“There’s no shortage of dumb comedies, but comedy’s got to be more than manipulation. There has to be some point, some message. I think there’s a responsible kind of comedy that enlightens us, makes us think, exposes real hypocrisy or real contradictions of society and that’s useful, it’s valuable; that’s good comedy.”
Speaking to an audience of young artists and filmmakers, Harold Ramis answered a simple question about “good comedy.” The revered writer/director/actor told the students of Columbia College Chicago that there needs to be something more. There needs to be more than just gimmick for entertainment, something more than an empty action for a waiting audience. It was a belief to which the established filmmaker had long subscribed and which is evident throughout his work: there is always something more.
The writer and actor found something more for Chicago’s Second City Theater in the revolutionary 1960’s. The company had been hot in the 1950’s as a rich breeding ground for satire and improvisation but had lost its audience to the counterculture movement. Ramis along with John Belushi, Joe Flaherty, Gilda Radner, Brian Doyle-Murray, and (Brian’s brother) Bill Murray became the Next Generation of performers which provided the next generation of audiences with groundbreaking, relevant comedy.
“The theater was ours on Monday nights,” he told Mike Thomas in Second City Unscripted, “and we kind of developed our own fan base, which seemed a little younger and hipper than the basic Second City Audience. The material was more radical politics and drugs and hippie[s].”
The Next Generation made waves in the comedy world and subsequently made names for themselves. While some – Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, John Belushi – went on to movies and Saturday Night Live, Ramis chose the more obscure Second City TV. Why? He was looking for something more, and as he told Mike Sacks in And Here’s the Kicker, “I didn’t like Saturday Night Live that much.”
Although offered a writing job by Lorne Michaels, the writer/performer was looking for a venue that allowed more creative freedom and obscurity (the way theater did). His decision to turn down SNL was made easier by the fact that when Michael’s offer came, Ramis was already head writer of SCTV.
His accomplishments at Second City and SCTV and his genuine love for his work caught the attention of many other comedy writers including National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney. It was with Kenney (and writer Chris Miller) that Ramis co-wrote Animal House and entered the realm of feature film.
It’s easy to look at the early films of Harold Ramis and categorize them as anarchic frat comedies. Ramis might even agree with you on some. (He admitted to Sacks, “I have to say, as broad as my movies can be, certain elements in Animal House struck me as broader than they needed to be.”) But there is also a subtle similarity between all his main characters.
Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro points out, “Ramis’ comedies were often wild, silly and tilting toward anarchy, but they also were cerebral and iconoclastic with the filmmaker heeding the Second City edict to work at the top of one’s intelligence.”
Intelligent characters were key. There was something more to these outsiders. They may have been rebellious, anti-hero slackers, but that didn’t mean they were dumb.
In every movie, there are characters who could easily look at the camera and say, “Can you believe this?” These are people who are “socially smart, cutting through all the pretension in the room and all the illusions and recognizing what’s really going on,” Ramis explained to Sacks, “They don’t have to be the heroes, necessarily. But they should be intelligent.”
Another similarity came about because of the filmmaker’s lifelong appreciation for the Marx brothers.
It’s not hard to see the relationship between the anarchy of Marx characters and the rebellion of Ramis characters; their antagonist is an institution. Whether it’s the government, the military, or upper-class WASPs, the films’ characters were having none of it. Ramis realized the parallels while filming Caddyshack as he explained in an interview for the American Film Institute.
The characters in Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Stripes are not just rebel rousers making trouble for the sake of trouble; anarchy can only carry a film for so long. These people aren’t buying what their world is selling, and they’re not going to play along. Where Marx movies say don’t be blinded by propaganda, Ramis movies say don’t be blinded by culture and convention. The lesson actually comes across as a less lame version of “Be Yourself.”
“The only thing you have that is unique is yourself,” Ramis told writing students, “The only thing totally unique is you. There’s no one like you. No one else has had your experience. No one has been in your body or had your parents. [Experiences are] all filtered through our unique personalities.”
It was the actor’s unique personality that brought dimensional life to his characters. Egon Spengler ruled with an active brain and sly wit. If any character were flirting with the fourth wall, it was the egghead Ghostbuster.
Ramis’ oft-spoken of kindness had shown through as well. In As Good As It Gets his calm reassurance that Carol’s son will get better becomes inarguable truth. In Knocked Up, there’s no question he’s an excited dad who’s supportive of his son. The actor sought more for these bit characters, he sought humanity.
Ramis continued to seek when it came to celebrity.
Knowing that there had to be something more than fickle accolades, the Chicago native lent his support to the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living, the Goodman Theatre, the Royal George Theater’s Autism Speaks fundraiser, and the Joffrey Ballet. He was a loyal Bulls fan and was always glad to pop by a Cubs game to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
Today, four of the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest American Comedies ranks are held by Harold Ramis crafted films. A craving for more than just manipulation and gimmick helped him play an important role in transforming comedy of the past 50 years. His death on Monday, February 24, 2014 of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that causes blood vessels to swell, is gut-punchingly unexpected.
At only 69, the comedy legend bids us adieu and, much like a storyteller, leaves us wanting a little bit more.