And that person is Michael O’Donoghue (1940-1995). This is not submitted for a debate; it’s a fact. The source of that fact is an infallible oracle: me.
O’Donoghue was the head writer of Saturday Night Live during its best, most significant years (1975-1978), with a couple of brief ill-fated returns thereafter. I know I date myself by harping on the early years. The show has hit many a good patch since the 1990s, and I’m certain to write about them in future. But it’s really hard to erase the bad taste in the mouth left by the 1980s. O’Donoghue’s guiding hand during its great early period gave the show that same quality he once spray painted on the wall of the SNL writer’s room: DANGER. Danger equals thrills. Safety equals boredom. It’s as simple as that.
O’Donoghue was that holiest and most necessary of all things, a satirist, and like the best of them, he was uncompromising. He seemed to push the limit of good taste every minute of his life, not for its own sake, but more perhaps in the hope he would irritate and insult the sort of people he despised, or at least make them recognize and feel ashamed about that part of them he despised: their smug hypocrisy, their selfishness, their callousness, their tediousness…all of which (it seems to me) he recognized in himself. It’s a strong cocktail, frightening in its vehemence and just as thrilling as an amusement park ride.
Like nearly everyone else of any real merit, he was destroyed by Hollywood. Originally an avant-garde playwright, he became one of the top magazine humorists in the country (editor at National Lampoon), and the author of many off-beat original projects like the 1965 underground comic The Adventures of Phoebe Zeitgeist. Then, after leaving his initial run at SNL, his career is a long litany of unfulfilled promises: numerous unproduced screenplays, one produced but adulterated screenplay (Scrooged, 1987), his awesome 1979 tv special Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (commissioned by NBC but not shown), and this truly hysterical Fox pilot made in 1992, which of course never aired:
Here’s Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video if you’re backward enough never to have seen it:
Here’s a nice little tv profile of him, although it contains way too much apology for my liking:
The definitive book on O’Donoghue is Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue by Dennis Perrin, which I can’t praise highly enough.
To find out more about the variety arts past and present (including tv variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc