An icon of American comedy’s countercultural fling of the 1970s, Michael O’Donoghue wielded a satirical stiletto in the heyday of the National Lampoon magazine (where his pieces included “Children’s Letters to Hitler” and “The Vietnamese Baby Book”) before becoming head writer for the first three seasons of Saturday Night Live. When he appeared on camera it was in trademark dark glasses and the guise of suave, bearded bon vivant Mr. Mike, until each bit invariably climaxed in death, mayhem, or O’Donoghue shrieking and whirling around the soundstage (doing an impression of celebrities having their eyes pierced with steel needles). Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video is a hodgepodge of bizarre sketches and short films, most original and some found, that was intended as an NBC special/pilot for a monthly show until the network blanched at its proud decadence, resulting in a brief run in theaters and a reputation as an uncompromised failure.
Parodying the mostly-forgotten 1962 globetrotting shockumentary Mondo Cane, Mr. Mike and his team of “top Italian journalists” present a series of outré cults and oddities: a swimming school for cats, where the kitties are seen hitting the pool in slow-mo and paddling in mortal fear; the military breakthrough of the distaff soldier’s LaserBra 2000; Dan Aykroyd’s revelation of his status as a web-toed mutant; a Parisian restaurant that specializes in serving American customers “glazed rabbit pellets” and setting their tables afire; and an equatorial “cargo cult” that reveres discarded American fads, adorning their island with Silly String, lava lamps, and Peter Max paintings. With the possible exception of a musty skit where Aykroyd presides over a bewigged congregation that worships tight-lipped Hawaii Five-O TV cop Jack Lord, the weak bits are abandoned before they become oppressive; some of the few straightforward laughs are hit-and-runs, from showbiz glamour gals explaining their trendy attraction to losers (Debbie Harry drops in to coo, “It’s cute when guys miss the toilet”), or a teaser for “Christmas on other planets” (a reptilian alien sits at a table smashing light bulbs with a hammer). But aside from cameos by SNL stars (and clips of musical freaks Klaus Nomi, Root Boy Slim, and a legalistically muted Sid Vicious), O’Donoghue’s agenda stays mostly on the hesitant side of laughter. His Rod Serling-meets-Timothy Leary narration and presence—morose in a bar full of blowup dolls or supplying the scream of a harpooned stock-footage whale—has the effect of disdaining potential yuks for a jaundiced indulgence in all-American grotesquerie. (Its low-budget look and limited locations, mostly midtown Manhattan and South Miami, give Mondo Video the thrifty, unpredictable aura of a hip public-access show.)
Mondo Video is far from the most refined or successful expression of O’Donoghue’s darkly antic vision—limited to his performed work, the best material from the National Lampoon Radio Hour would likely take that honor—but its spray of seething, occasionally fetishistic buckshot is unmistakably in its master’s voice. That the mass of contemporary late-night comedy watchers, weaned on catchphrases and political impersonations in place of stylish transgression, would be bored or angered by Mr. Mike’s indifference to laugh-machine rhythms is obvious. The time for the Dadaist post-hippie vaudeville of Mondo Video is, like its creator, long gone, but remains as curiously hypnotic as a poolful of wet cats.
The technical standards are those of late '70s post-midnight TV; anything else wouldn't work.
Most valuable for context (though also available on the show's box set) are three of "Mr. Mike's Least-Loved Bedtime Tales," a series of SNL second-season sketches penned by and starring Michael O'Donoghue where he twisted childhood faves into grisly scenarios. A rapt, 14-year-old Jodie Foster (clad in a nightie) sits in Mr. Mike's lap to hear "The Little Engine That Died" ("I know I can! I know I can! Heart attack! Heart attack! Omigod, the PAIN!"). A 1994 SNL clip has Bill Murray eulogizing the founding head writer ("He went straight to hell-just for a visit") and introducing another vintage sketch where a bartending Mr. Mike forces desperate floozy Laraine Newman to sing a Madame Butterfly aria as he mixes her a Soiled Kimono (Champagne plus cheap Japanese plum wine). It all now seems unthinkably pervy and offbeat for a show that morphed into a launching pad for the mass-appeal blandness of Feys and Fallons. Mondo Video co-writer Mitch Glazer supplies a mostly anecdotal commentary track, recalling how delighted Mr. Mike was at reports of a Baltimore box-office staffer being attacked by an enraged Mondo audience that had expected Animal House slapstick, and at receiving a "0 out of 10" rating from a New York TV critic. Glazer also vividly recalls armed ASPCA guards observing the tossing of cats into the swimming pool, O'Donoghue's affection for pot and nude amputee pinups, and nails the look of Mondo Video as halfway between cheap porn and the yet-to-come Cops.
A deserved dust-off for an aggressive form of stoner comedy long supplanted by Brand Apatow.