Mr. Mike: the life and work of Michael O'Donongue

Charles Taylor reviews 'Mr. Mike' by Dennis Perrin

By Charles Taylor
Published July 13, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Analyzing a joke is like dissecting a frog, Fred Allen once said. You can do it, but the frog dies in the process. Much as I suspect the late Michael O'Donoghue would have warmed to the idea of his life's work being presented as a series of dead frogs, Dennis Perrin's biography of O'Donoghue, "Mr. Mike," isn't quite what the subject calls for. It's not that Perrin's descriptions of O'Donoghue's work kill the laughs; it's just that his whole tone feels a tad too respectful. Perrin has done a nearly exhaustive job of following O'Donoghue's career from the Evergreen Review to the National Lampoon to the "National Lampoon Radio Hour" to "Saturday Night Live." In the very first sketch of that show's very first broadcast, O'Donoghue's malignant dandyism announced itself to network television. O'Donoghue played a tutor teaching John Belushi's immigrant of indeterminate origin such helpful English phrases as "I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines." As comfy in his book-lined study as Holmes would be puffing on his pipe in his Baker Street sanctuary, O'Donoghue emanated the reasoned malice of the truly insane.

Perrin provides plenty of laughs detailing familiar sketches like that one, less familiar stories from O'Donoghue's Lampoon days (my favorite was an ad for Lt. Calley's Kill the Children foundation) and bits that never made it past NBC's Standards and Practices department. Here's a rejected Weekend Update item: "FBI director Clarence Kelley denied rumors that the Bureau's entire investigation in [Martin Luther] King's death consisted of asking a Ouija Board, 'Who shot the monkey?'"

Jokes like that are intended to slice like a freshly sharpened razor slashing your throat. And to Perrin's credit, he doesn't shy away from the deliberate cruelty of O'Donoghue's humor. But he comes perilously close to echoing the liberal take on Lenny Bruce as a man who wanted to sensitize us to prejudice and injustice. It's not that Perrin is wrong when he claims O'Donoghue's most extreme material -- pieces on Vietnam and concentration camps -- is motivated by moral outrage. It's that anyone who saw or read any of O'Donoghue's work knows that the outrage he was primarily interested in was the outrage he hoped to provoke in his audience. Perrin's analysis flirts with turning O'Donoghue into a comic who invited the audience to congratulate themselves on their own enlightened attitudes.

And there's an uncomfortable element of hero worship in the way Perrin's prose tries to echo his subject's coldblooded take-no-prisoners approach. A better epitaph for O'Donoghue would be the Mr. Mike sketch "SNL" reran the night of his wake. After forcing sodden barfly Laraine Newman to humiliate herself by singing the aria from "Madame Butterfly" he tells her, "Sometimes you have to be cruel." "In order to be kind, Mr. Mike?" she asks hopefully. "No," comes the reply, "in order to be even crueler."

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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