It was a time when people walked the nation’s streets with orange-foam pads clamped to their ears and antennae bouncing above their heads. The newspapers of the day told of several thousand men and women who had allowed themselves to be paired off and married by the leader of a religious cult, while on television there was a show that featured actual couples discussing their actual sexual problems with an actual therapist. Hundreds of consumers mistook a dishwashing liquid for lemon juice and squirted it into their drinks.
A gold designer handgun was available to the public, as was a breakfast cereal that claimed to taste like doughnuts. The Post Office boasted of its plan for post-nuclear-war mail delivery, which seemed to depend heavily on the distribution of emergency change-of-address cards. The President, who was known far and wide as a man who loved to laugh, communicated his displeasure with a foreign country by posing for a photograph with a representative of that country and refusing to smile.
And it was a time when, from a pay phone in the mental hospital to which he’d been committed, a would-be Presidential assassin told a reporter that he regretted putting a bullet through the brain of an unintended victim. “I just honestly wish I could go back before the shooting,” the young man said, “and let him move two inches out of the way.”
It was the beginning of last summer, and I was about to drive across the country with the dark prince of black comedy, Michael O’Donoghue, also known as Mr. Mike.
“I’ve never been one of those snotty New York writers who sneer at L.A.,” says O’Donoghue, turning his BMW into the Holland Tunnel in Lower Manhattan and heading for New Jersey. “I think the concept of a sybaritic culture is terrifying to a lot of people from the Northeast, but not to me.” Not to a 42-year-old man who gets really cranky if he goes too long without a bubble bath.
O’Donoghue has been talking about moving to Los Angeles for years, and now he is doing it. He is leaving the faded elegance of his Greenwich Village brownstone to live, for an indefinite period, in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills. Since there are certain amenities—art, music, fine silverware and silk dressing gowns, to name a few—that a civilized man cannot be expected to give up, O’Donoghue has packed those into the rear of his car and is moving them West himself. It is his first cross-country drive in more than 20 years.
It’s already past noon on Wednesday, June 30th, and O’Donoghue wants to celebrate the Fourth of July in L.A., so there aren’t any leisurely encounters with Mr. Bubble on his immediate schedule. Not to worry; he has drugs. He reaches behind his seat and pulls out a blue Right Guard aerosol can. He unscrews the false bottom and casually displays the contents: 35 perfectly rolled joints, a dozen Percodans (he gets migraine headaches) and a little something special to help with the late-night driving.
“A friend of mine has this theory about my comedy that has to do with my migraines,” O’Donoghue says as we move through the eerie light of the tunnel, “which is, if I’m gonna get migraines, they’re gonna get migraines, and I’ll just have to give ’em to them.”
O’Donoghue, as any serious comedy fan knows, was present at the creation of the two dominant comic institutions of the Seventies: the National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live. As a performer on the latter, he clawed his way into the national psyche with his “impressions” of how Mike Douglas, Tony Orlando, Elvis Presley and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir might react if 18-inch-long steel needles were suddenly plunged into their eyes. As it happened, they all reacted pretty much the same way—by flailing violently about the stage, clutching at their eyes and emitting bloodcurdling shrieks of pain.
O’Donoghue quickly became known as the sicko of Seventies comedy, the only man who set out to disturb his audience on such a primal level—needles in eyes, for God’s sake!—and then dared them to laugh anyway. “People either got that joke or they didn’t,” he has said. “There wasn’t anybody who said, ‘Well, I sort of liked it.'”
Then came the creepy Mr. Mike and his “Least Loved Bedtime Stories.” Describing the grisly demise of a soft, furry animal, lingering fondly over a particularly gruesome detail, Mr. Mike was obviously no stranger to madness. Again, the challenge to the audience: Is this too scary for you? How about a photo album called The Vietnamese Baby Book? Wanna hear a song called Cancer for Christmas?
“People often attack me for my black humor,” O’Donoghue told an interviewer a few years ago. “Now, if I were immortal, then it would be unethical for me to make fun of these pathetic human beings who have coronaries and pitch forward and piss blood on the rug. But, as it happens, I’m one of them, and it’s gonna happen to me also, so I feel I have a perfect right to rant about whatever I want.”
Now, after years of trying to get his emotional life into some semblance of order, O’Donoghue is ready to play the game. He wants to hear his rants echoing throughout the pop culture, to become widely known as the genius his friends and fans have long believed him to be. He also wants to make a lot of money. With his remaining hair cut severely short, his eyes inaccessible behind ice-blue reflecting glasses and his skeletal six-foot frame somehow conveying both extreme fragility and enormous strength, O’Donoghue will cut a striking figure in the Hollywood community.
He is already making his presence felt. Single Women, his mordant country song about the pickup-bar scene, was a big hit for Dolly Parton and is soon to be a made-for-TV movie. He is creating a Twilight Zone clone called Factory of Fear for cable television. And he is co-writing and directing a sequel to a movie most people thought was unsequelable, Easy Rider, in which he intends to bring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda back from the dead for one last bike ride through an America in ruins.
