The Story Of SNL's Original Bad Boy: Michael O'Donoghue
He wasn’t even a Not Ready for Primetime Player when writer Michael O’Donoghue became the first-ever person to speak on the first-ever episode of Saturday Night Live.
From feeding human body parts to wild animals to the tragic death of everyone in the scene (except, unfortunately, Chevy Chase), this single two-minute sketch tells you everything you need to know about O’Donoghue’s dark-as-midnight humor.
“I made the decision Thursday to open cold with Wolverines,” says SNL producer Lorne Michaels. “It seemed to me that, whatever else happened, there would never have been anything like this on television.”
There had never been anyone like Michael O’Donoghue on television. As a kid, he wasn’t blessed with physical prowess so he became a master of another kind of violence. “I learned early in the game that some of the kids could beat me up,” O’Donoghue said. “But I found that I could make a remark that would keep them crying in their pillows for the next three days.”
How to describe the nasty streak in O’Donoghue’s comedy? Well, he was delighted when somebody gave him an original painting by serial killer/sex offender John Wayne Gacy. Says friend and author Chris Cerf: “That sort of describes his ethos.”
O’Donoghue could occasionally be a nice guy, but according to National Lampoon co-conspirator Harold Ramis, “he aspired to be the anti-Christ.”
Let’s just say he was the kind of comedy writer that felt there was nothing funnier than burning the whole place to the ground.
The National Lampoon: Nothing Was Sacred
In the years before SNL, there was The National Lampoon. And The Lampoon and Michael O’Donoghue were a match made in heaven.
O’Donoghue was a struggling artist-type in the late 1960s, finding some underground success with alternative comics and experimental theater but just scraping by, according to Dennis Perrin's Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue.
His friend Cerf introduced O’Donoghue to Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, two recent Harvard grads who had successfully published a Playboy parody and were about to launch a national humor publication. Both Beard and Kenney were funny dudes, but O’Donoghue brought something new and vital to the table: Danger.
O’Donoghue quickly became known as National Lampoon’s Prince of Darkness. His “Vietnamese Baby Book” was brutal, a six-page parody of traditional American baby books set in a Southeast Asian war zone. More details from Lampoon history A Futile and Stupid Gesture:
“Time of birth” for baby Ngoc is listed as “morning.” Hospital, doctor, and nurse are left blank. The “about the mother” section describes a seventeen-year-old Vietnamese girl who has lost her parents and three siblings to the war (“had friend but he now dead also”). The father’s name is unknown, but mom describes him as a tall, blond, all-American soldier with a Purple Heart (“would know more but it hard to see in alley and he knock me cold before I could get good look”).
Oof. And yeah, the Lampoon got letters.
Over time, O’Donoghue’s influence on the Lampoon grew. If newer writers weren’t particularly edgy, O’Donoghue would poke them into uncomfortable new places. He wrote more comedy that made people furious (for example, pornography written in a number of highbrow literary styles), prompting one “fan” to mail a package of live dynamite to O’Donoghue’s attention.
And to complete the picture of tortured comedy genius, he slammed phones against walls and berated coworkers with his vicious wit. Not an easy guy to work with, but O'Donoghue was absolutely one of the magazine’s breakout stars. Thanks to his popularity with readers, he was put in charge of recording a Lampoon comedy album and then engineering the brilliant National Lampoon Radio Hour.
Being on advertiser-supported airwaves did little to tame O’Donoghue’s bleak humor. Here’s a piece he wrote and performed for the radio show, the world’s most gruesome imitation of Ed Sullivan.
But O’Donoghue’s volatility made it impossible for the good times to last. One evening, he called publisher Matty Simmons, screaming about a supposed injustice done to his romantic partner, comedy writer Anne Beatts. Simmons agreed to discuss the matter at the office, but O’Donoghue insisted they deal with it immediately or he would quit. Oops. That was O’Donoghue’s last day at the Lampoon.
The SNL Days: I Won’t Write for Felt
But he wouldn’t stay unemployed for long, despite losing a gig writing Village Voice restaurant reviews because he insisted on including references to Hiroshima and the Holocaust. Marilyn Suzanne Miller, a writer Lorne Michaels was courting for his new late-night comedy show, couldn’t take the job but told him: “You’ve got to hire this guy O’Donoghue because he’s brilliant.”
O’Donoghue’s notoriety for dangerous comedy preceded him, convincing John Belushi that maybe this live Saturday night show would be different from the other dreck on TV. But that same reputation scared others like NBC exec Dick Ebersol, who only saw a bizarre guy with smoke-tinted glasses:
“Oh God, what have we gotten into here?”
O’Donoghue helped established SNL’s counter-culture bona fides, although older comedy minds thought the show’s laughs focused too much on death. That was all O’Donoghue. Here’s a representative joke for Chase’s Weekend Update:
The popular TV personality known as “Professor Backwards” was slain in Atlanta yesterday by three masked gunmen. According to reports, neighbors ignored the Professor’s cries of “Pleh! Pleh!”
