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Michael O'Donoghue

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Title: Michael O'Donoghue  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Anne Beatts, Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series, Frank Springer, Saturday Night Live cast members, Mr. Mike's Mondo Video
Collection: 1940 Births, 1994 Deaths, 20Th-Century American Male Actors, 20Th-Century American Writers, American Comedy Writers, American Humorists, American Journalists, American Magazine Editors, American Male Comedians, American Male Film Actors, American Male Journalists, American Male Screenwriters, American Male Television Actors, American People of Irish Descent, American Screenwriters, American Television Writers, Male Television Writers, National Lampoon People, People from Sauquoit, New York
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Michael O'Donoghue

Michael O'Donoghue
Born (1940-01-05)January 5, 1940
Sauquoit, New York, United States
Died November 8, 1994(1994-11-08) (aged 54)
New York, New York, United States
Occupation Magazine editor
Television writer
Nationality American
Period 1968–1994
Genre Black humor

Michael O'Donoghue (January 5, 1940 – November 8, 1994) was a writer and performer. He was known for his dark and destructive style of comedy and humor, was a major contributor to National Lampoon magazine, and was the first head writer of Saturday Night Live. He was also the first performer to utter a line on that series.


  • Early life 1
  • National Lampoon magazine 2
  • Saturday Night Live 3
  • Other work 4
  • Death 5
  • Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue 6
  • Writing credits 7
  • Unproduced screenplays 8
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

Early life

O'Donoghue was born Michael Henry Donohue in Sauquoit, New York. His father, Michael, worked as an engineer, while his mother, Barbara, stayed home to raise him.

O'Donoghue's early career included work as a playwright and stage actor at the University of Rochester where he drifted in and out of school beginning in 1959. His first published writing appeared in the school's humor magazine Ugh!

After a brief time working as a writer in San Francisco, California, O'Donoghue returned to Rochester and participated in regional theater. During this period, he formed a group called Bread and Circuses specifically to perform his early plays which were of an experimental nature and often quite disturbing to the local audience. Among these are an absurdist work exploring themes of Sadism entitled "The Twilight Maelstrom of Cookie Lavagetto", a cycle of one-act plays called Le Theatre de Malaise and the 1964 dark satire The Death of JFK.

His first work of greater note was the picaresque feature "The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist", published as a serial in Evergreen Review. This was an erotic satire of the comic book genre, later released in revised and expanded form as a book by that magazine's publisher, Grove Press. Drawn by Frank Springer, the comic detailed the adventures of debutante Phoebe Zeit-Geist as she was variously kidnapped and rescued by a series of bizarre Inuit, Nazis, Chinese foot fetishists, lesbian assassins and other characters. Doonesbury comic-strip creator Garry Trudeau cited the strip as an early inspiration, saying, "[A] very heavy influence was a serial in the Sixties called 'Phoebe Zeitgeist'. . . . It was an absolutely brilliant, deadpan send-up of adventure comics, but with a very edgy modernist kind of approach. To this day, I hold virtually every panel in my brain. It's very hard not to steal from it."[1]

In 1968, O'Donoghue worked with illustrator and fellow Evergreen Review veteran Phil Wende to create the illustrated book The Incredible, Thrilling Adventures of the Rock. Biographer Dennis Perrin described it as having "no plot. The same rock sits in the same spot in the same forest for thousands of years. Nothing much happens. Then, while two boys roam the wood in search of a Christmas tree, one sees the rock and is inspired."[2]

Taking the idea to the publisher George W. S. Trow and other former Lampoon writers looking to start a national comedy magazine.

In 1969, O'Donoghue and Trow co-wrote the script for the James Ivory / Ismail Merchant film Savages. This film tells the story of a tribe of prehistoric "Mud People" who happen upon a deserted Gatsby-esque 1930's manor house. The Mud People evolve into contemporary high-society types who enjoy a decadent weekend party at the manor before ultimately devolving back into Mud People. Savages was eventually released in 1972.

National Lampoon magazine

Donoghue was, along with Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, a founding writer and later an editor for the satiric National Lampoon magazine. As one of many outstanding National Lampoon contributors, O'Donoghue created some of the distinctive black comedy which characterized the magazine's flavor for most of its first decade. His most famous contributions include "The Vietnamese Baby Book", in which a baby's war wounds are cataloged in a keepsake; the "Ezra Taft Benson High School Yearbook"; a precursor to the Lampoon‍ '​s High School Yearbook Parody; the comic "Tarzan of the Cows"; and the continuing feature "Underwear for the Deaf".

He was also the editor and main contributor to the Lampoon's Encyclopedia of Humor. He co-wrote the album Radio Dinner with Tony Hendra, and because of the album's success, he was assigned to direct and act on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. After 13 episodes, publisher Matty Simmons asked O'Donoghue to return to the magazine. A week later, O'Donoghue and Simmons argued over what was later revealed to be a simple misunderstanding, and O'Donoghue left.

It was at the Lampoon that O'Donoghue met Anne Beatts, with whom he became romantically involved. The two later moved on to work at Saturday Night Live together.

Saturday Night Live

On the pioneering, late-night sketch comedy program Saturday Night Live, on which creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels assigned him the position of head writer, O'Donoghue appeared in the first show's opening sketch, as an English-language teacher instructing John Belushi to repeat what he does, teaching him such phrases as "I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines," and "We are out of badgers. Would you accept a wolverine in its place?" before dropping dead of a heart attack. He later appeared in the persona of a Vegas-style "impressionist" who would pay great praise to showbiz mainstays such as talk show host Mike Douglas and singers Tony Orlando and Dawn—and then speculate how they'd react if steel needles were plunged into their eyes. The shrieking fits that followed are believed by biographer Dennis Perrin to be inspired by O'Donoghue's real-life agonies from chronic migraine headaches.

O'Donoghue, in his refusal to write for Jim Henson's Muppet characters which appeared in the early years of SNL, quipped, "I won't write for felt."[3]

Later, O'Donoghue cultivated the persona of the grim "Mr. Mike", a coldly decadent figure who favored viewers with comically dark "Least-Loved Bedtime Stories" such as "The Little Engine that Died." His other SNL sketches range from a black-and-white Citizen Kane parody to a Star Trek spoof that was a tour-de-force for Belushi.

O'Donoghue shared SNL Emmy Awards for outstanding writing in 1976 and 1977. After giving an interview to Michael McKenzie for Scholastic Magazine, O'Donoghue helped clear McKenzie to write the first documentary on the show, titled "Backstage At Saturday Night Live!! [Scholastic] which came out the following year. He left the series in the fall of 1978, after three years.

In 1979, he produced a television special for NBC, featuring most of the SNL cast, called Mr. Mike's Mondo Video. Because of its raunchy content, the network rejected the program, which was then released as a theatrical film.

O'Donoghue returned to SNL in 1981 when new executive producer Dick Ebersol needed an old hand to help revive the faltering series. O'Donoghue's volatile personality and mood swings made this difficult: His first day on the show he screamed at all the cast members, telling Mary Gross she was as talented as a pair of old shoes, and forcing everyone to write on the walls with magic markers. This horrified Catherine O'Hara so much that she quit before ever appearing on air. The only one he liked was Eddie Murphy, reportedly because Murphy wasn't afraid of him. According to the book Live From New York O'Donoghue tried to shake things up on that first day by saying "this is what the show lacks" and spray-painting the word "DANGER" on the wall of his office.

O'Donoghue was released from the show after writing the never-aired sketch "The Last Days in Silverman's Bunker," which compared NBC network president Fred Silverman's problems at the network to Adolf Hitler's final days.[4] It was planned that John Belushi would return to play Silverman, and a great deal of work had been done on creating sets for the sketch (which would have run for about twenty minutes), including the construction of a large Nazi eagle clutching an NBC corporate logo instead of a swastika. Another unaired O'Donoghue sketch from around the same period, "The Good Excuse," also involved Nazi jokes. In the sketch, a captured German officer berated by his captors for Nazi war crimes explains that he had a good excuse, which he whispers into their ears, inaudible to the viewers. His captors are quickly persuaded that the unheard excuse was, in fact, an acceptable reason for the crimes of the Third Reich.

O'Donoghue was further connected to SNL by virtue of his marriage to the show's musical director, Cheryl Hardwick,[5] in the late 1980s. The union was fodder for a "Weekend Update" joke in which Dennis Miller noted that the couple was registered at Black and Decker.

O'Donoghue was one of several original writers rehired by Lorne Michaels upon his return to produce the show in 1985. O'Donoghue's intention was to write and direct short films for the show; however, none were completed and he wrote little else, apart from a monologue seemingly designed to humiliate Chevy Chase when he hosted the second show of the season. (The monologue began, "Right after I stopped doing cocaine, I turned into a giant garden slug, and, for the life of me, I don't know why.") The monologue never aired (though, according to Dennis Perrin's biography Mr. Mike, Chase loved the monologue and lobbied Michaels to perform it), and O'Donoghue was fired a month later after telling The New York Times that SNL had become "an embarrassment. It's like watching old men die." His final contribution to the show was a song, "Boulevard of Broken Balls," co-written with Hardwick and performed by Christopher Walken on the October 24, 1992 episode. (A version of the song sung by O'Donoghue appears on the album Give Me Your Hump! The Unspeakable Terry Southern Record, produced by Hal Willner and released in 2001.)

Other work

O'Donoghue acted in a supporting role in the 1985 comedy Head Office. He had small parts in the 1979 movie Manhattan (which poked fun at SNL), the 1987 movie Wall Street, and the 1988 movie he co-wrote, Scrooged. O'Donoghue said he loathed the theatrical release of Scrooged, insisting until his death that he and co-writer and best friend Mitch Glazer had written a much better film. He also wrote or co-wrote a number of unproduced screenplays of which Saturday Matinee (aka Planet of the Cheap Special Effects) remains legendary in Hollywood screenwriter circles.[6]

O'Donoghue also found some success as a country music songwriter, his most notable credit being Dolly Parton's "Single Women" (1982). The song, originally composed for a 1981 SNL skit, later inspired the 1984 ABC TV movie Single Bars, Single Women starring Tony Danza and Jean Smart, which was produced by O'Donoghue.


On November 8, 1994, O'Donoghue died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 54,[5] after a long history of what were thought to be chronic migraine headaches.

Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue

Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue
Author Dennis Perrin
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Avon Books
Publication date
July 1998
Media type Print
Pages 429
ISBN 0-380-72832-X / 0-380-72832-X / 9780380728329

Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue is an American book that was published in 1998 by Avon Books in New York. It is a biography of the humor writer Michael O'Donoghue, who was a major writer for National Lampoon magazine, and the first head writer for Saturday Night Live.

The Barnes and Noble overview commented, "This is the unvarnished story of a towering figure in American popular culture, the prime artistic force behind an entire generation of humorists and satirists."

Writing credits

Unproduced screenplays

See also


  1. ^ Kidd, Chip (October 27, 2010). "Doonesbury Turns 40: Garry Trudeau reflects on his days at Yale, his Pulitzer Prize-winning comic, and how he envisions it ending".  
  2. ^ Perrin, Dennis (1998). Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue. Avon Books. 
  3. ^  
  4. ^ Young, Charles (December 1983). "Michael O'Donoghue Pokes Fun Till it Bleeds". Mother Jones 8 (10): 18–22, 48–49. Retrieved 11 October 2015. 
  5. ^ a b Carter, Bill (November 10, 1994). "'"Michael O'Donoghue, 54, Dies; Writer for 'Saturday Night Live. The New York Times ( 
  6. ^ Evans, Bradford. "The Lost Roles of Chevy Chase". 


  • Saturday Night by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, 1986.
  • Going Too Far by Tony Hendra, 1987. ISBN 0-385-23223-3.
  • Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue by Dennis Perrin, 1999. ISBN 0-380-72832-X.
  • Site: Michael O'DonoghueNational LampoonMark's Very Large

External links

  • Michael O'Donoghue at the Internet Movie Database
  • The Big Dave Page: "Things I Like: Current Feature – Michael O'Donoghue" (four "Not My Fault!" columns by O'Donoghue, from Spin magazine)
  • O'Donoghue at Mark's Very Large National Lampoon Site
  • A Proper Goodbye to Mr. Mike
  • O'Donoghue at the Evergreen Review
  • How to Write GoodMichael O'Donoghue,
  • Mr. Mike's Elvis impression
  • Michael O'Donoghue at Find a Grave
  • Amazon listing
  • Barnes & Noble listing including overview
  • Mr. Mike's America: A Comic's Trek with SNL's First Head Writer by Paul Slansky, Playboy, March 1983
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