Saturday, January 05, 2019

A LA MO'D #2:

(aka The Most Belated, Unasked-For Sequel since Rambo VI: From In Country to Incontinent)

Hey there, chilblains - what's it been, three years since my last confession (that I can't write on any kind of schedule anymore)? Well, for whatever reason, I suddenly find myself compelled to apply the ol' shock-pads to this moribund repository of thwarted ambition, with the half-hearted promise of keeping this up on the regular again, pull some of the dozens of posts stuck in draft-mode limbo out of mothballs and maybe even finish reviewing a single episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus like I tried to do the better part of a decade ago. We'll see; not bloody likely, but we'll see. I think I can at least manage the occasional cut-and-paste job from the archives - I do want to get that old Metal Machine Music epic I penned for the long-lost Dancing About Architecture site up here soon, but it'll definitely need some annotation, for reasons that are both deeply cringeworthy and depressingly timely. Suffice it to say that one of the pieces I'm proudest of in my writing... (um, can't call it a career and it barely qualifies as a hobby anymore so find the right word and paste it in the appropriate place) happens to contain the moment I'm most embarrassed by, and it will need to be dealt with. Just not quite yet.

Anyway, the main body of today's post isn't mine - I realized upon opening up the ol' Blogger dashboard that today would have been the seventy-ninth (!) birthday of one of my major influences and a gentleman who I'm still unhealthily obsessive about some forty (!?) years after I first knowingly encountered his work, Mr. Michael O'Donoghue. (Though his influence actually extends far enough back that one of my earliest memories - of standing, terrified, in the bathtub while the screams that climaxed "Magical Misery Tour," the brilliantly brutal evisceration of the most sacred of rock 'n' roll cows that ended side one of National Lampoon's Radio Dinner album, shrieked at top volume from my parents' stereo - bears the O'Donoghue brand.* No doubt he'd be proud to be responsible for such a primal moment of childhood trauma.)

One day, I hope to realize my dream project - a proper compendium of O'Donoghue's writing; a nice, thick hardcover anthology'd be good, though, as some of his best work exploited the tools of various audio/visual media, some kind of tricked-out web portal might better do him justice. As one of the key architects of American humor of the last half-century, it's deserved and long overdue, not to mention that few writers of his renown have so little work available for public consumption. The first three years of Saturday Night Live, where he served as head writer and made occasional on-air appearances, are readily available to anyone with a Hulu subscription or some modest DVD-box-set scratch; some of his work for the Evergreen Review and the National Lampoon has turned up in various anthologies; his two major screenwriting collaborations, the highly atypical Merchant-Ivory production Savages and the ragged Dickens modernization Scrooged - two films sixteen years and a solar system or two apart from one another - are pretty easy to find on DVD and streaming services; and even his attempted TV special Mr. Mike's Mondo Video - produced for but never aired on NBC, given a brief and somewhat disastrous theatrical release, and revived for premium cable, VHS, and a 30th-anniversary DVD - has had a remarkably rich life for a late-term abortion. But beyond that lies the work available only in long-out-of-print volumes, the musty back numbers of periodicals both renowned and forgotten, bootlegged torrents of the first nine episodes of Dick Ebersol-era SNL (a fascinatingly ramshackle period worthy of deep forensic analysis) and oddball scraps strewn haphazardly throughout the 'net. And then, of course, there's a vast ocean of O'Donoghiana** that never got produced or published in any form, whether unfinished, hacked to death by censors, or left to die through industry neglect. That's the stuff that makes me ache - knowing that I may never feast my orbs on the likes of "The Good Excuse," "The Last Ten Days in Silverman's Bunker," Biker Heaven, Planet of the Cheap Special EffectsArrive Alive, or the index cards that make up whatever part of The Glass Vertebrae got finished. And hey, as soon as I can talk Cheryl Hardwick into letting me into his archives - I'm the man for the job, I'm telling you - maybe I'll have the chance.

But until that day comes, I can disinter some of the gems I've turned up through sundry search-engine and auction-site deep digs in his honor, with the intent of sharing more to come. (Since I've been holding onto the following with that very intent since the autumn of 2014, overmuch breath should not be held.)  Here's one to start with:

I've wanted to get ahold of this essay ever since the late Charles M. Young quoted from it in his excellent profile "Michael O'Donoghue Pokes Fun Until It Bleeds," in the December 1983 issue of Mother Jones. (I have somehow managed, through thirty-five years and numerous moves, to hold on to my copy of that issue, passed down to me by my supremely indulgent eighth-grade English teacher, one of that rare breed who saw no harm in encouraging fourteen-year-olds with prodigiously advanced tastes in humor in their rarefied strains of nerdery. Cheers, Mr. Parsons, wherever you are; none of this is your fault, probably.) Home Video was indeed, as Young said, a "wretched little magazine" designed to grab a few quick bucks by exploiting the then-new VCR-owners' market, one of surely many at the time. The main distinguishing factor of this one is that its editor-in-chief was one Robert Vare, who served editorships at The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone, among others. Not sure where HV falls in his CV, but Vare clearly had connections, pretty good taste in writers, and apparently enough venture capital to enlist some pretty impressive name writers. (I'm told that Norman Mailer's 40,000-word opus on the existential torments of watching porn while trying to fix the tracking with his free hand is as good as The Executioner's Song.)*** And on at least one occasion, MO'D, fresh off his second departure from SNL, was among them.****

