Sunday, March 2, 2014

In Memoriam: Harold Ramis 1944-2014

Comic actor, comic writer, comic director. Editor of Playboy's "Party Joke" feature. The National Lampoon Radio Hour. Second City on stage, and its television spin-off, SCTV. National Lampoon's Animal House. Meatballs. Caddyshack. Stripes. Ghostbusters. Back to School. Groundhog Day. As Good as It Gets. Analize This.

"My characters aren't losers. They're rebels. They win by their refusal to play by everyone else's rules."

"In my heart, I felt I was a combination of Groucho and Harpo Marx, of Groucho using his wit as a weapon against the upper classes, and of Harpo’s antic charm and the fact that he was oddly sexy — he grabs women, pulls their skirts off, and
gets away with it."

For almost 40 years, Harold Ramis was in the vanguard of a new type of comedy that has at various times been called sick comedy, alternative comedy, anti-comedy, slash-and-burn comedy, cringe comedy, ironic comedy, and, most often these days, snarky comedy. It really goes all the way back to the 1950s with the emergence of such talents as Harvey Kurtzman, Jules Feiffer, Lenny Bruce and Nichols & May. What was so new about this comedy? Well, it was sick, alternative, antieverything, ironic, snarky, and made you cringe as it slashed and burned you. However, this kind of humor played second fiddle to more traditional forms of comedy--by "traditional" I mean everyone from the Keystone Cops to Johnny Carson--until the 1970s when it suddenly began to take over the mainstream. First you had National Lampoon, an acid-tipped tattoo needle rewrite of Mad magazine, then Saturday Night Live, which brought vitriol to the vaudeville sketch, and, finally, the somewhat gentler but sharply intelligent SCTV, of which Ramis (doing that bunny ears-fingers thing to Dave Thomas' head in the above picture) did double duty as cast member and head writer. As the '70s grew to a close, this new comedy had begun to take over the movies as well.

Another reason for its success is that the mainstream itself became more sick, alternative, antieverything, ironic, snarky, and able to make you cringe while slashing and burning you. Today's comedy simply reflects all that. In fact, taking the long view, I wonder if humor, even in its most benign form, hasn't always had those qualities, and what happened to comedy to comedy was less than abrupt break from the past and more simple evolution. To make my case, I'm going to present a bunch of movies Harold Ramis was involved in, either as an actor, writer, director, or combination thereof, and then some films as antecedents. Now, I'm not saying that Ramis copied, or was influenced, or even saw any of these films, only that he couldn't help but be part of a larger comedy continuum of which these films were included.


Animal House (1978) Co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: A Night at the Opera, though it doesn't take place at college. An earlier Marx Brothers movie, Horse Feathers, did in fact have a campus setting, but was less a revenge comedy than Opera, and that's what matters here.

Many memorable scenes, including horse in the dean's office, the food fight, the toga party, the visit to the roadhouse, John Belushi chugging a fifth of Jack Daniels, and the ruined homecoming parade, but what sticks with me most is the plaintive cry at the heart of all rebellions, large and small:

"I know this may be an inopportune moment to ask, Dean Wormer, but could you see your way clear to give us one more chance?"

Meatballs (1979) Co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: Boy's Town. Angels Wash Their Faces. Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Going My Way. Hans Christian Anderson. Merry Andrew. Mary Poppins. The Sound of Music. Follow Me, Boys! OK, OK, most of those movies aren't comedies, but they all fall into the wise-adult-teaches-children-life-lessons genre. Meatballs itself wouldn't have been a comedy had not hip, irreverent Bill Murray been brilliantly cast as the wise (and wisecracking) adult.

Memorable scene: Murray rallies the kids for an athletic meet with this curiously invigorating pep talk:

"...even if we win, if we win, HAH! Even if we win! Even if we play so far above our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days; even if God in Heaven above comes down and points his hand at our side of the field; even if every man, woman, and child held hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn't matter because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or we lose. IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!"

There's gotta be a life lesson in there somewhere.

Caddyshack (1980) Directed and co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: Animal Crackers. City Lights. Trouble in Paradise. Design for Living. Dinner at Eight. It Happened One Night. The Gay Divorcee. The Thin Man. Top Hat. Twentieth Century. My Man Godfrey. The Awful Truth. Bringing Up Baby. The Philadelphia Story. Topper. Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. Ninotchka. Midnight. The Lady Eve. The Devil and Miss Jones. The Palm Beach Story. In Society. Kind Hearts and Coronets. How to Marry a Millionaire. High Society. All in a Night's Work. You probably expected me to list sports comedies. Instead, I chose movies where rich people make fools of themselves, with proletarian onlookers getting caught up in the action. That sums up Caddyshack for me.

Totally ruined that country club. Must be a Marxist.

Stripes (1981) Co-starring and co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: Shoulder Arms. Half-Shot at Sunrise. Pack Up Your Troubles. Bonnie Scotland. Flying Deuces. Great Guns. Born to Dance. Follow the Fleet. Caught in the Draft. You're in the Army Now. Buck Privates. In the Navy. Keep 'Em Flying. Up in Arms. See Here, Private Hargrove. What's Next, Corporal Hargrove? Up Front. At War with the Army. Sailor Beware. Jumping Jacks. No Time for Sergeants. Operation Mad Ball. Operation Petticoat. Mister Roberts. Ensign Pulver. The Wackiest Ship in the Navy. Sad Sack. The Geisha Boy. Don't Give Up the Ship. The Horizontal Lieutenant. What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Kelly's Heroes. Which Way to the Front? Several seasons of The Phil Silvers Show, McHale's Navy, Gomer Pyle USMC, and CPO Sharkey.

