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Michael O’Donoghue: Is America Ready for Mr. Mike?

From ‘National Lampoon’ to ‘Saturday Night Live’ to ‘Mondo Video’ and — beyond

Michael O'Donoghue

Michael O'Donoghue

NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

HELLO? YES, THIS IS Michael. You wanna do an interview with me? The day after tomorrow? Why, that’s my day of rest! Well, okay, I’ll cooperate — but I’ll be doing a lot of drugs; I’m not giving up that part of my Sunday.

“Besides, I’ve got a lot to talk about. I got an idea last night for a book of poetry called Jesus May Love You, but I Think You’re Garbage Wrapped in Skin.”

I arrive at O’Donoghue’s New York West Village town house on a chilly afternoon, and he admits me with a polite handshake and then a fatherly pat on the back.

“Have a seat, old boy,” he says, pointing to a green velvet couch. “Do you want some coffee? No? Well, I know you folks in the People’s Temple are very strict,” he deadpans, and then laughs heartily. He’s wearing a baggy pair of brown corduroy pants, belted tightly at his tiny waist, and a dark green pajama top with white piping. Shuffling around in slippers as he nips from a snifter of brandy, he seems nervous but eager to communicate.

“I have to get myself some coffee in a second,” he mulls, his round, dark sunglasses firmly in place, accentuating his pale visage and further reducing a balding head no larger than a honeydew melon. “I took a Quaalude — half a Quaalude — which makes me honest. I don’t have time to censor myself. I’ve always thought that truth is the ultimate lie; human beings aren’t capable of understanding it, quite frankly. It dazzles ’em. But you can ask me any question you want if you ask it honestly. Cock size, anything, I don’t care.” He smiles encouragingly.

I figure I’ll begin by asking about his book of poetry, but before I can, he insists I listen to a song he wrote at four this morning. As he hastens to recall it, I realize that he may have been up since then.

“Oh, this is a fucking beauty, this song! Let me see if I can put it together. It’s called ‘Blue Morphine.’ I don’t have a melody for it, so let me see if I can just talk it.” He begins to recite the lyrics, occasionally lapsing into a surprisingly mellifluous croon:

I’m flying too close to the moon
What is the light that dreams are lit with?
Will it be over soon?

Falling like angels cast from the sky
Only blue morphine can teach us to fly
Blue morphine.

“It goes on like this for a while,” he bubbles, “and the last refrain comes after some really hot saxophone.”

Falling forever, shadows and smoke
Death is a lover, and love is a joke
Blue morphine.*

“It’s a bit on the negative side,” he concludes with a beaming grin, “but when you make those major dream breakthroughs at four in the morning….” He cancels the thought, striving ahead: “I had a dream one time, a real hot religious dream in which I was the baby Jesus, nude.

“I’ve always wanted to be Jesus,” he continues. “Let’s face it, any Irishman has. A lot of my humor is like Christ coming down from the cross — it has no meaning until much later on.”

MICHAEL O’DONOGHUE, 39, is perhaps best known as the originator of some Saturday Night Live skits in which he depicts the possible reactions of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Tony Orlando and Dawn, and Mike Douglas to having long steel needles thrust into their eyes. If your response to that kind of slapstick is an irate “That’s not funny, that’s sick!” then you’re at least getting the point, so to speak, of his wanton wit.

On Saturday Night Live, he often appeared before the cameras in the sinister, sunglassed persona of “Mr. Mike,” telling one of the “Least Loved Bedtime Stories” in which, for example, he reduced the hippity-hoppity antics of B’rer Rabbit to “random acts of meaningless violence.” It seems his public comic sensibilities are identical to his private ones. He confides with a bleak snigger, “There’s no difference between Mr. Mike and me. He rose out of a dark emotional situation I was in. The sunglasses came out at the same time. It was a time of snakes on everything.” Michael is now remembered by his former SNL coworkers as “a certified nut case,” “an unbelievable, hilarious, sick bastard” and “a true comic genius who will someday surpass Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.”