I can't tell you how, exactly, I was able to figure out which issue this essay appeared in and how I lucked into finding a copy on eBay for much less than you would imagine a three-and-a-half-decade-old consumer monthly for Betamax enthusiasts would go for, but figure I did and lucked I... also did. And now I bring it to you. TV has changed in myriad ways since this was written, of course - the landscape would theoretically be more friendly to a Michael O'Donoghue these days, though I'm sure he would have managed to find a way to fuck that up - and the nature and delivery systems of the American fantasy have done much the same, of course. (Then again, every word of the second-to-last paragraph holds even more true in annus horribilis 2019***** than it did in '82.******) But what stands out here, as I discovered when I painstakingly typed it out, is that O'D's rhythms, even in a lesser venue, remained precise, with not a wasted syllable or a punctuation mark out of place. Even his run-ons never get winded. And as my intro turned out at least twice as long as the article it's setting up, maybe I could learn something from that. Happy birthday, Mr. Mike.

by Michael O'Donoghue

Americans are reaching out.  We know this by watching TV.  It shows Americans reaching out to blind ice skaters and one-armed gymnasts and crippled downhill racers and handicapped hang gliders and mentally-challenged dog groomers and rodeo clowns with metal plates in their heads and deformed Navajos and boys in plastic bubbles and amputees who play the musical saw with their feet.  Remember all those types we used to see just in sideshows?  Well now they're called "very special," as if "special" weren't enough, and, on TV, Americans are reaching out to them.  Really getting involved.  Caring.

Americans on TV are mavericks.  They go up against the system and lose their tempers and throw away the rule book.  Their unconventional style and freewheeling methods often exasperate their hard-nosed, tough-talking superiors but that's okay, because, underneath their crusty facades, the superiors also care.  Everybody on TV cares.  Paramedics care about battered wives.  Teachers care about disturbed foster children.  Investigative reporters care about unstable air controllers.  Street-wise basketball coaches care about teenage alcoholics.  Store-front lawyers care about the Hispanic community.  Doctors who care about one-time beauty queens who need radical mastectomies.  Lady truckers care about owners of roller discos framed for murders they didn't do.  Randolph Mantooth cares about chopper pilots trapped in high-power lines.  Ex-stunt men turned private eyes care about high-priced Vegas call girls who have been sexually molested and stabbed repeatedly.  On TV, maverick Americans are fighting for all-solar day care centers and ramps for migrant workers and seat-belts for the hearing impaired.  Helping each other.  Sharing a dream of faith and hope and courage.

The cops care most of all.  The last thing a S.W.A.T. team wants to do to a cornered former mental patient who's been strangling L.A. Rams cheerleaders with a dog leash is hose him down with an M-16 and turn his chest cavity into a soup tureen.  No way.  Only when they have exhausted every alternative will the California Highway Patrol feed some smoke to a deranged Green Beret who imagines he's still butchering tunaheads in the steamy jungles of the Nam.  Only when they have no other choice will Starsky or Kojak or Riker drop a load into a knife-wielding male stripper wigged-out on angel dust.  Cops on TV are sensitive and compassionate men with a deep regard for human life, oddly enough.  And if they care this much for obvious psychotic scum, their concern for the plight of the elderly is clearly boundless.

Sometimes they cry.  Even burly lugs like George Kennedy who bark, "I've got seventy-five thousand people in the Dome and I've got a sniper on the loose!"  Even twin-fisted guys who risk their necks daily to stop the pushers and the child pornographers and anyone wearing a ski mask and the neo-Nazis and the Mob and the berserk maniacs who want to take a ball peen hammer and drive approximately one hundred roofing nails into Dick Van Patten's skull.  Even they break down and cry. Because they care so goddamned much.  On TV.

Now, what does it mean when the fantasy of a nation is caring?  Not achievement or discovery or honor or glory but caring, which, in a civilized society, would be the ante in the game.  Nothing to sit home and watch.  Nothing to base a series on.

It means that in real America, a second-rate power sliding into third, the cops are trigger-happy goons, the doctors are on strike, the teachers are getting out, organized crime and big business and government are three names for the same thing, everything we eat causes projectile vomiting in mice, currencies based on shells and buttons are more stable than our own, the ecosystem is a big bowl of dog snot, there's a dead man at the helm, and nobody gives a flying fuck.  Nobody has to.  TV does it for them.

Americans are reaching out.  For burgers and colas and hot combs and jogging shoes and ten thousand products from the folks at Procter and Gamble.  But not for you.


* O'D is barely present on the track in substance - almost every word is paraphrased from John Lennon's infamous 1971 Rolling Stone interview, Tony Hendra does the (dis)honors as the voice of the ex-Beatle (aided by Bob Tischler's production trickery, Christopher Cerf wrote the music, and the not-yet-famous Christopher Guest and Melissa Manchester make audible contributions - but the simple genius of the concept and the Zen-assassin precision of the attack are all his. There's plenty of badly dated material on Radio Dinner - given that most of it satirizes the pop culture and politics of 1972, that's inevitable (though I'm sure "Profiles in Chrome" didn't make much sense even then) - but "Magical Misery Tour" still draws blood.

** Needs work; come back later and see if I haven't come up with something that doesn't sound like a Japo-Irish sushi pub.

*** I may just have dreamed this.

**** The other "big" name in this particular issue, who got the center spread and a mini-interview in that issue's editorial while O'D got the back page, was O'D's former friend and colleague turned lifelong nemesis Tony Hendra. Undoubtedly, this must have pleased O'D a great deal.

***** Sure, the year's not even a week old, but, seriously, can there be any doubt?

****** The sole difference being, the ecosystem is now a really fucking vast bowl of dogsnot.

No comments: