There’s a long list of talented comics who’ve written for Saturday Night Live over more than 40 seasons, but only one is known to have purchased a monsignor’s robes for $7.50 at a thrift shop. The purchase led to the creation of the character we know as Father Guido Sarducci, played by writer Don Novello.
Novello played the priest in comedy clubs where he was seen by David Steinberg, who introduced Novello to Tommy and Dick Smothers. A writing stint on the brother’s show followed. In May, 1972, a man named Laszlo Toth vandalized Michelangelo’s Pieta at the Vatican. Toth claimed he was Jesus Christ, and, based on his mental instability, was never charged with a crime. Novello created a “citizen” named Laslo Toth, who wrote letters to famous people. The letters and their often-absurd responses were collected in several books, the first called The Laslo Letters. Lorne Michaels hired Novello as a writer at SNL after reading the book.
One of Laslo’s first letters was to the Gold Seal Company, the makers of Mr. Bubble. Mr. Toth expressed confusion with wording on the package that directed users to “Keep Dry.” How is it possible, he wondered, to keep Mr. Bubble dry, in the bath? Perhaps the world has changed, and such a note would be tossed in the trash today, but at the time such inquiries were taken seriously. The Consumer Relations Director from Gold Seal went to great lengths to let Mr. Toth know that the advisory had to do with concerns for the product getting damp in the box, and clumping.
Laslo told off McDonald’s because he couldn’t get grape jelly for his Big Mac he was told jelly was only available with breakfast menu items. While Toth took his complaint directly to Ray Kroc, someone named Darrough Diamond, National Advertising Manager at the time, assured Laslo that if he asked, he should be able to get jelly at any time, day or night. A gift certificate was included in the reply envelope.
Some of the best responses to Toth’s letters are those returned by political figures. Laslo was a fan of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Gerald Ford, and in later editions, both Bush Presidents. I’m particularly fond of correspondence between Laslo and Francisco Franco of Spain. Toth has been “an admirer for years and years.”
“It puts my heart at peace to know that there is someone like you—standing like an inorganic rock of ultraconservatism—in a beautiful sky we must try a million not to change!”
The Generalissimo’s Secretario replies kindly, and includes an official photograph of Franco. This reminded me of note published in an SNL book where Mrs. Franco had asked for two tickets to the live taping, but NBC’s ticket person replied, “No —only two for dress.” The show was a tough get in 1975.
Mr. Toth was smart to write Queen Elizabeth II and explain that President Ford didn’t personally choose to play “The Lady Is A Tramp” at her reception, and, please don’t be offended. The reply makes the correspondence fun, again, when an actual “Lady In Waiting” from Balmoral begins, “I am commanded by the Queen to thank you for your letter.”
The Mars team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory heard from Laslo. He’s not happy to hear that a canyon on Mars is three times larger than our Grand Canyon, and makes ours look like “a trench.” Laslo considers this treason. “The Grand Canyon will always be the #1 canyon,” he says. The boys at JPL responded to concur, and make sure Laslo knows that no disrespect was intended.