If you were one of the many (and there were many) who found yourself delving into a list of actor-writer-director Harold Ramis‘ achievements upon hearing of his sudden death yesterday at the age of 69, you may be wondering where all that time went. One minute you were probably minding your own business, the next you were realizing that this seemingly unassuming, nerdy-looking Chicagoan had a hand in at least 10 of the most influential comedic institutions of the last half century.
As if we could hold one over the other. Was Ramis best known as a writer, who cut his teeth in the pages of The National Lampoon and on the staff of SCTV before writing or co-writing the likes of National Lampoon’s Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Back to School, Groundhog Day and Analyze This? Was he most accomplished as the director of Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Groundhog Day or Multiplicity? Would he be immortalized for his acting work, whether Russell Zinsky, the withering straight man to Bill Murray’s off-kilter John Winger in Stripes, Egon Spengler, the no-nonsense brains of Ghostbusters, the astoundingly stoned admissions officer of Orange County or Seth Rogen’s optimistic dad in Knocked Up?
The answer to all of these – much like what happens if someone asks you if you’re a god – is a resounding “yes.” What’s far more interesting, however, is how all of this happened.
Let me place a bold proclamation in front of you: approximately 92 percent of anyone who has made you laugh on film in the past 35 years owes some sort of debt to Ramis’ charm and skill (not only in his own right as a writer and actor, but as one smart enough to cede screen time to co-stars who knew both how to perfectly deliver the lines he helped write as well as blow them away with their own improvisations). Most sloppily-plotted but still madly hysterical ensemble comedies trace their charms to Animal House or Caddyshack, which took paper-thin premises – “goings-on in a frat house” and “goings-on at a country club” – and shaped it into comedy gold, with the help of all-star casts, from John Belushi, Tim Matheson and Stephen Furst to Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray (whose repeated loose-screw brilliance in many of Ramis’ projects continues to astound).
When a younger, hungrier Adam Sandler fought the man to graduate high school or become a pro golfer (a-ha!), he was channeling the best of Ramis’ oeuvre. So, too, are Judd Apatow and his band of schlubby, merry pranksters from The 40-Year-Old Virgin to Knocked Up to Forgetting Sarah Marshall to a clutch of affable imitators (I Love You, Man, Role Models): their barely-kempt appearances and crackling, off-the-cuff verbiage recall the goons of Delta House or Fort Arnold.
Such is the contradictory charm of Harold Ramis’ work. The man looks pretty much like I do, down to the uncomfortably increasing paunch, but he was no mere nerd. He was the coolest dude in the room, an unrepentant rabble-rouser smart enough to take advantage of the ideas that comedy sure is cool, but it is also pretty egalitarian. “My characters aren’t losers,” Ramis famously said. “They’re rebels. They win by their refusal to play by everyone else’s rules.”
And of those winners (and they always were winners), there’s perhaps no better starting lineup in the annals of comedy than the characters of Ghostbusters or Groundhog Day – easily the two most enduring of Ramis’ contributions to Hollywood. On his own, Dan Aykroyd would have made a barely comprehensible, technically over-astute sci-fi yarn about mercenaries who catch ghosts. With Ramis’ temperance, the picture became something else – not only one of the greatest high-concept blockbusters in film history, but maybe the most perfect comedy of all time, with enough quotables to choke the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. And while Ramis was, as always, smart enough to push the brightest acting talents to the foreground in Murray’s smarmy Peter Venkman and Aykroyd’s naive Ray Stantz, Egon had his own moments of bright comedy, from “print is dead” to his explanation on the perils of crossing the streams to…well, let’s just say there’s a reason Twinkies are piling up at the impromptu Ramis memorial at Hook & Ladder No. 8 in Chelsea.
And Groundhog Day. Another stupidly simple premise – a jerk learns from his mistakes by repeating a day somewhere between 40 and 10,000 years – elevated by another genius performance from Murray (although the pair had an unexplainable falling out during the film) and a script, co-written by Ramis, that never gets in the way of itself. You feel good watching Groundhog Day – certainly, spiritualists of all walks have – but you never feel mushy. The comedians never lose their edge as they unfold this story of a person becoming better at his life; again, Ramis refuses to play by the rules, and he wins.
The legacy of Harold Ramis is more than just a few great actors with great faces and a couple killer scripts. It’s a seismic shift, a inter-dimensional cross-rip in the way we seek meaning and enjoyment from comedy. Ramis is gone, but his impact is certainly not forgotten. That’s too big of a Twinkie to ignore.