Michael O’Donoghue on Kafka, Belushi & drugs: An excerpt from Martin Torgoff’s Can’t Find My Way Home

By on September 18, 2015

In this interview with writer Michael O’Donoghue, after he’d apparently had a “rather raucous party” at his place the night before, on Halloween, the Emmy-winning first head writer of “Saturday Night Live!” and major contributor to National Lampoon mentions how he finds Franz Kakfa quite funny, even finding humor in Kafka’s insightful aphorism from his Diaries, 1910-1923: “It is enough that the arrows fit exactly in the wounds that they have made.”

O’Donoghue also mentions the influence of Kafka’s dark comedy in this exclusive excerpt from Martin Torgoff’s excellent chronicle of the use of mind-altering substances from post-World War II through the end of the century, Can’t Find My Way Home: America in the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000 (Simon & Schuster, 2004), provided for Night Flight’s readers with the kind permission of the author (thanks, Martin!)

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In this excerpt from Chapter 10 — “The Last Dance”), section V. “A Crazy Glorious Unrestrained Slobbering Saucier of Drug-Demented Elation” — Torgoff writes about Michael O’Donoghue and John Belushi, and how “drugs became virtually inseparable from the culture of comedy in both sensibility and content”:

“During his years as one of the primary writers of the flagship comedy show that shaped the humor of the era, O’Donoghue became convinced that comedy was like Zen.

‘Humor is just icing to make people eat a cake, the cake being ideas,’ he explained. ‘Zen teaches you a lot about comedy. On Saturday Night Live you had to come up with ideas very quickly under pressure and your instinct under pressure is to try harder, whereas Zen will say try half as hard, hardly try at all. And that’s how you succeed. It can’t be explained; either you achieve it or you don’t. You get satori, or you don’t.’

Another prime ingredient, as he described it, was ‘that suicide-kamikaze thing that makes for such good comedy. I loved it, and Belushi lived that edge.’

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For O’Donoghue, comic awareness began at the age of five when he contracted rheumatic fever and had to spend a whole year indoors.

‘It was a defining event in my life. I learned how to be alone and developed a certain hostility, shall we say, toward the children who played out in the sunshine. Lenny Bruce was a big influence on me. I mean, Lenny wasn’t Sid Caesar or Ernie Kovacs! He was the first to work drugs into his routine, way before George Carlin. Then came Lord Buckley, the great hipster…Terry Southern was another great influence — very funny and observant, a master of rhythms and dialects.’

‘And then the last influence, in terms of dark comedy, was Franz Kafka.’

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With the exception of Kafka, all were avid drug users, as was O’Donoghue. When he wrote satirical parodies for the Evergreen Review during the 1960s, he found that pot helped to release inhibitions and could produce ideas by free-association; he could stay up forever on black beauties; mescaline allowed him to do things like play with the clouds in the sky by actually molding them with his hands while he was sitting on a beach — ‘to this day I believe I did it, sat on a beach and made them into different objects until I became bored with it.’

By the time he became one of the original founders of the National Lampoon and created ‘The National Lampoon Radio Hour’ (the prototype for ‘Saturday Night Live’), the pharmacopoeia had rapidly expanded.

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‘There was something called Number One in those days,’ he remembered. ‘It was resin of marijuana taken down to an oil that came in a little glass bottle with a thing to smoke it with — very expensive, for rock and roll stars who were on the road. One hit and you’d be gone. Quite a little substance! And Quaaludes were great. They were called leg spreaders, weren’t they?’

Although he never wrote what he would call ‘straight-on drug humor,’ O’Donoghue would always recognize the potential of humor in the use and culture of drugs — at the time he created a game in which you would actually take various ups and downs as a means of moving across the game board — but it was during his tenure at the Lampoon, when he became known as one of the master practitioners of its unique brand of outrageous, merciless satire, that drugs became virtually inseparable from the culture of comedy in both sensibility and content.

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‘We at the Lampoon didn’t openly advocate legalization because we didn’t have any editorial policies whatsoever but the magazine was on the side of freedom of all sorts — the freedom to use drugs was one of them, and that meant the freedom to kill yourself if that’s what you wanted to do. I believe in free will. My attitude was that no one had the right to save you from anything.’

