"Here's my idea of humor," says Michael O'Donoghue, creator of "Mr. Mike's Mondo Video" and recent recipient of a $1-million deal from Paramount to write, direct and act in three pictures.
"Some fat guy is all dressed up and he slips on a banana peel and I come along and kick him in his face."
Okay, is this guy bizzare or what?
"There's Lucy in her living room and she accidentally fires a shotgun through the door. Eveybody laughs. And then you open the door and there's Mr. Big Dome (Fred) with a gaping chest wound, I always like to take things one step further."
The former writer for Evergreen Review and National Lampoon and former contributor to "Saturday Night Live," is sitting in his sparse, detective-esque office in the Brill Building, a New York monument to faded culture, where Carole King and Phil Spector and Barry Mann and Jerry Lieber sat in cubicles and wrote most of the great songs of the '50s and early '60s.
The walls are beige and gas-chamber green. A slashed red, gray and black painting of a partially nude woman hangs above O'Donoghue's desk. ("To slash art is to love it," he says.) A bookshelf holds copies of "Nazi Culture," "Life on a Little Known Planet" and "Born Reckless" along with a box containing an Oriental tableau and a lamp with an artillery shell for a base and a doughboy helmet as a shade, a gift from John Belushi.
"I love it," says O'Donoghue, "when people never know what's going to happen next."
The intercom on his phone buzzes.
"Excuse me," says 39-year-old O'Donoghue, who's frail enough to pass for 22. "Could you go outside for about five minutes? My drug dealer is here." A guy in a purple suit and sunglasses, carrying an attache case, walks into the room.
Ten minutes later O'Donoghue says,
"I feel much better," and starts dispensing more of his humor. $"The other day, right outside my window, the Dalai Lama's car got hooked on to the bumper of another car and nobody knew what to do. I love watching people become less and less enlightened." His tall countenance rocks back in his chair. His sneakered feet are up on the desk, and he's chain-smoking.
"Do you realize," he asks, "that Albanians were gypsies with broken wagons?"
How did this guy get this way?
As O'Donoghue tells it, he grew up in the "weed-bender burg" of Sauquoit, N.Y., seven miles out of Utica. $"My father," he says, "worked at the Columbia Rope Co., and I used to ask him to bring home a ton or so of hemp."
At six, just before his pet dog Rusty got crushed by a gravel truck, young Michael had rheumatic fever.
"A tough, issolated childhood," he says."I had problems dealing with other kids. And being a frail child I couldn't beat the other kids up like a normal kid, so I used to tell them that they had noses that looked like bicyle horns and they'd run off and sob on their pillows for two weeks. $"I was a smart aleck. People used to say that I'd get in a lot of trouble and they were wrong. I've made a living out of it."
Eventually he went off to the University of Rochester to study English, but was tossed out for "bad attitude."
"I was disappointed in college," he says. "They had no sense of imagination. I didn't really care about Immanuel Kant or geology. Who cares where glaciers come form? Once we had to identify rocks for a test. I had the sample tray right on my desk and the teacher came around and I just said, 'Look. I'm cheating. I hate this course.' It was so blatant they couldn't expel me for that. But I finally just cut too many classes."
O'Donoghue drifted west to San Francisco in the early '60s, "looking for the beatniks," after he read a Gary Snyder poem about being on the road. Where he discovered that all the beatniks "were burned out alkies who dreamed about writing a novel," he took a job as a copy boy at the San Francisco Examiner, started a small magazine, created the "Phoebe Zeit-Geist" cartoon strip for Evergreen Review and moved back to Rochester to write and direct plays.
"But how many plays can you direct in Rochester?" asks O'Donaghue. "So I left the wife and three kids and ran off to New York with a Playboy Bunny. I worked at Brentano's for $54 a week."
In 1970, O'Donoghue landed a job with the fledgling National Lampoon. His most memorable -- and most characteristic -- piece was "The Vietnamese Baby Book," which reserved space for a photo of Baby's grave and listed Baby's first word as medic. While at the Lampoon, he began a five-year romance with writer Anne Beatts, whose similar sense of humor appeared in "Nazi Dr. Doolittle" for the Lampoon.
O'Donoghue had a falling out after five years with Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons. They disagreed about economic issues.
"He runs the place like a family," says O'Donoghue, "rewarding the good sons, which is wonderful for all those WASP kids from broken homes who go to Harvard."
So he immediately joined the Saturday Night Live crew, along with many Lampoon alumni, and began to write and act in his "Least Loved Bedtime Stories," which inevitably ended with some poor defenseless animal meeting an unnatural death. There was also his infamous impression of Mike Douglass:
"I happeed to catch Mike's show the other night," he said right on live television, "and a funny thought occurred to me. What if somebody took steel needles, say 15, 18 inches long, with real sharp points and plunged them into Mike's eyes? What would his reaction be?" And then O'Donoghue began to scream and writhe on the floor for about a minute.
Three years later O'Donoghue left SNL, and went on to direct an NBC special, "Mr. Mikes's Mondo Video." The censors declared it "raunchy, gross and tasteless" and the network refused to air it, which resulted in its current theatrical release in movie houses -- and its subtitle: "The Tv Show that Can't be Shown on TV."
O'Donoghue has nothing but bitter things to say about what he calls "the Biscuit Company." He does have a less black side that emerges when talking about the writing of Joan Didion and Edith Wharton and Preston Sturges films. His favorite film this year, he says, was "Dawn of the Dead": "I love the concept of Americans forgetting how to shop."
But now, it's off to La-La land, and his movie deal. $"tThe thing about Southern Californians," he says, "is this: They wake up and say, 'Gee, what a wonderful morning. I think I'll make a salad.' And that takes them the whole day. But I love the restaurants and the hot tubs and the drugs and the loose women, and I always rent a powder-blue Mercedes 450 SL."
O'Donoghue's first movie for Paramont will not be the "Planet of the Cheap Special Effects," written for Chevy Chase. Nor will it be "War of of the Insect Gods," for which he says he read "4 million" books about cockroaches."
It will be "Cheap Dreams," about a house dick in a Miami Hotel.
"I don't need to tell you," says O'Donoghue, "that this character is not a nice person. It will be a very sleazy move."