“Yes, there are a lot of things in life safer than comedy,” O’Donoghue counsels with a smirking swallow. “But let’s face it: when that sniper on the highway catches you in his sights, you’re not thinking about statistics, eh?”

Does he have any philosophical thoughts about comedy?

“I always think about anything that gets a rise out of me,” he says with a wink. “I look at comedy with, not a jaundiced eye, but rather a cancerous eye. I once wrote an ad for Saturday Night — which did not get on the air — for a wonderful new product, Spray-on Laetrile. The ad started with a girl telling her boyfriend, ‘Gee, Jim, I’d love to go to the dance with you tonight, but I can’t. I have cancer.’ And he says, ‘Aww, come on honey! Haven’t you heard about Spray-on Laetrile? One little pssst! and you can kiss cancer goodbye!’

“I never wrote or pandered to a market. I never made the stupid mistake of saying, ‘I’m the New York sophisticate and I like this joke, but the pig masses in Crib Death, Iowa, will never understand it because they are such filth.’ So I never did a Carol Burnett and wrote down to anyone.”

The voice is overly calm, modulated to simulate a gracious, albeit tentative, benevolence. He sounds like a mellow late-night FM disc jockey who slits little girls’ throats each evening before he reports to work.

“Excuse me,” says O’Donoghue, abruptly rising for more brandy. “I think I forgot the question. Kitty Carlisle, do you want to field this one?”

LIFE IS NOT FOR EVERYBODY,” O’Donoghue rules, and he admits he needs some extra encouragement to face the task. Over the years he’s experienced a number of severe “emotional reversals,” as he calls them, ranging from a brief ill-fated marital fling to a glut of career disappointments. “So I got myself some dark glasses,” he says. “And then once inside them, I felt a lot better in the hidy hole and didn’t want to come out for a long time. Tried to come out a couple of times while I was working for Saturday Night, but I didn’t make it. I couldn’t stand the fluorescent lights in the NBC offices.” But somehow the glare of Hollywood seemed less harsh.

In the summer of 1978, Woody Allen asked O’Donoghue, sans his seaweed shades, to play a small part in his forthcoming motion picture, Manhattan. Things were looking ever upward for Michael, who had just left Saturday Night Live to create three late-night specials in association with SNL producer Lorne Michaels. Working with a staff of young writers that included Mitchell Glazer, Eve Babitz, Dirk Wittenborn and National Lampoon alumnus Emily Prager, O’Donoghue concocted a teleplay based on the lives of fashion models, a sci-fi horror epic about rampaging roaches entitled The War of the Insect Gods and Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, a comedy takeoff on the sleazy early Sixties oddities-of-the-world film documentaries.

O’Donoghue assures me he was genuinely thrilled to get the chance to present his comic vision en masse and (hopefully) unadulterated to the nation’s TV viewers. But, hey, it’s not as if everybody gets invited to appear in one of Woody’s films, and the man did win a shitload of Oscars for Annie Hall, so we shouldn’t mind if Michael puts on a few airs and rhapsodizes just a trifle too much about his “crucial” role in Woody’s current cinematic masterwork, eh?

“I play Diane Keaton’s old boyfriend, Dennis, who’s this asshole film director that Woody destroys to get to her. You know, there’s always a paper tiger in these urban love affairs.

“I play the macho lead and — get this — I’m the male sex symbol. It’s an interesting role because I’ve never been in a movie before and there was a heat inversion in New York the week we shot my scenes. I got terrible migraine headaches, so I had to take massive doses of Percodan. Consequently, I could barely remember the lines, the shooting, anything, because it was all one narco haze.

“I was really outclassed on the set, I really got nervous. In a Chinese restaurant scene I finally conceded to myself that I was dying on camera, so I began eating as I spoke; a cheap device — yet it works!”

