A co-founder of The National Lampoon and one of the first writers hired for the long-running, late night comedy show "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ), Michael O'Donoghue's acerbic prose and incendiary sketch writing suggested that he kept one foot in the Borsht Belt and the other planted in the Grand Guignol, the macabre theatre of horrors that flourished in Paris in the first half of the 20th Century. Fueled by misanthropy and a disdain for hypocrisy, O'Donoghue helped redirect the course of American humor from the slice-of-life shtick that had been the métier of the great Jewish comedians, to an aggressive, taboo-shattering attack that would inspire a generation of stand-up comics, TV satirists and shock-radio personalities. Though he seemed primed for big things after four seasons on "SNL," the majority of O'Donoghue's personal projects failed to materialize and his final decade was mired in career frustration. At the time of his sudden death in 1994, O'Donoghue had been all but forgotten within the entertainment industry, his notoriety eclipsed by the fame of those who learned from his twisted teachings. His legacy alive in the work of such social satirists as Howard Stern, Steve Colbert and the creators of "The Simpsons" (Fox, 1989- ), Michael O'Donoghue remained a guiding spirit in the realm of contemporary comedy.
Michael O'Donoghue was born Michael Henry Donoghue in Sauquoit, NY on Jan. 5, 1940. To avoid confusion with his namesake father, an industrial engineer, O'Donoghue was known by his family as Pete. Raised in a book-filled home in which an appreciation for classical music went hand-in-hand with a high tolerance for obscene jokes, O'Donoghue would often claim that his profane sense of humor came from his mother, Barbara. Stricken with rheumatic fever at age six, O'Donoghue spent a year in bed reading novels, listening to the radio and composing original stories. On his return to grammar school, he had little tolerance for other children apart from the girls with whom he would fall helplessly in love. Occasionally driven to fits of rage prompted by the onset of migraine headaches, he could be calmed by his mother dousing him with ice water. Tall but thin and physically unprepossessing, O'Donoghue perfected a defensive arsenal of hurtful barbs that left his tormentors smarting long after his own bruises faded. Though he delighted in making bigger boys cry, the young Michael O'Donoghue was unable to shed tears, except those born of cruel laughter.
While an English major at the University of Rochester, O'Donoghue acted in school plays but was expelled after two years for poor class attendance and for stealing the prowl car of the campus security force. Traveling to San Francisco, he published an underground poetry review and worked as a reporter-in-training for The San Francisco Examiner, from which he was fired for threatening a coworker with a length of pipe. Returning to New York, he entered into psychoanalysis and a brief marriage to a single mother. Quitting both, he fled to Manhattan, where he worked as a bookstore clerk and costume jewelry salesman while performing in experimental theatre and submitting his writing to the counterculture newspaper The East Village Other and the avant-garde literary magazine Evergreen Review. In 1968, O'Donoghue and artist Frank Springer collaborated on the comic strip, The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist. Serialized in Evergreen before being collected in graphic novel form by Grove Press, the strip offered lashings of sex, violence and hollow point cruelty delivered with a detached, ironic tone that would soon be recognized as the O'Donoghue brand.
In 1969, O'Donoghue was one of the founders of The National Lampoon, a monthly humor magazine patterned after the Harvard Lampoon annual. Living in New York's bohemian SoHo district in a poorly-heated loft apartment stuffed with file cabinets crammed with reference material on arcane subjects, as well as such curios as shrunken heads, stuffed birds, headless mannequins and expired cans of Vichyssoise, the middle class autodidact was an ill-fit among the privileged Harvard alumni, whom he held in borderline contempt. O'Donoghue considered The National Lampoon the perfect vehicle for channeling his lifelong interest in the macabre into grimly comic flights of fancy. Though the editors offered him a desk in their Madison Avenue office building, O'Donoghue preferred to remain a freelancer, albeit with absolute control over his own work.
