November 21, 1944-February 24, 2014
All of comedy is crying right now.
Dear readers, just when I felt that I had possibly come to terms with the tragic loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman, unquestionably one of the finest actors of his generation, I clicked onto the internet yesterday afternoon and was just struck dumb by the awful, awful news that Writer/Producer/Director/Actor Harold Ramis had passed away in his hometown of Chicago after a lengthy battle with autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. He was 69 years old. My reaction to the news was completely involuntary as tears immediately leapt from my eyes and my heart shattered into the tiniest of pieces. While I obviously I know fully well that no one lives forever, the feeling of loss never dulls, even for those one has never had the opportunity to meet in person but whose influence has been life altering.
Harold Ramis was undeniably one of the greatest influences upon my life but in a slightly less obvious way, especially as compared to fellow Chicagoans and personal heroes Film Critic/Writer Roger Ebert, who passed away just last year and most certainly Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes, who passed away almost five years ago. Ramis carried a considerably quieter, or perhaps less evidently visible presence artistically, but it spoke with a volume that supremely announced itself to my very soul, guided and inspired me and entertained me in ways that very few have ever been able to achieve in quite the same way.
Harold Ramis was not just a giant in the field of comedy, he was truly a Master Teacher. From his comedic beginnings with Chicago's Second City comedy troupe, The National Lampoon Radio Hour, television's "SCTV" and a jaw dropping amount of iconic comedy films, Harold Ramis taught me so invaluably about the mysterious and often elusive world of what was funny, how things can be funny and most especially, why. Throughout his lengthy and illustrious career, he entrusted his deeply personal and idiosyncratic comedic philosophies with a collection of cheerfully anarchistic and highly articulate stories, characters, attitudes and films that I have cherished so tremendously throughout my life and so crucially during my earliest stages of discovering myself, my personal tastes and a certain skewed way of looking at the world around me as I tried to determine my exact place within the world. I cannot even begin to imagine what my life would be at this point in time if I had never seen the following collection of films:
"National Lampoon's Animal House" (1978) Co-Writer
"Meatballs" (1979) Co-Writer
"Caddyshack" (1980) Co-Writer/Director
"Stripes" (1981) Co-Writer/Actor
"National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983) Director
"Ghostbusters" (1984) Co-Writer/Actor
"Back To School" (1986) Co-Writer/Executive Producer
"Groundhog Day" (1993) Co-Writer/Producer/Director
I believe that any writer or filmmaker would have killed to have been a part of any one of those films. It is just staggering to fully realize that Harold Ramis, miraculously and through his intellect and vast comedic spirit, had a guiding hand in all of these game changing films, whose immense shadows still loom largely over nearly every film comedy created since.
As Harold Ramis' comedic peers and contemporaries gained tremendous notoriety and visibility through their gifts and larger than life personalities, Ramis' contributions, while less overtly visible, cannot be denied in any conceivable fashion. As a writer, Harold Ramis was a simultaneously savage yet gentle satirist with a populist spirit that fueled his works. Believing that broad comedies did not have to be dumbed down or that works that possessed a mass appeal did not have to be squarely focused upon the lowest common denominator sensibilities of general public, Ramis operated from an adage he had learned during his time at Second City to "Always work at the top of your intelligence." Carrying that philosophy, Harold Ramis injected a deeply subversive subtext to his films that championed the outcasts and the underdogs, questioned and challenged authority and often upended a variety of WASP based institutions--from fraternities, blue blood private golf course clubs, and the Army. Even "National Lampoon's Vacation," which was based upon an original story and screenplay by John Hughes, pummeled and skewered the so-called wonderful world of Disney.
But his films weren't sadistic flamethrowers. They were highly congenial and even optimistic "Snobs Vs. Slobs" comedies in which Ramis exposed and joyfully laid waste to the abject cruelties, racism, and uneven natures of our entrenched social/political/economic systems through his sly, wry and at times, outlandish situations and observances and collective of shaggy dog characters. With "National Lampoon's Animal House," "Caddyshack" and "Stripes," the meek do indeed inherit the Earth and by "Ghostbusters," they would save it entirely.
Harold Ramis' level of subversion even changed the face of comedy altogether, from structure, presentation and the overall intended effects. National Lampoon, the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" from the original days of "Saturday Night Live," the even more arcane "SCTV" and "Monty Python's Flying Circus" all represented a sea change in the world of comedy as it was humor from the fringes, the underground and the backstreets and (again) subversively delivered by a collection of highly educated individuals (Ramis himself once studied Pre-Med and eventually received a degree in English). It was a brazenly bold new era, when comedic risks were crucial and a time when the counterculture crashed into the mainstream without asking or apology and with the grandest smile upon its face.