At ‘Saturday Night Live,’ John Belushi became the perfect vessel of this “suicide-kamikaze” brand of comedy. From his beginnings with Second City in Chicago, he dove headlong for the comic knife-edge of every character, routine, and review, accepting drugs as a central part of the experience of creating and performing. One of his favorite bits of schtick was to die onstage, and the more convulsive and gruesomely spastic his death throes, the funnier it would be.

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In the show ‘Lemmings,’ he made his name playing a stoned out doctor in an operating room and introduced something called ‘The All-Star Dead Band’ and all but stole the show with his brilliant imitation of Joe Cocker, who by that time had become noteworthy for stumbling around on stages, stone drunk, vomiting.

It was during ‘Lemmings’ that Belushi tasted his first cocaine, and by the time O’Donoghue and Chevy Chase persuaded producer Lorne Michaels to hire him for the ‘Not Ready for Prime Time Players’ of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ cocaine had become his drug of choice and his reputation as a dazzling but barely controllable maniac was flourishing.

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Of course, NBC was duly nervous about Belushi and many other aspects of the new show.

When the program debuted on October 11, 1975, the first thing the television audience saw was O’Donoghue; and then, after a knock on the door, Belushi entered in a shabby greatcoat, playing some kind of Albanian immigrant or something. What followed was an English lesson of sorts.

‘GOOD EVENING,’ O’Donoghue said. ‘Good eve-eh-ning,’ Belushi repeated in broken English, after which O’Donoghue got him to repeat the following phrase, slowly, carefully enunciating each syllable: ‘I would like…to feed your fingertips…to the wolverines.’

The scene ended with O’Donoghue pitching over on the floor with a massive coronary; Belushi thought about it for a second, and then pitched over and died, too.

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‘Live from New York, it’s ‘Saturday Night!” announced Don Pardo — and virtually from that moment on, the show was on its way to becoming a weekly cultural event with an audience of twenty million.

It was never any kind of big secret that SNL was nearly inundated with cocaine from top to bottom; the drug was a perfect fit for the wild exuberant week by week ride of it as characters and skits emerged that became legendary and the stars turned into icons of pop culture.

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“Certain people did cocaine, some didn’t,” O’Donoghue pointed out. “It wasn’t only about drugs — it was about that spirit, that sensibility. Gilda Radner had a certain wild desperation about her. Lorraine Newman was pretty out there and could get high with the best of them. Garrett Morris, it’s common knowledge that he was a big freebase user — he almost lost his mind. Jane Curtin, to my knowledge, never touched a drug in the world. A lot of people didn’t. People want to believe that everyone got into trouble with drugs on the show, but it was really a miniscule number. I mean, you couldn’t do a lot of drugs and still do a good show every fucking week!’

 

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‘The staff of the show only had one day off — Sundays — so if you wanted to relax and have fun quickly, drugs were a way of doing that, but you didn’t have a three-day weekend where you could do Quaaludes and just float away but people somehow managed to do plenty of drugs anyway.’

‘Getting high was part of the time and place and scene and we were just part of our culture, not that much more and not that much less. Drugs certainly contributed to the myth of the show, but I think it was probably much more myth than reality. Except, maybe, in the case of John Belushi.’

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Sudden fame brought money; money, of course, brought more blow; and fame plus money plus more blow equaled hysterical outbursts of show business egomania and paranoia. As Belushi became a movie star and had his Blues Brothers success with Dan Aykroyd, his cocaine intake became cause for concern, especially to his wife, Judy Jacklin Belushi. When he was persuaded to go in for a check-up in 1976, his substance abuse evaluation was recorded as follows:

Smokes 3 packs a day.
Alcohol drinks socially.
Medications: Valium occasionally
Marijuana 4 to 5 times a week
Cocaine—snort daily, main habit,
Mescaline—regularly.
No heroin.
Amphetamines—four kinds.
Barbiturates (Quaalude habit).

Note the ‘no heroin.’ Like many of his generation, the fact that Belushi stayed away from junk made it that much easier for him to justify an intake of four grams a day of cocaine as recreational and creative fuel, and he believed that all would be okay as long as he never crossed that line. But unlike most of the people on the show who used cocaine as a pick-me-up or binged out with it at the weekly blowout party after the live broadcast wrapped, Belushi did it pretty much all week long, before and during the show.

