Friday, May 8, 2009

'Mr. Mike's Mondo Video'; or, Were You There When They Crucified Jack Lord?

"Well, you see, there is no moral, Uncle Remus, just random acts of meaningless violence."
— Michael O'Donoghue, Least-Loved Bedtime Tales
There's an old saw about how all comedy is really just sublimated aggression. As Krusty the Clown says to Sideshow Bob's brother Cecil, before ordering a "pie job for Lord Autumn-Bottom," the "pie gag only works if the sap's got dignity." You can't laugh at the humiliation if it doesn't rob another person of his self-respect. As beautifully and succinctly as The Simpsons put it, probably nobody's career exemplifies the comedy-as-anger concept better than Michael O'Donoghue's.

Even if the name's not familiar, you can probably quote a dozen of his bits off the top of your head. O'Donoghue was the head writer for Saturday Night Live's first three seasons, and its inaugural sketch set the tone for the show while giving a perfect summary of his own vision of comedy. In it, O'Donoghue sits opposite John Belushi, who's playing a monoglot immigrant trying to learn English. O'Donoghue, pausing twice, reads out the helpful English phrase: "I would like... to feed your fingertips... to the wolverines."

O'Donoghue's angry sense of irony seems to have been wholly derived from a perception of life as a perpetual cycle of suffering, idiocy and contempt. He endured crippling migraines that made even looking at things agonizing (probably nobody would have taken more of an ironist's delight in the fact that he died of a brain hemorrhage), which allegedly inspired a series of sketches in which he portrayed an impressionist who could only do renditions of what celebrities would sound like being tortured. His only famous movie, Scrooged, brutally re-tells the Scrooge story by following the life of a man named Frank Cross. The biggest decoration on his office wall is a definition:
CROSS, n.: a thing they nail people to.
Almost fittingly, O'Donoghue felt the studio butchered his movie, as if life conspired to fuck up his attempt to depict how fucked up life is.

Probably the most amazing thing he ever wrote has never been seen by the public. In 1981, after a reboot of the SNL franchise tanked, NBC producer Dick Ebersol invited O'Donoghue to return as the head writer. His second term was virtually a disaster, and his loathing for and distance from the new cast of performers might have inspired his own act of undoing:
O'Donoghue was fired after writing the never-aired sketch "The Last Days in Silverman's Bunker" (which compared NBC network president Fred Silverman's problems at the network to Adolf Hitler's last days in charge of the Third Reich). It was planned that John Belushi would return to play Silverman, and a great deal of work had been done on creating sets for the sketch (which would have run for about twenty minutes), including the construction of a large Nazi eagle clutching an NBC corporate logo instead of a swastika.
The sketch itself seems like it would have been either the most hateful or the most amazing thing SNL ever aired, but it's pretty easy to understand why an embattled network executive would fire anyone who even suggested such a performance.

Although O'Donoghue's work lives on in the form of the first three seasons of SNL, the quickest route to a virtually unfettered version of his comedy can be found in the movie Mr. Mike's Mondo Video. Originally intended to air as a half-hour late-night comedy show on NBC, the network shunted the production toward a full feature release after looking at the grim comedy (opening sketch: lobbing cats into pools to teach them to swim and reduce "cat drowning") and sexual content.

Despite some very funny sketches (like the above mentioned and the below Youtubed) and despite cameos by stars like Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Carrie Fisher, amongst others, the Mondo Video movie didn't fare very well. It's not hard to see why. Obviously the comedy is alienating and weird, but the process is unleavened. Saturday Night Live might run for 90 minutes, but 26 of them are commercials, four are devoted to monologue, eight go to the musical guest, and another four probably go to musical fadeouts/returns-from commercial. All told, that's only 48 minutes of comedy stretched out over 90 broadcast minutes, and each commercial break provides a mental breather from the content.

In the absence of breaks from the mental and social violence and revolt, one watching the movie is left to wonder what the final destination could be. What, in the end, is the theme or the purpose? But, because it's only a movie by mashing television episodes together, there can't really be one. As avant-garde comedy, the entire piece achieves powerfully anti-social aims and succeeds in a scattershot manner. As a mainstream laughter-qua-laughter comedy, it's uneven and good, but never really satisfying. The absence of an overarching purpose or narrative means that moments that fall flat have no ultimate idea to rescue them. Probably the best solution is to watch it all the way through once and then go back in leisure moments and re-experience the sketches in dribs and drabs, on their own, unconnected to the relentless tone and amorphous direction.

One gem to watch and watch again is this quasi-tribute to the star of Hawaii Five-0, Jack Lord, paired with a ruthless satire of televised religion.

Scenes like the above lift Mr. Mike's Mondo Video past the level of middle-of-the-road sketch movie into something thoughtfully angry and vigorously questioning. As a standalone piece, it speaks to O'Donoghue's concept of humor. There's no mistaking the general contempt for religion, the vision of televised and materialized spirituality as incapable of being anything other than grotesque. Life is staggeringly dumb and miserable, and the best thing to do with it is mock it. One gets the sense that Michael O'Donoghue was too funny to die but far too angry to live — at least not for long. Thankfully, his sketches can do that last ugly chore for him.

Rating: 4
(Until I manage to write a movie-rating post, assume that I'm using the same scale and similar standards as the book-rating system.) Splits the difference nicely between high-minded comedy and plain comedy-for-laughs. On the former merits alone, it probably would deserve greater distinction, but the unevenness of the pure laughs throughout pull it down somewhat. Recommended for people who like comic samizdat, agit-prop comedy or offbeat low-budget productions. Mildly recommended for fans of the early Saturday Night Live. Not recommended for those expecting to see an American version of Holy Grail or Brain Candy.