Just take one of the opening scenes from "National Lampoon's Animal House," when two new Freshmen, already rejected by the WASP fraternity, which is populated by what once character described as "Hitler youth," arrive at the dilapidated Delta Tau Chi fraternity, which is completely engulfed in a loudly audible Bacchanalia. A mannequin is launched through an upstairs window and lands upon the pavement, an act that allows The Kingsman's classic "Louie Louie" to be blared into the night skies like an air raid siren. And then, we meet John "Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi), completely intoxicated, brandishing yet another glass of beer and wryly urinating directly upon two new hopeful Freshmen. "Excuse me sir, is this the Delta House," one of the Freshmen asks timidly. "Sure! Come on in!" says Bluto and with that, the rules of comedy had been completely broken, and fully re-written yet it invited everyone inside to experience this new brashness. The line between the old and new had been irrevocably drawn but Harold Ramis was not simply just present. He was the one holding the chalk.
I have long expressed to you how the writing of John Hughes, Cameron Crowe, and Roger Ebert for example, influenced me tremendously through sensibilities, humor, and especially as a writer, but I need to express to you at this time that Harold Ramis' writing was equally seismic. I first saw "National Lampoon's Animal House" at the age of 9, after badgering my parents endlessly to see my first R rated film as other school friends already had experienced. All I really cared about was seeing John Belushi on the silver screen as he was already a hero to me through "Saturday Night Live." When I did finally see the film, I completely loved it even though 95% of the jokes sailed past my consciousness, only to full reveal themselves once I reached Middle School. What I loved about that film so much that very first time was its relentless energy, sense of anarchy, that playful finger in the eye of authority and entirely the collection of ramshackle characters that, despite their vulgarity, were actually the most upstanding and even kind hearted souls in the entire film. These so-called rejects were not losers but in actuality, the heroes and that image and message was not lost upon me from the very beginning thanks to what Harold Ramis achieved. As Ramis himself once explained, "My characters aren't losers. They're rebels. They win by their refusal to play by everyone else's rules."
Harold Ramis possessed a wicked wit and sometimes nasty sense of humor that remarkably remained good natured and never crossed over any lines into being mean spirited or cruel. And i also have to express how It is incredible to me to really think a bit how endlessly quotable Ramis' writing and screenplays have been, and continue to be as they have permeated the lexicon of our culture so completely, that I would not be surprised to discover people possibly quoting his dialogue and not even quite realizing from where, what and whom it originated from...and if that doesn't demonstrate the sheer volume and depth of Harold Ramis' gifts as a subversive satirist, then I do not know what else could!
I love how Harold Ramis populated his writing with the type of dialogue where speeches can somehow grow from the absolutely ridiculous to the absolutely profound and purposeful. Take Bluto's historically inaccurate yet fully resonating rallying cry from "National Lampoon's Animal House," which begins with Bluto's vehement statements and rhetorical questions to his fellow Deltas, "What? Over? Did you say "over"? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!" And then, the speech builds, concludes and convinces as follows:
"Bluto: What the fuck happened to the Delta I used to know? Where's the spirit? Where's the guts, huh?! This could be the greatest night of our lives, but you're gonna let it be the worst! "Ooh, we're afraid to go with you Bluto, we might get in trouble." Well, JUST KISS MY ASS FROM NOW ON!!! Not me! I'm not gonna take this! Wormer, he's a dead man! Marmalard, DEAD! Niedermeyer—Otter: Dead! Bluto's right. Psychotic, but absolutely right. [Otter stands up.] We gotta take these bastards. Now, we could fight 'em with conventional weapons. That could take years and cost millions of lives. Oh no. No, in this case, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part.
Bluto: And we're just the guys to do it."
Or how about Camp Counselor Tripper Harrison's (Bill Murray) grand slam and philosophically nihilistic motivational speech (!) to his young charges in "Meatballs," a speech that made me just rise to my feet:
"Tripper: That's just the attitude we don't need. Sure, Mohawk has beaten us twelve years in a row. Sure, they're terrific athletes. They've got the best equipment that money can buy. Hell, every team they're sending over here has their own personal masseuse, not masseur, masseuse. But it doesn't matter. Do you know that every Mohawk competitor has an electrocardiogram, blood and urine tests every 48 hours to see if there's any change in his physical condition? Do you know that they use the most sophisticated training methods from the Soviet Union, East and West Germany, and the newest Olympic power Trinidad-Tobago? But it doesn't matter. It just doesn't matter. IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER. I tell you, IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!
The group: IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER...
Tripper: And even, and even if we win, if we win, HAH! Even if we win! Even if we play so far over 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 'cause they've got all the money! It just doesn't matter if we win or we lose. IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!
The group: IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER! IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER..."
