God's Comic

Lino Rulli sits with his Emmy at Cooks of Crocus Hill
Michael Dvorak

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?"

Most of the e-mails are from fans, but Rulli is aware that at least a few are irritated by his seemingly irreverent treatment of the Catholic faith. "I don't really care," Rulli says, remembering an e-mail that was critical of a segment that involved duck hunting with a priest. "There are two kinds of detractors: People who hate Catholics and Catholics who hate me. But I'm doing something they're not doing, which is getting people to understand religion."

"The stereotypes are that the church is boring and male-dominated and priests are molesting children," he says with a laugh. "I wanted to educate people, and this is cool stuff to teach. It makes it more interesting when you think about the origins of faith."

Rulli was born in 1971, the only child of Angelo and Gina, a probation officer and a high school teacher, respectively, from St. Paul's East Side. He was raised in the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood and eventually attended Hill-Murray High School. The pillar for the Rulli family was the St. Ambrose Catholic Church in St. Paul, which closed in 1998. "It was the only Italian-Catholic church in the city," says Angelo Rulli. "It was grounded in the fundamentals of Italian Catholicism: God first, then family, then community."

Angelo, who started collecting music boxes and organs in 1971, often appeared on A Prairie Home Companion in the mid-1980s as an organ grinder. He tired of life as a probation officer, and from 1986 to 1988 he joined a St. Louis-based circus in the summers. Lino went along for the ride. "We traveled from New York to Colorado," Angelo recalls. "We were mixing with people who had made a conscious decision to take a different path, and it taught Lino to adapt to any situation, to be mature and to be polite. These were people who put their lives on the line to entertain."

Lino Rulli fondly recalls the circus as a watershed moment, freeing him of what he remembers as a painful childhood. "I grew up as the weird kid in school," he says. "My nose was too big, I was bad at sports, and I was only good at making fun of people." Rulli is quick to point out the camaraderie he felt with other circus performers, but downplays his role: "I was just a kid they dressed up as a performer or as a monkey who would ride the elephant at the end of the show."

Rulli moved on to St. John's University in Collegeville, majoring in communications. Though he may not have been a jock growing up, members of the football team took a liking to him, and they even made him the team mascot. "That means that you are the guy who wakes up and drinks in the morning on game day," he says, noting that he mostly just dressed up in a jersey and waved a towel. All along Rulli continued to attend Sunday mass. From a spiritual standpoint, though, he wasn't sure why. "By the time of my junior year in college, I was living in a house with five guys, and we were all Catholics going to church to meet girls," he says.

One Sunday evening, a roommate didn't show up for mass. The next morning Rulli found his friend's car on campus and, approaching to leave a note on the windshield, saw him lying on the front seat. He had shot himself in the chest. "January 20, 1992," recalls Rulli without hesitation. "That was my life-changing moment. I couldn't fall asleep without the lights on or without drinking myself to sleep. The first thing I did was go to confession. I went to atone for his sin. I went for both of us. Everyone was pretty sure I was going to commit suicide, but I got closer to God. I needed to know if all this Catholic stuff was true or not. I wasn't meeting many girls in church anyway."

"It sobered him to the reality of life, and that it is short, it is painful," Rulli's father Angelo says, who also remembers being impressed when Lino eulogized his friend: "He gave it the solemnity it deserved and the humor it required. He had such a profound insight and talent to do that. Did he raise hell? You bet he did, but he always had a common sense of decency that rose up."  

Rulli decided to pursue a master's degree in theology at St. John's, and though he briefly entertained the notion of entering the priesthood, he has yet to join the clergy. "I still might," he says. "But I like girls. A lot. I gotta get that out of my system. And I might be too stupid to be a priest. But I'm waiting for a sign."

Dave Dennison believes Rulli's true calling may in fact be Generation Cross. "The success of the show has to do with Lino," he says, recalling how, during taping in Italy, tourists would gather around Rulli when he talked theology. "He's brilliant, and people are drawn to him. He could be a priest, but his mission is more through the show."

But Rulli, who admits to dreams of national syndication, has mixed feelings about using his faith as a way to make a living on TV. "I had no intention of being a spokesperson for the church or for Catholics," Rulli concludes. "This isn't an Anthony Robbins deal where I go out and try to convert people. I dig TV, and I love making people laugh and I get to learn something along the way. But I'm no saint."

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