As Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino did for leading men, Harold Ramis’ comedies championed a new kind of underdog hero
Earlier this month, we lost Sid Caesar, one of the key architects of American humor in the mid-20th century, and now comes the sad news of the death of Harold Ramis, who held at least as much, if not more, sway over making us laugh between Watergate and the turn of the millennium.
While comics-turned-filmmakers like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, both alumni of Caesar's TV work, made names for themselves with films that unmistakably bore their brand (a brand they cannily cultivated off-screen), Ramis never seemed to be particularly interested in making the public know his name.
But the audience knew his work: Over the span of a few decades, Ramis’ name was attached as writer and/or director and/or co-star of a generation of influential films: “National Lampoon's Animal House.” “Caddyshack.” “Stripes.” “Ghostbusters.” “Back to School.” “Vacation.” “Analyze This.” “Groundhog Day.”
As Tad Friend wrote in The New Yorker: “These comedies have several things in common. They attack the smugness of institutional life, trashing the fraternity system, country clubs, the Army – even local weathermen – with an impish good will that is unmistakably American. Will Rogers would have made films like these, if Will Rogers had lived through Vietnam and Watergate and decided that the only logical course of action was getting wasted or getting laid or – better – both.”
“Animal House,” which Ramis co-wrote, made the popular, conformist fraternities the villains while championing the free-thinking hedonists, and Ramis’ career reflects the importance of falling in with the right groups of open-minded, fearless people. He came up through Chicago's Second City troupe, and while many of his fellow players went on to form the original cast of “Saturday Night Live,” Ramis went north of the border to become the first head writer for “SCTV,” a show that was, in many ways, “SNL”‘s hipper, weirder brother.
Writing “Animal House” put him in with another group of comedy legends, “National Lampoon” mad geniuses Chris Miller and Doug Kenney. And even though Ramis took solo script credit on “Meatballs,” “Stripes” and “Caddyshack,” it was Bill Murray who got the lion's share of the credit, even though Ramis would go up to Murray and prompt him with suggestions like, in the case of “Caddyshack,” “When you're playing sports, do you ever just talk to yourself like you're the announcer?”
That one prompt led to the legendary “Cinderella story” scene in a moment that was originally meant to be mere comic filler.
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Being the guy behind the guy was what Ramis wanted; when a 1984 Vanity Fair profile wanted to dub him “the Godfather of the new comedy wave,” Ramis countered that he was actually the Tom Hagen, Robert Duvall‘s behind-the-scenes consigliere character.
In the way that Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino redefined the culture's idea of what a leading man should look like, Ramis played a key role in reshaping American comedy to champion the geek, the trouble-maker, the smart-aleck and the slacker; his films offered the original revenge of the nerds.
While Kenney and “Animal House” star John Belushi lived fast and died young, Ramis always maintained a sense of perspective about his life, despite the party-hearty gonzo spirit of many of his protagonists.
In a 2000 chat with Playboy, a magazine for which he once edited the Party Jokes page before interviewing the likes of Dick Cavett and Tiny Tim, he mentioned wishing that he could be 21 again, only knowing what he now knew. When pressed as to what he knew, Ramis replied, “What to worry about and what not to worry about, that's for sure. I feel I've already fulfilled the big desires and sampled enough of the things a lot of people might wish for. I know what it's like to have money – more money than I ever thought I would have, though not as much, obviously, as some people have. And I'm well known enough to understand what that's all about. And I indulged myself in lots of, uh, fantasy behavior when I was younger.”
After a pause, he deflected: “I wish I could fly unaided.”
His career as a filmmaker didn't maintain the extraordinary altitude it achieved between “Animal House” in 1976 and the philosophical laugh riot “Groundhog Day” in 1993, but he continued to make films that struck a chord, from 1995's “Stuart Saves His Family” (a bomb that nonetheless became a cult hit among 12-steppers) to 1999's “Analyze This,” a mobster-in-therapy comedy that had the bad timing to hit theaters two months after “The Sopranos” debuted on HBO.
(Personally speaking, one of my great moments of discovery in writing a book on Christmas movies came when I saw Ramis’ darkly hilarious “The Ice Harvest,” a bleakly funny film overdue for rediscovery.)
If Harold Ramis isn't more of a household name, perhaps it's because he was too generous for that, happy to let his protagonists get the laughs, even when he was appearing on screen with them. (His cool-nerdy Dr. Egon Spengler remains one of the subtle pleasures of “Ghostbusters,” with Ramis putting a unique spin on lines like “I collect spores, molds and fungus” and the chillingly prophetic “Print is dead.”)
His movies will continue to make audiences laugh for generations to come, yes, but there's something to be learned from his gracious spirit of collaboration. As Ramis once told interviewer Manohla Dargis, “There's nothing more fun than sitting around a room with the funniest people you know.”