It is unusual for a wake to be described as “the hippest party in New York”—in New York, no less.
After complaining of fierce migraines for years, O’Donoghue died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage on November 8, 1994. The wake was organized by Cheryl Hardwick, O’Donoghue’s widow and former musical director of SNL, in the couple’s Chelsea apartment.
I was among the mélange of mourners. More than 20 years later, I still find striking the twin sheets of photo-transparencies decorating the apartment, giving an eerily church window effect. They were cat scans of O’Donoghue’s skull. He would have liked that, as he would have liked the wake.
O’Donoghue was a favorite among SNL’s diehard fans, even though his humor was dark and irreverent even for the Not Ready For Primetime Players.
During his tenure as SNL’s head writer from 1976 to 1978, his sketches were especially irreverent and acerbic. Perhaps his most famous on-screen role for SNL was as Mr. Mike, a sunglass-wearing cynic who told the “Least-Loved Bedtime Tales,” like “The Little Train That Died.”
He returned to SNL at various times in the 1980s and contributed sketches into the early 1990’s.
The party guests were mostly SNL alums or those with close connections, such as John Belushi’s widow, Judy. There were also a few outliers, like screenwriter and American Psycho author Brett Easton Ellis, British writer Quentin Crisp, Penthouse scion Bob Guccione Jr. and myself.
I had known O’Donoghue and been impressed by his near-nihilist absurdism. He had given me a copy of Bears, his book of light/dark poems, but I had never been close enough to him to observe—or experience—his famously sulfuric side.
Indeed the last time we had met—we had a meal at Musso and Frank on Hollywood Boulevard—he was positively tranquil.
I did though get a sense from an occasional well-honed remark that working relationships with particular individuals within SNL could be… well, let’s just say strained. And much of this came tumbling out at the wake.
The wake was an after-dinner event for a late-night crowd, so folks began arriving around 11 pm. Saturday Night Live was soon playing on a big screen. A very early skit in which O’Donoghue appeared was screened and a few of his poems were read.
Then the main event at any wake got underway: the tributes.
These were every bit as double-edged as O’Donoghue would have expected, indeed would have wished for at his own wake.
Bill Murray spoke of how mean O’Donoghue had been to him early on at the show until he, Murray, had let him know that he would hurt him physically if he persisted. Subsequently, Murray said, their relations improved. It was funny, yes. But Murray is a hefty guy, and this added a dimension to the humor.
Chevy Chase told of getting into a taxi with O’Donoghue back when both were on the National Lampoon Radio Hour.
“Michael told me ‘Someday you’ll make a mediocre movie star,’” he said. After rather courageously surfacing this prescient analysis to the mourners’ laughs, Chase added, “I don’t know how to say this but I loved Michael and I’m crushed that he’s dead.”
Then SNL creator and overlord Lorne Michaels got up and spoke warmly about O’Donoghue.
He made no mention of the fact that O’Donoghue had been hell on wheels to work with at SNL. Michaels also did not bring up that O’Donoghue had trashed SNL in the New York Times a few years prior to his death, saying it was “an embarrassment. It’s like watching old men die”—nor that the remark precipitated his firing.
All of this was 20 years ago, so my memory may be a bit blurry. In all honesty, I should say that my memory could have been blurry even back then, so I have refreshed it by re-reading Chris Smith’s story on O’Donoghue’s wake in New York.
But certain aspects, like the cat scans of O’Donoghue’s skull, are as fresh as if the wake were yesterday. No help was needed recalling Oscar-nominated screenwriter and frequent SNL host Buck Henry and his response to the eulogizers. He got up, thanked Lorne Michaels, turned to Chevy Chase and said “Thank you, Chevy. I think we all know how much Michael loved you.”
What followed was bilious hilarity, catcalls and applause. In short, it was a perfect Saturday Night Live moment—or O’Donoghue’s, anyways.
A few months after his party piece in New York, Chris Smith had a cover story there about the decline and fall of the show. In it, Smith quoted Michael O’Donoghue as saying “It couldn’t suck more if it had rubber lips.”
Fast forward to Saturday Night Live kicking off its 41st season last weekend. O’Donoghue’s dismal forecast about SNL was off—with that Hillary Clinton skit, SNL was alive—but it’s hard to imagine he would be that upset about being wrong.