How unconscious does someone need to be not to have heard of SNL? Basically comatose. But who is Michael O Donahue and what does he mean to the show? Can’t really blame people for not knowing him as he died a quarter century ago, and he was a bit non descript looking anyway. Still, recall any movies lately where a teenage girl brags about ‘French kissing’? How about recent SNL skit about badgers, excuse me wolverines, chewing finger tips off? How about a weekend updates news report about a Middle Eastern leader waving their spleen to adoring crowds? Will you ever again see a demonstration of what it would be like if the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, mainly nice kids, squeal as steel spikes penetrate their eyes? Not likely.
The Romans would say ars est celare artem, or the art is in concealing the art. This is the enduring method of Michael O’Donoghue, A.K.A. the ‘Reich Marshall’, or Saturday Night Live (SNL) Chief of Staff. Most notable to many who remember was his appearance on the first live SNL episode ever, and on the first skit with John Belushi, leading into the first cold opening ever with Chevy Chase. At least partly due to O’ Donoghue’s talent and bravery, everything went off without a hitch. After Chase made his declaration ‘live from New York…’ the rest is history.
But what kind of legacy does this lend O’Donoghue? Most people say none at all but I disagree. I believe a statue at 30 Rock is in need here, or maybe a bench. Okay, Probably just a bench. He would have wanted something simple. If comparable to any contemporary of the time, George Carlin comes to mind. Yet Carlin was smoother, less angry, and much more successful. Despite, the both had one huge thing in common: sharing the stage on the first episode of Saturday Night Live. Perhaps they had similar motivations, and shared notes.
His life. A New York state resident, Mike O’Donoghue was known as Pete most his life until University Of Rochester, where he reverted to Michael. It was here hanging out with friends, and doing a radio program where hi intentions as both a comedian, and write (play write) took form. After leaving school, O’Donoghue landed in San Francisco for an uneventful though reputation burnishing stint at a local paper.
A first inkling of true success came after an unlikely and surprise publication in the automation of caprice. This work was published in the successful, controversial Evergreen Review around the same time O’Donoghue founded and wrote for tue theatre. A Jean Cocteau influenced theatre de malaise, ‘sick theatre’ in English it was known as Bread and Circuses in the local Rochester community. Why sick theater? Influenced by works such as Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden, denounced as ‘the most sickening work of art of the nineteenth century’, it was not a commercial success.
One of his works was named The Death of J.F.K., and was published in 1964. This was before the nation could really process the enormous tragedy of the presidential assignation. This work involved humor at the expense of the deceased president and his widow, and it was not very not hard to figure out how he enraged conservative upstate New Yorkers.
O’Donoghue was known to outrage non theatre goers as well, also known as anybody who had the misfortune of crossing his path when his mood was not the greatest. A landlord who was subject to O’Donoghue’s whimsical cruelty suffered cement poured down his toilet, and an entire unit painted black prior to O’Donoghue’s vacating of the premises.
His literary work.
Of O’Donoghue’s early work, one piece never developed from notes into a story or play, suggests the fomenting of a dark, though comical creative genius. Simply known as a death book, the story focused on a protagonist named Madison Avenue Man. MAM is lured by a Greek-national outlaw into ‘history’s greatest advertising campaign.’ In this uber-Dystopian tale, the ceaseless breeding of Earths population has exceeded mankind’s ability to provide food, manage waste, or prevent any ensuing conflict which results from it. A propaganda blitz begins in which life becomes intolerable, and human beings are convinced, en masse, to consume a a pill called ‘Enditol’ (pronounced end-it-all) which is instantaneously fatal. Gullible humanity, never assured factually that euthansia is the best way to manage their current predicament, takes ‘Enditol’ and begins to drop like flies. Soon bodied pile up, fester, and coagulate into a gross, fleshy mass. Perhaps insensitive to histories other mass suicides, the notes of the story still contain imagery that provoke a sort of nervous, laughter. Perhaps too raw for mass consumption, or even publication it preceded O’Donoghue’s darkest work, undeniably titillating for horny men, a graphic novel called The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist.
