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The heavy door to the office slowly creaked open, and in stepped Michael O'Donoghue.
He wore a mustard-colored overcoat with matching fedora. His glasses were clear, both frame and lenses. He had a pencil-thin mustache. He quickly assessed the cluttered office, smirked, then lit a long brown cigarette.
An office mate of mine quietly protested, but did nothing. I walked up to Michael, introduced myself, then led him to a back room where we talked for a couple of hours.
Michael was effusive, generous, funny, serious. He read some jokes he had recently written, and naturally I laughed. It didn't matter what he read; the fact that Michael O'Donoghue was playing directly to me was what counted. I still have the tape of that conversation.
That was 1989, five years before Michael died. In that period, I got to know him better. We spoke on the phone. I visited his home, went to his parties. Two weeks after I failed to coax Michael into attending a party for an English magazine, Modern Review, he suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage. Several days later, a wake was held in his Manhattan apartment, which I describe in detail at the beginning of my biography of him, Mr. Mike.
It still seems like a fantasy. I became Michael O'Donoghue's official biographer simply by pitching the idea to his widow, Cheryl Hardwick, whom I didn't really know. But I knew Michael's work. I must have been convincing: Cheryl anointed me, and for the next three years I lived in Michael's Bizarro World. READ MORE
"Phil Hartman is my hero."
Jan Hooks sits next to me on a couch, nibbling a ham sandwich. We're at Michael O'Donoghue's Christmas party, listening to a live, Celtic band.
"Phil can do anything. He made me better."
I usually refrain from asking SNL vets about their on-air work, but I couldn't resist in Jan's case. When I mention how beautifully she and Phil worked together, Jan gave him all of the credit.
"Well, you're pretty great yourself," I reply, meaning every word.
Michael drifts by, touches Jan's shoulder. She smiles and squeezes Michael's hand.
"Ain't he sweet?" Jan says in that Southern sing-song voice she's done a thousand times on SNL. "And you're sweet, too. Thank you."
The next and last time I see Jan is at Michael's wake. We chat briefly, but she's not in a sharing mood, at least not with me. Like many in the room, she has a hard, focused look. The sudden death of a comedy icon can have that effect.
But I still love her. READ MORE
Rik Mayall was my age. Well, a year older, but close enough.
Like most American comedy geeks, I first saw Mayall when MTV aired The Young Ones in the mid-80s. Loud, brash, violent, absurd, The Young Ones was unlike any other Britcom shown in the States. It became an instant hit, inspiring MTV to also air The Comic Strip Presents, short films featuring Mayall's generation: Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Nigel Planer, Peter Richardson, and Mayall's longtime partner, Adrian Edmondson.
They were the children of Python; of Fawlty Towers, Ripping Yarns, and Rutland Weekend Television. They were the next wave, stripped down, frenetic, untidy. They remade and, for a time, defined English comedy. They set the stage for those who followed — Sacha Baron Cohen, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Eddie Izzard, and Russell Brand.
The success of The Young Ones naturally led Mayall to seek greater American exposure. When I met him in July 1990, Mayall was working on two films: Drop Dead Fred and Little Noises. Mirabella magazine assigned me to interview Mayall on the set of the latter project.
I arrived at the Hoboken location just after Mayall had finished a take. He quickly greeted me, flashing his trademark mad smile.
"I've got to do it again. Do you mind? It shouldn't be long."
Of course I didn't mind. It was a treat watching him work up close. Mayall nailed the take. The set broke for dinner, and we walked to a corner pub to talk. READ MORE
Fridays writing staff, 1981. (counter-clockwise from lower right) Tom Kramer, Rod Ash, Larry David, Steve Adams, Matt Neuman, Larry Charles, Steve Barker, Mark Curtis, Bruce Kirschbaum, Bruce Mahler, Joe Shulkin, Elaine Pope.
In 2007, a friend in LA connected me with Tom Kramer, director of the short films on Fridays, as well as the filmed commercial and TV parodies. At the time, bootlegged bits from Fridays appeared here and there, but nothing official was on offer. The show was largely forgotten, save for comedy freaks like me.
Tom consented to an interview and was generous with his memories. Tom was 20 when he was hired; Fridays served as his early showbiz education. He moved on to other projects, from Not Necessarily The News to directing an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm ("The N Word," Season 6) to Penn & Teller: Bullshit! to Howie Mandel's new TBS series Deal With It. But Fridays remains Tom's touchstone.
There, in his eyes.
Controlled madness. Laser-keen in bursts. Pointed and precise.
Vulnerability, too. A certain tenderness. His eyes set the tone for his act.
I can't think of an American comedian more revered and respected than Jonathan Winters. (There's Jack Benny, for those who remember him.) Winters created a world where you were welcome, but you had to keep pace. His rapid-fire mind took hairpin turns. The inattentive might be left in his dust.
Winters was one of the more offbeat performers in mainstream comedy. He was as polished as Hope. As graceful as Gleason. As biting as Rickles. Yet Winters pushed it further. Breathed different oxygen. No matter how far out he went, Winters was accepted and cherished in the most conservative venues.
His improvisation skills were wholly singular. No Viola Spolin games or Del Close Harold for him. He broke standard improv rules, and it didn't matter. Once Winters got rolling, everything else conformed to his reality.
With the tributes pouring in, you've doubtless seen clips of Winters' performances on Jack Paar, Dean Martin, or Andy Williams' shows. You're aware of the heavy influence he had on younger comics, Robin Williams especially. But Winters could dial it back, divert his gifts in engaging directions. READ MORE
Studio 8H is a time warp.
I hadn't been there in 16 years, when I interviewed Lorne Michaels for Mr. Mike. Before that, I'd been in 8H many times, starting in 1983. It's the most famous studio on American TV, the recurring cast member of SNL.
When I first walked through those narrow hallways, the original shows came alive in me. I recognized the main doors, dressing rooms, and photo-lined walls. I stood where the first cast performed their backstage bits.
I strolled the studio as sets were built, lighting adjusted, sketches camera blocked. Once I went up on home base, took in the view, then got on all fours and kissed the stage. Such was the measure of my reverence.
Naturally, I wanted to work there. I was twice submitted as a writer, but not to be. Yet my connection to SNL remained. I was allowed to see it up close but never intimately.
A few days ago I was there again, this time for a memorial for Tom Davis. It was by pure chance that I was invited. Or was it? READ MORE
In the Broadway Video offices, I asked a couple of staffers if they had tapes of The New Show.
"Of course," replied the taller one. "We have everything Lorne's done."
"Why do you bring that up?" added the wider one.
"I watched it every Friday night — well, the Friday nights it was on. It got yanked pretty early."
They stared at me.
"You think a complete set of the show will ever be released?" I asked.
"Don't let Lorne hear that," said Mr. Tall. "It's not something he wants remembered."
They were assembling a Michael O'Donoghue reel for me. I hinted that if they threw in some select New Show sketches, I wouldn't be offended.
They stared at me some more. READ MORE
Remakes and reboots are the acme of corporate entertainment. Perhaps it was always so. Repetition usually makes money, a consumerist morphine drip. But The Three Stooges?
When it was reported that the Farrelly brothers were casting a Stooge remake, I, like countless Stooge fans, took a dim view. How could they possibly improve on the original? Or was this a cynical effort to cash in on Stooge nostalgia? None of it made sense.
For one thing, The Three Stooges are from another world. Their humor sprang from vaudeville, which was dead by the time they were making Columbia shorts. They crashed through the Depression, World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By television's arrival, they were pretty much through. After school TV kept them alive for subsequent generations, mine included. But they weren't modern or fresh, and apart from die-hard devotees, the Stooges faded away.
Peter Farrelly explained that he and brother Bobby wanted to reanimate the Stooges for the social media generation. They sought to honor the classic team while easing them into our distracted age. I'm not the biggest Farrelly booster — their comedy is too cartoonish and broad for me. They clearly owe a debt to early slapstick, and this, on paper, recommended them for the Stooge project. READ MORE
Michael O'Donoghue saw no difference between comedy and tragedy. Making people laugh was easy, low; getting them to think and feel was the ultimate goal. That is, if you were a serious humorist and not some joke writing hack.
Poring through his files while researching my book, Mr. Mike, I discovered numerous surreal or dramatic concepts meant to break up SNL's structure. None were used. Lorne had the hottest comedy show in a generation. "Hard laughs, more of the same," grumbled Michael. After three seasons, he was gone.
I suppose you can't blame Lorne. Who would mess with such a winning, lasting formula? But before SNL settled into its current format, Lorne allowed all manner of comedic expression which made the show unique to begin with. This included pieces and films that weren't intended to get laughs. Indeed, there was a time when SNL could make you cry — from human meaning, not horrible sketch ideas. Once The Coneheads, Blues Brothers, and Roseanne Roseannadanna took center stage, that part of SNL's development was pretty much over. READ MORE
In 1979, ABC ordered an SNL show of its own. No variation; a straight copy. Same live format. Same type of cast. Musical guests. Fake news. Like Lorne Michaels before them, producers John Moffitt and Bill Lee scoured clubs and improv groups for talent. (Moffitt wasn't new to the process: he'd been Lorne's first choice in 1975 to direct SNL, which Moffitt turned down.) On April 11, 1980, Moffitt and Lee unveiled their LA version: Fridays. Even the name was abbreviated theft.
Fridays faced numerous obstacles. Most of SNL's original cast was still on the air, prompting negative comparisons. Critics were unkind, to the degree they gave Fridays any attention. An early sketch about a zombie diner, though tame today, lost them several affiliates in only their third week. Plus, the cast had to gel on the air. Unlike the original SNL, where many of the actors and writers had worked together at Second City and the National Lampoon, the Fridays cast were a disparate group. There was little shared history. Awkward growth pains were evident.
Yet this worked to their advantage. Fridays had nothing to lose. This freed them to try pretty much anything. Whereas SNL displayed a certain control, reflective of Lorne's demeanor, Fridays pelted the audience with whatever they could grab. Sometimes the sketches seemed formless, rushed, half-digested. Death, drugs, celebrity, religion, and political corruption were the main topics. Recurring characters like a gay monster mime or a little boy torturing his toy soldiers were barely coherent. If SNL was classic rock, then Fridays was decidedly punk. READ MORE