Black Is the Color of Michael O'Donoghue's Humor in the Shocking Mondo Video

updated 10/08/1979 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/08/1979 01:00AM

It was one of East Hampton's fanciest Labor Day parties. The site was Paul Simon's summer house; the guest list included Paul McCartney, the Carl Bernsteins, Peter Beard and Cheryl Tiegs. Men and women in cool, elegant white dotted the lawn. Mike Nichols and Buck Henry chatted quietly. A chamber music ensemble played Mozart. Suddenly an ambulance turned into the driveway and raced toward the house, siren shrieking, orange light spinning. It squealed to a stop; a paramedic ran to open the door. Out stepped one of the hosts of the party, Michael O'Donoghue, clad in a white Panama hat, sleeveless undershirt and boxer shorts. Trailing behind were two women, with flawless bodies, dressed in 1950s padded bras and cotton panties.

The outrageous gag was vintage O'Donoghue, inspired in fact by a skit titled "Laser-bra 2000" in his new film, Mr. Mike's Mondo Video. A parody of the 1963 documentary Mondo Cane (Dog's World), the film is opening in 250 theaters this month. Unfortunately it is tasteless, raunchy and, worse yet, only intermittently funny. Yet, because it is O'Donoghue's first big-screen effort, critics have tried hard to find socially redeeming features in it. The 39-year-old black humorist is talked about as the next Woody Allen or Mel Brooks.

He first made his mark as one of the young men who shaped the fledgling National Lampoon magazine in 1970. Later he helped create its popular comedy album Radio Dinner and launched its radio hour with unknown actors named John Belushi, Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase. Moving to NBC-TV in 1975, O'Donoghue became a key writer for Saturday Night Live, winning two Emmies before quitting in 1977 to do three late-night comedy specials for the network. "He was a mentor for a lot of young writers," says SNL producer Lorne Michaels. "He influenced their style." Occasionally, O'Donoghue would appear on camera as the shady Mr. Mike, telling one of his "Least-Loved Bedtime Stories" (e.g., Freddy the Frog escapes a train crash that kills 115 children only to be beaten to death with a softball bat by angry state police). "I would climb into Mr. Mike's lap anytime to hear a dirty story," volunteers a brave Gilda Radner.

Paul Klein, the key backer of Mondo Video and former head of programming at NBC, insists, "People call Michael's stuff sick, but it really isn't. He is making a comment about fools and crooks and liars."

At six feet and a consumptive 146 pounds, O'Donoghue's sport is playing mental games. He likes to spar with those equal to his "genius level" I.Q. "It can be like a good game of tennis," says Klein.

Friends suffer O'Donoghue's antics—he has shot off blanks to silence a crying baby—because he is bright, funny and charming. Mr. Mike can also be savage. He has a thorny, mercurial personality. "Deep down," says his mother, Barbara, "Michael is a very soft person. He and I are a bit alike—we cover up hurt with sarcasm." O'Donoghue agrees: "I've watched her my whole life trying to suppress herself. But it would come out—little dessert forks in the back."

O'Donoghue is capable of dropping old friends like yesterday's newspaper if they cross him. "He has an incredible capacity for and enjoyment of anger," observes Lampoon editor-in-chief P. J. O'Rourke. "He will take a tiny slight and blow it into a gigantic feud. His tantrums are sort of pyrotechnic outbursts, works of art." When O'Rourke inadvertently omitted an O'Donoghue credit line and failed to pay him for a minor piece in an anthology, P.J. joined that growing fraternity of people Mr. Mike cold shoulders.

O'Donoghue, who once posed in the buff for Ms. (in a takeoff of Manet's Luncheon on the Grass), gets along better with women than men. He was disdainful of the macho showdowns that developed on Saturday Night Live when writers fought with actors over ad libs, but he was fierce about the sanctity of his own copy. "He was emotional on the set," recalls Lorne Michaels. "He fights very, very hard for his work and has no patience with people who don't see things as he does."

Before parodying a subject, O'Donoghue will research it exhaustively—going to Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History to interview a roach expert, studying the fighting machinery of WW II, learning the warning signs of cancer. He compulsively jots down thoughts, takes them home to his Greenwich Village apartment and files them in neatly labeled manila envelopes that occupy eight drawers. He also hoards cocktail-napkin sayings, truck slogans and examples of black dialect.

As collector, devotee and author of sick jokes, O'Donoghue is deft at fielding criticism. Mondo was shot as a 90-minute TV show, but when NBC screened the show, the network censor reportedly pledged that it would air "over my dead body." "We agreed to those terms," O'Donoghue leers, "but NBC still refused to show it."

One unacceptable segment is titled "American Gals Love Creeps," with actresses like Radner, Jane Curtin and Carrie Fisher explaining what hideous defects in males they find exciting—they mention bad teeth, acne and the most shocking example of all: "When I reach down and feel a firm colostomy bag, I know I'm with a real man." Disgusting? Even some of the SNL writers gasped. "My humor is cruel if you accept I Love Lucy as a standard," O'Donoghue says. "But life in America is pretty violent fare. I just think my humor is an accurate reflection of my times. Nobody is painting Botticellis anymore. I believe a gun in the mouth is the new lampshade on the head."

The suggestion to try Mondo in movie theaters came from Paul Klein, who met O'Donoghue at SNL's end-of-the-season party last May. "Michael was a little out of it that night," recalls Klein, "but I asked him to let me see the show. He told me later he forgot. One night in a dream he saw the conversation taking place and got up and wrote on a matchbook cover, 'Klein.' " When O'Donoghue lit up next morning (he smokes four to five packs a day), he saw the note and sent over a video cassette. Klein raised about $600,000 for "the television show that can't be shown on television," as the movie is being billed.