A question which may have occurred to some is why? Why all the vitriol toward mankind? Was anyone spared? Sure some of National Lampoon topics may have been a necessary evil. What better way to alert people to the horrors of war than reverse psychology; have them read something in the magazine that satirizes violence and people might just analyze their own flaws. Also, O’Donoghue believed if you dug deep enough, everybody is an a-hole. This is everyone except famed cartoonist Robert Crumb whom O’Donoghue expressed admiration, since Crumb could have earned more if he commercialized characters like Fritz the Cat, but decided against on artistic principle. Ironically, since O’Donoghue died November 8th 1994 and a film about Crumb was released April 28, 1995 this puts his death about seven months before the film was released. His passing was well timed from a Karmic standpoint if O’Donoghue disapproved of artists making out well from commercial endeavors.
His style was irreverent throughout his pre-show business and show business career. In the National Lampoons’ Encyclopedia of Humor many sacred targets are chosen. This includes first date oral sex, and others too tasteless for mention on this blog. Suggested by the author of his biography as one of the funniest bits in the book was verbal comebacks by Winston Churchill in a piece called “The Churchill Wit”. The hero of the European Axis powers was known to drink a bit and known to tell people they were ugly now and then. Yet to read excerpts from the book, fictional of course, of Churchill him ripping into people for paying him the scantest of attention was very funny to me. I’ll save the details if curious readers want to see it themselves.
Perhaps what was making O’Donoghue a unique talent was an approach to comedy which placed his rage and sadness as the central feature, not a peripheral entity. His smile was that of a sadist, writes Dennis Perrin in Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, his gags stuffed in the mouths of his trembling victimes.
His show business career time on Saturday Night Live.
Many entertainers start on the radio, and O’Donoghue was no different. After production of a successful comedy LP known as Radio Dinner, O’Donoghue had a brief, exhausting stint on a program called The National Lampoon Radio Hour. Innovative for its time, performer included many stars from Second City Television and Lemmings, which was a live comedy playing in downtown New York City (my hometown), and spoofed the Woodstock generation, and other modern foibles. An artistic achievement, The National Lampoon Radio Hour did not solve his financial concerns, though did lead to development of the now infamous ‘needles in the eyes’ skit from Saturday Night Live. Thanks to a friendship with television writer Marilyn Miller, and with Irish luck on his side, Michael O’Donoghue was hired as producer of Saturday Night Live, know then simply as Saturday Night. Networks were traditionally conservative in their hiring protocols, so this was a radical departure for NBC. Perhaps the culmination of forces working in society and entertainment, it was an event destined to change the history of late-night entertainment. It can be imagined as well that had magazines like National Lampoon not existed, with writers like him on the staff, shows like Saturday Night Live may have been entirely different, less edgy program with no distinction from Laugh In.
In Doug Hill’s Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, developer and long-time SNL producer Lorne Michaels states that comedy is ‘the presence of something unusual or abnormal within a normal or ordinary context’. For comedy fans like myself, with no particular predisposition to performance, this is a very handy insight.
Amongst the early cast, Mike O’Donoghue was peculiar, or one might say out of place amidst the comedians cast on the show. Others physical and extroverted. O’Donoghue looked uncomfortable, wore glasses, and appeared introverted, maybe like a philosophy professor. Also, the cast was definitely sanguine, and brimming with enthusiasm, O’Donoghue possessed a morbid, funeral director persona. Through his writing and skit work he was a terminally grim character.
So it comes as no surprise who his heroes were: authors Hunter S. Thompson, and William Burroughs, both of of which which made appearances on the show thanks to O’Donoghue. It should be noted, Thompson’s appearance was only backstage, although Billy Murray did a great impersonation of him, having just completed box office underachiever Where the Buffalo Roam.
O’Donoghue was that unusual aspect amidst the context of the typical SNL performer. At my young age this made him particularly funny to me. He was like an intellectual looking for the MacNeil/Lehrer Report who had wandered onto the wrong sound stage.
Other then “The Wolveines”, O’Donoghue was also well known for many ‘would-be’ sketches, that is ones which were never aired due to offensive premises, costliness but mainly for their absurd premises. Fortunately, his first one did make it and can be seen anytime on Youtube. In “The Wolverines”, O’Donoghue plays an English instructor and John Belushi, presumably and Eastern European immigrant looking for a lesson in some dreary basement. Belushi holds a bag of groceries containing a phallic baguette as O’Donoghue awaits his arrival. The English lesson consists of Belushi repeating morbid phrases about wolverines chewing off fingertips which lasts only a few seconds before O’Donaghue clutches his chest and falls to the floor. This is followed by Belushi doing the same a few seconds later. The causes of deaths are unknown which lends the piece an amusing, illogical, and creepy quality.