So here he is, following the signs to the New Jersey Turnpike, ready to observe the national decay firsthand. I am here to share the driving. He knows I’ll probably write about the trip and, if the truth be known, that prospect doesn’t displease him. This, after all, is the man who once said, “Life is not for everyone.” It is quite possible, in fact, that one of O’Donoghue’s favorite things is to have someone recording his every word for posterity.
“The funniest death to me,” O’Donoghue says with a giggle, “is a movie producer doing Quaaludes, falling asleep in his hot tub and parboiling. I don’t know if it has ever actually happened, but the idea is sure humorous to me.
“Everybody lies all the time in L.A.,” he continues, puffing on the first joint of the trip and warming to the topic of his new home. “People just lie as a matter of course. They go to those screenings and they have to walk past the producer and his wife after the movie’s over—’Jeez, I just loved it, Sol; most exciting film in years. Yes, I think Night of the Lepus is a classic’—and something in them snaps. Something deep within them snaps, and it never returns. Then they just lie about everything. ‘Great dinner, honey. Great salad. Great sex.’ Great has become a meaningless word; it’s just a rhythm word now.” He smiles contentedly, passes the joint and says, “I am always happy in L.A.”
We stop for lunch on Interstate 78 in Pennsylvania, at a Stuckey’s with a sign above the door that says, NOW! WE HAVE VIDEOGAMES! In fact, they have one Ms. PacMan machine, and it sports an OUT OF ORDER, sign. The catsup pump here rests only two inches above the condiment counter, so if you want catsup on your hamburger, you actually have to rub the meat against the spout. Life on the road can get raw.
“If you were a kid,” O’Donoghue says, “and there were a video-game restaurant where you could just suck on some kind of milk-shake/meat device while you played the games, you’d be pretty happy, wouldn’t you?”
Having put 160 miles on the odometer, O’Donoghue is obviously in excellent spirits. “We’ve already gone more than one twentieth of the way,” he crows. He sits in a window booth with his taco and his chocolate shake and thinks about a song he’s writing for his biker movie, an anthem honoring the early American flag that carried the words “Don’t tread on me.” “Now, there was a fuckin’ slogan,” he laughs. “‘Stay the fuck away from me or I’ll kill you.'”
On the table across from ours, someone has left a copy of this week’s National Examiner. “HITLER IS ALIVE,” the headline declares and, in smaller type, “AT AGE 93. NAZI MADMAN MASTERMINDED ARGENTINA’S INVASION OF THE FALKLANDS.”
“I thought that bore Adolf’s inimitable mark,” he says.
It is O’Donoghue’s stated belief that running out of gas is “possibly the stupidest thing human beings can do,” so we pull into a Texaco station before getting back on the road, though the tank is nearly half full. Fearing that self-service gas pumping requires some special knowledge that he lacks, he busies himself washing the bugs off the windshield. “There’s no mystery to this,” I say, inserting the nozzle into the tank. “If I can do it, believe me, it’s easy.”
“Well,” O’Donoghue says matter-of-factly, dipping the squeegee back into its bucket, “I guess you’ve just found out that I’m a major puss.”
Driving through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia at sunset, we spot a billboard announcing, BUFFALO RANCH AND MANSION FOR SALE. “What an impulse item as you’re traveling across the country,” O’Donoghue says, reaching for one of the four open packs of More cigarettes on the dashboard. “‘Whoa, honey, let’s pick up a buffalo ranch and mansion.’ None of my trendy friends have buffalo ranches. Can’t you just hear it? ‘I have to get back to the bison; it really clears out my head.'”
We decide not to eat dinner until we get to Roanoke, so we stop for snacks at an Arco AM/PM Mini Market. Hundreds of service-station owners are now supplementing their declining gasoline income with little stores where motorists can stock up on such items as Chee-Tos, Chuckles, Chewels, Chips Ahoy!, Cheez ‘n Crackers and Choco-Diles. We buy nine candy bars, three boxes of cookies and two Cokes.
To make up for our late start, we drive until three A.M. and stop in Morristown, Tennessee. The Knoxville World’s Fair—home of the fabulous Sunsphere—is only another 45 miles down the road, so we don’t exactly have our pick of accommodations. The night clerk at the Ramada Inn has a vacancy in the Fair Village Annex out back. The room is in a trailer. We take it.
Seven hours later, O’Donoghue, wearing yesterday’s driving outfit—white shirt and jeans—is having his first cup of coffee in the hotel restaurant. As I sit down, he looks up from his Tennessee map and says, “I couldn’t remember what you wanted, so I ordered you the squid.”
At the next table is a family of five, heading East after paying their respects to Elvis at Graceland, which is the one thing both of us really want to see on this trip. They tell us how many hours they had to wait to get in (six) and how “worth it” it was. All five of them are wearing Elvis T-shirts.
It looks like we’ll be arriving in Memphis just about the time Graceland closes. Should we stay in town overnight or just forget about it? O’Donoghue thanks the waitress for filling his Thermos with coffee, then says, “Let’s not decide right now. There’s so little to do, let’s save it. We’ll really discuss it and weigh the merits of all our choices later on.”