(No, not the film version of MASH. Oddly enough, that bore more of a resemblance to Animal House!)

Ghostbusters (1984) Co-starring and co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: Habeas Corpus. The Old Dark House. The Cat and the Canary. A-Haunting We Will Go. Ghost Breakers. I Married a Witch. Spooks Run Wild. Hold That Ghost. The Boogie Man Will Get You. Scared Stiff (1945). Spook Busters. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters. Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Scared Stiff (1952). Bell, Book, and Candle. The Ghost of the Dragstrip Hollow. Little Shop of Horrors. The Comedy of Terrors. The Ghost and Mr Chicken. The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. The Fearless Vampire Killers. The Spirit is Willing. The Maltese Bippy. Young Frankenstein.

Admittedly, none of those films had a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

Back to School (1986) Co-written by Ramis. Antecedents: The Freshman. College. Hold 'Em Jail. Horse Feathers. College Humor. College swing. Too Many Girls. A Yank at Oxford. A Yank at Eton. A Chump at Oxford. Girl Crazy. Here Comes the Co-Eds. That's My Boy. The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (unlike the TV show, this took place in college.)  She's Working Her Way Through College. The Absent-Minded Professor. The Nutty Professor. For Those Who Think Young. The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. The Monkey's Uncle. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Now You See Him, Now You Don't. The Strongest Man in the World.

As a longtime Kurt Vonnegut fan, I get a kick out of his cameo in Back to School. Here's what happens. Self-made millionaire Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) decides to go to college as a way of bonding with his estranged son, a fellow student. Unfortunately, he's more interested in partying (more than his son, actually) than studying, and so he pays other people to do his homework. Assigned by a teacher he's attracted to (Sally Kellerman) to do a report on Kurt Vonnegut, he hires the great man of letters himself to write it. She grades it an F. So it goes.

Analyze This (1999) Directed and co-written by Ramis. Monkey Business. Hook, Line and Sinker. Our Relations. One Night in the Tropics. A Slight Case of Murder. Great Balls of Fire. A Song is Born. Larceny, Inc. My Favorite Brunette. Sorrowful Jones. The Lemon Drop Kid. The Noose Hangs High. Money From Home. Robin and the 7 Hoods. The Big Mouth. The Busy Body.

In addition to being a mob/gangster comedy, the above film also has a psychological angle. Ramis actually did have some experience in that field. Psychology, that is, not mobsters. For about seven months after graduating from college, he worked at a mental institute in St. Louis.

"[working in such a place] prepared me well for when I went out to Hollywood to work with actors. People laugh when I say that, but it was actually very good training. And not just with actors; it was good training for just living in the world. It's knowing how to deal with people who might be reacting in a way that's connected to anxiety or grief or fear or rage. As a director, you’re dealing with that constantly with actors. But if I were a businessman, I’d probably be applying those same principles to that line of work."

I don't know if he applied those principles to Analyze This, but he did accomplish what many thought impossible. He turned Robert De Niro in a major comedy star.

OK,  you may have noticed I've been doing this in chronological order. I'm stopping right now because I thought it best to save this next film for last...

Groundhog Day (1993) Director and co-writer Harold Ramis' masterpiece, and one for which I can't come up with a single antecedent. It's a Wonderful Life? PUH-LEEZE. Back to the Future II? Nice try, but no.

All the other films I mentioned, even the other two touchstone films from Ramis' career, National Lampoon's Animal House and Ghostbusters, may someday fade from the collective pop culture memory, but I have a feeling that, like its main character (played so well by Bill Murray), Groundhog Day is here for the ages.


  1. Wow Kirk! What a fine piece. It runs the gamut. I don't know why I didn't know Ramis directed Groundhog Day. It was one of my late husbands favorite movies. Lot's of memories connected to all of these films. So much behind the scenes information about them. Thanks for that. RIP Ramis, gone to soon.

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  3. Ramis represents a whole era in comedy filmmaking, Patricia. Glad you liked it.

  4. Kirk, wonderful tribute. 'Groundhog Day' is a favorite and always watched whenever it comes on TV.

    1. As I said in the post, Kass, that's the one I think will live on the most. Thanks for commenting.

  5. I'm trying to think of possible antecedents for Groundhog Day. It's a Wonderful Life does engage it, a little,but is more of an opposite.

    The best I have so far are Papillon and Cool Hand Luke, Though The Hustler/Color of Money gets at it a little too. But none of them really pull it off.

    I'm going to get one if it takes me forever! ; )

  6. Papillion? Cool Hand Luke? Because they're in prison, where every day is the same, notacynic?

  7. Kind of. It seems to me that one of the themes of Groundhog Day was 'Escape.' He spent all his time trying to escape from his new reality.

    Then, at the end, we see that the key was 'getting it right.' Once he finally got that one day completely right, he was free.

  8. If Harold Ramis and Bill Murray had a baby I'd really want to be that baby.

    I love your articles. I always learn something cool that sticks with me.

    1. You'd make history, Akeru. Thanks for commenting.


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