The heavy door to the office slowly creaked open, and in stepped Michael O’Donoghue.
He wore a mustard-colored overcoat with matching fedora. His glasses were clear, both frame and lenses. He had a pencil-thin mustache. He quickly assessed the cluttered office, smirked, then lit a long brown cigarette.
An office mate of mine quietly protested, but did nothing. I walked up to Michael, introduced myself, then led him to a back room where we talked for a couple of hours.
Michael was effusive, generous, funny, serious. He read some jokes he had recently written, and naturally I laughed. It didn’t matter what he read; the fact that Michael O’Donoghue was playing directly to me was what counted. I still have the tape of that conversation.
That was 1989, five years before Michael died. In that period, I got to know him better. We spoke on the phone. I visited his home, went to his parties. Two weeks after I failed to coax Michael into attending a party for an English magazine, Modern Review, he suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. Several days later, a wake was held in his Manhattan apartment, which I describe in detail at the beginning of my biography of him, Mr. Mike.
It still seems like a fantasy. I became Michael O’Donoghue’s official biographer simply by pitching the idea to his widow, Cheryl Hardwick, whom I didn’t really know. But I knew Michael’s work. I must have been convincing: Cheryl anointed me, and for the next three years I lived in Michael’s Bizarro World.
I’ve since moved on to other projects, but Mr. Mike remains a part of me. I still receive emails from young readers who’ve just discovered it, and from older comedy fans who claim to have read it at least twice. Most comedy writers and comedians I’ve met or know own copies. Larry David had it sitting on his office bookshelf on Curb Your Enthusiasm. I hope it was more than a prop.
Rereading portions of Mr. Mike for the first time in ages reminds me of the hard work I put into it. I’d forgotten some of the minute details that pepper the book, so thorough was my research. One of the knocks against my book was that it was too detailed. In certain areas, yes; but that’s what makes it durable. Mr. Mike has weight.
I never expected my book to be a pop culture bestseller, a light, fizzy journey through the American comedy landscape. I said from the beginning that Mr. Mike was meant for the long run, and so far that’s proven true. What happens after the giant asteroid hits is anybody’s guess.
Recently, the Kindle version of Mr. Mike became available, bringing Michael’s story to a new generation of readers and possible fans. It’s fitting that this arrives during SNL’s 40th season, an anniversary I think would surprise and not surprise Michael. We can only imagine what he might say about the current show. Then again, he might’ve been happy to do his impression of George Clooney with steel needles plunged into his eyes, though at this stage, perhaps while sitting down.
Michael’s anarchic spirit lives on in Robert Smigel, George Meyer, Bob Odenkirk, Will Forte, Dino Stamatopoulos, Adam McKay, Seth MacFarlane, Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central show was well within the O’Donoghue tradition. As he did with Laraine Newman and Christine Ebersole, I know that Michael would’ve relished writing for Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon. I also bet he’d appreciate Mike O’Brien’s short films on SNL.
As for me, Michael lives on the audio tapes he and I made; in the personal inscriptions in the rare books he gave me; and through his Air Force jacket and yellow plastic fedora he wore in Mondo Video, which hang in my office. For you, if you want to get to know him too, he lives in the Kindle version of Mr. Mike. Enjoy it again. Or for the first time.