Back on 1-40 West, a kid in his late teens is holding up a sign that says, COLORADO. O’Donoghue points to the full back seat as we pass him. “But,” he says, “if you were a 12-year-old girl, fella, somehow we’d have found room for you.”
Behind us in the car, on top of the clothes and silverware and other incidentals that O’Donoghue is taking West with him, are two paintings wrapped in newspaper. They were bought from a Southern art dealer, and they are the work of Chicago nurse killer Richard Speck.
“Compared to a Monet or a Manet, these were relatively cheap—$200 apiece,” he says, very pleased with his purchase. With his left hand on the wheel, he reaches his right hand over the back of his seat for the car-cassette case. He picks out a Flatt and Scruggs tape and a Blondie tape and puts them on the dashboard. “I read an article about Speck that mentioned that he paints. I figured, If Van Gogh could cut off an ear, let’s see what this guy can do.”
O’Donoghue reaches behind his seat again, this time for the Right Guard can. “I had a dream about stabbing someone to death once,” he says, “and in it, I understood perfectly why people wind up with 76 stab wounds in them when they die. You know, everyone always says, ‘Boy, this guy must have been some psycho.’ The truth of it is, the first ten just slow them down a little bit, and the next ten slow them down a little bit more. People don’t die that quickly, so you have to stick them 60 or 70 times to really put them on the floor. It’s a lot of stickiness and grotesque emotions,” he says with a slight shudder, “a bad way to kill and a bad way to die.” I can imagine O’Donoghue telling this story on Merv.
He lights a joint. “I truly feel that mass murders are native-American folk art,” he says, as if he couldn’t conceive of anyone’s arguing the point. “Many of these people—particularly someone like Ted Bundy, a social worker, very loving, always reaching out for others—could have film careers like Redford’s.
“Tobe Hooper and I were talking about casting the quintessential American psychopath in this movie we’re writing, and one of us mentioned Liberace. That fantasy somehow turned up in some film magazine as a fact, and then, suddenly, it was in Liz Smith’s column. Liberace responded, and for some crazy reason, he was not happy about this totally false story that he was going to be playing a sexual psychopath. But he’d be great.
“Liberace’s very interesting,” O’Donoghue continues. “At a time in the Fifties when you could practically get the electric chair for even being considered a faggot, he was prospering and living an outrageous life—you know, piano-shaped swimming pools and jeweled 18th Century clothing—a wacko lifestyle, and he still lives it. He’s a real rebel in a funny way. I quite admire him.”
But even Liberace can’t compete with what appears, there, up ahead on the left—the fabulous Sunsphere. “Boy, that is impressive, isn’t it?” O’Donoghue says with more than his usual measure of sarcasm. “It looks like a fuckin’ water tower. Well worth traveling thousands of miles to see, the crown jewel of any vacation. As the barkers used to say outside freak shows, ‘Seconds to see, a lifetime to forget.'”
We don’t have time to stop for a visit, but we both resolve to buy Sunsphere belt buckles at our next stop. Now, about half an hour down the road, on our right, a sinister-looking white factory complex is spewing pollution over the farmland.
“Maybe I’m a little old-fashioned, but I still send cards on Earth Day,” says O’Donoghue. “The family gets together and we make hand puppets and, you know, protest nuclear energy. It’s great.
“But it doesn’t matter how much you protest the bomb,” he goes on. “Clearly, it’s gonna be used. What has ever been invented and not used? Actually, there was something—the steam engine was invented way back in 100 or 200 B.C., and they just used it as a toy. They never realized its potential. I mean, that’s mankind really bobbling it.”
Just west of Nashville, we stop for lunch at the Waffle House, where waffles come with some oleo substance called Shields Cup-O-Gold. “Is this butter?” I ask. “It doesn’t say butter on it.”
“If it doesn’t say butter, there’s a legal reason for it,” says O’Donoghue, whose attention has been drawn to a front-page story in today’s Tennessean about two young men who shot three people to death for no reason. “‘We were taking speed and drinking cold drinks,'” O’Donoghue says, reading the explanation of one of the killers. “‘We picked up our rifles and started shooting. I don’t know why we did it.'” He is silent for a moment, then says, “They were drinking cold drinks.”
He turns the page and finds a story about a nearby town’s banning video games. “Any time a whole bunch of kids like something, they find a reason to ban it,” he says, wadding up his napkin. “If kids suddenly started stuffing napkins into their pockets and really liked doing that, they’d find a reason to forbid it.”
“What were you like as a kid?” I ask.
“I was a wiseass,” O’Donoghue says. “Not surprising, really; you could almost have guessed that. In fact, it’s always thrilled me that I have actually made my money out of essentially being a wiseass. All the time I was mouthing off, wising off about God knows what sobersided subject, I was actually preparing for my future. A professional wiseass; that’s just a lovely thing to be.”
