Unless you’ve been living under a rock, which itself is under a slightly larger rock, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve been hit with a bevy of high-profile deaths in recent weeks. Of course, the most notable and most visible has been the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. For that, I have no words. The man was perhaps the greatest actor of our generation, and anything I could say about him would pale in comparison to the eloquent words already penned in remembrance and in the name of substance abuse awareness. Suffice it to say, he was a tremendous inspiration and his absence in the coming years–on stage, in film, at the awards shows that he would have inevitably and annually swept–will be acutely felt.
But for this post (and seeing that this is a blog about comedy), I would like to take a moment to remember Harold Ramis, who passed away on Feb. 24.
I could go through a litany of films that shaped my comic sensibility as a child and teenager, and even as an adult–from Airplane! I learned the importance of not treating a comedy like a comedy, from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I learned the importance of character development and stylistic commitment, from The Big Lebowski I discovered the significance of subtlety and the power of understated, wry, dark humor… the list goes on. But if I had to really think about the films that simply made me laugh, got me excited about comedy and just worked on that fundamental premise, Harold Ramis is essentially the most influential comic talent in my life. And I never really realized it until I was older.
I’d start with the obvious: Ghostbusters. I’ve seen that movie more times than I can count–I had the proton packs as a kid, the little foot-pump ghost trap, the whole shebang. I played the video games. I watched The Real Ghostbusters. I drank Ecto Cooler like it was going out of business. Which, sadly, it did.
But the lasting success of the Ghostbuster franchise rests on the shoulders of Bill Murray–and not without good cause. The man is an improvisational genius, and the movies’ humor is largely shaped by his presence. The long-rumored third movie’s many delays can be attributed to Murray’s refusal/unwillingness/stalling, which speaks to the importance of his Peter Venkman to the films’ success (of course, as with any Hollywood project, there’s lots of finger-pointing going around). Ramis wrote the film with his co-stars, but credit is often given to Murray for his ad-libs and improv (little of the film adhered to the original script anyway). This is not to take away from Ramis’ contributions (after all, the Twinkie scene is among my favorite moments in the film), but just to say that Ghosbusters is just one part of a monumental comic legacy Ramis has left us.
I would like, then, to focus on Ramis’ other works–his comedies that seem to have all, like Ghostbusters, become staples modern comedy.
Look at this list of films Ramis had a major hand in: Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Animal House, Meatballs, Back to School, Ghostbusters I & II, Groundhog Day, Stuart Saves His Family, Multiplicity, Analyze This… Seriously, the guy shaped 80s and 90s comedy. And that isn’t even counting his work for SCTV.
I could do a laundry-list of all of Ramis’ directing and writing credits, but you all know how to get to IMDB, so why bother? But one glance tells you that these are movies that quite literally defined film comedy in the 80s and 90s. Every time you find yourself quoting Caddyshack, or Ghostbusters, or Animal House, know that you’re borrowing from Ramis’ comic legacy. Endless quotability: another of Ramis’ gifts to his films’ audiences.
But why have his films been so lasting, so important, so damn quotable? It strikes me that one reason may be that Ramis celebrated the underdog. In the 80s, underdog stories were all the rage: in comedy, drama, adventure, sports flicks, you name it. They still are, of course, but there seemed to be something particular about the 80s–and specifically, 80s comedy–that seemed myopically focused on the underdog story. Nerds outsmarting jocks. Outcasts forging new identities. Loners, Dottie. Rebels. Ramis wrote almost specifically for this “genre.” The Deltas, the Ghostbusters, Stuart, The Griswolds, Danny Noonan, Carl Spackler, John Winger, Russel Ziskey: these are Ramis’ losers, his loners, his outcasts; but they’re more than that. He once remarked, “My characters aren’t losers. They’re rebels. They win by their refusal to play by everyone else’s rules.” Ramis essentially gave us the “rebel loser” trope in comedy, and it still exists today–because it works. As Patton Oswalt tweeted, “No Harold Ramis, no comedy as we know it today.”
What I find most powerful about Ramis’ work as a comic artist in the last four decades is that his jokes have a familiarity to them. It’s a certain nostalgic inventiveness that was unique to him, and which came to define the comedy of my youth. A formulaic–and I mean that in a positive light here–approach to joke-telling and joke-writing, made fresh and timeless through a razor-sharp sense of humor and a subtly subversive critical edge. There’s a reason his films hold up today, in ways that many others do not.
Rainn Wilson described Ramis as “the Buddha of Comedy,” and I think that that says it all. He was just that: a man whose comedies walked the difficult middle path between outrageous and heartwarming, between ridiculous and believable. His writing, directing, and acting are informed by a sincere and honest kindness and intelligence, but along with this sincerity is a genuinely biting satiric edge. Groundhog Day is a work of tremendous sincerity and sweetness, but it also has a deliciously morbid center–and these two elements are impressively not at odds, but rather, work in harmony, reinforcing the film as a whole. His works all seem to strike this tenuous balance between dark satire and joyous humor. Ramis once said, “We are all several different people. There are different aspects of our nature that are competing,” and his humor managed to capture that in a way that few others have. His writing is complex in its simplicity, and
lends itself to demands multiple viewings, without ever robbing the initial viewing of its joy. For anyone who thinks they know every joke in Caddyshack or Ghostbusters, watch them again–I’m sure you’ll find something new to enjoy, and a new laugh will surface. Another of Ramis’ enduring comic gifts.
All this to say that Harold Ramis was a man of formidable comic talent, whose contributions to the world of comedy cannot be overstated. His films have influenced me perhaps more than any other filmmaker–and there are many individuals who I would list above him in terms of technical skill or artistry. But for sheer laughs, for that endorphin rush that we feel after having been treated to a perfectly-executed joke, and for genuine humor in its purest form, few compare. His comedies shaped a generation of artists, writers, performers, and humorists, and his work will be remembered, and rewatched, for many years to come. Godspeed, Harold Ramis. Gunga galunga… gunga gunga lagunga. I second the President when I say, I hope you’ve received total consciousness.
Postscript: I must say that blogging about this simply reminds me of Egon Spengler’s Nietzschean announcement, after emerging from beneath Janine’s desk: “Print is dead.”