Or even John Winger's (again Bill Murray), motivational speech as his rag-tag Bravo Company compatriots are falling apart in "Stripes":
"John Winger: We're all very different people. We're not Watusi. We're not Spartans. We're Americans, with a capital 'A', huh? You know what that means? Do ya? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We're the underdog. We're mutts! Here's proof: his nose is cold! But there's no animal that's more faithful, that's more loyal, more loveable than the mutt. Who saw Old Yeller? Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? [raises his hand] Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I'm sure. [hands are reluctantly raised] I cried my eyes out. [even more hands go up] So we're all dogfaces. We're all very, very different, but there is one thing that we all have in common: we were all stupid enough to enlist in the Army. We're mutants. There's something wrong with us, something very, very wrong with us. Something seriously wrong with us! We're soldiers, but we're American soldiers! We've been kickin' ass for 200 years! We're 10 and 1! Now we don't have to worry about whether or not we practiced. We don't have to worry about whether Captain Stillman wants to have us hung. All we have to do is to be the great American fighting soldier that is inside each one of us. Now do what I do, and say what I say. And make me proud. Fall in!"
And yes, how about Dr. Peter Venkman's (again, Bill Murray) flat out brilliantly cunning climax to the warnings of the oncoming apocalypse in the attempts to convince the Mayor to allow himself and his partners to combat the demons in "Ghostbusters":
"Peter Venkman: But if we're right, and we can stop this thing... Lenny, you will have saved the lives...of millions...of registered voters."
I am laughing right now just reading this dialogue, remembering these iconic movie moments and memories where even the smallest, most seemingly insignificant throw away lines, just nailed the moment, the emotion, the perception and of course, the comedy, so completely that it could not be presented in any other conceivable fashion. And that, is just how magical Harold Ramis was.
As a director however, I do not think that it would be disrespectful to his memory to say that his complete output as a filmmaker was fairly uneven as some films do tend to be sluggish or don't carry out its ideas as best as they possibly could. Harold Ramis was not a visual stylist and he was not quite the filmmaker that John Hughes or especially John Landis (who directed "National Lampoon's Animal House") or Ivan Reitman (who directed "Meatballs,""Stripes" and "Ghostbusters") happened to be. And believe me, I know that this may sound sacrilegious to some but even "Caddyshack," Ramis' directorial debut, is not quite as funny as I remember it being when I was much younger and as a filmmaker, it is a very sloppy, ramshackle film and looks as if we are watching Ramis learn how to direct in real time. Even so, the somewhat sloppy nature of the film ultimately does works in its favor as the rough edges do represent the sense of comedic anarchy of the era. But, man when he hit his marks, Harold Ramis could knock it out of the park just as well as the very best.
"National Lampoon's Vacation" was an unquestionable success! I loved it upon the first viewing at the age of 14 in the summer of 1983 and it has held up tremendously well over 30 years later. With a pitch perfect leading performance by Chevy Chase as the eternally optimistic, hysterically hapless and slowly unhinged patriarch Clark W. Griswold, "National Lampoon's Vacation" transformed the family comedy inside out as it injected themes of lusty middle age fantasies, teenage back seat torment, and a sharp cultural/economic comedy of manners with "redneck" relatives into a cauldron filled with the hearth, home and hell of family. The messiness contained this time was so pointedly smart because it was all so true and instantly recognizable to almost every viewer. Ramis even builds the journey of the road trip into becoming a philosophical and near spiritual quest to the mountaintop that is indeed the amusement park Walley World... which in best upending fashion, is closed once the family finally, FINALLY arrives after enduring one horrific hardship after another including being lost in a Philadelphia ghetto (the film's most dangerously funny sequence), and the death of the acerbic Grandmother (Imogene Coca). And for all of the escalating comic tension, the film possesses a genuinely sweet core as "National Lampoon's Vacation" is indeed the story of a man who just wants to bond with his family and give them all a wonderful summer trip that will live fondly in each of their memories. With this second directorial effort, Harold Ramis raised his game tremendously and emerged with comedy gold.
As it has been expressed over and again in the 20 years since its original release and especially after Ramis' passing, and I completely agree with the assessment, the existential fantasy "Groundhog Day" is most certainly Harold Ramis' masterpiece. While the story did not originate from him, Harold Ramis completely re-wrote the screenplay to suit his sensibilities as well as produced and directed the film, thus making it his most overtly personal film. I believe it to be the one film where all of the various talents he had honed congealed so beautifully, richly and timelessly making it a film for the ages. It is a piece of art that continuously reveals itself to you the more you see it.making it precisely the type of film that can grow with the viewer over time. It is designed and serves to meet the viewer at whatever station in life they happen to find themselves and with whatever belief system they choose to live their lives by. It is a film that can be as shallow or as profound as every individual wishes it to be (I now see it as a story of ascension) while also being completely charming, genuinely romantic with touches of equally genuine melancholy, darkness and pathos. And yes, it is a very funny film to boot...and that is definitely no small feat to achieve.