He goes off to phone his girlfriend, screenwriter Carol Caldwell, who is waiting for him at their Hollywood address. When he comes back to the table, he lights up a cigarette and obliges my request for a briefing on his background: Born in Sauquoit, New York, a small town outside Utica. Irish white-collar father, Welsh-German housewife mother, sister five years younger. Had rheumatic fever when he was five and spent a year indoors. Not especially popular in high school. Majored in English at the University of Rochester, from which he was thrown out during his junior year because of an “attitude problem.” Went out to San Francisco just a little bit too late to find the beatniks and got fired from a job as a reporter trainee at the San Francisco Examiner after getting into a fight in the city room. Returned to Rochester, got married, got divorced. Started a theater group and worked as a door-to-door salesman (costume jewelry) and a credit manager for Sherwin Williams, the paint people. “Real nice job,” he says, stubbing out his barely smoked cigarette. “They told me that if I did good work, I could have my own paint store in Youngstown, Ohio.”
Instead, he moved to Manhattan, where he started writing the Phoebe Zeit-Geist comic strip for Evergreen Review. Wrote a 48-page book called The Incredible Thrilling Adventures of the Rock, which began, “As you’ll recall, when we last left the Rock, he’d been sitting in the same spot, in the same forest, for about a hundred million years.” Helped found the National Lampoon, where he wrote such comic gems as “How to Write Good!” in which he advised would-be wordsmiths that any story could be satisfactorily concluded with the sentence “Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck.” Coproduced the first Lampoon record album, Radio Dinner. Edited the Lampoon Encyclopedia of Humor. Ran the Lampoon Radio Hour.
Then—along with John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and several others associated with the radio show—O’Donoghue moved into TV via Saturday Night Live. Spent three years with the show accumulating drawersful of censored material, such as the song Cancer for Christmas (“Santa’s bringing sacks of morphine / And some cigarettes. Time to call the Bide-a Wee/And give away your pets”). Did a late-night special for NBC called Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, which wound up in movie theaters when the network decided it could not broadcast a program featuring such segments as “Celebrity Deformities” (Dan Aykroyd probing at his webbed toes with a screwdriver) and “American Gals Love Creeps” (Debbie Harry, Laraine Newman and a dozen other sexy women purring lines like, “I love a man who smells his fingers” and “When I feel a firm colostomy bag, I know I’m with a real man”). Wrote several screenplays and published a $60 collection of his poems, Bears. (Sample verse: “Doin’ time for stealin’ watches, / In a room without a view. / There’s a hotel up the river / Where the towels steal you.”) Sold very few copies of the book.
O’Donoghue returned to Saturday Night in 1981 to help resurrect the corpse left by short-lived producer Jean Doumanian. Told everyone that the only hope for the show was to reinject the element of danger into its content and execution, and that didn’t mean more blow-job jokes. Wrote his most famous censored piece ever, “The Last Ten Days in Silverman’s Bunker,” in which the increasingly desperate NBC president tried to save his job with such shows as Tom Edison, the Woman (“Loni Anderson in a sort of offbeat docufantasy that asks the question ‘What if Tom Edison was a remarkable woman with an extraordinary pair of twin zeppelins?'”). Got fired.
“I really think that comedy operates out of a center of integrity, or at least it should,” O’Donoghue says, lighting yet another cigarette. “But NBC is a pretty big, fat, corrupt spider itself. If you’re not free to attack that, then the corporate corruption just spreads right through you, and then you start running scared. Soon you start saying, ‘Well, they’ll never let this on,’ and then you’re censoring yourself. Then it’s like you’re going out every night and repairing the barbed wire around the concentration camp. ‘Whoa, they might have been able to slip through here, but those Nazis would have caught ’em for sure.'” He pauses, then adds, loudly enough to be overheard, “I hate that philosophy!
“I knew the life expectancy of the Lampoon was five years,” O’Donoghue says, “and then they should have kicked everyone upstairs and gotten an entirely new staff who just hated our guts and who thought we were old farts and who didn’t know how to run a magazine. And that should have been a process, like a Stalinist sort of purge, because you don’t want a well-run magazine.
“Same deal with Saturday Night Live. The first three times we did that show, we really didn’t know if we could get 90 minutes or if it would just break down and be dead air. Well, there’s an exciting show for you. You can cut that tension with a knife, and the people at home can feel that, too. They should get somebody who has no idea how to put that show on. The way it is now, it’s just a blemish on the face of the earth.”
In the parking lot, O’Donoghue pours a cup of coffee from the Thermos, takes a sip, puts it on the dashboard, turns on the ignition and makes a sharp left out onto the main road, causing everything on the dashboard—cigarettes, lighters, maps, note pads, cassettes, snapshots, headphones and, of course, coffee—to cascade onto the floor.
“This is a major fuckin’ disaster,” he moans, pulling off the road. Several hand-fuls of tissues later, order is restored.
“Actually, it’s not such a bad disaster, is it?” he says with relief. “A little coffee on the rug; the rug is brown. I’ve seen worse.”
“Memphis has a weird history,” O’Donoghue says as we approach the city limits. “Around 1870, maybe a bit earlier, they had a yellow-fever epidemic that wiped the town out. It was just like the plague had come. Then it happened again ten years later; same deal. So it’s really checked the growth of the town. Memphis is a great city, one of my favorite American cities.” He passes me a joint and adds, “There’s someplace in Memphis where you can stand and see three states.”
“Mississippi, Arkansas and what else?” I ask.
