Lino Rulli is late for our phone interview. Fifteen minutes past our designated time, he finally calls, seemingly winded and noticeably frustrated. Immediately he begins free-associating, but it isn’t about God or religion or his show on Sirius Satellite Radio’s The Catholic Channel. The topic of this particular rant concerns the car he no longer drives.
A Midwest native, Lino moved to New York City in late 2006 for the job at Sirius, and the adjustment to public transportation hasn’t been easy. “I miss my car,” he says.
“I hate my car,” I retort, frustrated with my own.
“What do you drive?”
I confess the make and model.
“Oh. I hate your car, too.”
The rest of our hour-long conversation would follow a similar tone. Lino, never short on sarcasm, has spent a lifetime making people laugh: It’s fair to presume that his sense of humor has gotten him into trouble just as often as it’s gotten him out of it.
As host of The Catholic Guy, a show that blends comedy and Catholicism, Lino can nail a one-liner and, in the same breath, discuss uptight Catholics or meatless Fridays. It’s a unique marriage—blending faith and funny—but it’s been a thriving union.
And though Lino is known for his wit, it’s his wisdom that is truly disarming: His master’s degree in theology proves that his knowledge of all things Catholic is no joke.
Carbs and Catholicism
Lino was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Angelo, a probation officer, and Gina, a high school teacher. Growing up in a deeply Catholic—and very Italian—family exposed Lino to religion and to the old country early on.
“Every two years or so my family would go to Rome,” he says. “We’d visit the churches—there are pictures of me at St. Peter’s. So that’s always been a huge part of my life. So has pasta.”
Lino has vivid memories of being one in a crowd clamoring to see Pope John Paul II.
“It was like we would go to see aunts and uncles and cousins and then we’d go down to see the pope. Not like, ‘Wow, it’s the successor to Peter and the Vicar of Christ!’ I wouldn’t have articulated it like that. He was like a family member.”
As if being an international traveling tot wasn’t unusual enough, hope of a normal life was further dashed when Angelo quit his job in the mid-’80s to be an organ grinder in the circus. His young son soon followed.
“So I joined a circus called ‘Circus Flora,’” he recalls. “Flora was the name of the elephant. I used to ride the elephant.”
Lino eventually attended St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, majoring in communications. His flair for comedy and interest in Catholicism were about to bear fruit.
The Jester of Generation X
In 1998, Lino began hosting Generation Cross, a television show from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Aimed at Generation X Catholics, the program ran for six years.
“I was 26 at the time. It came out of this odd idea of trying to do something on TV for Catholics my age,” he says.
The premise was certainly different: Lino would engage in unusual activities with interesting Catholics. On one show he rock-climbed with a priest; on another, he swing-danced with a nun. All the while, inspirational lessons were imparted.
“By our second episode I took a priest to the state fair. He was eating corndogs and going on rides. For some reason, it was really funny.”
Many agreed: The show garnered a following among Gen X-ers in the community and it was critically acclaimed, winning Lino two regional Emmy Awards. Thanks to a grant from the Catholic Communication Campaign, Generation Cross was shown in several other Catholic dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Boston and the Diocese of Baton Rouge.
“It felt like nobody had ever done anything like this,” Lino says. “It was me hanging with priests and nuns doing things you wouldn’t expect them to do. It was a riot.”
Lino still marvels at the show’s appeal. “Wherever we would go, if I was on the street or at a bar, people would say, ‘Hey, I’m not Catholic but I love your show!”
The program also had significant evangelical reach. “During our first year, one viewer decided she wanted to become Catholic. She said to me, ‘You’re to blame for this.’ So I had to be her sponsor for RCIA,” Lino says. “It was just awesome.”
Generation Cross ended its run in 2004. Though Lino started a production company soon after, he was something of a tumbleweed, traveling to China and Japan, as well as Western and Eastern Europe.
“I didn’t do anything in front of the camera, which was a personal insult— nobody wanted me anymore,” Lino says.
Instead, he dipped his toe into the pool of radio, hosting Lino at Large, a half-hour weekly program geared toward young-adult Catholics that he still hosts today. Sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), it airs on the Relevant Radio Network.
To Lino’s surprise, he found his niche.
Sirius, But Not Too Serious
One thing to know about Lino: He’s something of a contradiction. The bookshelf in his New York City apartment, he says, boasts titles ranging from the biography of John Paul II to the memoirs of Peter Jennings to Howard Stern’s Private Parts.