Though he was not officially a performer, O’Donoghue did show up on screen from time to time, just as he did in SNL’s first sketch. One character he developed was Mr. Mike, whose Least Loved Bedtime Tales featured beloved children’s characters being skinned alive and eaten. Can you see a theme developing here?
Lorne eventually pulled back on such appearances. “I’m not sure America is ready yet for Mr. Mike.”
NBC agreed. Given his SNL credentials, the network hired O’Donoghue to produce a TV special featuring many of the Not Ready for Primetime Players. When NBC got a look at the raunchy finished project, they pulled the plug and Mr. Mike's Mondo Video was eventually released -- unsuccessfully -- as a feature film. The opening disclaimer promises content that is “shocking and repugnant beyond belief.”
Death humor continued to infiltrate early SNL -- O’Donoghue put musical guests Abba on the Titanic and tried to drown them -- and the morbidity continued backstage.
Writer Alan Zweibel was introduced to O’Donoghue by the sight of his new colleague inflicting bodily harm to a Muppet. (Most of the cast and writing staff weren’t nuts about the Henson creations that got air time during SNL’s first season.) “He had taken … a stuffed toy of Big Bird, and the cord from the Venetian blinds, and he wrapped the cord around Big Bird’s neck,” says Zweibel. “He was lynching Big Bird.”
O’Donoghue’s Muppet animosity was well known around the office: “I won’t write for felt.”
SNL’s original iteration eventually imploded, a combination of too-much-fame-too-fast, obscenely long hours, and too many drugs to cope with all of the above. O’Donoghue left with Lorne and the original cast after five seasons and NBC’s attempts to keep the show alive floundered badly.
So Dick “Oh God, what have we gotten into here?” Ebersol reached out to Lorne for advice. Lorne refused to come back to fix the show but he did have a recommendation: Hire Michael O’Donoghue as head writer. The same O’Donoghue who kept proclaiming the show dead to the press. As one might imagine, it didn’t go well.
O’Donoghue recruited writer Bob Tischler for his new staff. “And he said, ‘It’ll be fun, and by the way, the show is just going to go down anyway, so don’t worry about having to be stuck on the show.’ And he actually described it as a “death ship.”
Death Ship would be a recurring theme of O’Donoghue’s second SNL tenure.
A gathering of the new cast (only Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy were retained from the disastrous sixth session) got a pep talk of sorts from O’Donoghue. He came into the meeting, spray-painted DANGER on the wall, and said, “This is what the show lacks.”
The comedy writer with a taste for death was ready to kill SNL. “O’Donoghue had this vision of taking the show down,” remembers Tim Kazurinsky. “He wanted to destroy the show. And I’m thinking, ‘Can’t we like keep it afloat just until I can buy a condo?’”
Besides O’Donoghue’s focus on death, there were indications that something else was wrong. “He would flip out occasionally,” says Tischler. “Breaking things, throwing things, screaming. And you just had to stay away from him. Michael had this history with everybody. Anybody who really got close to him ended up being on his enemies list at a certain point.”
Of course, you can only push the envelope so far until the envelope pushes back. O’Donoghue eventually got canned for a piece called “Silverman in the Bunker,” a sketch reimagining NBC chief Fred Silverman as Hitler in his final days. Bosses tend not to go for that kind of thing.
“(Michael) left this amazing note,” remembers production assistant Robin Shlien. “‘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 c**t.’ It’s very Michael.” Coworkers were quick to make several Xerox copies before Ebersol had a chance to rip up the original.
Embrace the Absurdity
Post SNL, O’Donoghue added another bit of comedy brilliance to his resume: The screenplay for Bill Murray’s Scrooged. The production had all the miserable earmarks of an O’Donoghue production -- fights with Murray, the ejection of original director Sydney Pollack, and run-ins with his replacement, Richard Donner.
Scrooged’s Carol Kane’s impression of O’Donoghue? “The most arrogant man who ever lived.”
Was something malfunctioning in O’Donoghue’s noggin that made him so difficult? He was constantly complaining of migraines, and Tischler wondered if he “really had something wrong with him, a chemical imbalance.”
But even with those complaints, it was a shock (of course) when O’Donoghue died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1994. He was only 54 years old.
His wakes (there were east and west coast versions) embraced the man’s signature dark humor, with X-rays of O’Donoghue’s damaged brain plastered on the walls like party decorations. And he probably would have loved the in-fighting among his funeral’s celebrity guests, many of whom he was also feuding with. To create comedy with O’Donoghue was to hate him. And, of course, to love him.
“Michael O’Donoghue was one of the really great writers on the show,” remembers Dan Aykroyd. “He taught me to have the confidence, he taught me to go with the concept, to embrace the absurdity.”
O’Donoghue’s voice was the show’s most singular and, yes, dangerous, the one that made Saturday Night Live such a cultural phenomenon on its arrival.
“I truly think you can say that without Michael O’Donoghue,” says Anne Beatts, “there wouldn’t have been a Saturday Night Live.”
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Top image: NBC