After dinner at a former ice-skating rink called the Palm Court, we stop for a look at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed. There is a large plaque above the spot on the balcony where he fell. The manager offers to let us inside King’s room if we give him money. A prostitute offers us sex if we give her money. We ask for directions to Graceland.
Unfortunately, the directions are wrong, as are the ones we receive from eight other local citizens over the next 45 minutes.
“We’ve been here before,” O’Donoghue says when he drives past the Admiral Benbow Inn for the third time. “I think we’re fucked now. Perfectly 1000 percent fucked.”
“I say, ‘Fuck Graceland.’ I just say, ‘Fuck it.'”
“I agree, but I have no fuckin’ idea how to leave this town,” O’Donoghue says. “We’re gonna have to fight our way out of here, ask 20 more people for directions.”
“Where the fuck are the signs for Graceland?”
“Are we close now?” he asks moments later.
“We’re not getting any closer. We’re heading for Mississippi.”
“Oh, we missed our turn. Shit! I’m utterly, utterly fuckin’ lost.”
At 10:30 p.m., some 22 hours after entering Tennessee, we leave it. LAND OF OPPORTUNITY, an Arkansas billboard welcomes us. HOME OF MISS AMERICA AND MISS U.S.A.
We decide to spend the night in Little Rock, about two hours away. To cheer ourselves up after having missed Graceland, we tell each other jokes. Mine is about a guy whose doctor tells him, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.” The guy says, “Give me the bad news first.” The doctor says, “You’ve got a week to live.” The guy says, “If that’s the bad news, what can the good news possibly be?” The doctor says, “Did you see that receptionist out front? The one with the big tits? Well, I’m fucking her.”
O’Donoghue counters with one that Belushi used to tell about Adam and Eve. He doesn’t remember the setup, but the punch line has Eve washing her private parts in the river and God shouting down, “You asshole! Now all the fish are gonna smell like that!”
“American humor is a really angry rube humor,” O’Donoghue says. “Very mean and aggressive. I’ve always liked American jokes.”
We discuss comedy for a while. O’Donoghue likes Andy Kaufman (“He’s not so insane that every six months everybody in America isn’t talking about him for some stupid reason”) and is leery of David Letterman (“I fear that benign wacky; I see more and more of them around”). He thinks that Johnny Carson is “the best interviewer alive” and that Ed McMahon is a “great saver.” He doesn’t seem to really hate anyone.
“Even in people you don’t like, you have to admire professional aspects of them, just knowing how tricky certain things are,” he says. “I was watching some TV movie and I said to myself, ‘Sonny Bono isn’t a pathetic actor. Sonny Bono is a competent actor.’ It’s very easy to make fun of him, him being Sonny Bono and all, but he’s hitting his mark and saying a line and registering a moderately interesting expression. That’s a real tricky skill. I can’t do it; I’m not a particularly good actor at all.” He takes a drag of a cigarette and adds, “This is not to say I would have dinner with any of these people.”
OK, but isn’t there any comic that he absolutely can’t stand? “I have to dig really deep in Marty Allen to find that little spark of genius that I’m sure Marty has under all that hair,” O’Donoghue says. “God, what a grotesque creature he is.”
We leave the Little Rock Sheraton at ten o’clock Friday morning. The temperature is already in the 90s and the BMW is not air-conditioned. Out on the flat highway, I have to swerve around several squashed animals baking in the sun. “Motor meat,” O’Donoghue says.
Our first stop of the day is Coon Hollow Fireworks, a huge emporium where a man leaving with a giant shopping bag full of weaponry says to the cashier, “Well, have a bang-up Fourth! Haw, haw, haw.”
“I just go berserk when I live away from America for too long,” O’Donoghue says when we’re in the car again. “There’s a certain let’s-get-drunk-and-drive-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-road-with-the-lights-off philosophy out here that I really need.”
Back on the highway, he stands up through the sun roof and, at 70 miles per hour, fires off a Polaroid of a truck with the legend COOPER TIRES, THE TIRES WITH TWO NAMES.
“What are those?” he says, watching the picture develop in seconds. “Cooper and Tires?”
As I approach the Oklahoma border, a Datsun roars by with three beautiful women, two of whom have their bare feet sticking out the window. “Have you ever heard the expression—I think it’s Southern—’That girl is so beautiful, I’d crawl 15 miles through broken glass just to let her pee on my toothbrush’?” O’Donoghue says. “Now, that’s a beautiful gal.”
Lunch is biscuits and gravy at the Biscuit Hill restaurant, where a sign over the cash register reads, WE DO NOT CARE FOR YOUR PROFANITY. TAKE IT ELSEWHERE. When the cherry pie comes, it looks like part of a clown’s face, which reminds me of something I recently read about Richard Nixon. It seems he went to the circus with his grandchildren and, afterward, he went backstage to congratulate the clowns. Then the reporters covering that major event asked Nixon what he liked most about the circus, and he said, “I really like those clowns.”
“He’s probably the kind of guy who would laugh at Topo Gigio,” O’Donoghue says. “No one ever liked Topo, and I always wondered who his audience was.”