On the day Manhattan opens in New York, I purchase a copy of Time with Woody Allen on the cover and read it while I stand in line for two hours to see Michael O’Donoghue’s screen debut. Fifteen minutes into the picture he pops up during a big cocktail-party scene in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art. Bella Abzug is concluding some sort of fundraising spiel when Isaac Davis (Woody) strolls up to speak with writer Mary Wilke (Diane Keaton) and her creepy, spectral date, Dennis (Michael!).

DENNIS: [To Isaac, mildly irritated] Er, excuse me. We were talking about orgasms.

ISAAC: [Meekly] Oh really? Well, sorry. I didn’t mean to butt in….

MARY: [To all assembled] Give me a break! I’m from Philadelphia! We never talk about things like that in public!

ISAAC: [To Mary, quizzical] You said that the other day. I didn’t know what the hell it meant then, either.

DENNIS: [Self-absorbed] I’m just about to direct a film of my own script, and the premise is this guy screws so great…

ISAAC: Screws so great?

DENNIS: [Nodding coldly]… Screws so great that when he brings a woman to orgasm she’s so fulfilled that she dies, right? Now, this one [indicating Mary] finds this hostile.

MARY: [To the world] Hostile? God, it’s worse than hostile. It’s aggressive-homicidal!!

ISAAC: She dies?

MARY: [Laughing nervously] You’ll have to forgive Dennis. He’s Harvard direct to Beverly Hills. It’s Theodor Reik with a touch of Charles Manson.

BYSTANDING PARTY GUEST: [Blankly, to no one in particular] I finally had an orgasm…and my doctor told me it was the wrong kind.

Although it gets some of the biggest laughs of the movie, the whole strange exchange is over in a flash and O’Donoghue never reappears. So much for the Percodan Method school of acting.

Indeed, there is enough of Michael’s own comedic perspective in the scene that he could have written it himself. Dennis has the detached, offhandedly evil aura that O’Donoghue sometimes likes to affect, and the other characters are full of the same pathetic liberal psycho-prattle that he loves to parrot. But he is much more complex than the singles-bar existentialists who Dennis epitomizes. Believe it or not, Michael’s a somewhat charming guy who actually likes people — or several of them, anyway. As Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels puts it, “Michael doesn’t really believe that the human race is a lot of quivering scum. He just says he likes to feel that way because it gives him the nervous energy to get up in the morning.”

There’s another reason why Michael’s brief appearance in Manhattan is so indicative of the man. All his crazed Percodan performances, the scenes in the Chinese restaurant that were probably his best stuff, ended up in the dumper. Michael O’Donoghue is a legend around the publishing and television industries not primarily for the things he’s done that have reached the public eye, but rather for the, er, unusual body of work that has never gotten past the Bowdlers, censors and other assorted arbiters of taste in this country. Needless to say, the expurgated material was pretty exotic fare. And then there’s the slightly disturbing day-to-day behavior of O’Donoghue himself….

ADROPOUT FROM THE University of Rochester, O’Donoghue first attracted attention while a contributor to the now-defunct Evergreen Review, in which he published bizarre, funny plays with names like “The Automation of Caprice” and also wrote a lurid comic-strip parody named for its scantily clad super-heroine, “Phoebe Zeit-Geist.” The strips, later collected in a book, became a cult favorite and paved the way for a volume O’Donoghue authored in 1968 called The Incredible, Thrilling Adventures of the Rock (“It only took twelve minutes to read”), whose sales were as slim as its story line. Shortly thereafter, he slipped (“like swamp gas,” according to former colleague P.J. O’Rourke) into the Madison Avenue offices of the National Lampoon and there generated such broad strokes of parody as “Tarzan of the Cows,” “Battling Buses of World War II” and “Underwear for the Deaf.” When the Lampoon organization branched out into radio, records and books, Michael helped write the successful National Lampoon Radio Hour, cocreated (with one-time Lampoon editor Tony Hendra) the famous Radio Dinner album, and compiled an Encyclopedia of Humor. The last effort is perhaps best remembered for an entry called “The Churchill Wit,” O’Donoghue’s somewhat suspect minianthology of the jauntiest off-the-cuff quips by the late former prime minister of England:

When the noted playwright George Bernard Shaw sent him two tickets to the opening night of his new play with a note that read: “Bring a friend, if you have one,” Churchill, not to be outdone, promptly wired back: “You and your play can go fuck yourselves.”