The skit featured themes of death and absurdity, and these obsessions of SNL became central complaints from older comedians of the time, as well as many others – all attributed directly to O’Donoghues writing and influence on other writers.
This tendency toward the moribund did not boost his popularity, the first inkling this might be the case being his head being cropped out of a Madamoiselle magazine photo. What might have been a forgivable slight to others sent O’Donogue into a rage. He penned a letter to the magazines editors calling them the ‘C’ word, a move which certainly did not help his predicament. O’Donoghue’s alter ego, the evil Mr. Mike was also irksome, and scary. Several of the skits he wrote involved clever tortures such as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir impaled through the eyes with steel rods. I happened to view this as a child, and possibly was in the minority of nine year old children in stitches. A vicious temper, his abusive tirades frightened and frustrated other cast members as well as producers. Into the eighties when Eddie Murphy starred, and O’Donoghue had been invited back to pep up the moribund show.
Perhaps the most bizarre, and in my opinion, funny were a few skits he wrote which were never aired due to their absurdity and marked inappropriateness. One was the famed ‘The Last Ten Days of Silverman’s bunker’ an obvious allusion to Adolph Hitler and a direct attack on an NBC executive. Never aired and probably too byzantine and expensive to pull off, it was to be O’Donoghues masterpiece; a ‘truly futile and stupid’ gesture which only die hard National Lampoon fans, and SNL writers and actors would appreciate. The sketch rejected, O’Donohue anonymously mailed a copy of it out to thirty or so television critics but did not get the positive reaction he expected. Perhaps he is most well known for the “Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise,” a Star Trek spoof in which NBC executives show up in a flying Lincoln Towncar and cancel the show. Amusing on many levels the skit showed a light, playful side to the normally grim comic writer.
A would be sketch I appreciated most, which was only momentarily considered for airing, was called ‘At home with The Psychos.” The skit concerned a family of mutants living close to a nuclear power plant, who vis a vis contamination, develop a new physical orifice called a ‘blow hole’. Innocuous sounding, O’Donoghue’s blow hole prototype actually bore an uncanny resemblance to the female vagina.
NBC standards and practices, perpetually in conflict with Saturday Night Live already, refused to allow it on the air until the ‘orifice’ was redesigned. His firing followed his appearance in on of then SNL producer Dick Ebersol’s meeting, of which he was not invited. Promising to behave at the meeting, O’Donoghue lied and let out a tirade on every single actor including star Eddie Murphy, whom he complained ‘needed acting lessons’.
His dismissal was not mourned then, yet O’Donoghue was a revered comedy legend, if a not well paid one. Bill Murray gave O’Donohue honorable mention in a 1994 Saturday Night Live episode after he passed at aged 54. Murray said O’Donogue would burn in hell, but it was still an honor being mentioned. How many others get such a distinction for being involved with SNL?
O’Donogue was known to coin more than a few sayings, most unrepeatable and filled with expletives. Yet one I appreciate is:
A lot of my humor is like Christ coming down from the cross- it has no meaning until much later on.
In the end, O’Donoghue’s death humor was not appreciated. Like many SNL past members, he was cast into the annals of comic oblivion. Yet unlike the others there was a unique nihilism to sketches like ‘Least Loved Bedtime Tales,’ or the recurring needles in the eyes skits. Perhaps this overshadowed his more important comic achievements on the show. One being a family sitting for breakfast toothlessly eating a cereal named Quarry that was simply inedible rocks. Another skit, perhaps my favorite and an attack on the mysteriously popular I Love Lucy Show, should be more all appreciated. Lucy is in a room entrusted with covering nuclear warheads with whip cream topping. Soon her incompetence is revealed, things veer out of control, and Armageddon occurs. Followed of course by a stern castigation from Ricky Ricardo, and Lucy letting out her trademark cry: waah! I guess you have to be of a certain age to appreciate its brilliance.
Incidentally the ‘blow hole’ skit bore a slight resemblance to Ken Shapiro’s 1981 black comedy Modern Problems starring Chevy Chase. Both involved exposure to radioactive waste. However, the two projects were apparently in no way related, although Chevy Chase was in “The Wolverines” skit, and opened the first show with the first “Live from New York…”. The rest is comedy history. That is, if you haven’t been comatose for the past half a century.
The Editorial Staff at Mitten-Maid