MICHAEL O’DONOGHUE: January 5, 1940 – November 8, 1994Originally published January 5, 2015.
Years ago, I went with my grandmother to a funeral of one of her relatives. My grandma’s family was not the most emotionally demonstrative. They were loving and caring and definitely fun to be around, but they weren’t known for touching or hugging. All of my grandmother’s siblings would frequently perform the “Irish Good-bye” (leaving without saying goodbye or announcing your departure) at family gatherings. Accordingly, funerals were generally non-demonstrative. Everyone was sad, certainly, but for the most part, composures were kept and the event was always low-key and dignified. At this particular funeral, however, those paying their respects were set up to pass the open casket on the way in, during the service, and as they left. This kind of overt tugging of the heartstrings (not to mention the resulting tears and sobs) upset my grandmother, and she walked out of the room through a side door. We made our way into the hallway, and my grandmother joked, “Maybe they could just mount and stuff him and hang him on the wall, then we could all stand and stare at him any time we wanted.” It was a disturbing joke, unless you knew my grandmother. My grandmother was funny on any given day, but she had a particular gift for making jokes at difficult moments. Jokes which – somehow – made everything better. Because one of humor’s gifts is to lessen tension, even when lessening that tension comes at an inappropriate time or place. Yet there are plenty of people – hilarious people - who have mastered this technique.
When legendary National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live writer Michael O’Donoghue died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1994, the explosion within his brain seemed appropriate to those who’d worked with him. O’Donoghue had a brutal reputation for violent temper tantrums. He would rage and scream when confronted or edited. He would throw telephones at walls, through windows, and at co-workers. He began using a walking stick just so he could swing it like a bat during his tantrums. As large a shadow as O’Donoghue’s hysterical temperament cast among comedy writers, the genius of his comedy writing loomed larger. O’Donoghue’s earliest work was an erotic satire of adventure comics, published in serial form in 1965 in Evergreen Review. The comic was so deadpan hilarious, it remains one of Garry Trudeau’s (creator of Doonesbury and the first comic strip artist to win a Pulitzer) biggest inspirations. Soon after, O’Donoghue was recruited to help found National Lampoon magazine and helped set the comedic tone for the magazine. Instead of simply satirizing with a deadpan tone, however, O’Donoghue’s tone became confrontational. And dark. It was a transition that would only continue to grow throughout his tenure at National Lampoon, and later with Saturday Night Live.
One of Michael O’Donoghue’s most famous skits on Saturday Night Live, he did an imitation of Vegas singer Tony Orlando… if he had fifteen inch, razor-sharp needles plunged into his eyeballs. O’Donoghue shimmied to Vegas lounge music for a few seconds, then fell to the stage, screaming and writhing in violent terror.
Confrontation. Outrage. Shock. Screaming. In the right hands, it leads to realization, wisdom, and forgiveness.