It was not by accident that O’Donoghue acquired this distinctly jaded outlook on humanity.

“A main influence in my life was the rheumatic fever I had when I was five,” he reveals, “and I stayed inside the house for a year. Now this has to be a negative turning point in a child’s life, and so consequently I got into working in scrapbooks, stamp collecting and so forth.

“Also, I developed a concept of ‘others,'” he adds wryly. “For instance, you are one of the others and the things that make you one of the others are that you don’t feel the same things that I do, or even think the same things. I have a difficult time understanding others, their wants, their desires.”

Michael Henry O’Donoghue describes his childhood as that of a “weed bender.” Born on January 5th, 1940, to Michael James Donoghue and the former Barbara Ann Zimmermann, he grew up in rural Sauquoit, New York, located some seven miles from Utica.

“My grandfather’s name was O’Donoghue. He came to this country from Killarney. On the boat ride over, he dropped the ‘o’ in the ocean, as the Irish are wont to say, but I put it back. My dad worked at a munitions plant, Remington Arms, during the war and then some white-collar job in industry. He’s very smart, jovial, with a good warm sense of humor. My mother is Welsh-German, a mean woman, and I get most of my search-and-destroy humor from her.” Michael also has a sister, Jane, who is five years younger, with whom he is “not on good terms.”

O’Donoghue admits he was “not a very popular kid” during his years at Sauquoit Valley Central High School, despite his involvement in the band, Chess Club, Library Club, baseball team and especially the Dramatics Club (he was president).

“It was not a good period of my life,” he recalls. “I was what was called a nork, a real creep, and the local girls certainly agreed, since I didn’t have many dates. But the thing was that I was so damned bright that the other kids really couldn’t keep me out of their lives.

“There was one boy, whose first name was Barton, who was pretty bright and even well liked, and he would have been tough competition for me, but he drowned in the lake during the freshman picnic. I remember everybody in the class was watching the police dredge the lake, but we hadn’t eaten yet and I was hungry. I grabbed a sandwich and the gym teacher started hitting me, yelling, ‘You monster, you monster!’ Hell, I thought you could grieve and eat at the same time.

“I was very unhappy in high school, but in college I wisely pretended to be another type of person — suave, confident, popular — and I got away with it!”

O’Donoghue majored in English, with a minor in philosophy. At one point, he became immersed in Oriental religions and says he contemplated retreating to a monastery. After being kicked out of the university “for having a bad attitude,” Michael migrated to California and attended both San Francisco State and the University of California at Berkeley. “I was leaning toward writing at that point,” he recalls. “I started a magazine out there called renaissance — with a small ‘r.’ You know, one of those quaint literary rags with lots and lots of woodcuts. I ran it with a man called John Bryant; he’d published Charles Bukowski’s poems and a lot of Gary Snyder’s. Bishop Pike helped us out. Seriously. Very nice man. Gave us the key to the Episcopal Diocese office up on Nob Hill so we could type out the magazine there. We were always afraid he’d see what was in it. This was around 1960 to 1961. It’s sad about Pike’s disappearance; they found his jockey shorts in the desert. Worst way to go I’ve ever heard of — no dignity.

“Around this time I was working for the San Francisco Examiner as a reporter trainee — worked in the wire room, did everything. I was fired ’cause I got into a fight in the city room. I grabbed the man’s tie and pulled him across a desk. I was gonna hit him with a lead typebar, which really can leave some kinda Tom and Jerry-type indentation in the skull, but someone stopped me.”

Shortly afterward, O’Donoghue returned to the University of Rochester in quest of a teaching degree, but quit after six months. He subsequently sold Life magazine by telephone, peddled shrubbery and then costume jewelry door-to-door and worked as a credit manager for the Sherwin-Williams paint company. He also started a theater group called Bread and Circuses and worked as a disc jockey for WBBF-FM in Rochester. He had a classical music show at the radio station and also did the hourly newscast, which he would often hideously distort by expanding the worst tragedy of the day — an earthquake, plane crash, etc. — into a long, grisly lead story, while scarcely mentioning any of the other news events.

Sometime before fleeing to New York to toil as a freelance writer — he says he can’t remember exactly when — he married a woman who already had three kids, toward whom Michael had difficulty relating. In a matter of months, the honeymoon and the marriage were over.

One evening, while I’m sharing an Italian dinner with Michael and his Mondo Video writing staff, the talk turns to O’Donoghue’s past. Dirk Wittenborn begins needling his boss about his “great affection for children,” specifically O’Donoghue’s “baby-sitting technique” during the shortlived period when he served as a stepfather.

“Come on, Mister Mike,” says Dirk with a mischievous grin. “Tell us again how you used to get the baby boy to stop crying at night.”

“Now Dirk,” O’Donoghue cautions lightly with a queer twinkle in his eye. “Let’s not go into that.”

“Oh no, Mister Mike, you’re not gettin’ out of this one! What he used to do,” Dirk tells me, “is that he would go into the baby’s room each night with a loaded revolver…”

“… And I’d fire off a round or two — always into the ceiling — just to get the little fella to quiet down.” O’Donoghue minimizes the story with a nonchalant shrug. “Gave him quite a start but it always worked. How else was I supposed to stop the kid from crying?”

“A truly brilliant writer but a very difficult character,” says National Lampoon editor-in-chief P.J. O’Rourke. O’Donoghue was one of the original Lampoon editors when the humor magazine was founded in April 1970. O’Rourke has great praise for Michael’s talent, especially “his gift for combining the heroic with the banal, as in ‘Tarzan of the Cows,’ and his stellar sense of black humor.” But like other staffers at the Lampoon, P.J. was often weirded out by O’Donoghue’s explosive temper.

“Michael had a short fuse with everything. He’d do stuff like, if the office phones didn’t work quite right — as office phones never do — well, one time he beat one of his phones to death with a cane, smashed it to pieces, then went over to the next office, picked up the phone, called the phone company and screamed, ‘The phone is broken! Get right over here!'”

All of this is retold with great affection and an almost involuntary wistfulness. Compared to the Lampoon‘s first golden era (generally acknowledged to have been from 1970 to 1974), the legendary suite of offices now contains all the tumult of a sanitarium.

“Michael was like the Cardinal Richelieu of the National Lampoon; he was definitely the guiding light,” says Anne Beatts, a former contributing editor to the magazine and now a writer with Saturday Night Live. She and O’Donoghue were an item near the end of their Lampoon days — both left in 1974 after an argument with chairman-publisher Matty Simmons — and they were known around Manhattan for their Gatsby-like attire, Beatts usually turned out in sleek Thirties dresses and Michael sporting a white tropical suit and matching slouch cap. Anne was working with Michael and John Belushi on a skit for the Lampoon Radio Hour called “The Nazi Doctor Doolittle” when the end came, and she is still bitter about the magazine: “National Lampoon is and was for boys of all ages — a good magazine for people with zits.”

In retrospect, O’Donoghue places a higher value on his tenure there. “The Lampoon was hot in those days,” he contends. “I think we could have kicked the hell out of the Algonquin Round Table the best day they ever lived. There was a long wait between quips at that damn potsy Round Table!”

During the O’Donoghue era, however, the Lampoon editors seemed to spend most of their time kicking each other.

“I still love him,” says Simmons, “even though he won’t talk to me. There was always fighting and wild outbursts from him and he was forever not talking to most of the other editors. And vice versa. His writing was absolutely hysterical but it would attract some strange outside reactions.

“I’m in my office one day [April 6, 1972] and I get a call from the kid in the mail room. He says, ‘Mr. Simmons, there’s a box here for Michael O’Donoghue and I don’t like the looks of it.’ So when O’Donoghue came in, I said, ‘Michael, let’s open this box that just came in but let’s open it carefully.’ So we took it into his office, looked inside and there are these sticks of dynamite. He turns white, green and orange. Then he picks up the phone and calls George Plimpton.”