That diverse blend of interests would prove useful when fronting The Catholic Guy. The show airs on The Catholic Channel and is operated by the Archdiocese of New York.
It’s infotainment with a simple agenda: Everyday life, Catholic issues, theological matters and totally random topics are addressed by Lino and his crew. From 4:00 to 7:00 p.m. Eastern, Monday through Friday, on channel 159, thoughtful religious discussion is mingled with complete absurdity.
For Lino, it’s about offering listeners something different. Rehashing another program’s formula wouldn’t work.
“We wanted to do a different kind of Catholic radio show. If we tried to compete with something like Catholic Answers Live, we would obviously lose,” he says. “That show has got some of the smartest people in the Catholic world on. Only an idiot would want to compete.”
So he doesn’t try. Not even close.
Lino and his on-air team—Maureen McMurray, producer; Tom Falcone, who handled the phones (he has left the show since this interview); and Lou Ruggieri, technical advisor—have each had a hand in creating something different for Sirius Catholics who crave some levity with their religion.
Highlights from the show include “Free Therapy Tuesdays,” where Lino discusses his most recent counseling session; “Let’s Make a Catholic Deal,” in which participants choose one of three doors for a “semi-valuable prize”; and “Name Your Pet Lino,” a popular feature among fans.
Enlightening a Younger Audience
Guests—and listeners—needn’t be Catholic, but a sense of humor is a requisite. Some notable visitors to the studio have included Ed McMahon, Mike Rowe from Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs and boxer “Sugar” Ray Leonard.
Topics vary: Lino and the others might delve into Scripture before discussing the perils of bladder incontinence. Keeping listeners guessing is a show trademark.
Maureen, who has extensive radio experience, marvels at both Lino’s work ethic and his creative energy.
“He’s uncompromising when it comes to the balance of humor and faith. Lino is always concerned with incorporating both of those elements,” she says. “He is extraordinarily creative in terms of his approach to the content because Catholic content is not the easiest thing in the world to make funny.”
And he is ably supported: Maureen and Lou, who were both born and raised Catholic, are still learning the faith, while Tom’s agnosticism added an engaging element. But diverse personalities aside, Maureen knows the lively banter among them is an essential component to the show’s success.
“We joke around and get along, on and off the air,” she says. “And because of that, it allows the listeners to feel that they can relate and participate in the show.”
Maureen admires Lino’s broad knowledge of Catholicism coupled with his desire to conquer the grind of radio. In many ways, he is both scholar and student.
“I think Lino walks that fine line of being an expert at something while being someone you can really approach,” she says. “Every day is new with him, and he is willing to experiment and try new things on the air.”
Maureen credits the show’s ability to reach a younger Catholic audience.
“We are their peers. With other media it’s sort of the old guard,” she says. “We are trying to be a little bit edgy. We are young, we have young voices and we have different frames of reference that I think young people will be able to identify with.”
In Praise of the Ensemble
Joe Zwilling, general manager of The Catholic Channel and spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, remembers the day he came across Lino’s name during the planning stages of the channel.
“I got a bunch of CDs from the USCCB as programming possibilities and I got to Lino at Large. I said, ‘Wow, this is somebody I need to talk to.’ What he was doing is exactly what we wanted on The Catholic Channel.”
Over the course of several conversations, Lino accepted the job offer as host. And Joe couldn’t be more pleased with his performance so far.
“Lino presents the faith in a way that is accessible to people who might not set out to listen to religious programming—those who aren’t interested in what I like to call the ‘audio equivalent of stained glass and incense,’” he says.
Though Sirius cannot scientifically track ratings—satellite radio is different from commercial broadcast radio—Joe feels that Lino and the others are on the right track.
“First off, the average Sirius subscriber skews younger. So that’s on our side,” Joe says. “Also, Lino doesn’t always invite listeners to call in but when he does, do the people call? Yes.”
Joe remembers a contest last September when listeners were invited to register online for tickets to a Notre Dame football game. The station received contacts from more people in the first day than in any ticket contest Sirius had done up to that point.
But Joe knows that listeners tune in for more than contests and raffles.
“Lino brings his experiences, his humor. He talks about things that people can relate to, especially young people in their 20s and 30s,” he says. “He speaks their language and puts that Catholic perspective on it. And that is so necessary.”
Joe broadens the praise to the others as well. “Lino leads the way but he’s assembled a really strong group of people around him. They play off each other so well. I’m hoping that this is a mainstay of The Catholic Channel for many years to come.”
