With a heavy heart, we take a moment and remember the genius of Harold Ramis….
When I first watched Stripes, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day I was far from the point of possessing the type of intuitive thinking necessary to appreciate the incredibly gifted writers behind these films. Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, the caliber of films rolling off the cinematic assembly line were legendary, birthing comedic treasures that would set an impossibly high bar for generations to come. Besides heavy doses of the comedic genius of the Billy Murray, I didn’t consider for a second that a connection could be made between the aforementioned films. What I did not yet appreciate was that there was an analogous foundation supporting the weight of all these masterpieces. As I grew older, I eventually became aware that I was in fact in debt for an adolescence spent in laughter to one Harold Ramis, one of the most talented comedic minds in recent generations.
As a director, writer and actor, Harold helped define modern comedy with his playful, sarcastic and heartwarming tales of redemption1. Ramis was an artist, one gifted with the ability to move people to laughter. His stance was steadfast – laughs could be cheap, they could be crass – but they had to be authentic. They had to come from the right place, and must always be character driven. Nobody these days does Ramis’s unique brand of accessible yet polished humor and it’s a testament to his talents that so many of his contemporaries still try to mirror his comedic stylings.
There was, I am not ashamed to admit, a point in time where if you thought there was a funnier movie than Caddyshack2 your opinion became null and void to me. Anything else you said I wouldn’t hear. My sensibilities have since softened, but my opinion remains firm. Caddyshack was a film about golf that was about everything except golf. It was about class warfare, and in some ways the state of the nation, both then and now. And it offered a cinematic mixed bag of sorts, something for everyone – slapstick, satire, deadpan, surrealism, cerebral banter, and even a parody of Jaws exploiting Baby Ruth’s most notable doppelganger. It utilized, with implausible agility, the gargantuan comedic talents of Ted Knight3, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, and Chevy Chase. Sports comedies have been, more or less, doomed to mediocrity in Caddyshack’s wake. And with each viewing Caddyshack manifests itself as increasingly multifarious, and far more funny. So we got that going for us, which is nice.
I hardly have words for Ghostbusters. More aptly put I have too many and just cannot seem to boil them down to that perfect complimentary reduction. Personally the film came about at a perfect time for me, as my intrigue with wacky adventures4, and the imaginative, was advancing into an appreciation of sarcasm and dry, quick wit. Slimer may have gotten me into the theater, but I walked away a changed man – one that would forever appreciate that perfect punchline, delivered with resolute conviction. Egon, easily Harold Ramis’s most notable character5, was a quiet pro, a scientist and genius whose deadpan reactions to extraordinary events set the tone for the film. His intensity, and passion6, was the engine that propelled the film, and grounded what could have been a gratuitous flick about a gang of underappreciated ghost hunters. To serious for me at the time, Egon grew on me, until his role in the film became the one I appreciated the fondest. Not only does Ghostbusters rank among the highest grossing comedies of all time, it’s easily one of the most memorable, capturing the minds and hearts of a generation. It was an international phenomenon and its impact can still be felt today. “Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.” This is what felt like to witness this film in the theater the first time. And the second, third, fourth…..
Concept comedies can be superfluous, over the top, or just too damn cute for their own good. But Groundhog Day7 proved that when done correctly they can be affecting, dramatic, and flat out hilarious. Like Caddyshack it too can be found dominating a debate for the funniest comedy of all time, and this is far from hyperbole. It’s a timeless, classic tale of redemption, echoing the empathetic paradigm of A Christmas Carol, yet transcending this traditional narrative with inventiveness and wit. Perfect in structure and profound in meaning, Groundhog Day tells the story of a man rife with demons, who is forced to try, and try, and try again, until he begins utilizing the day given to him, eventually softening his unpolished demeanor. It’s funny, we never knew how many times Phil (“like the groundhog?”) woke up to that same day. We have no idea how long the duration of time he spent tumbling down the rabbit hole of recurrence. We don’t even know WHY it was happening. They made no gesture to even begin to describe the root of the phenomenon – and it couldn’t matter less!
Before Groundhog Day Bill Murray was looked upon as largely a jester. Because of the range he exhibited in the film he walked away viewed as a complex actor, who could operate with dexterity outside the walls of comedies. His cynicism, and eventually his sincerity, imparted honesty and was thus astonishingly relatable. Bill Murray has described the film as, “probably the best work I have ever done” – and this is in large part due to his longtime friend and colleague, Harold Ramis.
Besides the films discussed above, Ramis was involved in bringing such classics to the big screen as Animal House (written by), Stripes (written by, actor), Nation Lampoon’s Family Vacation (director)8, Meatballs (written by), Back to School (screenplay), Armed and Dangerous (story and screenplay), and the incredibly underappreciated The Ice Harvest (director). This isn’t simply a list of Ramis’s career achievements, but a recounting of the finest and most acclaimed comedies ever made. It’s remarkable what you see when you step back and take in Ramis’s talent and influence. It’s breathtaking, and the world of comedy wouldn’t be where it is today without his limitless contributions.
Ramis’s comedies were often wild, borderline over the top, and always rebellious. But, more importantly, they were analytical, shrewd, and inspiring. Throw a rock and you will find a comedian inspired by Ramis9. Throw another and you will hit someone who can recite, with perfect accuracy and tone, a line from one of his films. It will always hurt when those who have influenced us and made our life immeasurably better depart for the great beyond. But Harold Ramis’s impact will be felt for years to come, and the works he has left us with aren’t just exceptional, they are timeless. Meaning those of us who talk in Caddyshack quotes, chuckle at the mere mention of Needlenose Ned Rhyerson (Ned the Head!), and warn of the dangers of crossing the streams, can share these masterpieces with generations to come. “We can do that, we don’t even have to have a reason.”
(Memorial placed at 8th Hook and Ladder firehouse in TriBeCa, where Ghostbusters was filmed)
- At the Analyze This press junket, a writer told the director that his niche had become “goofy redemption comedy.” “I’ll take that,” Ramis responded. [↩]
- Written and directed by Harold Ramis. [↩]
- I consider Ted Knight’s performance the epitome of the “straight-man” role. [↩]
- Goonies, Stand by Me, Romancing the Stone, etc. [↩]
- Most of his genius was established off-screen, writing and directing. But he could truly do it all. [↩]
- “I collect spores, molds, and fungus.” – Egon [↩]
- Directed by Harold Ramis. [↩]
- Written by John Hughes. [↩]
- Apatow, Jay Roach, the Farrelly brothers, Jake Kasdan, etc. [↩]