From there, Plimpton picks up the story. “Michael phoned me after he opened the dreadful package — I’m a demolitions expert, you see — and I told him that you could eat the dynamite and even hit it with a hammer and nothing could happen — provided the nitroglycerin had not leaked out and crystallized on the outside… which of course it had.”

The building was quickly evacuated and Madison Avenue was closed off from Fifty-seventh to Sixty-third streets while a police bomb squad descended on the premises and removed the deadly package. The culprit turned out to be a pro-Donoghue prankster, who mailed along the blasting caps several days later.

“Incidentally,” Plimpton adds, “Michael and I have an organization called the Dynamite Museum, which Michael originated. Its purpose is to keep people on edge. It serves as an explanation for all the terrible unexplained things that happen in this world, especially those with a humorous side to them. He and I are members of the museum, as are several other more sinister people whose names we never mention….”

As Michael himself points out, his comedy is about “the tortured little shadow areas we hide from our friends.” But he is not above exploiting any painful situation for the sake of a laugh.

“You want to know what an incredibly funny, sick, nutty guy O’Donoghue is?” Matty Simmons asks. “Let me tell you, Michael was once sitting in my office when his father called and explained that as the result of some unfortunate occurrence, Mike’s mother had just had to have her toe amputated.

“His father said, ‘Michael, there’s something terrible I have to tell you.’ And O’Donoghue said, ‘Oh. What?’ His father said, very sadly, ‘Well, your mother lost her toe.’ Michael paused for a second and then he said, ‘Did you look for it behind the refrigerator?'”

AS O’DONOGHUE  MAKES himself some coffee in his cozy little kitchen, I roam around, examining the glut of gimcracks in his apartment. Next to the fireplace in the living room stands an armless, battered little girl mannequin clothed in a misshapen dress who is gazing longingly out the window. Nearby is a large stuffed bear wearing World War I-vintage aviation goggles. Crammed everywhere in this room and the adjacent den is a dusty array of stuffed game, including various fowl, foxes and a pinched-face owl.

Michael wanders out of the kitchen and assists me in my reconnaissance. I am contemplating the Frankensteinian cluster of hatter’s heads in the center of the case as Michael begins petting a nearby mummified ocelot. There is, somehow, a certain kinky poignance to the image, a notion not lost on O’Donoghue, who begins humming what sounds like a love ballad.

“What’s that song?” I ask.

“Oh,” he says, “it’s called ‘Cancer for Christmas.'”

“Huh?”

“‘Cancer for Christmas,'” he repeats, explaining that he wrote the song for the 1978 Saturday Night Live Christmas show. “I was booked to do it at the end of the program, standing in a tableau with fake snow falling behind me, but they wouldn’t let me. I thought it was time we showed the dark side of Christmas. Hell, I’ve had a bunch of relatives die over the holidays. It was a true act of censorship.” He tilts his tiny head to one side and sings his heart out:

Cancer for Christmas
Blue lights on the Christmas tree
Yule log burning on TV
It’s cancer for Christmas

Here’s a brand new Timex
With a lifetime guarantee
Don’t kiss Mommy on the lips
And don’t sit next to me.

Cancer for Christmas
Plastic reindeer in the yard
The cleaners sent a festive card
With holiday greetings

Santa’s bringing sacks of morphine
And some cigarettes
Time to call the Bide-A-Wee
And give away your pets

Play the tapes of “Silent Night”
Sung by Patrice Munsel
Wouldn’t count on New Year’s Eve
It’s time to say farewell
We’ll drink a cup of cobalt yet to auld lang syne.**

O’Donoghue’s files are filled with outlandish material that the executive censors (Herminio Traviesas, Ralph Daniels and James Ottley) in NBC’s Standards and Practices office have refused to okay for telecast. One such deletion was “Great Moments in Sports,” a skit intended for the SNL show hosted by Fran Tarkenton, in which Bill Murray portrays Lou Gehrig delivering his heartrending 1939 Yankee Stadium retirement speech. “A little while ago,” Murray/Gehrig tells the crowd, “I just found out that I have a fatal disease.” Long pause. “Perhaps you didn’t understand what I just said [screaming]: I’m gonna die! And I’m so scared! A year from now all you dumb jerkoffs will be sitting here watching some stupid baseball game and I’ll be dead!!!

