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Brian McConnachie, humor writer ‘from another planet,’ dies at 81

Brian McConnachie, who brought absurdist humor to three comedy touchstones of the 1970s and ’80s — National Lampoon magazine and the NBC television series “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV Network” — died in hospice care Jan. 5 in Venice, Fla. He was 81.

The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Ann (Crilly) McConnachie, said.

Brian McConnachie — who stood 6-foot-5 and often dressed in a bow tie, suit, and saddle shoes — had an elegant, patrician presence that set him apart from the wilder, more disheveled writers (most of them men) who often surrounded him.

“Look, if you told me that he had been a welcomed member of the Algonquin Round Table, and he was there with James Thurber, I’d get that,” Alan Zweibel, an original “SNL” writer who worked with Mr. McConnachie, said in a phone interview. “The rest of us were hooligans.”

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Yet even if he appeared to be more of a grown-up than other writers in the Lampoon and “SNL” orbits, Mr. McConnachie’s laid-back, whimsical style — with some anarchic, disturbed twists — fit in well with the other writers’ contributions.

“If the story of the National Lampoon were a script by Rod Serling,” Rick Meyerowitz, a leading illustrator there, wrote in “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead” (2010), his history of the magazine, “the main character would have been Brian McConnachie, a man who his colleagues were convinced was from another planet.”

In a phone interview, Meyerowitz added that the sense of Mr. McConnachie as otherworldly was “what you got when you read him but not when you sat and had a beer with him.”

“In all ways,” he added, “he was very modest and not showy.”

In 1973, Mr. McConnachie satirized the cartoon cat and mouse characters Tom and Jerry in “Kit ’n’ Kaboodle,” a Lampoon mini-comic book (illustrated by Warren Sattler) in which Kit the cat sustains brutal injuries — an anvil crushes his spine, a gunshot blows off part of his head — that don’t heal as they often do in comics and animation.

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The same year, he appeared in a photograph in “National Lampoon 1964 High School Yearbook Parody” as a music teacher, Dwight Mannsburden, standing at an angle mimicking his nearby metronome. A year later, for “The National Lampoon Radio Hour,” Mr. McConnachie collaborated with Louise Gikow on “Moby! The Musical,” a parody of “Moby-Dick.”

In “Name the Bats,” a game-show parody written by Mr. McConnachie for “SNL,” Michael Palin, as the emcee, shuts a rickety barn door on two contestants (John Belushi, whom Mr. McConnachie was close with, and Gilda Radner) and barks at them to give names to the bats flapping at them in the dark.

When they identify various types of bats, Palin excoriates them.

“You’re supposed to name the bats!” he shouts. “Don’t tell us what kind of bats they are! We know what kind of bats they are! Who do you think put ’em in there?”

Zweibel said that at the table read of the sketch, “I never laughed harder; we were all doubled over.”

For “SCTV,” Mr. McConnachie and Dave Thomas, one of the show’s stars, wrote a sketch in 1981 in which Vikings board a ship in the year 986 — bored with the sameness of their past methods of attacks on England — and bring a new and unexpected weapon: bees.

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Bees?” Thomas, who played the Viking captain, wrote in 2020 in The American Bystander, a humor magazine conceived in the 1980s by Mr. McConnachie and revived more than 30 years later. “This was such a delightfully insane concept that I fell in love with it right away and offered to help write it.”

Brian John McConnachie was born Dec. 23, 1942, in New York, and grew up in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens. His father, Morton, was a reporter for The New York Journal and a newsreel production manager. His mother, Mae (Clark) McConnachie, was a teacher.

Brian McConnachie studied English at University College Dublin from 1961-63 and served in the Army for two years. He then worked at an advertising agency, where he reviewed TV shows that the agency’s clients advertised on. To his colleagues’ chagrin, he praised rural comedies such as “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Andy Griffith Show” for their sweetness and their smart gags, he told Review Magazine, which covers news and entertainment in the Great Lakes Bay region of Michigan, in 2008.

He was shuttled to what he called the “Floor of Lost Men” with no work to do.

After the Lampoon began publishing in 1970, Mr. McConnachie looked to it as his career salvation.

“I had to be there,” he said. “I was like some kid from Kansas going to New York to get the part in the show, but I did it from New York. I started going there with cartoons.”

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The cartoons were crude, but they got the attention of Henry Beard, one of the magazine’s founders and editors. Mr. McConnachie was hired in 1972. He left the magazine after four years and joined “SNL” for the 1978-79 season, its fourth.

He was nominated for an Emmy in 1979 as a member of the “SNL” writing staff. After joining “SCTV” for its 1981 season — its first on NBC after several years in syndication — he shared an Emmy for outstanding writing for a variety or music program.

Around that time, Mr. McConnachie helped start The American Bystander, but it produced only one pilot issue, in 1982, doomed by the financial impact of the recession that began a year earlier.

“He was gentle, impossible to read and unpredictable,” Jennifer Finney Boylan, the managing editor for that sole issue, said by phone, “but tremendously encouraging to young writers.”

The possibility of resurrecting the magazine never left Mr. McConnachie over the years, as he wrote for the children’s series “Shining Time Station” and “Noddy”; acted in films (including small roles in “Caddyshack,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” and several Woody Allen movies); and delivered commentaries on NPR.

The American Bystander was finally revived in 2015, built around Mr. McConnachie’s nostalgic, literary brand of humor. Mr. McConnachie was the head writer.

“He had that flush of success in the 1970s and ’80s, but then he couldn’t find the kind of institution that he flourishes in,” Michael Gerber, the editor and publisher of The American Bystander, said by phone. “He really needed one. He never really felt comfortable outside of a gang.”

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In addition to his wife, Mr. McConnachie leaves his daughter, Mary Crilly O’Hara, and three grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.