Saturday Night’s Children: Michael O’Donoghue (1975)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 39 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member every other week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

It’s been almost twenty years to the day since the death of Michael O’Donoghue, one of comedy’s darkest, most demented figures and a major creative force behind National Lampoon magazine and SNL during their formative years. Dennis Perrin’s 1998 biography of O’Donoghue attributes a quote to him: “Making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy.” Indeed O’Donoghue’s highest comedy goal, also in his own words – once spray painted on the SNL writers’ room wall – was “DANGER,” and had it not been for Lorne Michaels’s tight creative grip on SNL, the author of such Lampoon pieces as “The Vietnamese Baby Book” and “A Child’s Letters to the Gestapo” would’ve surely led it down many more wildly uncomfortable paths. O’Donoghue once remarked that “the true essence of comedy is a baby seal hunt,” and over the course of his 30+ year career he did lots of clubbing, in all senses of the word.

Like his mother before him, the Sauquoit, New York-born O’Donoghue contracted rheumatic fever at age 5 and spent over a year isolated in his bedroom on doctor’s orders, living best he could through books, poetry, classical music, and radio shows. The experience left him withdrawn and bookwormish, and in school he involved himself in painting, clarinet, and the chess and drama clubs and brought home the highest grades of his class as often as he brought home detention slips and irritated notes from teachers. By all accounts O’Donoghue grew up a smarter than average student with a short tolerance for what he perceived as the lesser minds around him, which sometimes led to volatile behavior — a theme that would continue into his adult years.

It was perhaps no surprise then that O’Donoghue ultimately dropped out of the University of Rochester to chase after the life of a beatnik writer in San Francisco. After leaving his studies in New York — where he had co-hosted an experimental radio show, wrote and performed in plays, and published multiple pieces in the school humor magazine Ugh — he made the first of several decisions to abandon a traditional education.  “I have tremendous faith in myself,” O’Donoghue told his father in a letter a year after dropping out. “I believe that I will do things that I will be proud of and satisfied with. Perhaps I am wrong, but I want to prove that I am wrong. If I do not I will never have confidence in myself.”

In San Francisco, O’Donoghue lived in a “non-patient” room of a home for post-hospitalized psychiatric patients while honing his playwriting skills. His lost his first newspaper job at the San Francisco Chronicle after an argument with another employee and eventually returned to the University of Rochester, dropped out again, then formed an experimental theater group called Bread and Circuses, where he wrote and performed some of his first plays: The Twilight Maelstrom of Cookie Lavagetto, Le Theatre de Malaise, and The Death of JFK in 1964.

His first big break came when his play The Automation of Caprice was published in Grove Press’ Evergreen Review, home to writers like Beckett, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Timothy Leary. Banking off the success, O’Donoghue moved to New York City, where he briefly worked at a bookstore while writing plays and publishing more work. He collaborated with Marvel illustrator Frank Springer on the erotic comic satire “The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist,” which ran as a serial in 1965 before being published as a book three years later by Grove Press. The comic – which Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau would later call an early influence – followed the eponymous Seribian socialite as she gets kidnapped, tortured, and rescued by various Nazis, lesbian dance instructors, foot fetishists, gay slave traders, polar bears, and an obese villain named Blob Princess.

The weird and wild success of “Phoebe Zeit-Geist” among the literary scene led to more work for O’Donoghue — including the 1968 book The Incredible Thrilling Adventures of the Rock and the screenplay for the 1972 film Savages — which eventually led to his meeting the founding members of National Lampoon magazine. The only non-Harvard member of the writing staff, O’Donoghue pioneered its darker humor style with pieces like a “Kill the Children” ad, “The Vietnamese Baby Book” (which included items like “Baby’s First Wound” and “Baby’s First Funeral”), and the pretentious writerly guide “How to Write Good:” “Without question, the surest way to make a reader feel inadequate is through casual erudition.”

While at the Lampoon, O’Donoghue also co-wrote the 1972 album Radio Dinner, edited the special 1973 issue National Lampoon Encyclopedia of Humor, and directed and hosted The National Lampoon Radio Hour. Some time after O’Donoghue left the Radio Hour, he and several other Lampoon performers/writers (including his girlfriend Anne Beatts) were tapped to join NBC’s Saturday Night, where O’Donoghue served as its very first head writer and appeared in the first-ever cold open “The Wolverines” as a professor who teaches a European immigrant (John Belushi) how to say “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines” before suddenly collapsing from a heart attack:

O’Donoghue appeared as an extra in sketches (including the “Bees”) and occasionally had speaking roles, but the bulk of his work was as a writer who most often collaborated with Laraine Newman (“Exorcist II,” “Dangerous But Inept”) and John Belushi (“The Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise,” “Godfather Group Therapy,” Belushi’s weatherman bits on Weekend Update). He also emerged occasionally as a disturbing alter-ego figure known as “Mr. Mike” as first seen in his 1975 bit “Mike Douglas Impression,” where O’Donoghue flails on the floor after pretending to stick long steel needles into his eyes.

