Some of them aren't! You know what's a really good idea? Is the Supreme Court Justice Robe. It was sent to Supreme Court Justice Chief Renquist, and the idea was that I wanted to make bathrobes in the design of the Supreme Court Justice's robe.
But the other thing is this. I thought that Renquist came up with the gold stripes. He was the first guy to ever do that, so I thought it was his idea. And then I read that he went to a Gilbert & Sullivan play, and in the play, he saw this judge who had a robe like that. So he took that idea.
I wrote to him and said my idea is like yours, but in terrycloth. So if Gilbert and Sullivan come after me and say I stole their bathrobe design, I didn't even see the play! I thought Renquist had the idea. How can they sue me? I thought I stole the idea from Renquist, I didn't know he stole it from the other guy.
It's also interesting because you're writing to the Supreme Court. You know, the Chief Justice, but I didn't get a letter back. I sent it twice. I wanted him to comment on it.
It's also a weird thing for this guy. The Supreme Court Justice never had a special robe. So to do that, is like, divisive. I always thought: doesn't Sandra Day O'Connor ever say, "You know, I've been in court for longer than Clarence Thomas. Maybe I should have one stripe."
It's like he's a troublemaker, this guy. Look at what he's starting. It's like the chief has to have a bigger bonnet so people will know he's the chief.
Do you ever go back and read through your old letters just for fun?
Yeah, every once in awhile. You know, like now when I had this book coming out, I went back through them.
Do the majority of the letters you write ultimately get published?
Well, what I do is I edit them, not internally, but as a group of letters. So I have like 250 letters that I have to whittle it down to 150. Only then do you have the whole overview of a book. So with this book, the overview that I got when it was finally edited was, at least my take was, "everybody's lying." You know?
The Police Chief from San Francisco is a liar, isn't that something? And the priests, they're all lying, and the President lied under oath. But to me the worst was when the Poet Laureate lied. You know, to me I don't care if it's the President, but when poets have to lie, we're in bad shape.
And when Campbell's soup said 20% more chicken, I just wanted to know what went.
The can didn't get bigger.
No! The can's the same size. Something had to go. So my point was if you're going to say "MORE" of something, you've got to say "LESS" of something else.
So, all the outgoing letters in the book with the pictures on them. Are those copies of exactly what you sent out?
Yes -- I don't know why, but when I gave the publisher all the stuff, you know you see like tape marks in there? That wasn't there in mine. My letters looked much better. They made them look worse. And all I can think is that somehow they wanted to for legal reasons. But they added to them, and I never felt great about it.
Do you think you're going to continue as Lazlo?
No, I'm really not. You know, I've done it 30 years. I don't know what there is to gain by doing it 40. But I think there is something about doing it over that length of time that says something. That's 7 U.S. presidents and 5 presidents of McDonald's.
Don's newest Lazlo Toth book is available right here at Amazon.com. Support a comedic legend and check it out.
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