He decides against eating the clown pie. “As far as stars and celebrities go,” he continues, “Americans are as fascinated by failure as they are by success. So it really doesn’t matter which way you’re going, as long as you’re going in one direction or the other. They’ll fuckin’ eat you up either way.”
Back on the road, O’Donoghue selects a tape of English songbirds that he thinks would be just the thing to complement the oil derricks we’re passing. I spend almost a minute trying to peel the shrink wrap off the cassette. “Who invented this stuff?” I ask, expecting no answer.
“Cellophane was invented in 1908 by J. D. Brandenberger,” O’Donoghue says instantly. “I dedicated Phoebe Zeit-Geist to him for his incredible contribution to mankind. I thought it was a great invention myself.”
“OK, Mr. Wizard, what else do you know?”
“I know that polar bears kill only with their left hands,” he says, crushing his half-smoked More into the ashtray, which, with dozens of such long brown butts jutting out of it, looks like a huge, menacing insect. “I know that the average human skin weighs six pounds. I know that the Klamath Indians in Oregon used to use woodpecker scalps in place of money. I know so many facts.”
The sound of songbirds mingles with the rush of the wind as we speed through a particularly desolate stretch of Oklahoma. Except for the rebellious ashtray, the inside of the car reflects our combined compulsiveness. All our belongings are neatly and safely arranged; no garbage is allowed to accumulate around our feet. We are moving through America maintaining the illusion of control. “Look at that,” O’Donoghue says with considerable awe in his voice, pointing to a highway sign that warns, HITCHHIKERS MAY BE ESCAPING INMATES. Another fact.
“Are you a registered voter?” I ask, apropos of nothing, as we come to the outskirts of Amarillo. It’s half an hour past sunset, and all the road signs are black silhouettes against a dark-purple sky.
“The only vote I’ve ever cast was for Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.,” O’Donoghue says. “He said, ‘I’m a crook; elect me,’ which was the only honest thing I’d ever heard from one of those guys.”
“When did you first perceive that you were being lied to?”
“When I was fairly young, they had migrant camps in Upstate New York,” he says, leaning back in the passenger seat and propping a brown shoe on the dashboard. “My mother would always shudder as she went by the migrant camps. And they weren’t in my books about the policeman stopping traffic so the little baby ducks could cross the street; I knew that. And no one was explaining that if they paid those people a decent wage, you’d have to pay a dollar and a half for a can of beans. So everyone looked the other way, and that’s when I began to see that those books about our society were lying to me. Once you know that, you find confirmation everywhere.
“It’s very interesting to teach children what you hoped your society would be like,” he continues. “But you should teach them as truth that it did, indeed, turn out this way. In the script for this movie I wrote, Planet of the Cheap Special Effects, I had a scene in which they’re living underneath this planet and an explorer asks, ‘What’s your planet like? What are your cities like?’ And the queen puts up this triangular view screen, hopefully, this Bruce McCall drawing with gyroplanes and all these ramps leading from one building to another. And he says, ‘That’s a beautiful planet,’ and she says, ‘That’s not actually our planet. That’s the way we’d like it to look if we ever got some money to fix it up. It’s just rubble now, just garbage.'”
He flips over the Sons of the Pioneers tape that’s been playing. “The lie on television is that everything is solvable. Sure, we’ve got problems, but if we just love one another enough, we can solve these problems. Reach out and you’ll just put a smile on people’s faces.
“The fact is, a lot of people have money; you don’t; you’re getting fucked. And they’ve had it and kept it for hundreds and hundreds of years and just told you these silly lies. They always have really irked me, those lies. More than anything else, the lie of our society and how it works has made my writing go in a particular direction.
“Coming out of the Fifties, we were really betrayed by all the promises they had made and didn’t keep about what life was gonna be like. The TV screens got a little bit better, but we didn’t get Picturephones. No Picturephones—a big disappointment. Or car phones. The car’s the ideal place to phone people.” He lights a cigarette and says, in conclusion, “I’ve always thought that the point where America blew it was in not having landed on the moon in the Fifties.”
We have dinner at the Big Texan steak-house, where a very tall young man shakes our hands hard before he seats us. A 72-ounce steak is free if you can finish it in an hour. If you can’t, or if you throw up along the way, you have to pay $26.20. According to the restaurant’s tally, 3047 people have eaten free so far.
Our order—steaks, oddly enough—is taken by a waitress wearing a cowboy hat, a miniskirt, a fringed vest, boots and red garters. “The key to a successful restaurant,” O’Donoghue says, “is dressing girls in degrading clothes.”
We stop for gas not long after passing a sign that reads, LOS ANGELES 1007 MI. I pump the gas and O’Donoghue wipes the dead bugs off the windshield; this routine hasn’t varied since we left New York.
“I would really hate to be forced at gun point to drink the bug juice,” he says, noticing the color of the water after a day’s worth of windows have been cleaned with it. “They get the tourists they don’t like and say, ‘So, you’re from New York, eh? Well, maybe you’d like to drink the bug juice.'” He stares at the bucket for a moment. “It probably goes good with motor meat,” he says.