When I first saw "Groundhog Day" upon it's original release in 1993, I knew even then that this film, about an arrogant, cynical weatherman (again, Bill Murray) mysteriously forced to exist within the endless loop of February 2nd in a small Pennsylvania town, was something even more magical than Harold Ramis had previously devised yet fully represented all of his tremendous artistic gifts. In addition to being masterfully directed (just ensuring the continuity concerning the weather related exteriors sequences is amazing to me), "Groundhog Day" made me realize elements about his gifts that maybe I had not quite noticed in the same way before.
I finally recognized how Harold Ramis never, absolutely never got in the way of the story or characters within his work. Additionally, Harold Ramis always displayed his complete generosity with his collaborators, to showcase them above himself, and allow them to fully take the lead and shine at their brightest. Throughout his career, Ramis has generated material that gave us John Belushi's iconic force of nature performance, introduced Rodney Dangerfield to the masses and consistently gave us films where Bill Murray was able to create one memorable character after another while also advancing his own comedic persona. Even "National Lampoon's Vacation" is seen more as a John Hughes film, and not just because that film was based upon Hughes' original National Lampoon magazine story "Vacation '58," but also because it fit so comfortably within his own comedic aesthetic and overall filmography. This perception remains despite the fact that Harold Ramis, with Chevy Chase, heavily re-wrote John Hughes' screenplay bringing it into the form we all know and cherish. But instead of crowing about his conceptual alterations, Ramis just let the film's overall quality speak for itself.
With "Groundhog Day," Harold Ramis showcased Bill Murray at his very best as he gave his then finest performance to date and looking back, I really think that role served as a perfect bridge to Murray's even more dramatic, melancholic, soul searching work in his films with Wes Anderson, Jim Jarmusch and Sofia Coppola. "Groundhog Day" made me realize Bill Murray was Ramis' greatest conduit and the long lasting success of the film, combined with Ramis' passing, is made that much more bittersweet (even tragic) as Murray and Ramis' friendship suffered a severe falling out during the making of that film, one that was apparently never mended as the two men reportedly never spoke again. Knowing that Bill Murray made any statement at all regarding Harold Ramis' death made me hope that perhaps some peace was made between them during Ramis' final years.
While I am certain that you are all more than familiar with Harold Ramis' hit directorial efforts, "Analyse This" (1999) and its sequel "Analyze That" (2002), both of which starred Billy Crystal and Robert DeNiro, I would strongly urge you to seek out the undervalued and underseen "Stuart Saves His Family" (1995). Working in collaboration with Actor/Writer Al Franken (long before his political career, of course), this is one of the only films based upon a "Saturday Night Live" character that is worth viewing, as far as I am concerned. Ramis ensures the enterprise extends far beyond its late night sketch origins to create a full character with a legitimate history, and the film itself carries very perceptively observed issues and qualities of a dysfunctional family, how it operates and survives despite itself.
Another under-appreciated Harold Ramis film that I would also recommend is "The Ice Harvest" (2005). This film is a very dark, nihilistic, occasionally violent, comic noir starring John Cusack as a mob lawyer and Billy Bob Thornton as a pornographer who steal over 2 million dollars from their mob boss (played by Randy Quaid) and spend the film desperately attempting to escape Wichita, Kansas, which is encased in an ice storm on Christmas Eve. In some ways, this film is the dark underbelly to "Groundhog Day" as John Cusack is seemingly batted around by the wheel of Karma from one end of the film to another and the movie overall successfully achieves a strong sense of time, place, urgency, fatalism and cosmic futility.
And now, Harold Ramis is gone.
Reading the news of his debilitating health issues over the final four years of his life, knowing so fully of his involvement with some of the most treasured films of my life, combined with his generous spirit and quiet and private persona, it just hurt so badly to face the fact that his artistic voice has been silenced and that there will never be another like him again. Even though I fully know to the contrary, it just seemed that since the actual work and films are so iconic, the creator would be equally invincible. If only that were so. If only it could be true.
Harold Ramis, I thank you. For the movies, the memories, the laughter, the writing, the characters, the stories and the art itself, I thank you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart and fully knowing that there would never be enough words to fully express the gratitude I feel for what you have given to me and the sadness I feel now that you are no longer with us. In all of the tributes to Harold Ramis that hit the media since his passing, I have to say that I truly appreciated the condolences written by the President Of The United States and fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama in which he echoed the words of Carl the gopher hunting groundskeeper in "Caddyshack" when he wrote,"Our thoughts and prayers are with Harold’s wife, Erica, his children and grandchildren, and all those who loved him, who quote his work with abandon, and who hope that he received total consciousness.”
"Total consciousness" indeed. I think, perhaps, that I received moments of total consciousness, over and again, during my days and nights at the movies. Movies conceived by Harold Ramis.
Rest in peace.