The unsettling, almost Reptilian Mr. Mike starred in his own recurring sketch “Mr. Mike’s Least-Loved Bedtime Tales,” where O’Donoghue — wearing a suit, dark glasses, and often smoking a cigarette or wearing a bandage on his head — shared deranged, death-obsessed fairy tales, such as “The Little Train That Died,” “The Enchanted Thermos,” and “Willy the Worm.” Other O’Donoghue sketches include the two-time recurring sketch “Minute Mystery,” “Citizen Kane II,” “The Norman Bates School of Motel Management” starring host Anthony Perkins, “The Academy of Better Careers,” “Police State,” and the Geritol commercial parody “Jamitol,” in which he played Chevy Chase’s wife. O’Donoghue remained SNL’s head writer until the end of season 3 in 1978, then left to write, direct, and appear in his own film Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, a spoof of 1968’s Mondo Cane starring SNLers and friends like Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Paul Shaffer, Carrie Fisher, and Margot Kidder topped by a performance by Sid Vicious. Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video was originally intended to be an NBC TV special, but the network rejected it due to its overload of bizarre subject matter and equal opportunity offensiveness. “I try to attack all races and creeds,” O’Donoghue said of the film, “except the Irish. Clearly they are the closest to the angels and don’t deserve abuse. But the others have it coming.”

O’Donoghue returned to head up SNL’s writing staff when Dick Ebersol took over from producer Jean Doumanian in 1981, but he was ultimately fired from the show over his intentions to, according to the book Saturday Night, give the show he now called a “death ship” a “Viking funeral” as seen from his infamous spray painting of the word “DANGER” on the SNL office wall and alleged bouts of, according to writer Bob Tischler, “breaking things, throwing things, [and] screaming.” It didn’t help when his nearly 20-minute sketch “The Last Days in Silverman’s Bunker” — which likened NBC president Fred Silverman to Adolf Hitler — went unaired by the network. According to production assistant Robin Shlien in Live from New York, O’Donoghue posted an amazing note on the office wall when he left the job: “I was fired by Dick Ebersol. I did not leave the show, and if he should claim otherwise, he is, to steal a phrase from Louisa May Alcott, a lying cunt.” O’Donoghue later gave an even more damning quote to The New York Times, calling SNL “an embarrassment. It’s like watching old men die.”

Aside from his work on SNL, O’Donoghue had small roles as an actor in Manhattan (1979), Head Office (1985), Wall Street (1987), and The Suicide Club (1988), and he actually wrote country songs including Dolly Parton’s 1982 single “Single Women,” which inspired the 1984 O’Donoghue-produced ABC television movie Single Bars, Single Women. While he did return return to the SNL writing staff from 1985-1986 when Lorne Michaels took over, O’Donoghue’s only successful post-SNL project was co-writing the screenplay for the Bill Murray Christmas film Scrooged, though the script was extensively reworked by Paramount prior to filming. He also had a long list of failed or perennially in-the-works projects such as a TV movie called War of the Insect Gods, a sci-fi fantasy film called The Dreammaster (part of a three-picture deal with Paramount), a sequel to Easy Rider, a collaboration with Marilyn Suzanne Miller called Kittens in a Can, and a Fox sketch comedy show pilot called TV. (Read more about O’Donoghue’s many lost projects here.)

Late in his life, O’Donoghue and breakout director Quentin Tarantino had been talking about the idea of collaborating on a film together, but on November 8, 1994 — after a long history with painful migraines — O’Donoghue died in Manhattan from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 54. The wake held for O’Donoghue in his Chelsea apartment was called “the hippest party in New York” by New York magazine, and Bill Murray made a cameo during that week’s SNL to dedicate a moment to the man that “the writers, actors, and even the producer feared.” “We always hear, ‘Well, Mike’s life touched everybody,’ and it just didn’t. Mike’s life stabbed a lot of people,” writer Nelson Lyon says in O’Donoghue’s biography Mr. MikeWhatever cultural or political scandal SNL might find itself in these days, it will never compare with the bleak wit, fierce intelligence, and eighteen-inch steel needles O’Donoghue was armed with throughout his comedy career. “He wasn’t very good at being the king. He was much better at being either the person plotting the revolution or the power behind the throne, telling the king what to do and think,” Anne Beatts said of him in Live from New York. “I truly think you can say that without Michael O’Donoghue, there wouldn’t have been a Saturday Night Live, and I think it’s important to remember that.”

For much more on the life of O’Donoghue, check out Dennis Perrin’s excellent and thorough biography (and the primary source for this article!) Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue The Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous.

Saturday Night’s Children: Michael O’Donoghue (1975)