Tuesday, August 05, 2014

“Mr. Mike : The Life & Work Of Michael O’Donoghue”–Book Review



Recently, I completed reading the biography “Mr. Mike: The Life & Work Of Michael O’Donoghue” by Dennis Perrin.

For those of you who may not remember either the early years of “Saturday Night Live” or the glory days of The National Lampoon, Michael O'Donoghue was a writer and sometimes performer. Occasionally popping up on the syndicated radio program, “The National Lampoon Radio Hour”, he also portrayed the character of Mr. Mike on “SNL”, known for his ghoulish recurring sketch, “Mr. Mike’s Least-Loved Bedtime Tales”. O'Donoghue was a brilliant but deeply troubled comedy writer who helped to shape the tone of The National Lampoon’s style and also define part of what “Saturday Night Live” would become in television satire.


Raised in upstate New York, O'Donoghue was a sickly child often forced to stay in his room if not in bed; this resulted in the boy entertaining himself in various ways, which also wound up with him developing a fiendishly sharp comic wit. Encountering difficulty in finishing college, O'Donoghue was ambitious and wanted to strike out on his own as a writer. In his small community, he started a theatrical troupe that did original plays which O'Donoghue would often write and in which he would frequently act. Moving to New York City, he eventually got some work published and developed something of a cult following among the literary set; when The National Lampoon magazine was formed, people familiar with his work invited him to contribute material, even though he was not among the original graduates from Harvard (or any other Ivy League University).

O'Donoghue’s reputation grew there not only because of his output but because of his ego – he was prone to some rather severe temper tantrums and violent outbursts with colleagues and strangers alike; yelling at a customer service representative on the telephone in his office, he smashed the device to bits and it had to be replaced. After differences with the periodical’s management, he quit and spent quite a bit of time out of work and in debt financially. Ultimately, he was saved when he was offered a writing job on a new NBC television show based in New York City, “Saturday Night”, produced by Lorne Michaels (the show did not become “Saturday Night Live” until later because at the time, there was a primetime show on the ABC network by that name; once it got cancelled after its first season, NBC’s show assumed the “Saturday Night Live” title).

While a member of the writing staff at SNL, O'Donoghue was seen as being in something of a leadership position – but instead of mentoring the less-experienced writers, he wound up both berating and competing against them; O'Donoghue arguably may have made just as many enemies as he did friends there – but despite the bitterness, most of his co-workers did admit to admiring him because he was so talented. After too many arguments with NBC over censorship, O'Donoghue finally quit the show; although he aspired to loftier goals like producing and directing feature films in Hollywood, this was not to be for many reasons.

After a lifetime suffering from migraine headaches, O'Donoghue was awakened one morning in early November of 1994 in excruciating pain, thinking it was another migraine; when his condition worsened, he was rushed to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53.



As a fan of National Lampoon, “Saturday Night Live” and especially Michael O'Donoghue , I relished the opportunity to read this book. But be sure, this biography is not at all new; “Mr. Mike: The Life & Work Of Michael O’Donoghue” was originally published back in 1998, a scant four years after its subject’s death. For whatever reason, it took me a very long time to get around to reading it and I’m very glad that I did. “Mr. Mike” is extremely well researched by its author, who himself was an aspiring comedy writer and admirer of O’Donoghue’s work. Be advised though that despite being a fan, Perrin did not compile a hagiography of O’Donoghue’s life; many of O’Donoghue’s failures – both professionally and personally – are extensively documented.

Fans of O’Donoghue’s work will eat up “Mr. Mike”; many of his written pieces – including comic strips he authored – are reprinted here, either in full or in part (those who remember such classics as “Phoebe Zeitgeist” and “Tarzan Of The Cows” will find this especially pleasing). While great artists tend to have equally great egos – it seems almost a necessity to have that degree of confidence in your work when you are that original – this ego, sadly, also turned out to be part of O’Donoghue’s downfall in the sense that it prevented him from reaching both a larger audience and the financial success he sought and (in my opinion) deserved.


If I were to have any criticism of the book, it would be of a technical nature; there are only a few chapters here, but they are extremely long – 50 or 60 pages at times. Each is broken up by sections with titles that are either quotes or jokes from O’Donoghue. The problem here is that the typeface used, although clearly different from that of the main narrative, is frequently recycled when not dividing chapter sections – e.g., they are used to include extensive quotes, passages of pieces written by others or transcriptions from interviews or radio programs. The result is that it can be somewhat confusing, temporarily taking the reader out of the moment in order to determine what’s going on here and why.

One last personal note: my experience in reading this book was bookended by two quite pleasant surprises. Before I read the first chapter, I noticed that one of my other heroes, the late Christopher Hitchens, had written a blurb for its back cover, extolling the virtues of not only the author’s work, but the book’s subject as well. The other thing happened upon finishing “Mr. Mike”; in the last chapter, the author enumerates other writers and humorists who appear to owe a debt to O’Donoghue because of their style. The final paragraph of this last chapter mentions Howard Stern as being among those humorists; as a 30-year Stern fan, I appreciated this and could not agree more with the comparison.

For those of you unfamiliar with O’Donoghue from “SNL”, here’s a video of him when he performed his very first “Least-Loved Bedtime Tale” as his character Mr. Mike.



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