God's Comic

Lino Rulli brings religion to Generation X

Father John Forliti can't remember the verses to "Volare." On a Wednesday morning at Cooks of Crocus Hill, a culinary-arts store on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, he keeps singing his way through the song's chorus and stopping abruptly ("Volare/Whoa-oh-oh-oh/Cantare/ Whoa-oh-oh-oh"). Forliti, who sports a clerical collar, a thick head of gray hair and a striped apron that reads, "Father John, Chef," is waiting to tape a cooking segment for the public-access cable show, Generation Cross. Lino Rulli, the show's host, is singing along, but fades out before the elusive last verse. "What's the rest of it?" Rulli asks while two cameramen fiddle with the lighting and Forliti preps some veal.

The priest shrugs and deftly changes the subject, offering a suggestion to Rulli: "Maybe you should wear something red, to help the lighting." Like clockwork, the two are off on a routine worthy of Seinfeld's Jerry and George.

"What, you mean like some blood from the veal?" chuckles Rulli.

"Well, something colorful," Forliti retorts. "That shirt is kind of bland."

One of the cameramen then starts talking about all the deer he saw over Thanksgiving in Wisconsin, confusing veal with venison.

"Oh, that's what I had for Thanksgiving dinner," Forliti deadpans without missing a beat. "Venison."

Rulli perks up: "Did you run it over yourself?"

"No," says the priest. "My brother did."

When the tape starts rolling, Rulli and Forliti continue the banter, hoping to attract souls in their 20s and 30s to the Catholic faith. Generation Cross (titled to conjure images of Generation X) first aired in September of 1998 and now airs every Sunday and Wednesday at 9:00 p.m. on Metro Cable Network (Channel 6). The seeds for the show were sown when Rulli, then an unemployed graduate student, went to St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis and asked Forliti for a job. The church was already taping and airing liturgies, but Rulli thought more could be done with the medium. His idea was to jettison the church's staid image and rely on mirth and wit while still addressing religious philosophy and Catholic dogma. Rulli also acts as the show's producer and editor, divining 30 minutes of television that owes as much to David Letterman as it does to the Pope. He plays up a regular-guy routine with members of the clergy, hoping to strip away whatever inhibitions they may have: cajoling a priest into singing a verse of "Born to Run" or swing-dancing with a nun at the Minnesota State Fair, for instance. All of this has made Rulli a sort of neighborhood star, which culminated with him winning a Minnesota Emmy at the end of October for best host of a non-news program.

"I've gone a lot of places with local celebrities, but Lino gets attention everywhere in the Twin Cities area, more than most I've seen," observes Generation Cross cameraman Dave Dennison, who won a few Emmys himself when he worked for KARE-TV (Channel 11) from 1993 to 1999. "Some people work their whole careers for an Emmy and don't win. This little guy from cable access walks in and wins. But he deserves an Emmy, just for being Lino."

Sitting in his cramped office in the bowels of St. Olaf Catholic Church, Rulli, with his deep-olive skin, sharp, angular nose, and slight frame, hardly has the movie-star looks that would turn heads at the local bar. Still, he has fans; he arrived as a local notable when CJ, the Star Tribune's gossip columnist, wrote that the cable host had been cavorting with a young woman at Club Ashé, a nightclub in Minneapolis's Warehouse District, the night he won his Emmy. Last year Rulli also nabbed a gig as the religion reporter for WCCO-TV (Channel 4), taping 90-second segments that have aired on Friday nights. They have been so successful that, as of last week, WCCO decided to expand the segments to five minutes and run them once a month.

Rulli has made no secret of his escapades on the town, nor his endless quest for a successful romance, but he also seems somewhat allergic to the attention. "I'm just a guy who likes to go out with his buddies who has a local show," he claims, before throwing out a typically self-deprecating punch line. "And what girl wouldn't want to tell her parents that her boyfriend is the host of a public-access religious program?"

Rulli plunks down a stack of printouts from e-mail he has received since Generation Cross went on the air and put up a Web site (www.saintolaf.org/cross). "I grew up in a pretty anti-Catholic family," reads one, "and don't really know any Catholic people. But you are making me realize that Catholics don't still creep around, plotting how to reverse the Reformation and start getting ten percent of everyone's money again."

Rulli answers all of the nearly 150 e-mails he receives each week, and some contain philosophical or biblical riddles. One asks if the current tensions in Israel are a sign of the end times. Rulli responds by quoting an ominous verse from Mark 13:32 ("You do not know when the time will come"), and notes that people have mistakenly waited for the end of the world for hundreds of years. "But what's important is that we're prepared," he concludes. "[I]f we die tomorrow, that's our own personal 'end time,' right?"

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