Are You There God? It’s Me, Lino
It has been said that one must know tragedy in order to do comedy, and Lino is no exception. The events of 9/11, in particular, derailed a tradition he had been practicing for some time prior.
“I was in a groove with the Liturgy of the Hours. I was really in a rhythm with prayer. It was probably one of the times when I was most at peace in my life,” he says.
That peace was shattered on 9/11.
“I remember the words of the prayers seemed hollow,” Lino recalls. “I said, ‘This is miserable. These are just words on paper right now. How could God allow this to happen?’”
Though he wasn’t living in New York and didn’t know anybody killed in the attacks, that day shook his faith to its foundation. Lino went to church in search of answers, but he encountered a period of spiritual desolation, as did many.
“I was looking for somebody to help me make any amount of sense out of this. I had a tough time with prayer for months after that,” he says.
Not that it takes a tragedy of that size to do so. Lino’s faith has been tested over matters that now seem trivial by comparison, such as the cancellation of Generation Cross.
“At the time I said, ‘Well, God, where are you?’ I had been working for all these years trying to serve the Church in this very odd way,” he says. “I just remember being wildly upset with God.”
But a faith tested means a faith strengthened. Lino is philosophical.
“I think just day-to-day life is enough of a test for me. If you don’t have a test of faith, then you must not have a strong faith in the first place. The devil must not be working on you.”
Hope and Hilarity
It may surprise some that Lino’s three biggest influences are David Letterman, Saint John Paul II and—brace yourself—Howard Stern. But it shouldn’t: He has Letterman’s sharp delivery and Stern’s penchant for pushing boundaries. Yet Lino is also pious. Well, he tries to be.
Take, for example, his fondness for the Sacrament of Reconciliation—a source of amazement and strength for Lino, and limitless comedy.
“I go to Confession regularly and I talk about it regularly. To me it’s the most embarrassing thing you can possibly do,” he says, chuckling. “But the more I learned about it, the more I was like, ‘This is really cool. I sin a lot and this is an interesting thing to have at my disposal.’ It’s embarrassing, but who doesn’t want to hear embarrassing stories on the air?”
Providing a forum for his own humiliation is commonplace for Lino. And it’s all about making people laugh: Comedy is more than jokes and punch lines to him. It’s outreach.
“What I like most is that I do a funny show. I love the fact that when you make people laugh, it gives them hope. And when you give somebody hope, it makes faith.” Lino pauses. “It makes the subject of God a lot easier to take in.
“And at the end of the day whether people realize it or not, by their laughter, they’re getting hope.”
The Catholic Channel and ‘The Howard Effect’
Sirius Satellite Radio offers a variety of music, news and sports channels for over eight million subscribers. But one channel—The Catholic Channel—stands apart by offering material that not only feeds the mind and fills the ears but also nurtures the soul, 24/7.
It offers daily Mass from New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as an array of talk shows.
The Catholic Channel, as stated on its website “focuses on Catholicism in the 21st century…[and] addresses issues in the news and on the mind of the listeners, bringing a Catholic perspective to the world around us.”
Programs include The Busted Halo Show with Father Dave Dwyer, aimed at young Catholics; A Conversation with the Cardinal, with Cardinal Edward Egan of New York City; Speak Now…With Dave and Susan Konig, about married life and child rearing; and The Catholic Guy with Lino Rulli, among others.
Joe Zwilling, general manager of The Catholic Channel, believes it satisfies a need for many Catholics.
“There are alternatives for people who are strong practicing members of their faith and who want that kind of content,” he says. “We wanted something fresh, something engaging and, at the same time, something that was completely Catholic.”
Some in the industry wonder if The Catholic Channel is in existence, partly, to counteract negative publicity that might stem from Howard Stern, Sirius’s most recognizable radio personality.
Lino says the answer isn’t so simple.
“I think there’s more to it than that,” he says. “It’s a matter of being smart and saying, ‘Well, there’s a large percentage of Catholics out there, and if a handful of them buy these radios, we’re going to make money.’ So it’s a financial thing. And we are in the business of evangelizing, too. But I think the Howard effect certainly is there.”
Lino isn’t quick to knock Stern. On the contrary, he credits the shock jock for increasing Sirius’s exposure, which indirectly aids in his evangelization purposes—as well as those of The Catholic Channel.
“If he didn’t come here, The Catholic Channel might not exist,” Lino says. “If he wasn’t here, people might not take this place as seriously.”