New York Magazine ran a brilliant, exhaustive piece recently on The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy over the last 110 years. There are far too many to even begin to describe the genius, but I have a personal relationship to one of the Kings of comedy, Michael O’Donoghue, so I scanned to see where he appeared, and for what. He was the original head writer of SNL, the first five seasons of the show were his dark humor and it set the tone for the show that continues to this day. He was a good pal and his collection of vintage paint by number paintings (which I now own, and have multiplied ten-fold) are the basis for my art and my transformation to being a full-time artist. Sadly, he died in 1994 of of a massive brain aneurism and his death was announced live in the cold open on SNL by his old pal Bill Murray. Fitting, because Michael was the very first person you see on screen in SNL‘s very first sketch 40+ years ago. Below are that, and a joke that changed comedy forever. Watch.
1976 The King of Impressionists
Michael O’Donoghue, Saturday Night Live
“There’s one thing I think everybody agrees on, and that’s who the nicest guy in show business is. And, of course, I’m talking about Mr. Mike Douglas. Yeah! Yeah, come on! You know, I was home the other day and I happened to catch Mike’s show, and a funny thought occurred to me. I wondered: What if someone took very large steel needles, say 15, 18 inches long, large steel needles with real sharp points, and plunged them into Mike’s eyes. What would his reaction be, huh? I think it might go something like this.” [O’Donoghue turns his back to the camera to prepare his impression. He turns back around, puts his hands to his eyes, and screams maniacally.]
SNL’s inaugural season left viewing audiences reeling for many reasons, not least among them the show’s penchant for raw, rough humor, and the cast’s irreverence toward the popular culture they were raised on. The grim prince behind much of the darkness was Michael O’Donoghue, a performer and writer famous for not only contributing to National Lampoon but creating pitch-black satires such as “The Vietnamese Baby Book.” In addition to teaching John Belushi’s eager foreign man to speak English phrases such as “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines,” O’Donoghue made himself known in SNL’s first year as an impersonator of sorts. Buck Henry came to the stage and informed the crowd that the “king of impressionists” was on his way. O’Donoghue, dressed in Vegas-standard jacket and tie, amiably wondered what it would look like if Mike Douglas had steel needles shoved in his eyes. The aggressive screaming and flailing that followed was a shock, and O’Donoghue’s wild commitment sold it as comedy. (Henry capped off the bit by asking genially, “Uncanny, isn’t it?”) The violent, gross-out gag was a gauntlet thrown down to its audience, a test to see how far they were willing to go, and the reverberations of the gesture can be felt in generations of black-comedy acolytes.
(via New York)