Watching Mr. Mike's Mondo Video today, it's hard to believe NBC ever green-lit it as a late-night special. It's much easier to believe what happened next—Video so thoroughly horrified the NBC suits that they purged it from their schedule. In 1979, the special was reconfigured as a theatrical release from plucky upstart New Line, and it became an instant midnight movie. Video pushes the conceptual weirdness and bracing darkness of Michael O'Donoghue's pioneering early work as the head writer of Saturday Night Live to extremes that border on avant-garde. It was designed for a late-night audience whose minds and attention spans had been expanded by the kind of mood-altering substances that can't be advertised on TV.
Dressed like a cross between Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, O'Donoghue's "Mr. Mike" alter ego lords over the curious proceedings with deadpan malice, acting as a tour guide through a free-associative trip into the strangest corridors of human experience. A singular cross between Dadaist anti-comedy, public-access weirdness, and more conventional sketch comedy featuring ringers like Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Gilda Radner, Video makes going too far its highest priority. It's a crazy-quilt assemblage that finds time for Klaus Nomi singing opera, Sid Vicious sneering "My Way" with the volume on mute, and a sketch about a religion rooted in the worship of Hawaii Five-O star Jack Lord. It's funny-strange and funny-ha-ha in equal measures.
On the plus side, Video is the kind of fearless provocation that devotes several minutes to the strangely hypnotic spectacle of cats swimming in slow motion. On the down side, it's also the kind of self-indulgent vanity project that devotes several minutes to cats swimming in slow motion. Acolytes who have deified O'Donoghue as the dark prince of comedy and Terry Southern's creative heir will appreciate the opportunity to see his eviscerating comedy in its purest, most unfiltered form, blissfully free of compromise and commercial calculation. Now, as then, much of Video's subversive fun lies in separating the hipsters from the squares, the die-hards from the day-trippers, and the proudly perverse from the merely open-minded.
Key features: An affectionate commentary from longtime O'Donoghue collaborator Mitch Glazer, a few Mr. Mike Least Loved Bedtime Story sketches, and Bill Murray's touching on-air eulogy for O'Donoghue.