Murray/Gehrig quickly becomes hysterical and must be dragged, kicking and screaming, from the field. The segment was rehearsed and ready to air, but the censors shook their heads: it ended up in the dumper. Likewise, a commercial for “Tarbrush, a toothpaste for Negroes”; a sketch in which Charles Manson (played by O’Donoghue) is carving his Halloween jack-o’-lantern and begins stabbing the pumpkin repeatedly; and innumerable. “Weekend Update” news scripts, including the following rough gems:

In an attempt to modernize its services, the Catholic Church has introduced something new into Communion. In addition to dispensing the host, priests will now also dispense a “cohost,” which symbolizes the body of Mike Douglas.

What will the smart, fashionable woman be wearing this fall? From California comes the answer — a lovely floor-length Chowchilla coat. Chowchilla coats — made from the matched skins of twenty-six [kidnapped] schoolchildren. They’re not in the stores yet. but it’s only a matter of time.
And in a related item, FBI Director Clarence Kelley denied rumors that the bureau’s entire investigation into Dr. Martin Luther King’s death consisted of asking a Ouija board, “Who shot the monkey?”

But O’Donoghue says his favorite expunged rib tickler was this proposed exchange between “Update” hosts Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd (which Michael submitted under the pen name of Edith Wharton):

JANE: How long does it take to cook a baby in a microwave oven? Exactly fifty-five seconds per pound, claims Mr. Nils Nickleson of Median Strip, Arizona, who turned this small fry [baby projected on the screen behind her] into a small roast in only eight minutes and fifteen seconds.

DAN: Jane, to that let me simply add, “Well done!”

“I tried to use a Jonathan Swift/Modest Proposal argument with the censors on that last item,” says Michael, “but they didn’t buy the literary cross-reference.” Looking over the blue-penciled material, I note that there are tasteless potshots and ethnic slurs of every stripe… but no gags against the Irish.

“Oh, the Irish are a little dim,” O’Donoghue demurs. “Someday I want to return to my ancestral home to piss on the Blarney Stone, but basically the Irish are a race that is closer to the angels than to the apes.”

When I ask whether his current project, Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, will be a fit network entertainment for viewers’ living rooms, he changes the subject, promising a screening the following week of the raw footage of “that soufflé of trash.”

AWILD-HAIRED O’DONOGHUE, bent into a resolute slouch by the weight of his thick camel’s hair coat, is pacing the floor of a drafty loft in New York’s East Twenties, raging about a media skirmish that is in the offing.

“We give up nothing!” he bellows to his staff as he stalks amidst a bewildering sprawl of video equipment, a cockeyed checkerboard of TV screens displaying various cold blue images of himself. This is the workshop where Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, three months into the writing and production stage, is finally being assembled. The air is electric with high-tension editing and bitter feuds as Michael’s coworkers psyche him up for an impending meeting this afternoon with the NBC censors. It seems that NBC harbors strong reservations about the bulk of the hour-and-a-half program. Objections center on such segments as “Celebrity Deformities,” wherein Dan Aykroyd probes the skin of his webbed toes with a Phillips head screwdriver to prove the authenticity of his claim: “I am a genetic mutant.”

Also offensive to the NBC brass is “American Gals Love Creeps,” a sequence in which heavily made-up vamps like Gilda Radner, Carrie Fisher, Margot Kidder, Deborah Harry, Laraine Newman and John Belushi’s wife, Judy Jacklin, whisper their uncontrollable affection for “guys who miss the toilet seat,” “men who smell their fingers,” “fellows who drink too much and can’t get it up” and “guys who sneeze in their hands and wipe it on their pants,” the sultry testimony culminating in the admission: “When I reach down and feel a firm colostomy bag, I know I’m with a real man.”