O'Donoghue's writing for The National Lampoon distinguished itself by the scorched earth policy of its fearless provocation. With pieces such as "The Vietnamese Baby's Book," in which a war orphan's every combat-related wound is documented for posterity, the uncomfortably hilarious "A Child's Letters to the Gestapo" and "Crossing the Rubicam," a prescient critique of the acquisitive tendencies of the radical Left, O'Donoghue proved interested more in evoking grimaces than belly laughs. In 1972, an outraged reader sent him a box containing dynamite sticks; when an NYPD demolitions unit arrived to take possession of the hazardous materials, an indignant O'Donoghue demanded the explosives be returned to him. Along with fellow National Lampoon founder George W.S. Trow, O'Donoghue provided the screenplay for "Savages" (1972), a surreal art house satire from the team of James Ivory and Ismael Merchant. O'Donoghue wrote material for the comedy album Radio Dinner, produced The National Lampoon Radio Hour and contributed to the 1973 stage revue "Lemmings," a merciless parody of the Woodstock generation, starring soon-to-be-stars Chevy Chase and John Belushi.
Ever mercurial in his behavior, O'Donoghue was known for flying into angry rages over matters as inconsequential as the minutiae of a magazine layout. In 1974, he left The National Lampoon following a particularly vehement dispute, severing several long-term friendships in the process. Through his romantic involvement with comedy writer Anne Beatts, he met Lorne Michaels, the 30-year-old creator and executive producer of a new late night sketch comedy show to be titled "NBC's Saturday Night," later "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ). O'Donoghue's hiring concerned network executives who were more traditional in their approach to comedy and who had considered Las Vegas impressionist Rich Little as a potential permanent host for the show. Interested in taking late night comedy in a boldly subversive new direction, Michaels installed O'Donoghue as his head writer. When the series premiered on Oct. 11, 1975, broadcast live from New York's 30 Rockefeller Center, O'Donoghue appeared in the first sketch along with cast member John Belushi, as a language tutor whose sudden cardiac arrest prompts his heavily-accented student to drop dead beside him.
Never one of "SNL"'s Not Ready for Prime Time Players, O'Donoghue made several appearances through the first four seasons, including bits as a lounge performer whose act consists of portraying celebrities having knitting needles driven into their eyes, and reading to a young girl from a book titled Least Loved Bedtime Stories. Less taboo-shattering but no less sharply-drawn was his satirically speculative spin on the effect of the cancellation of the TV series "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69) on its cast. For sketches like the latter, O'Donoghue shared two Emmy Awards with his writing staff. He left the series in 1978, partly to work on an NBC special titled "Mr. Mike's Mondo Video" (1979); when the provocative assortment of short films proved too controversial for network television, it was released as a feature film. That year O'Donoghue appeared in a memorable cameo in Woody Allen's "Manhattan," as a writer positing a scenario in which a man's sexual prowess proves fatal to any woman who shares his bed, and contributed material to "SNL" trouper Gilda Radner's 1980 one woman Broadway show.
The faltering ratings of "Saturday Night Live" brought O'Donoghue back to 30 Rock in 1981 for a brief return stint as head writer. Though many of O'Donoghue's favorite sketches went unaired and he was fired early in 1982, he remained connected to the show via his marriage to musical director Cheryl Hardwick. O'Donoghue authored a number of film scripts during these years, only one of which was produced. He disowned the Christmas comedy "Scrooged" (1988), directed by Richard Donner and starring former "SNL" headliner Bill Murray, claiming the screenplay he had coauthored with Mitchell Glazer had been doctored into unrecognizability. In 1984, O'Donoghue produced the ABC TV movie "Single Bars, Single Women," based on a song he had written for "SNL" which was later recorded by Dolly Parton. He was an occasional presence on the big screen, unrecognizable in a hairpiece and without his customary beard as a corporate executive in Ken Finkleman's "Head Office" (1985); as a reporter in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" (1988); and as Catholic clerics in James Bruce's "The Suicide Club" (1988) and "Scrooged."
In the early 1990s, O'Donoghue wrote the television pilot "T.V." (1992) for director Walter Williams and the newly-launched Fox network. Never aired, the half-hour lampoon of TV programming featured a jab at spaghetti Westerns with Rutger Hauer as a daiquiri-sipping gunslinger in a frilly satin smock; a host of mock television commercials and a game show spoof called "The Tiananmen Squares." O'Donoghue also began contributing a regular column for Spin magazine in December 1993, a happy arrangement that came to an abrupt close with his sudden death by massive cerebral hemorrhage on Nov. 8, 1994. Dead at 54, Michael O'Donoghue was cremated and his ashes scattered around a property he owned in Ireland, leaving behind a legacy of angry but passionate satire that, to quote one of his eulogizers, not only had bite but left visible teeth marks.
By Richard Harland Smith