It is a comedy offensive to men, women, whites, blacks, Jews and Christians. "I try to attack all races and creeds," deadpans O'Donoghue, "except the Irish. Clearly they are closest to the angels and don't deserve abuse. But the others have it coming."

Comedy's enfant terrible grew up in rural Sauquoit, N.Y., in a home rich in classical music and books. "Pete," as he was nicknamed, was the first of two children (Jane came five years later) born to an industrial engineer with a rope company. "I got my mean sense of humor from my mother," notes Michael. At 6 he caught rheumatic fever and stayed home for a year. "I became kind of misanthropic," he says. "I didn't play with other kids much." His mother cooled his temperamental outbursts by throwing ice water on him. At 12 he took to shadowing trappers through the local woods, springing the metal teeth before muskrats and rabbits were caught in them. At 14 he sold an article to the Baker Street Journal in London, arguing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle modeled the physical features of Sherlock Holmes after those of Doyle's high school math teacher. In 1957 Michael enrolled as an English major at the University of Rochester, but was kicked out two-and-a-half years later for cutting classes and committing pranks, such as stealing the campus policeman's car. O'Donoghue spent the next 18 months in San Francisco taking a few college courses and working as a reporter trainee for the Examiner. He got a pink slip after threatening a co-worker with a lead type-bar. Heading back to Rochester he managed three more months at the university. Once again antisocial behavior caused difficulties. He tried to run down a policeman and briefly saw a psychiatrist. "He suggested I voluntarily commit myself," recalls O'Donoghue, "and I never went back. I think therapy interferes with the creative process. It takes off the edge."

About this time he met a receptionist with a life insurance company named Janice Tripp. She was four years his senior and had three small children. They were married on Pearl Harbor Day 1963 (she wore black velvet and satin). The marriage blew up six months later when O'Donoghue moved to Manhattan to free-lance for the Evergreen Review. He worked odd jobs (in a bookstore, selling costume jewelry) before catching on at the Lampoon. "Michael was the first editor there whose writing had the quality of combining mischief with a slap in the face," notes friend Chevy Chase.

At the Lampoon O'Donoghue is remembered as much for his office hysterics as for such classics as The Vietnamese Baby Book ("Baby's First Word: Medic"). "Michael was a great smasher of things," recalls Matty Simmons, chairman of the company that publishes the magazine. "I once went into his office, and there was the phone completely denuded—you could see the wires. He was in another room yelling at the phone company, asking why his phone wasn't working."

When Michael quit the Lampoon he went into a tailspin. "I didn't have much money," he says, "and that put a strain on my relationship with Anne." Anne Beatts was a fellow Lampoon writer he had been living with. Scott and Zelda were their nicknames. When O'Donoghue resigned, she followed him. "Rather than be a real mensh," explains Michael, "and doing a Duke Wayne—'Okay, honey, I'll take any job, shovel coal, to keep this relationship alive'—I went a little nuts and behaved like a monster." She walked out on him two years later, while both were working on Saturday Night Live. "What was it that I loved about her? A bunch of things," he says. "It was like one-stop shopping—she had everything." Since then he's been cutting a wide swath through women. "Stylistically, I am a chauvinist," he says. "I like to grab them by the hair and say, 'Kiss me, you bitch.' "

O'Donoghue shares his Greenwich Village floor-through co-op with two cats ("I do an exercise in the morning called 'pumping fur' "). The apartment is a combination of old-world elegance (14-foot ceilings, Corinthian columns, mirrored French doors, a crystal chandelier) and kitsch—collections of cheap perfumes ("Atom Bomb," "Lover's Moon"), 1930s crucifixes, and mannequin heads. Subject to bouts of the "black mist" (paralyzing depressions), O'Donoghue will hole up watching television for as long as two months. His blitzkrieg work-period (he logged 14-hour days, seven-day weeks for Mondo) are punctuated with migraines, for which he pops three-to-four Percodan a day. "Like a horserace, you can't give up in the last 10 yards," he says. "But the Percodan skims 20 percent right off the top of your intelligence." He admits, also, to taking drugs to recharge himself. "It is easy to pop a pill," he says, "and just wake up the next day. It's the American vacation." He adds, "In a high-pressure life you don't have time for the normal things that cool you off. If I was living in the country and had more time, I would just walk my dog in the woods."

Having signed a three-year $1-million-plus contract to produce, write and direct for Paramount, O'Donoghue now truly has a shot at scoring in major films. "I am Hollywood's hottest young, middle-aged director," he announces, "but I'll write out of New York because I don't want to become a salad head. That's what you become out there, a guacamole dip."

With his new wealth, he can seriously indulge his whims. "I like nice furniture, nice clothes, wonderful food, fast cars, pretty girls, fine wines and good drugs." About two years ago, Mr. Mike almost killed himself in Mexico when he combined nitric oxide, mushrooms, acid and hallucinogenic wine. "I fell off a mountain and dropped 50 feet," he recalls, producing a color photo of his battered face as proof.

As a mini-mogul he has been forced to grow up some emotionally; now all his colleagues come to him with their complaints. "One of my problems," says O'Donoghue, "is I am getting so mature that I have to pick up a TV and toss it through the coffee table just to remind people of who I am. I want to go ranting and screaming into the grave."

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