O'Donoghue was born Michael Henry Donohue in Sauquoit, New York. His father, Michael, worked as an engineer, while his mother, Barbara, stayed home to raise him.
O'Donoghue's early career included work as a playwright and stage actor at the University of Rochester where he drifted in and out of school beginning in 1959. His first published writing appeared in the school's humor magazine Ugh!
After a brief time working as a writer in San Francisco, California, O'Donoghue returned to Rochester and participated in regional theater. During this period, he formed a group called Bread and Circuses specifically to perform his early plays which were of an experimental nature and often quite disturbing to the local audience. Among these are an absurdist work exploring themes of Sadism entitled "The Twilight Maelstrom of Cookie Lavagetto", a cycle of one-act plays called Le Theatre de Malaise and the 1964 dark satire The Death of JFK.
His first work of greater note was the picaresque feature "The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist", published as a serial in Evergreen Review. This was an erotic satire of the comic book genre, later released in revised and expanded form as a book by that magazine's publisher, Grove Press. Drawn by Frank Springer, the comic detailed the adventures of debutante Phoebe Zeit-Geist as she was variously kidnapped and rescued by a series of bizarre Inuit, Nazis, Chinese foot fetishists, lesbian assassins and other characters. Doonesbury comic-strip creator Garry Trudeau cited the strip as an early inspiration, saying, "[A] very heavy influence was a serial in the Sixties called 'Phoebe Zeitgeist'. . . . It was an absolutely brilliant, deadpan send-up of adventure comics, but with a very edgy modernist kind of approach. To this day, I hold virtually every panel in my brain. It's very hard not to steal from it."
In 1968, O'Donoghue worked with illustrator and fellow Evergreen Review veteran Phil Wende to create the illustrated book The Incredible, Thrilling Adventures of the Rock. Biographer Dennis Perrin described it as having "no plot. The same rock sits in the same spot in the same forest for thousands of years. Nothing much happens. Then, while two boys roam the wood in search of a Christmas tree, one sees the rock and is inspired."
Taking the idea to the publisher Random House, the pair sold the book to the young editor Christopher Cerf. Cerf was a former member of the Harvard Lampoon, and O'Donoghue's first acquaintance from that group. Through Cerf, O'Donoghue would meet George W. S. Trow and other former Lampoon writers looking to start a national comedy magazine.
In 1969, O'Donoghue and Trow co-wrote the script for the James Ivory / Ismail Merchant film Savages. This film tells the story of a tribe of prehistoric "Mud People" who happen upon a deserted Gatsby-esque 1930s manor house. The Mud People evolve into contemporary high-society types who enjoy a decadent weekend party at the manor before ultimately devolving back into Mud People. Savages was eventually released in 1972.
O'Donoghue was, along with Henry Beard and Doug Kenney, a founding writer and later an editor for the satiric National Lampoon magazine. As one of many outstanding National Lampoon contributors, O'Donoghue created some of the distinctive black comedy which characterized the magazine's flavor for most of its first decade. His most famous contributions include "The Vietnamese Baby Book", in which a baby's war wounds are cataloged in a keepsake; the "Ezra Taft Benson High School Yearbook", a precursor to the Lampoon's High School Yearbook Parody; the comic "Tarzan of the Cows"; and the continuing feature "Underwear for the Deaf".
He was also the editor and main contributor to the Lampoon's Encyclopedia of Humor. He co-wrote the album Radio Dinner with Tony Hendra, and because of the album's success, he was assigned to direct and act on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. After 13 episodes, publisher Matty Simmons asked O'Donoghue to return to the magazine. A week later, O'Donoghue and Simmons argued over what was later revealed to be a simple misunderstanding, and O'Donoghue left.
It was at the Lampoon that O'Donoghue met Anne Beatts, with whom he became romantically involved. The two later moved on to work at Saturday Night Live together.
On the pioneering, late-night sketch comedy program Saturday Night Live, on which creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels assigned him the position of head writer, O'Donoghue appeared in the first show's opening sketch, as an English-language teacher instructing John Belushi to repeat what he does, teaching him such phrases as "I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines," and "We are out of badgers. Would you accept a wolverine in its place?" before dropping dead of a heart attack. He later appeared in the persona of a Vegas-style "impressionist" who would pay great praise to showbiz mainstays such as talk show host Mike Douglas and singers Tony Orlando and Dawn—and then speculate how they'd react if steel needles were plunged into their eyes. The shrieking fits that followed are believed by biographer Dennis Perrin to be inspired by O'Donoghue's real-life agonies from chronic migraine headaches.
O'Donoghue, in his refusal to write for Jim Henson's Muppet characters which appeared in the early years of SNL, quipped, "I won't write for felt."
Later, O'Donoghue cultivated the persona of the grim "Mr. Mike", a coldly decadent figure who favored viewers with comically dark "Least-Loved Bedtime Stories" such as "The Little Engine that Died." His other SNL sketches range from a black-and-white Citizen Kane parody to a Star Trek spoof that was a tour-de-force for Belushi.
O'Donoghue shared SNL Emmy Awards for outstanding writing in 1976 and 1977. After giving an interview to Michael McKenzie for Scholastic Magazine, O'Donoghue helped clear McKenzie to write the first documentary on the show, titled "Backstage At Saturday Night Live!! [Scholastic] which came out the following year. He left the series in the fall of 1978, after three years.
In 1979, he produced a television special for NBC, featuring most of the SNL cast, called Mr. Mike's Mondo Video. Because of its raunchy content, the network rejected the program, which was then released as a theatrical film.
