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Mr. Mike: the life and work of Michael O’Donoghue by Dennis Perrin

February 23, 2012

"Life is one big minefield, and the only place that isn't a minefield is the place they make the mines."--Michael O'Donoghue

I wrote a few detailed book reviews for the now defunct web site/app Visual Bookshelf. I have fairly eclectic reading tastes, and I tend to enjoy whatever everyone else ignores, and so, as a favor to the authors who have provided me with many wonderful hours, as well as Bloghead visitors looking for something different to read, I’m re-publishing some of my best reviews on this site.

Michael O’Donoghue was one of the most influential comedians of the 1970s. As one of the founding members of National Lampoon and as a head writer for the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live, O’Donoghue developed a take-no-prisoners style of comedy in which any subject matter–the Holocaust, Vietnam atrocities, hot-off-the-press murders (as you can see, he was obsessed with death)–could be used as a basis for comedy. He pushed the limits of comedy, taking material that was extremely disturbing and putting a comic spin on it.

O’Donoghue started out in the early 60’s as an avant-garde theater producer/director/actor in Rochester, NY (he dropped out of U of Rochester), including the satirical The Death of JFK produced in early 1964. A manuscript of one of his Rochester plays, the automation of caprice, attracted the attention of Evergreen Review editors with its sex, torture, random violence, bestiality, and drug-induced hallucinations. O’Donoghue moved to New York, and soon became a regular contributor to Evergreen Review.

The comic strip he created for them, The Adventures of Phoebe Zeitgeist, became one of Evergreen Review’s most popular features. Illustrated by Frank Springer in a straight comic book style, no one had ever seen an absurd, sadistic strip like Phoebe Zeitgeist. It is certainly one of the earliest underground comics.

O’Donoghue wound up at National Lampoon, and helped shape the magazine’s groundbreaking humor. He co-wrote and produced National Lampoon’s first comedy album, Radio Dinner, and took charge of the National Lampoon Radio Hour, re-invigorating an essentially dead genre.

Viewers of Saturday Night Live may remember his character, Mr. Mike. Mr. Mike’s funniest skit (to this teenage viewer at the time) was his impersonation of Mike Douglas:

He enlisted Buck Henry to introduce him as “the king of impressionists.” After Henry’s introduction, big band music, worthy of the cheesiest variety fare, blares as O’Donoghue runs onstage. Dressed in a Vegas-style tuxedo, he snaps his fingers and smiles to the audience in “sincere” showbiz fashion.

“Thank you, thank you very very much, ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to…you know, when you’re in show business it seems you always end up at some bar at 4 o’clock in the morning arguing over who’s the best singer, who’s the best dancer, who’s the funniest comedian. But I think there’s one thing everybody agrees on and that’s who’s the nicest guy in show business and of course I’m talking about Mr. Mike Douglas…

Having recently watched Mike’s show, the “king” had a funny thought: What if someone took steel needles–say, 15, 18 inches long, with real sharp points–and plunged them into Mike’s eyes? What would his reaction be? O’Donoghue removes his glasses, turns his back to get into character, grabs his face, and screams and thrashes across the stage. At first the image seems ridiculous, but O’Donoghue pushes it and acts as though he is in serious physical pain. Audience members who line the stage watch O’Donoghue in amazement. A few laugh; the rest seem horrified and confused by the man who writhes and kicks just inches from their faces. Finally, O’Donoghue spills off the end of the stage, but his screams continue to fill the studio. Buck Henry walks on applauding. “Uncanny, isn’t it?,” he says.

After writing/directing his NBC special, Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (which the network refused to air without cuts, so he found a movie distributor), O’Donoghue became a hot Hollywood commodity. But his refusal to dilute his vision and/or accommodate genuinely sincere collaborators resulted in a series of unfinished/unproduced screenplays, and numerous pitch sessions in Hollywood which never resulted in any green lights.

In 1981, he was called back to help resuscitate Saturday Night Live, which had gone down the tubes following Lorne Michaels’ departure. O’Donoghue was made head writer, and he hired his idol Terry Southern to work on the show. As before, his more controversial sketches never aired (including a sketch where an SS officer informs a demanding American private that the Germans had a good excuse for the Holocaust, whispering it in his ear and the ear of a concentration camp survivor and a Russian soldier–we never learn what the excuse is, because a dog runs across the stage with the script in his mouth, and Neil Simon can’t catch it). However, O’Donoghue was responsible for a live violent punk act (Fear) with skinheads in the audience and for having William Burroughs read excerpts from Naked Lunch.

O’Donoghue was known for his elaborately staged parties, and in his early New York years, for his surreally decorated loft. He had a series of ultimately unsatisfactory relationships (except for perhaps his last wife, Cheryl Hardwick, the keyboard player from SNL). This book does a good job recapturing the highs and lows of his career.

Here are some of my favorite O’Donoghue quotes from the book (and you can find more here):

  • “A lot of my humor is like Christ coming down from the cross–it has no meaning until much later on.”
  • “I don’t think television will ever be perfected until the viewer can press a button and cause whoever is on the screen’s head to explode.”
  • “Better a daughter in a cathouse than a son writing screenplays. She’ll suck a lot less dick.”
  • “Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy.”
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