Contributing Editor, 1970-71
Senior Editor, 1972
O’Donoghue was among the original contributors to National Lampoon when it began in 1970. It would be no exaggeration to say the brilliance of the early years of the magazine was largely due to his presence.
Prior to writing for NatLamp, O’Donoghue had been a contributor to Evergreen Review and the East Village Other. (At Evergreen Review, he gained notoriety for creating as series of comic-book-style stories called Phoebe Zeit-Geist. The series was drawn by Frank Springer, who would also later appear in National Lampoon.) He was brought to the attention of Beard and Kenney by Christopher Cerf and George Trow, fellow Harvard Lampoon alums. Cerf was at Random House at the time, and had published a book by O’Donoghue called “The Incredible, Thrilling Adventures of the Rock” which may have inspired the “pet rock” craze. Trow had written a screenplay with him for a movie called “Savages.”
Some classic O’Donoghue pieces include “Tarzan of the Cows,” a comic book parody in which the infant Lord Greystoke survives a plane crash not in Africa, but in rural Wisconsin; and “The Vietnamese Baby Book,” a vividly anti-war parody of the familiar “baby book” diary, in which the unfortunate parents fill in items such as “baby’s first shrapnel.”
With fellow staffer Tony Hendra, O’Donoghue wrote and produced NatLamp’s first comedy album, “Radio Dinner” in 1972.
O’Donoghue had earned a reputation for having a volitile temper. After a falling out in 1973 with Hendra, who was kept out of his way by being assigned to the Lemmings stage review, he created the first special National Lampoon issue comprised entirely of new material, The National Lampoon Encyclopedia of Humor. Lavishly produced and ad-free, it was a big success.
When Hendra had unexpected success with Lemmings, O’Donoghue was furious. In order to appease him, and given his brilliant work on “Radio Dinner,” O’Donoghue was assigned to produce the National Lampoon Radio Hour.
The Radio Hour may well have been O’Donoghue’s crowning achievement at the National Lampoon. But it was a financial disapointment for publisher Matty Simmons. In 1974, after doing thirteen shows, Simmons asked him to return the magazine, where his presence had been sorely missed. A week later, after an argument with Simmons over what was actually a simple misunderstanding, O’Donoghue left.
After leaving National Lampoon (and taking fellow Lampoon writer and girl friend Anne Beatts with him), O’Donoghue became head writer in 1975 for a new NBC program called Saturday Night Live. Not coincidently, it got much of its sensibility (as well as cast) from the National Lampoon stage productions and the Radio Hour.
After Saturday Night Live, O’Donoghue wrote a number of screenplays, including “Biker Heaven” (intended to be a sequel to “Easy Rider”), “Dream Master,” “Planet of the Cheap Special Effects” (purported to be his masterpiece), and “Scrooged,” which made it to production and starred Bill Murray. He also wrote a pilot for Fox for a show called “TV,” directed by Mr. Bill creator Walter Williams.
According to associate Darius James, not long before O’Donoghue died, he had met Quentin Tarrantino and the two were planning to collaborate on a film.
O’Donoghue died on November 7, 1994 of a brain hemorage at the age of 52. For his wake, his apartment was decorated with his CAT scans.
A biography of O’Donoghue has been published by Avon Books, called “Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O’Donoghue, the Man Who Made Comedy Dangerous,” by Dennis Perrin.
See also Darius James on Michael O’Donoghue, presented elsewhere on this very website.
Special thanks for additional biographical material for this page go to Darius H. James (a.k.a., Dr. Snakeskin), Brian Siano, Joe Thomas and Jim Wilson.
Other works by Michael O’Donoghue
The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist
Grove Press, 1968
The Incredible, Thrilling Adventures of the Rock
Random House, 1968
Television & Movies
Screenplay (with George W.S. Trow)
Directed by James Ivory
Angelika Films/Merchant-Ivory Productions, 1972
NBC’s Saturday Night Live
Head writer, 1975-1978
Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video
Writer, producer, and director
New Line Cinema, 1979
(Documentary) Starring Gilda Radner
Broadway Pictures/Warner Bros., 1980
Starring Bill Murray
Screenplay (with Mitch Glazer)
The Real Story of Itsy Bitsy Spider
(Animated) Starring Andrea Martin
As an actor, O’Donoghue appeared in the following films: Manhattan (1979), Head Office(1986), Wallstreet (1987), The Suidice Club (1988), and Scrooged (1988).