People often talk about “generation gaps” and “culture clashes”, and when it is brought up most often is when they decide to dissect what is funny. The older folks talk about how guys like Sid Caesar (who also recently passed at the spectacular age of 91, God bless him and his immaculate insanity) and Milton Berle (who, honestly, I always saw as something of a hack) revolutionized comedy in the early days of television, those after them point to the likes of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor as the vanguards of comedy (and very rightly so), and still others mention the likes of Steve Martin, Robin Williams and of course Eddie Murphy. Nowadays the “greats” are the late Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks — without a doubt brilliant men — while guys like Chris Rock, (the unfortunately also late) Mitch Hedberg, Louis CK, Dave Chappelle and Kevin Hart dominate most people’s lists currently. And no, I’m not forgetting the women who were (and still are) just as prominent, like Imogene Coca, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett (my personal all-time fave), Gilda Radner and Tina Fey.
But for me the “Golden Age” of comedy for began in the early 1970’s, with the advent to two major channels: Saturday Night (before and somewhat after it was Live), and the National Lampoon (the magazine and eventual films). Honestly, most of what I found (and continue to find) to be funny came from those avenues. From the first ever sketch with John Belushi and Michael O’Donoghue “feeding their feengertips to the wolvereens” to Murphy’s “Buckwheat Sings”, SNL was a weird and hilarious late-night underground, populated with short-tempered samurai, aliens from “France” and of course, Mr. Bill. The Lampoon had illustrious beginnings, being an offshoot from the Harvard Lampoon which first published in 1876 (whao). Founded by Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard and Robert Hoffman in 1969, the National Lampoon created a strong font of absurdist humor and pointed political and social satire, my fave pieces including “Our White Heritage”, which states that Jesus Christ was “technically” a white person — but was still on the fence about Jews in general; “Beat the Meatles”, an imagined celebrity interview with the Beatles and Yoko Ono, and my all-time favorite, the “1980 United States Census”. No, really.
I’m sure at this point you may be wondering if I’ve forgotten the subject of this entry — let me assure you, Patient Reader, that I’ve only been building up to his significance. Harold Ramis was born in Chicago, Illinois, his early heroes being Groucho and Harpo Marx: “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”. He later famously worked for a mental institution in St. Louis, which “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.”
He later studied and performed with the Second City comedy troupe, which included Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Joe Flaherty. With future SNL alums Belushi and Murray, Ramis worked on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which was created by the aforementioned Michael O’Donoghue (a mainstay of the Lampoon magazine and the initial seasons of SNL). Along with Candy and Flaherty he performed and was head writer of SCTV (Second City Television; my fave Ramis portrayals were of Officer Friendly and Leonard Nimoy), a Canadian counterpart to SNL. He was later offered a slot as a writer at SNL, but declined.
Ramis’ first film project was with Lampoon co-founder Kenney and “Beat the Meatles” author Chris Miller, that being the comedic milestone National Lampoon’s Animal House, which starred Belushi as the manic-depressive Bluto and Kenney as “The Stork”. For the unwashed, the film broke box office records after its release in 1978, and basically set the tone for the many (and mostly inferior) comedies that have issued since. Ramis then turned to his friend (and most frequent collaborator) Bill Murray with the classic Meatballs, which cemented Murray as a box office draw and Ramis as an established writer. Next up was his second collaboration with Kenney — and his first directorial stint — Caddyshack (which famously starred Murray and his estranged SNL co-star Chevy Chase). He and Murray would also star in the film Stripes, along with fellow SCTV alum John Candy. Beginning in 1984, Ramis collaborated with Aykroyd on the script for Ghostbusters, which would star them both and Murray (and Ernie Hudson, who deserves his own blog entry here. Don’t get me started on Leviathan). It’s all starting to make sense now, isn’t it?
Ghostbusters and its sequel would catapult Ramis to superstardom, which he would further ascend with his masterpiece, Groundhog Day — a film so wedged in the cultural consciousness that the title has since become a reference to any uncomfortable situation that seems to endlessly repeat itself. My personal fave of his directorial work is The Ice Harvest, a wonderfully funny film noir starring John “Hoops” Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.
Ramis was — without a doubt, and certainly in my mind — one of the founders of modern comedy. He brought a good-natured, yet sharply defined poke in the ribs to American culture. Noone else could ever be so simultaneously smug-yet-sincere, so warm-yet-satirical. In a statement after his passing, Bill Murray said of Ramis: “He earned his keep on this planet.” If only the rest of us could do so well.