‘John would actually use cocaine on the broadcast,’ O’Donoghue noted. ‘When he did that skit of Beethoven snorting cocaine at the piano and then breaking out into a Ray Charles piece, he had a big fat line, and there was that tight shot of him doing it. Lorne was very permissive for the most part and by that time, the network was staying away. Everyone thought it was white powder, but what kind of white powder can you snort like that? Baby laxative?’

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The writers were always aware that they were putting together a show for a mass audience that would be staying home and getting high. As O’Donoghue told Susan Wyler for a High Times interview in February of 1978, ‘Lorne has always said that we are counting on at least 80 percent of our viewers to be wrecked—really in Cuckooland.’

As the king of Cuckooland, Belushi had a lot of fun playing with his image as a stoned-out loon, and the audience always loved it.

“I’m not fussy,” he said in his Christmas skit with Candace Bergen. “I like candied yams, plum puddings, and roast goose stuffed with drugs.”

Saturday Night Live (NBC) 1976 Shown: writer Michael O'Donoghue

At the fade in of one show, Lorne Michaels wheeled him out in a chair in a bathrobe, passed out cold. “I can’t put this guy on television…I mean, he’s got to be awake.” “I’ll be forced to cut him off his drugs,” said the doctor, after which Belushi sprang to life—“Live from New York!”

Two weeks after making the cover of Newsweek in 1978, Belushi did a “Weekend Update” spot about drug policy that began with an earnest talk about decriminalization (‘Possession of an ounce is a misdemeanor now. You know how far we’ve come?’) that ended with him pounding on the table in his now-celebrated out-of-control frenzy — ‘I want hard drugs!’ — then he pitched over with the now-familiar seizure.

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Some of Belushi’s skits were as haunting and poignant as they were funny. In one of Tom Schiller’s films, Belushi appeared at the “Not Ready for Prime Time Cemetery” in Brooklyn.

“They all thought I’d be the first to go,” he said, pointing out the graves: Gilda, Loraine, Jane, Garrett (“he died of a heroin overdose”), Chevy (“He died right after his first movie with Goldie Hawn”), Danny Aykroyd.

“Now they’re all gone and I miss every one of them. Why me? Why’d I live so long? I’ll tell you why. ‘Cause I’m a dancer,” and he began his funny little jig over the graves…

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‘He was a dancer,’ O’Donoghue emphasized. ‘How dangerous was the dance he was doing? Well, here’s the thing. You couldn’t drown John. He would find a way to save things. That’s why he was sent onstage for some very bad sketches—because you knew he’d always save it! He hated to go under. Taking it to the edge—that’s how he lived his whole life. It was that crazed death-oriented gusto that put the edge on his performance—which gave him the edge and put him over the edge.’

‘One time in the main writer’s room he laid on the ground and took these pink and white Necco wafers that looked like huge pills and scattered them around him—it looked just like he ODed. It made me laugh so hard because you sensed that was what was going to happen to him. He knew it, and he had this humor which confronted it and was honest about it, which is the core of every good joke.’

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The dance ended in Bungalow 3 at the Chateau Marmont on the morning of March 5, 1982 — death by overdose, reportedly from the injection of speedballs — heroin mixed with cocaine.

‘The horrible thing is that he’d only done heroin a few times in his life, and this time it appeared that he just got caught off base. People had been doing it for 50 years, and here John does it a few times and overdoses, and immediately everyone starts saying he was a junkie. But that wasn’t really the case at all. He was just screwing around a little bit. He just got unlucky.’

‘It’s a great disservice to misinterpret his relationship to heroin because John Belushi wasn’t a junkie. He was also capable of cleaning up, too. For long periods of time, he was clean, did exercise. He had some discipline.’

Belushi’s death did not stop O’Donoghue from taking heroin himself on the dreadful day of the funeral at Martha’s Vineyard.

‘I just thought, they’re going to take this and turn this into some cautionary tale for us, and I just felt like, well, fuck you all! So I took drugs and went, because that’s exactly how he would have done it.'”

Martin Torgoff

This material on Michael O’Donoghue was adapted from Martin Torgoff’s book, Can’t Find My Way Home: America In the Great Stoned Age, 1945-2000 (Simon & Schuster, 2004), which told the story of how illicit drugs went from the underground to the mainstream and how it changed the cultural landscape. Martin is presently working a “prequel” companion volume for DaCapo Press due out in 2016 about how the underground itself was created. Working title is Bop Apocalypse: Jazz, Race, Beats and the Advent of Drug Culture In America.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.