Harold Ramis: 1944-2014
Ramis (right) in “Stripes”: the triumph of the self-amused.
Harold Ramis. OK, that surprises. That’s unwelcome.
I was one of those guys who found SCTV in syndication in the mid-1970s, then found it again on PBS, then NBC late nights. I kept looking for it and finding it before its cast scattered into other, lesser projects. Or greater projects. Or both. Generally both. But my favorite episodes were those early episodes when Ramis was still on board.
He always seemed like he had a private joke going. He knew something was funny. Not the skit, necessarily. Everything else. Life. He was self-amused.
Apparently, in the early days of SCTV (the Chicago troupe not the Canadian TV show), he played the wild and crazy one. Then he came back from a trip to Europe to find a new guy, John Belushi, had usurped his role. So Ramis became the intellectual. That was probably a better fit anyway. He became “Specs.” The droll one. He became the guy with the private joke.
“Moe Green” is a private joke. On “SCTV,” Moe hosted this and that show, and became station manager for a time, but the name was stolen from “The Godfather.” For years, I couldn’t watch that tense scene where Fredo warns his younger brother, “Mikey, you don’t come to Las Vegas and talk to a man like Moe Greene like that!” without laughing out loud. Ramis basically ruined the scene for me. I kept thinking of Moe on “Dialing for Dollars” when the “prize jackpot giveaway,” for anyone who could name the late-night movie, was … (cue Ramis mopping his brow] … twenty-four dollars. Didn’t the late-night movie run long once? Wasn’t he calling people at like 2 am and getting grief? Didn’t he call the Pope? And his mother? I always liked those bits. I always liked Ramis mopping his brow.
You can tell the world he came out of: “Dialing for Dollars,” “Sunrise Semester,” late-night movies: that staid, surburban TV world. He mocked it all. Then he went on to bigger targets.
With Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, he wrote “Animal House.” With Doug Kenney and Brian Doyle Murray, he wrote “Caddyshack,” and directed it. Then he and Len Blum and Dan Goldberg wrote “Stripes,” and Ramis co-starred in it. As Russell Ziskey, the pacifist Jew who becomes the mad-dog soldier, he nearly upstages Bill Murray. That bit (above) where Ziskey overreacts to John Candy’s heart-felt talk? I did that for five years. So, yes, Ramis has some things to answer for.
In 1984, he and Aykroyd wrote “Ghostbusters” and it became the No. 1 movie of the year. Ten years later, he and Danny Rubin wrote “Groundhog Day,” and Ramis directed it. Apparently he and Murray had a falling out over that one. Murray wanted it more philosophical, Ramis wanted it funnier. Maybe that’s the tension that makes it work.
In its obit, The Chicago Tribune writes this:
As zany as Ramis’ early comedies were, they rigorously pursued a theme close to the heart of someone who grew out of the 1960s counterculture: characters rebelling against institutions, be they authoritarian college administrators and pampered rich kids (“Animal House”), a stuffy golf club (“Caddyshack”) or the military (“Stripes”).
I’d hold back on “Stripes,” which actually gave us a more nuanced perspective of rebellion. It’s one of the first post-Vietnam movies I encountered where the career military man, Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates), is actually a positive force. The movie recognizes the emptiness in rebellion, in mocking everything and believing in nothing. In its own way, it led to “Groundhog Day,” where you can’t just be a jackass all the time and expect the world to keep spinning.
In the last 20 years, every once in a while, I’d see Ramis in a movie and smile. There he was as the genial (but overweight!) doctor on “As Good as It Gets.” There he was as Seth Rogen’s dad in “Knocked Up." I thought: Will he always play the Jewish dad from now on? Or is that Eugne Levy’s role?
Yeah, he made some schlock: “Stuart Saves His Family,” “Multiplicity,” “Bedazzled.” But he turned down more of it. I love his 2006 interview with THE BELIEVER magazine:
BLVR: Rumor has it that you turned down the chance to direct Disney’s remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because you felt they weren’t interested in really exploring racism.
RAMIS: The way they wanted to do it didn’t have a lot to do with the colossal amount of pain and violence that swirls around racial injustice. It would’ve been like an episode of The Jeffersons. What’s the point? But who knows, maybe that’s as much as most people want. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think.”
BLVR: Does that offend you as a filmmaker?
RAMIS: It offends me as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to think? What does that mean? Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?
I like this quote, too, where he basically articulates why the GOP is never funny:
It's hard for winners to do comedy. Comedy is inherently subversive. We represent the underdog, since comedy usually speaks for the lower classes. We attack the winners.
Early on, he even attacked the ultimate winner, who got him today:
If there’s anything to know, now he knows. Rest in peace, Moe.