At 12:22 Saturday morning, we cross the Texas—New Mexico border into a new time zone and, suddenly, it’s Friday again. “Traditionally, there’s a party when this happens, and all the cars pull over to the side and celebrate,” O’Donoghue says. “I don’t understand why that’s not happening tonight.”
There are few vehicles on the road as we press on toward our third-day goal, Albuquerque. “We haven’t seen a police car in hours,” I say, keeping us moving at a steady 70.
O’Donoghue looks out at the pitch-black desert. “There really isn’t much for a cop to do out here,” he says.
“This is your classic Fourth-of-July-weekend traffic,” O’Donoghue says, switching lanes as we ride through New Mexico early Saturday afternoon. “Jerk-offs like these doing 14 miles an hour in the passing lane.”
His ire fades quickly, though. We are well rested—Howard Johnson’s Motor Lodges are still the greatest—and there is no longer any doubt about our Sunday arrival. Today’s drive across the desert can be a leisurely one. We take advantage of this by getting off the interstate and driving through the heart of Gallup on the once-legendary Route 66.
“Wonderful street,” O’Donoghue says as we pass block after block of buildings whose architecture is either classic Southwestern or fast-food modern. We stop for chocolate shakes at the Avalon Restaurant, where we discuss the disappearance from the landscape of certain great American things.
“There are so many things they’ve taken away from us,” O’Donoghue says.
“Such as what?”
“Hood ornaments,” he says. “They were just lovely, and they gave a sense of respect. And they took ’em away because if you can save one human life—that’s always the argument—it’s worth it, if you can save one human life. Actually, I’d be willing to trade maybe a dozen human lives for a nice hood ornament. I imagine those things really did tend to stick in bicyclists.”
The shakes are delicious, and on the back of the check, just under where it says OUR HEARTY THANKS, the waitress has written, JESUS LOVES YOU.
At the entrance to the highway, an aging hippie is hitching to S.F. O’Donoghue lights a joint. “San Francisco rock, San Francisco writing, it’s always real lightweight, ephemeral stuff,” he says. “Nothing important has ever come out of San Francisco, Rice-A-Roni aside.”
The fruit-inspection station is closed as we enter Arizona at 1:50 p.m. We are both wearing headphones plugged into a Sony Walkman that lies between our seats. The machine is playing Kitaro’s Silk Road, trance music that provides the perfect sound track for contemplating signs urging us to BUY CRAFTS DIRECT FROM INDIANS AT INDIAN CITY, during the INDIAN CITY FIRE SALE.
Outside Flagstaff, we see a sign that says, LOS ANGELES 454 MI. “Four-fifty-four,” O’Donoghue says with a smile. “We’re set. They’ll come get us if something happens now.”
O’Donoghue, with his note pad in his lap, is working on the lyrics to Don’t Tread on Me. One line he’s pleased with is “I put up with a lot, but there’s a lot that I don’t like.” He sings it over and over. He is very happy to be making a biker movie.
“I saw The Road Warrior, liked that a lot,” he says. “Megaforce made me angry. People keep telling me Barry Bostwick is a good actor, but having seen him in only this film, I can’t buy it. His eyes are so close together, he looks like he could look through a monocle on the center of his nose. They’re really close. It’s hard for anyone playing a flat-out hero to have those eyes.” Never having seen a Barry Bostwick film, I say nothing.
“When I see movies like Kramer vs. Kramer, On Golden Pond or The Four Seasons,” he continues, “I really have fantasies of the film going on for about two thirds of the way like that and then the vicious bike gang being introduced into it, which is a totally random element.
“But I’ve gotta make mine a real biker movie, too,” he goes on. “You know, whatever that scene is where the nork in the Volkswagen honks at one of the bikers and everybody goes, ‘Ooo, he shouldn’t have done that; oh, wow’—that’s gotta be in there.
“I’ve always liked that John Huston technique of getting all these high-strung actor types out in the middle of fuckin’ nowhere and locking them up and making a movie and just watching them go clinically berserk and filming the results. The producer, Bert Schneider, is really assembling a lot of lunatics—including myself—to work on this film, a lot of unstable types. I’m looking forward to this movie being a media circus. I love media circuses.”
“Who do you think is the audience for this film?”
“American people, I would think,” he answers. “It’s not very elitist, you know, a biker movie.” He laughs. “Anyone who gets annoyed when a Volkswagen touches his bike. People who think, like, You touched my car, you’ll have to die—that mentality.
“We’re on a fast schedule. I’m gonna write it this summer, I hope with Terry Southern and Nelson Lyon. We’re thinking of shooting in the early winter and then getting’ it to the kids by Christmas. Reap teen coin. Reap massive amounts of teen coin. That’s the plan. Write it, film it, cut it, reap teen coin.”
“Why do so many people think you’re an elitist pig?” I ask him. “You seem to revel in pop culture as much as anyone does.”
“It’s interest versus lifestyle,” he says. “I revel in it, but I don’t actually live in the pop culture. I live in almost another time.”
“Which time is that?”
“I don’t know, but things were more gracious back then. And everything wasn’t covered with corkboard and wall-to-wall carpeting. It was a lot different back then. For instance, restaurants wouldn’t have considered giving you unbuttered toast with little squares of ice-cold butter. They wouldn’t have considered it.”
