'Author reconstructs comedian's life in vivid detail'
"Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue"
Review by L.D. Meagher
(CNN) -- In the movie "Batman", the Joker (Jack Nicholson) refers to himself as "the world's first fully functional homicidal artist." In the world of American humor, Michael O'Donoghue could be called the first fully functional humorist of homicide. Whether he was writing for the stage, the page, the airwaves or the big screen, he was at his most effective when the subject was death.
Dennis Perrin explores his life and the work in "Mr. Mike". He sees O'Donoghue as "the man who made comedy dangerous," an apt description for the creator of such comic devices as perennial victim Phoebe Zeit-Geist and an impressionist whose act consisted of jamming needles into the eyes of celebrities.
O'Donoghue is best remembered for his contributions to the National Lampoon and his character Mr. Mike on "Saturday Night Live." Perrin argues O'Donoghue was a trailblazer who influenced an entire generation of comedians and writers, many of whom are much more famous than he ever was. That proved to be the source of much pain for O'Donoghue. And pain was the source for much of his humor.
He came by the pain honestly. Born in upstate New York to the son of an Irish immigrant and the daughter of a German family, Pete Donohue, as his family called him, was a sickly child. He was confined to his room for nearly two years, and attempted to keep boredom at bay by reading. The isolation and lack of physical activity heightened the boy's intellect, but his social skills atrophied. When he emerged from convalescence, he was far ahead of his peers academically, but uncomfortable around other people.
As an adult, he would credit his odd take on humor to the early influence of his parents. He recalled his father as a loutish non-entity (a characterization his sister disputes), while his mother was the most forceful presence in his young life. "Pete later illustrated the differences between his mother and his father by saying the Germans love to kill and the Irish love to die."
Perrin describes young Pete Donohue as an extremely intelligent loner. In high school, he cultivated few friends, but commanded respect from his classmates for his academic achievements. It was there that he was first drawn to the stage. He pursued that attraction at the University of Rochester, where he fell in with an avant-garde crowd enamored of experimental theater and jazz. He exchanged the name Pete for Mike, and first saw "Evergreen Review," the literary magazine that was stretching the boundaries of the written arts. An indifferent student, he devoted his energies to theater, poetry, and, for a time, a show on the campus radio station. He felt himself part of a larger movement that would redefine the meaning of art in post-war America.
Rochester was a long way from the action, so he quit school and moved to San Francisco to pursue a career as an avant-garde playwright. There, he adopted the name Michael O'Donoghue, and dabbled at the fringes of the Bay Area literary scene. He worked briefly for a newspaper, and with a co-worker launched a short-lived magazine of his own. But the money ran out, and he returned to the East.
Back in Rochester, he joined a new theatrical company which wanted to produce his plays. In them, he created darkly manic personae, many with Nazi connections or overtones, that left audiences stunned, confused, and in many cases insulted. He called his approach theatre de la malaise. Local newspaper reporters translated it as "sick theater," and it would be the trademark of everything that followed.
"Evergreen Review" accepted one of his plays for publication, and O'Donoghue put a brief marriage behind him to launch his assault on New York City. His breakthrough success came not from his plays, but from a comic strip. He teamed with artist Frank Springer to produce what may be the first "adult" comic strip ever to see national publication, "The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist." It chronicled the travails of a beautiful 24-year-old socialite, who is targeted by sadists of every stripe, and is in a continual state of humiliation (and undress). Phoebe caused a sensation within the pages of "Evergreen" for nearly three years. It marked O'Donoghue as a writer with a very different sensibility.
While he grew weary of the comic, it lent him a cachet of experience and sophistication that two young Harvard grads were looking for. They had an idea for a national version of their venerated campus humor magazine. O'Donoghue was the first writer they approached about the "National Lampoon." Even though he was a founding contributor to the Lampoon, O'Donoghue was not initially an employee of the magazine. He worked on a free-lance basis. But his influence was felt on every page, and by everyone connected to the enterprise. Some of his contributions were soaring pieces of satire: "Tarzan of the Cows," "Children's Letters to the Gestapo."
By Perrin's account, the staff and management looked up to O'Donoghue with a mixture of reverence, awe, and abject fear. He was fiercely independent, obsessively perfectionist, and quick to hurl a tirade -- or a telephone -- at anyone who got in his way. As the Lampoon gained popularity, he grew a bit bored with it. He was diverted by the magazine's first non-print project. "Radio Dinner" attempted to translate the Lampoon aesthetic onto a record album. It was an artistic and commercial success.
