Mr. Mike's Mondo Video:
Michael O'Donoghue was one of the original instigators and writers of Saturday Night Live. Considered a comic genius, terrible migraine headaches lead to his tragic early death in 1994 from a brain aneurysm. Among his many writing credits, one lone directing credit glows weirdly, Mr. Mike's Mondo Video from 1979. What was originally intended to be a pinch-hit replacement for SNL (which was originally slated to air three weeks a month, with Mr. Mike taking the fourth Saturday) proved too damn bizarre - too dangerous - for TV. Somehow the thing managed to procure first-run status in theaters, where it proved too damn bizarre - too dangerous - for audiences. (One report had angry theatergoers pulling a Baltimore ticket seller out of his booth, beating him in an effort to obtain refunds.) Mr. Mike's Mondo Video claws out a place in my Top 100 (50? 10?) of cult movies - at least to make up for that poor guy in Baltimore.
And maybe there was a reason O'Donoghue's effort - a parody of 'shocking reality' movies like Mondo Cane - got the shaft from NBC. Maybe there's a reason paying customers would assault an innocent in homicidal rage. Uncomfortable to watch and in truth only intermittently funny, Mondo Video represents Mr. Mike's id unchecked by any form of ego. It's stuff O'Donoghue thought funny, minus any real editorial oversight, stretched through his odd sense of timing and splattered on a wall. Juvenile, sexist, puerile and at times too clever, Mr. Mike (man and movie) challenges the viewer to find humor in the absurd and disturbing, and it doesn't always work. Probably for the vast majority of the viewing audience none of it works, but weird stuff like this at least reminds people of what's bland and pandering out there in comedy land; most of it.
Mondo movies splice footage of nude natives drinking cow's blood, for instance, with kitschy sequences about pet embalming, reminding the viewer of how superior he or she is to most of the world. Mr. Mike officially opens his parody salvo (after a totally creepy intro) with a profile on the Dutch Cat Swimming School. It's exactly what it sounds like, and starts out absolutely hilarious for twisted minds. The sequence is then stretched a few minutes into an operatic ode to feline terror and perseverance, even those laughing will grimly purse their lips long before the zinger ending. And so it goes for this Mondo Video. A visit to the Church of Jack Lord (featuring an enthusiastic Dan Aykroyd) is another one-trick sequence stretched past the breaking point. Yet much here works, especially quick hit jokes, of which there are plenty.
Filmed for TV, commercial breaks are built into the fabric of the video, with teasers as to what's (purportedly) up next in our tour through the strange. Lowbrow, high-concept jokes are tossed out in this manner, like a promo for Marcel Cousteau, the underwater mime, or the teaser featuring 'Japanese bathing in dolphin blood, fried money and Christmas on other planets,' coming up next. Topless indigenous people dance for Pat Nixon, censored Sid Vicious footage is culled from the then-non-existent Great Rock and Roll Swindle, and Aykroyd shows off his mutant toes. Virtually the entire cast of SNL's early years pop up: Gilda Radner, Laraine Newman, Bill Murray and Jane Curtin, as well as Paul Schaeffer, Carrie Fisher, Teri Garr, Debbie Harry and many more, most of whom basically deliver one line.
All mondo videos, including this one, are nothing if not indulgent, a fact that totally limits their appeal. Though it's truly 'mondo,' do we really need a full-length performance of 'Boogie 'Til You Puke' by Root Boy Slim and the Sex Change Band? Are not continuing bits like the quest for the Laser Bra 2000 ultimately way too much? You'll have to decide for yourself, as opinion on this movie is well divided between 'absolutely hate it' and 'pure genius.'
It was in the early '80s when I was first blind-sided by this curiosity, and now I can at least say I get most of the jokes. Its boy's club sensibility seems lame by today's standards; all sketches involving women are of a sexualized nature (Laser Bras, Lingerie and toplessness, for instance) but such is (I guess) in keeping to the 'I dare you to like it' ethos. A commentary track reveals how much Mr. Mike loved this, and loved still more the fact that most people hated it, which should give you an idea of what to expect. Not having seen this in the theaters, I can't attest, but sources indicate this release is somewhat truncated. Missing is some Nazi humor, and Sid's vocals for My Way, replaced by scrolling gripes against Paul Anka, who withheld rights of reproduction. Fans of early John Waters movies and worse hopefully won't mind the exclusions while opening their minds to this stinky cheese of laughter. More's the challenge - I dare you to get the Haunting Mondo Video Theme out of your head. I'm at 25 years and counting.
Shout Factory's fullscreen (1.33:1) ratio transfer is decent enough. I'd love to know the story behind the source material, however it doesn't look like a whole ton of money was thrown into production even from the get go. Home-movie-style footage looking appropriately aged is the 'worst' in quality, while a Klaus Nomi dream sequence also takes gloom and fuzziness to heroic levels. The rest of the sequences are acceptably sharp or a little fuzzy, some with film-grain, and colors range from accurate to a little washed out. Once or twice a videotape jump crops up, but otherwise expect a picture commensurate to what you'd get from a brand new VHS cassette and you'll be on the money.
Dolby Digital Mono (or is that Mondo?) Audio gets the job done. It's not fantastic, but betrays no real problems either, ensuring that every bit you might not want to hear (Root Boy Slim or the Theme Song, for example) comes through loud and clear.
Included are three of Mr. Mike's Least-Loved Bedtime Tales from Saturday Night Live: The Enchanted Thermos, The Little Train That Died and Willy the Worm. All three together take up about six minutes, and all are typical of O'Donoghue's dark, dry humor. Also, from a 1994 episode of SNL is Bill Murray's Eulogy for Michael O'Donoghue. Also about six-minutes long, this includes another Least-Loved Bedtime Tale, The Soiled Kimono, featuring Laraine Newman singing opera. Lastly included is a Feature-Length Commentary with Mondo Video co-writer Mitch Glazer. Starting off sparse, quiet and low-key, Glazer most importantly offers up assurances regarding Cat Swimming School. Glazer then reminisces wistfully about O'Donoghue, while at times explaining origins for some of the bizarre footage created, and providing a good deal of insight into the madman's personality and process. Glazer gets more verbose and excited as the movie progresses, generating more respect for the Mondo Video than you'd think possible.
Mr. Mike's Mondo Video will challenge your sense of humor and tolerance. It's a true love it or hate it movie, and something of a standard-bearer for cult movies, which are notoriously difficult to take. Mondo Video takes dangerous humor right over the edge, with subjects that oft-times aren't even funny, or which far out-stay their welcome. Something tells me you aren't cool enough to 'get it,' so you probably shouldn't even try. Kidding! But seriously Mr. Mike treads where Andy Kaufman dwells, he's one of those too weird for this world, so if your taste in comedy and viewing pleasure makes normal people cross the street in avoidance, you'll probably treasure this in your collection. On balance between the love/ hate dynamic, I'll say Rent It, knowing that readers are full aware on which side of the fence they might sit, and will act according to their own inner demons.
- Kurt Dahlke
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