By Donald Liebenson
To the general public, he is remembered perhaps dimly, if at all, as Mr.
Mike, a recurring character from "Saturday Night Live's" golden era who
horrified audiences with his malevolent "least-loved bedtime stories."
But to comedy aficionados, Michael
O'Donoghue (January 5, 1940 - November 8, 1994) ranks in the
Among those calling him "a god" is Dennis Perrin, a former stand-up
comedian and joke writer for TV's "Politically Incorrect." Perrin was
bewildered that O'Donoghue, who died of a massive brain hemorrhage on
Nov. 8, 1994, might be relegated to the pop culture scrap heap as "a
So even though he'd never written a book before- and had no agent or
publisher- Perrin was determined to write O'Donoghue's biography, to
help preserve a singular and subversive voice that helped define a
"The story of '70s humor cannot be told without Michael O'Donoghue,"
Perrin wrote in "Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue"
(Avon Books). "He was as vital to modern comedy as was Buster Keaton to
silent film and Ernie Kovacs to early television."
O'Donoghue had been profiled by Timothy White in Rolling Stone and was
featured prominently in "Going Too Far" (Doubleday), Tony Hendra's
history of boomer humor, and Doug Hill and Jeff Wingrad's "Saturday
Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live" (Beech Tree Books).
But Perrin felt that further attention must be paid.
"I wanted to present O'Donoghue as an artist worthy of serious
consideration," he said recently, on the phone from his home in New
York. Along with the late Doug Kenney (best remembered as a
co-screenwriter of "National Lampoon's Animal House" and "Caddyshack"),
O'Donoghue "smashed down the door that Lenny Bruce and later George
Carlin opened in his prime."
O'Donoghue and Kenney were part of what Perrin calls "a convergence of
talents that happens once in a generation, if you're lucky." They "set
trends in motion, and neither has gotten the credit he deserves."
* * *
For O'Donoghue, "nothing was sacred," Perrin said. "His satire was aimed
at getting a rise out of even the most jaded. 'You must drive an ice
pick into the brain pan,' O'Donoghue once said. 'Did I say an ice pick?
I mean 900 ice picks.' "
O'Donoghue wielded those picks with deadpan precision. His first
prominence came via National Lampoon with such savage pieces as "A
Child's Letters to the Gestapo," "The Vietnamese Baby Book" and "Magical
Misery Tour," a "dream is over" deconstruction of the Beatles, later
adapted for the first Lampoon album, "Radio Dinner."
In "How to Write Good," another Lampoon classic, he shared his sure-fire
technique for ending any story: "Suddenly, everyone was run over by a
truck. The end."
His was not so much black humor as it was bleak humor, the literary
equivalent of that giant foot that suddenly would stomp onto the scene
in the "Monty Python's Flying Circus" TV series. He'd been impacted
profoundly by a long childhood bout with rheumatism, during which he
found escape through the radio and books, which he read voraciously. Sir
Arthur Conan Doyle and Kenneth Grahame were among his favorite authors.
His own misanthropic outlook was expressed in his concept of the
"others," those who did not share his worldview, a group that later
would include network television censors and movie studio executives.
Perrin remembers Bill Murray's eulogy of O'Donoghue: "He hated the
horrible things in life, and the horrible people in life. And he hated
them so good."
As one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, O'Donoghue
found full voice on "Saturday Night Live," which in its original
incarnation fused the sensibilities of the Lampoon and Chicago's
legendary Second City improvisational troupe. He wrote some of the
fledgling series' most memorable sketches, both famous ("The Last Voyage
of the Star Ship Enterprise," in which NBC execs repossess the "Star
Trek" set and even Spock's ears) and infamous ("Fluckers," in which
increasingly disgusting names are utilized to sell jam).
But it was the recurring character Mr. Mike that established his
sinister public persona. In the "least loved" stories, the Little Engine
That Could couldn't and suffered a heart attack, and Br'er Rabbit was
skinned alive- one of the "random acts of meaningless violence" a
deadpan Mr. Mike took such pleasure in relating.
As a teenager, Perrin initially watched "SNL" to marvel at Dan Aykroyd.
But Mr. Mike shifted his focus. "I ended up worshiping the writers more
than the cast members. Each sketch then had the specific voice of a
writer, and I followed the show to see if I could guess which sketches
Perrin finally met his hero in 1989 while hosting a radio show in New
York. Through a friend of a friend, he'd invited O'Donoghue to be
interviewed on the air. Perrin says his ability to recall O'Donoghue's
most obscure "SNL" sketches- particularly a little number called "Nick
the Knock"- "got my foot in the door."
He remembers that O'Donoghue "was very kind and generous" and encouraged
Perrin's writing. "I was only allowed to come so close," he adds. "I
wouldn't have known how to act anyway."
* * *
He first heard about O'Donoghue's death while listening to Howard
Stern's radio show. "I just froze. They discussed him with great
respect, which is rare [for them]." Perrin paid his respects to
O'Donoghue's widow, Cheryl Hardwick, who invited him to the wake, which
was described by New York magazine as "the hippest party in New York."
Spurred by his own wife, Perrin approached Hardwick with the prospect of
an O'Donoghue biography. "I thought a ton of writers would be wanting to
do it," he says. "I didn't know her at all. Taking my hat off and
shuffling my feet, I said I would be honored to do this...
"I sold her on it. She said, 'You're the guy.'"
But the long shadow of Bob Woodward haunted Perrin and impeded his
research. "Mr. Mike" is the first major biography of a "Saturday Night
Live" personality since Woodward's bestselling "Wired," which some saw
as a devastating evisceration of John Belushi.
Perrin had Hardwick's blessing. But Belushi's widow, Judy Jacklin, had
given Woodward her blessing and like Hardwick had encouraged intimates
to cooperate with the biographer. "I had to convince people that I was
not going to write another 'Wired,' " recalls Perrin. "That was the real
challenge, dealing with all these people who felt burned by Bob Woodward
and saw me as another hustler looking to cash in on their reputations.
"I think half of them didn't trust me, and that's being generous. A lot
of them talked to me through clenched teeth."
But he did enjoy unprecedented access to O'Donoghue's voluminous files.
"He kept everything. I had access to stories he wrote [when he was a
child] in his bedroom in pencil on colored paper."
In the end, Perrin did not skirt the darker sides of O'Donoghue's
volatile personality (O'Donoghue's volcanic tantrums are legendary).
But, Perrin says, he wanted to "write about the work as opposed to the
drugs and his sex life... I was trying to discover where his comedy came
from and what it meant to those of us who consumed it and who were
influenced by it."
Perrin- currently writing his second book, about the American sports
fan- says that writing "Mr. Mike" was "a cathartic experience.
[O'Donoghue's] legacy for me is that it is OK to go too far sometimes.
Going for the throat is a noble comic instinct. Not enough people do it.
"Gross-out humor is more in vogue these days. It's easy to write
one-liners about [the president's sex life], but I wish I could see more
dark stuff. Our times demand that."
And suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck. The end. (Or, if the
story takes place in England: And suddenly, everyone was run over by a
lorry. The end.
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