O’Donoghue reaches into the back seat for the camera to get a shot of the exit sign for Andy Devine Avenue in Kingman, Arizona. “You know,” he says with a laugh, “I’m beginning to like this concept of everything you need in life being behind your chair.”
The first town across the California border is Needles, and O’Donoghue—of all people—is not about to pass by without stopping for a peek. It’s dark when we pull into the parking lot of Hobo Joe’s, but the temperature is still in the high 90s. The restaurant has Peanuts cartoons all over its walls, because Snoopy has a cousin who lives in Needles.
Someone has a radio on in the next booth, and we hear a news item about Cathy Evelyn Smith, who, after returning to Canada, was quoted by the National Enquirer as having said that she’d given John Belushi his last shot. “She must have been in some kind of a stupor if she admitted second-degree murder in a country that we have an extradition treaty with,” O’Donoghue says. “What did she think, she was up there with the walruses and the fuckin’ elk and they’d suddenly say, ‘Well, she’s out of our hands now. She’s slipped across the border to Canada’?”
O’Donoghue—whose friend Doug Kenney, a Lampoon colleague, was killed in a fall from a Hawaiian mountain in August 1980—learned of Belushi’s death by overhearing the excited conversation of strangers one sunny afternoon on Rodeo Drive. “Everybody felt they knew Belushi,” he says. “Everyone here would have felt they knew Belushi, and Belushi would have made them feel that way. He would have stopped and said hello to them. He had that look, Belushi; he looked real regular. He looked like one of those things off Northern California that ecologists are always trying to save from oil spills.
“You know, it shocked me the first two or three hundred times I saw the footage on TV of poor old bloated John being carried out of the Château Marmont in a body bag,” he says, laughing a nasty little laugh. “But now I know it just means it’s time for the news.”
“What does it feel like,” I ask him, “when a good friend dies?”
“It means you keep crossing out addresses in your address book,” he says. “George Burns’s address book must really be amazing to see.” Then, realizing that he hasn’t answered the question, he adds, “It’s real strange.”
When we stop for gas, he calls his girlfriend to tell her our arrival plans. “She says we’re in luck,” he tells me, getting back into the car. “July is Chevy Chase month on the Z Channel.”
O’Donoghue runs through the list of titles that make up Chevy’s oeuvre: Foul Play, Caddyshack, Seems Like Old Times, Modern Problems, Under the Rainbow, Oh Heavenly Dog. “Marilyn Miller and I are writing this women’s-prison movie, Kittens in a Can,” he says, “and I came up with this idea that when the prisoners were naughty, the Chevy Chase Film Festival would be held over for another week.” He laughs. “Cruel and unusual punishment.”
“I feel like I’m driving through a Carson monolog,” O’Donoghue says the next morning, passing America’s most famous cemetery, Forest Lawn. Several signs warn that the left lane is reserved for car pools during rush hours. “The car pool is a concept that’s really sweeping the nation,” he says. “There’s nothing Americans like more than sharing their cars with total strangers. You could probably have a picnic on that lane and nobody’d disturb you for hours.”
KROQ is playing Bow Wow Wow’s I Want Candy as we pull onto the Hollywood Freeway, our final stretch of highway. “This song has everything people fear about rock ‘n’ roll,” O’Donoghue observes. “African-jungle rhythms and white women singing about fucking, about wanting to fuck all the time.”
He lights the last joint of the trip. “I have a theory about L.A. architecture,” he says as his Spanish-style rental comes into view high above Fairfax Avenue. “I think all the houses had a costume party and they all came as other countries.”
An hour later, Carol Caldwell and I are lounging on the living-room couch, watching TV. O’Donoghue walks in wearing a silk dressing gown, having taken a leisurely bubble bath. With her short haircut and skeleton earrings, Caldwell is the essence of punk chic. “Did you play any miniature golf?” she asks. “You know, any Goofy Golf?”
“They don’t have Goofy Golf courses off the expressways, little lady,” O’Donoghue says. “If a truck driver wants to pop some reds and play 18 holes, he’s out of luck. All you see are Arco signs and sagging power lines.
“If anyone doubts that the corporations have taken over America, they should get out on the road,” he says. “It’s not ‘Come on board the Delta Queen!’ you know, or ‘Snakes as Big as Your Arm!’ No, all that fuckin’ stuff died years ago. Arco’s taken over the snake farm now.”
“Well, did you have Magic Fingers in any of the places you stopped?” Caldwell asks.
“No, you hardly ever find Magic Fingers anymore,” O’Donoghue says. “But we experienced the Knoxville World’s Fair, the fabulous Sunsphere, the way it was meant to be experienced. Why, some people say that on a clear day, you can see that towering Sunsphere from 400 yards away.”
“Well,” she says, “did y’all at least see the Grand Canyon?”
“No,” O’Donoghue says, “but we saw a sign that said, THIS WAY TO THE GRAND CANYON, which is so close, really. I’m at the point where I could say, ‘If I saw the sign, I saw the thing.'”