Finally, O'Donoghue went on the payroll. His next project was "The National Lampoon Radio Hour," which would capitalize on the success of "Radio Dinner," while promoting the Lampoon franchise and maybe making a few bucks. The pace of production was brutal, and O'Donoghue drove himself and those around him relentlessly. The results were often outrageously hilarious. The show brought him into contact with actors Christopher Guest, Chevy Chase and John Belushi.
All good things must come to an end. When O'Donoghue was involved, they usually ended in an explosion. He quit the "Radio Hour" because of a desk, and it wasn't even his desk. He severed all connections with the "National Lampoon" and walked away.
He had a file cabinet filled with ideas for plays, movie scripts, radio sketches. O'Donoghue never threw away an idea. Lucky for him, since he went from the treadmill of the radio show to the meat grinder of "Saturday Night Live." The writer who had been present at the creation of the country's most distinctive humor magazine also was present at the creation of network television's most ambitious cutting-edge comedy show.
SNL was the perfect showcase for O'Donoghue's talents. But it didn't live up to his expectations, and from the beginning he created problems. He also created some of the most compelling comedy ever televised. Indeed, the first thing viewers saw when they tuned into the debut was O'Donoghue teaching Belushi to say, "I would like ... to feed your fingertips ... to the wolverines."
O'Donoghue's material wasn't always the best on a given episode of SNL, but it was always the most distinctive. There was the "Jamitol" ad parody with Chase, "The Attack of the Atomic Lobsters," which left the studio in ruins, and the brutally accurate "Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise." Then there was Mr. Mike. The impeccably dressed sociopath with the Panama hat and shades embodied the sense of menace O'Donoghue tried to imbue in all of his humor. Mr. Mike wasn't there to make people laugh. He wanted to make them squirm.
The first years of SNL were its most successful. But O'Donoghue wasn't happy. Perrin asserts he was never happy. He seemed to be looking for a fight all the time. Often, he got it, and lost. He was surrounded by people who admired him, but he seldom acknowledged it. He considered most to be inferior talents (Belushi and Chase excepted) and paid little attention to their feelings. His tirades were legendary, and his output of usable comedy declined.
He quit SNL, and watched the show that had demonstrated so much promise collapse. It wasn't the exit of O'Donoghue that ruined the original SNL, but his absence certainly didn't help. Eventually, he returned for one more spin around the block. It lasted less than a year. O'Donoghue was fired, and the show turned away from the moody, edgy style that had made it -- and him -- famous.
Perrin reconstructs these events in vivid detail. He populates the book with an array of familiar names whose lives brushed up against O'Donoghue's. There's Christopher Cerf and P.J. O'Rourke from the Lampoon days, and the original cast of SNL, plus writers like Anne Beatts, who went on to bigger and better things. The author believes O'Donoghue was the best of the lot, and deserved more success than he got. O'Donoghue obviously felt the same way, as Perrin recounts:
Just before his death, O'Donoghue attended a book party in Manhattan with Marilyn Miller. As luminaries and celebrities drifted by, O'Donoghue asked his friend, "Why didn't I get this? Why did it turn out this way?" Miller responded, "Because, Michael, you didn't want it. You kicked it in the teeth."
Many people have called O'Donoghue a genius. If he was, he had much in common with other geniuses. He suffered bouts of depression, was often stricken with migraine headaches, and had difficulty forging and maintaining personal relationships.
O'Donoghue spent his post-SNL days bouncing from one movie project to another. Most were never completed. Aside from an early Ivory-Merchant film, "Savages," and script-doctor duties on an "adult" animated feature, O'Donoghue's name appears on only one movie. He co-wrote "Scrooged," the wildly uneven Bill Murray holiday vehicle. It is hardly representative of his creativity.
Perrin had complete access to O'Donoghue's voluminous files. He mined them for early drafts of plays, poems, articles and sketches, that demonstrate how some of the writer's earliest notions developed into pieces for the Lampoon or SNL. He also found scripts and articles that never saw the light of day. Even by the standards of the Lampoon and SNL, they are distasteful, the type of material that makes one ashamed for laughing at it.
He made a final appearance on SNL. A few days after he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1994, the show aired a sketch from its early days as a tribute to him. It featured Mr. Mike. Friends and acquaintances that gathered for his wake fell silent when the clip came on. Some laughed, some cried. His widow couldn't watch. Most of the people simply looked at it in uneasy bewilderment. If Perrin's portrait is an accurate one, that's precisely the reaction Michael O'Donoghue would have wanted.
L.D. Meagher is a News Editor at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.
L.D. Meagher is a News Editor at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for nearly 30 years.
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