Personally, I found Mondo Video to contain some of the most uproarious comedy material I have ever seen, full of O’Donoghue’s sick-o flair, but certainly no more prurient or shocking — with the exception of a 1928 peep show entitled Uncle Sy and the Sirens — than such SNL staples as Dan Aykroyd denouncing Jane Curtin on “Weekend Update” as an “ignorant slut.”

(O’Donoghue is not the only new comedian who has had difficulty tailoring his humor for television. After ABC gave Andy Kaufman $ 100,000 for his own ninety-minute special, the network executives refused to air the completed show, which began with Andy urging viewers to turn off their TV sets.)

Nonetheless, the network is balking at broadcasting the show — presently four months late and $100,000 over its $275,000 budget — and O’Donoghue is fit to be tied.

“Damn those cretins!” he booms. “I took the ‘Dancing Navel’ routine out didn’t I? I met them halfway! What were they expecting from me? Porky Pig Takes a Trip?! Well, here’s what we do: if they try to touch another frame of film, we cry rape, call them Philistine muck and then throw a brick at anything that moves!”

Coattails flying, he tears out of the room with video cassettes of the show, ready to do battle with the brass. I run after him and catch him at the elevator. What happens, I ask, if NBC refuses to run the show?

“Well,” he says, now surprisingly calm, “I’ve always got my poetry, and Gilda is recording one of my songs, ‘Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals’ [“Up yours, Mr. Hippo, piss off, Mr. Fox”] on her forthcoming album. If we can’t sell the show to cable TV, it’ll just have to be a cult cassette.”

IS AMERICA READY FOR a piece of business like Michael O’Donoghue? That may depend on his ability to prepare us for his hard-sell technique. Or perhaps the real problem is: can Michael strike a truce with humanity long enough to win a few more allies? He confesses with a low chuckle that his favorite one-liner is, “Laugh, you assholes!” But one wonders if, in the end, we should be taken in by all this sardonic patter. Is Michael O’Donoghue really humor’s answer to Dirty Harry or is there, deep (deep) inside, a trace of tenderness, a shred of decency? Well, judge for yourself.

“Success, comedy, all these things are great,” he tells me during our final morning together. “But what I care about most is my haiku and my work with the little deaf kids on Sundays.

“I want to end up like Oscar Levant!” he cracks disparagingly. “I want to end up a terrible actor with a lovely tremor of the hands, shaking to where I can hardly get the cork-tipped cigarette up to the crooked old mouth. I’ve already got a silk dressing gown like his, and I hope you noticed the blood stains on it. If I keep on popping pills, I hope to be found floating dead in the pool one day; hopefully one where I can see the bottom.”

Soon afterward, in the TV column of the Washington Post, NBC Vice President Herminio Traviesas is quoted as vowing that Mondo Video will only hit the air “over my dead body.” A network spokesman later denies that Traviesas ever said such a thing, issuing the following statement: “NBC has no air date at this time to present Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video. The show has not been given an air date due to broadcast standards problems.”

At present, O’Donoghue and mentor Lorne Michaels are fighting NBC to run a slightly toned-down version. Barring that, it may be sold to cable TV, the movies or be cut up into palatable segments — a tragedy, in my opinion — and aired, at intervals, on SNL. The fate of O’Donoghue’s fashion models and Insect Gods scripts has not been decided.

Meanwhile, Michael is in final negotiations with Paramount Pictures to write and direct some of his own films, while his script for a sci-fi epic called Planet of the Cheap Special Effects has been bought by United Artists. “Michael, you’re the Woody Allen of the Eighties!” his agent told him during negotiations with the film studios. There was a long pause. “Does that mean,” Michael replied, “that I have to wait another year?”

*© 1979, Least Loved Music
**© 1979, Least Loved Music

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