O'Donoghue returned to SNL in 1981 when new executive producer Dick Ebersol needed an old hand to help revive the faltering series. O'Donoghue's volatile personality and mood swings made this difficult: His first day on the show he screamed at all the cast members, forcing everyone to write on the walls with magic markers. This horrified Catherine O'Hara so much that she quit before ever appearing on air. The only one he liked was Eddie Murphy, reportedly because Murphy wasn't afraid of him. According to the book Live From New York O'Donoghue tried to shake things up on that first day by saying "this is what the show lacks" and spray-painting the word "DANGER" on the wall of his office.
O'Donoghue was released from the show after writing the never-aired sketch "The Last Days in Silverman's Bunker," which compared NBC network president Fred Silverman's problems at the network to Adolf Hitler's final days. It was planned that John Belushi would return to play Silverman, and a great deal of work had been done on creating sets for the sketch (which would have run for about twenty minutes), including the construction of a large Nazi eagle clutching an NBC corporate logo instead of a swastika. Another unaired O'Donoghue sketch from around the same period, "The Good Excuse," also involved Nazi jokes. In the sketch, a captured German officer berated by his captors for Nazi war crimes explains that he had a good excuse, which he whispers into their ears, inaudible to the viewers. His captors are quickly persuaded that the unheard excuse was, in fact, an acceptable reason for the crimes of the Third Reich.
On October 26, 1986, O'Donoghue was further connected to SNL by virtue of his marriage to the show's musical director, Cheryl Hardwick, in the late 1980s. The union was fodder for a "Weekend Update" joke in which Dennis Miller noted that the couple was registered at Black and Decker.
O'Donoghue was one of several original writers rehired by Lorne Michaels upon his return to produce the show in 1985. O'Donoghue's intention was to write and direct short films for the show; however, none were completed and he wrote little else, apart from a monologue seemingly designed to humiliate Chevy Chase when he hosted the second show of the season. (The monologue began, "Right after I stopped doing cocaine, I turned into a giant garden slug, and, for the life of me, I don't know why.") The monologue never aired (though, according to Dennis Perrin's biography Mr. Mike, Chase loved the monologue and lobbied Michaels to perform it), and O'Donoghue was fired a month later after telling The New York Times that SNL had become "an embarrassment. It's like watching old men die." His final contribution to the show was a song, "Boulevard of Broken Balls," co-written with Hardwick and performed by Christopher Walken on the October 24, 1992 episode. (A version of the song sung by O'Donoghue appears on the album Give Me Your Hump! The Unspeakable Terry Southern Record, produced by Hal Willner and released in 2001.)
O'Donoghue acted in a supporting role in the 1985 comedy Head Office. He had small parts in the 1979 movie Manhattan (which poked fun at SNL), the 1987 movie Wall Street, and the 1988 movie he co-wrote, Scrooged. O'Donoghue said he loathed the theatrical release of Scrooged, insisting until his death that he and co-writer and best friend Mitch Glazer had written a much better film. He also wrote or co-wrote a number of unproduced screenplays of which Saturday Matinee (aka Planet of the Cheap Special Effects) remains legendary in Hollywood screenwriter circles.
O'Donoghue also found some success as a country music songwriter, his most notable credit being Dolly Parton's "Single Women" (1982). The song, originally composed for a 1981 SNL skit, later inspired the 1984 ABC TV movie Single Bars, Single Women starring Tony Danza and Jean Smart, which was produced by O'Donoghue.
In 1992, O'Donoghue created a sketch show pilot called TV for the Fox network. It featured Kelly Lynch and it was directed by Walter Williams, the creator of Mr. Bill, but like a lot of O'Donoghue's work, it was too out there for primetime TV.
O'Donoghue suffered a long history of chronic migraine headaches during his career. On November 8, 1994, O'Donoghue died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 54.
O'Donoghue's biography, Mr. Mike: The Life and Work of Michael O'Donoghue, was published in 1998 by Avon Books. The Barnes and Noble overview read, "This is the unvarnished story of a towering figure in American popular culture, the prime artistic force behind an entire generation of humorists and satirists."Evergreen Review (1966, 1969) (Periodical)
The Adventures of Phoebe Zeit-Geist (with Frank Springer) (1966) (Comic)
National Lampoon (1970–1974) (Periodical)
National Lampoon Radio Dinner (with Tony Hendra and Bob Tischler) (1972) (LP)
The National Lampoon Encyclopedia of Humor (1973) (Editor)
Savages (with George W.S. Trow) (1972)
National Lampoon Radio Hour (1973–1974) (Radio)
Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle (with Anne Beatts) (1975) (Adaptation)
Saturday Night Live (1975–1978, 1981) (TV)
Gilda Live (with Gilda Radner, Lorne Michaels, Anne Beatts, Rosie Shuster, Alan Zweibel, Marilyn Suzanne Miller, Paul Shaffer and Don Novello) (1980) (Stage/Film)
Mr. Mike's Mondo Video (with Mitch Glazer, Emily Prager and Dirk Wittenborn) (1979)
Single Women (1982) (Song)
Scrooged (with Mitch Glazer) (1988)
Spin Magazine ("NOT MY FAULT" Column) (1993–1994) (Periodical)
Biker Heaven (with Terry Southern and Nelson Lyon)
Planet of the Cheap Special Effects
War of the Insect Gods (with Mitch Glazer, Emily Prager and Dirk Wittenborn)