Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (1979)

          As one of the architects of Saturday Night Live’s early years—he wrote the very first sketch broadcast on the show—Michael O’Donoghue occupies an important place in the history of counterculture comedy. His work was consistently deadpan, pitch-black, and satirical. It turns out, however, that O’Donoghue’s style loses its potency upon extended exposure. After working on SNL’s first three years, during which he occasionally performed as the onscreen character “Mr. Mike,” O’Donoghue got the go-ahead from NBC to produce a special that was supposed to air while SNL was on hiatus. Predictably, O’Donoughe generated something so acidic, deviant, and strange that NBC balked. Yet because O’Donoghue (and executive producer Lorne Michaels) enlisted famous members of the SNL family to appear in the project—titled Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video—a minor theatrical release was arranged in 1979, with the program’s brief running time padded by the addition of a short featuring SNL’s long-suffering Claymation character Mr. Bill.
          Seen in its currently available form, a 75-minute show with built-in commercial breaks, Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video feels like what it is—an all-O’Donoghue episode of SNL, hosted by the project’s creator in his Mr. Mike persona and featuring a combination of fake ads, faux newsreels, running gags, short films, sketches, and weird interstitial bits. Everything in Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video is either deliberately gruesome or deliberately odd, but very little of the material is funny. (During his onscreen introduction, O’Donoghue promises “an odyssey of aggressive weirdness,” featuring “the cheap thrills, the shabby secrets . . . blue water/white death in search of Michael Rockefeller.”)
          Primarily shot on video, the picture charts its doomed course right from the first piece, an ersatz news report on a feline swimming school in Amsterdam; the piece culminates with an endless slo-mo montage of housecats getting thrown into a swimming pool. Soon afterward comes a long sketch starring Dan Aykroyd as a preacher in a church worshiping Hawaii Five-O star Jack Lord. “We are all guilty in the eyes of Jack Lord,” Aykroyd exclaims. “Let him be your TV guide!” Beating the joke to death, in the grand SNL tradition, the sketch climaxes with a hula dancer performing a gospel song that features the lyric, “Were you there when they crucified Jack Lord?” And that, believe it or not, is probably the comic highlight of Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video. Other random bits include “military test film” of the Laser Bra 2000, a vignette of Aykroyd showing off his real-life webbed toes, a quick scene of the Loch Ness monster being arrested for smuggling drugs, and a snippet of Sex Pistols guitarist Sid Vicious singing the Frank Sinatra classic “My Way”—with the soundtrack obscured while a text crawl explains that the producers couldn’t get the rights to the song. (The Vicious clip was appropriated from the Sex Pistols movie The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, which reached U.S. screens a year later.)
          Aykroyd is the only SNL cast member to appear prominently, although Bill Murray is featured in a small running gang as a homeless man. Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner both pop up for one line each—alongside Carrie Fisher, Teri Garr, Deborah Harry, and others—during a sketch about women explaining their attraction to tacky men. (“When I reach down and feel a full colostomy bag,” actress Jill Davis coos, “I know I’m with a real man.”) There’s a certain demented integrity to Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, and the project’s strange history lends it a smidgen of forbidden-fruit allure. Nonetheless, this pop-culture oddity is far more interesting as a concept than it is as an actual experience.

Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video: FREAKY


NYCPaul said...

I went to see this at a midnight movie in Memphis in 1980, and remember actually getting angry at how un-amusing it was. Absolutely mortifyingly dull and poorly conceived.

PA Puzzler said...

Mr. Mike could be called a "not ready for the movie screen" player. Poor Mr. Bill got dragged onto the movie screen again in 1986. Better to stay where he could shine, on the SNL shorts. (I'd say the same about Andy Samberg, but clearly I have a minority opinion on that issue!)