Shout! Factory // 1979 // 73 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // January 13th, 2009
"A word to the wise: What you've just seen is tame compared to what follows, footage so brutal and candid that many have called it offensive. In fact, most have called it offensive. So get the kids, the crazies, and the old people, get 'em around the set and turn up the volume." -- Mr. Mike
Michael O'Donoghue (1940-1994) was never a household name. Nor, in many ways, did he particularly want to be. His humor was too scabrous, his sensibility too offbeat, and his temperament too abrasive. Unlike many of his comic contemporaries, he flatly refused to soften his art or personality for mainstream tastes, and ended up paying the price for it. Nonetheless, his influence looms large over modern comedy. O'Donoghue was the crucial creative force behind two of comedy's most influential institutions. In the early '70s, he was one of the most admired writers and editors of National Lampoon at the time that the magazine laid the groundwork for the rise of alternative comedy. Even more important, he was one of the original head writers for Saturday Night Live during that seminal show's first three seasons. Given such influential positions, it's not surprising that his dark sensibility, even in somewhat diluted form, permeated the mainstream and influenced generations of writers and comedians. O'Donoghue didn't invent dark humor, but he did sharpen it and take it into the mainstream. Younger colleagues ranging from Dan Aykroyd to P.J. O'Rourke cited O'Donoghue as their mentor, and his mixture of blood and laughter would later pave the way for acolytes like Quentin Tarantino. Comedy, as he liked to say, was a baby seal hunt, and in gleefully finding the humor in taboo topics like murder, cancer, and torture, he clearly saw no need to spare anyone.
From the beginning, O'Donoghue intended Mr. Mike's Mondo Video as the ultimate version of his brand of humor. He had spent three years at SNL defining his style with such classic sketches as "The Claudine Longet Invitational Ski Tournament" and "Mike Douglas Getting Steel Needles Plunged Through his Eye Sockets." It was his character of the evil Mr. Mike, however, that earned him the most acclaim. He didn't affect a voice or wear a costume, apart from some antique glasses and a cigarette holder. Instead, he simply stood in front of the audience and recited his "Least Loved Bedtime Tales," fairy tales in which childhood icons like Br'er Rabbit and the Little Engine That Could were crushed, devoured, or skinned alive. In 1978, at the end of SNL's third season, he left, convinced that the format of the show was too restrictive and that he needed more control over his art. Mondo Video, which was produced and financed by SNL producer Lorne Michaels, was intended to launch him in a new direction. O'Donoghue was allowed to direct the show and was given complete control over its contents. It was originally going air in SNL's time slot during one of the show's off weeks but NBC's censors were appalled by Mondo Video's undiluted squalidness and refused to air it. So Michaels bought back the film from NBC and released it theatrically in 1979, where it was a critical and commercial disaster. Violence actually erupted at theaters that screened it, which rather amused O'Donoghue. Apart from a brief home video release in the early '80s, it languished in obscurity until this DVD reissue, although the growing cult that surrounded O'Donoghue's work clamored mightily for its re-release.
Under those circumstances, it would be understandable to view Mondo Video as a lost masterpiece, or even O'Donoghue's crowning achievement. Sadly, even O'Donoghue's staunchest fans may find Mondo Video something of a letdown. Like all geniuses, O'Donoghue could often be his own worst enemy, and nowhere is this more evident than here. Ostensibly patterned after the 1962 documentary Mondo Cane, which presented various vignettes about oddities and curiosities of nature and humanity, Mondo Video follows Mr. Mike as he presents various "oddities" he knows of, by way of sketches and skits featuring O'Donoghue and some of his collaborators, including cameos by SNL cast members Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, and Jane Curtin. Unfortunately this concept isn't followed all the way through. For some reason, O'Donoghue felt the need to pad the running time, so he adds some random and very lengthy visual non-sequiturs that he didn't write or direct, such as bits of claymation and home movies of people eating dinner, and lumps them under the headings of "Dream Sequence." There's also an interminable musical performance from punk novelty act Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band that adds nothing of value. These just highlight the fact that although O'Donoghue was peerless as a writer, he was a mediocre director at best. His direction veers between ragged and sloppy and too often undercuts even the most promising ideas seen here. Rather than select his best material and shape it into a tight show, he simply slaps all of his thoughts, good and bad, on the screen and then doesn't even execute them very well, making Mondo Video more of a chore to watch than it should be.
There are still flashes of O'Donoghue's brilliance. One segment in which beautiful American women relate how they're only attracted to creeps (including cameos from Debbie Harry, Carrie Fisher, and Margot Kidder) contains some of Mondo Video's most cheerfully fetid moments. There's no way to resist the sight of Debbie Harry husking breathlessly, "I think it's so cute when guys miss the toilet!" Similarly, the segment devoted to a church in which parishioners in leis and Hawaiian shirts with poufy Brylcreemed hair worship the star of Hawaii 5-0 and sing hymns like "Where You There When They Crucified Jack Lord?" is as brilliant as anything from that era of SNL. For the most part, however, it's the small bits that hit harder than the extended pieces. The brief references to Gig Young's groceries and Nazi oven mitts, the shots of Aykroyd showing off his webbed toes, Mr. Mike's increasingly hyperbolic yet deadpan intros; these are the moments where O'Donoghue's comedy shines through best. Unfortunately, these are frequently interspersed with segments that are ill-conceived, and even some clever premises like the cat swimming academy are stretched out way too long, making Mondo Video, for all its notoriety, sadly unsatisfactory.
Because Mondo Video was shot on, well, video, and was directed and lit rather poorly at that, it doesn't look particularly great. Shout! Factory clearly did the best they could, but Mondo Video still looks rather hazy and washed-out, and the fact that most of it was shot in the dead of winter in New York means that there's not a lot of color or brightness to be had. The PCM Mono mix is acceptable, if not exactly dazzling. The extras, however, are surprisingly well-assembled. The best is a commentary by Mitch Glazer, who co-wrote the show with O'Donoghue (and later collaborated with him again on the screenplay for Scrooged). He tells some interesting stories about the making and writing of the show and its initial reception, although there are some bits that he freely admits even he doesn't understand; those he blames mostly on drugs. There are also three Mr. Mike sketches from SNL, compiling some of O'Donoghue's best work for the series. Finally, the disc is rounded out by the on-air eulogy that Bill Murray gave on SNL for O'Donoghue when he died in 1994 of a brain hemorrhage. It's a great piece, especially since it contains one more Mr. Mike sketch and Murray's genuine affection for his friend is touching.
The extras are worthy enough that O'Donoghue fans should have no problem deciding to buy this DVD, as should fans of the early SNL. Anyone else, though, should preview it first. Even at his best, O'Donoghue's work is an acquired taste and it's a shame that Mondo Video, for all its occasional flashes of brilliance, isn't even close to his best. For that, it would be better to check out the first three seasons of SNL and back issues of National Lampoon from the early '70s. Also recommended is Dennis Perrin's authoritative biography Mr. Mike, which is a must-read for anyone curious about one of the most influential and groundbreaking writers of his generation. As for Mondo Video itself, it's sadly found guilty of not living up to its legend, although it's let off the hook because even as deeply flawed as it is, it remains ambitious and outrageous in a way that much of today's flaccid comedy (Adam Sandler, anyone?) doesn't even come close to. Watch it once, then throw it out the window in a rage and badmouth it repeatedly to your friends. Mr. Mike would have liked that.
Guilty, of course, but worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 73 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated R