Feb 24, 2014

R.I.P. Harold Ramis: 1944-2014

On February 24, 2014, multi-hyphenated comedian Harold Ramis passed away at the age of 69 from a rare blood disease called autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. Despite having a problematic career in the latter years that ended on the maligned Year One, what he leaves behind his an enviable body of work that helped to shape not only American comedy, but helped to popularize some of the 70's and 80's greatest comedians, notably his longtime partnership with Bill Murray. He was a comedian unlike most of his peers on the grounds that his films often became philosophical amid the absurdity and had a defining sense of maturity that makes films such as Groundhog Day iconic, even 21 years later.
When looking at Ramis' IMDb page, it is impossible to fully appreciate all of his accomplishments. Starting in an era with directors Ivan Reitman and John Landis, he was part of the period in American comedy that could be described as "anarchy comedy": aggressively strange, government systems-defying tales of the underclass that were as riotous as the Vietnam dramas of the same era. Even with his directorial debut Caddyshack, he defined the "Slobs vs. Snobs" and thus made the ultimate statement on what comedy could be.
Even in front of the camera, his work as an actor was excellent with appearances in Stripes and Ghostbusters alongside Murray in two of his most iconic films. By subverting expectations, the careless every man that Murray continues to embody was formed in those scenes and defines the era. What helps to make Ramis more than just another figure in the history books is that he wasn't just a director or an actor or a writer. He was everything and anything. He was passionate about films in ways that made him an auteur of sorts. Even on the multiple documentaries on films he has worked on (Caddyshack: The 19th Hole and The Yearbook: An 'Animal House' Reunion are two excellent insights into their productions).
Instead of go into elaborate detail of why he meant something important to me, I decided to highlight the man's achievements. It is in doing so that I hope to get to the core of what makes him so great, even if his later years don't necessarily suggest that. Like most people, we'll remember him for his accomplishments and with a body of work this diverse, it will be keeping us busy for quite some time. I have also decided to do it in chronological order to allow for some sense of progression.

SCTV (1976-1979)

Involvement: Actor, Writer

While almost everyone associated with 70's and 80's comedies are likely to get bunched in with Saturday Night Live, the Great White North's own sketch show was no slouch when it came to producing talents such as John Candy, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis, and even Harold Ramis. It was a sketch show that was absurdly Canadian as it satirized the country's cable networking format in order to present stream of consciousness skits that often involved pop culture parodies and commercial satires. Ramis wrote as well as starred on the show, appearing throughout the course of his three years, including this oddly relevant piece. He may not be as synonymous with the show as his co-stars, but that was because he left early on to pursue a career in film, which included work with his co-stars from radio show the National Lampoon Radio Hour (1974-1974) including John Belushi, Bill Murray, and Gilda Radner. Still, SCTV's vast array of characters was a strong inspiration for future comedies to have a diverse cast of oddities, including The Simpsons.

Animal House

Involvement: Writer

What is impressive is that in a film that is full of beer bottle breaking, horse shooting, and naked Donald Sutherland; it still manages to be the masterpiece of the anarchy comedy genre. The charm comes from the fairly unknown cast and John Belushi at his manic best tearing apart the traditional college archetypes. The comedy comes fast and refuses to give up any sense of fun in favor of moral ground. One needs to not look further for this film's brilliance than in the third act when the Delta House seek their revenge on their dean by wrecking a ceremony with what is aptly called a Deathmobile. Ending with placards that answers "Where are they now?" this is a film that works because of its energy as well as the writing, which compiled actual experiences of college life and ended up creating the ultimate depiction of chaos in school. Films like Revenge of the Nerds have tried, but don't even come close to this film's brilliance.

Bill Murray

Involvement: Writer

It wasn't the first time that Ramis and Murray worked together, but it is the defining start to their cinematic chemistry. Even if Ramis only wrote it, this summer camp tale remains one of the most iconic in this subgenre which has spawned three sequels and the phrase "It just doesn't matter" and the catchy as all get-out theme song "Are You Ready for the Summmer?" With this being Murray's first big break after leaving Saturday Night Live, it gave the world a chance to be introduced to a screen presence that would only grow and get stranger. Even Ramis' anarchy comedy styling here after the juggernaut Animal House feels like it is the building blocks to something bigger and stranger. The film works heavily because of Murray and while not as memorable as his later work, remains a classic in the summer camp comedy genre with its ribald sense of fun and adventure.


Involvement: Director, Writer

Despite being disregarded upon its initial release, Caddyshack has come to be one of the classic sports comedies as well as ranking on American Film Institute's (A.F.I.) Top 10 Sports Films at #7. The film defined "Slobs vs. Snobs" with a dynamite cast that included Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Ted Knight, Rodney Dangerfield, and a mischievous gopher all fighting over a golf course while spouting some of the most memorable one liners and gags in any 80's comedies. It also ranks as one of the best directorial debuts with Ramis taking a page from his peers by making the action as insane as possible and ending with a literal bang. The film may have spawned a subpar sequel, but the legacy of Caddyshack remains indelible and iconic to its time. It also introduced the world to the strange, addictive quality of what Ramis could do behind the camera.

Bill Murray

Involvement: Actor, Writer

The first movie on this list to see Ramis step from behind the camera and show us just what exactly made him and Murray such an infectious team of trouble raisers. This army satire took a look at two down-on-their-luck guys as they enter boot camp and turn the whole affair into a chaotic journey through disobeying commanding officers and mud wrestling. It has Murray in one of his most rambunctious roles to that date and features a way funnier look at war than Robert Altman's M.A.S.H., at least until the debatable unnecessary third act. For the most part, the film up to that point is some of the tightest, most enjoyable comedy that Ramis or Murray has ever produced and with a supporting cast that included Warren Oates, John Candy, and John Larrouquette, it was comedic affair for the ages. It was also another mark in Ramis' period of making comedies that defied "the man" in clever ways.

Chevy Chase
National Lampoon's Vacation

Involvement: Director, Actor (Voice)

Of every film that Ramis would make, the directing is likely to the be one that is most often misrepresented to its writer John Hughes (who actually didn't direct any of them). However, the film is the high point not only in Ramis' career, but for stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo who defined the road trip comedy by following Murphy's Law across the American landscape and resulting in one of the most chaotic, dysfunctional families in film history. While the sequels may have diminishing returns, National Lampoon's Vacation reigns as one of the few films that hasn't aged that horribly. With a catchy theme song, it explores the importance of family and reflects just how ridiculous it is to want to please them even when everything is against you. There's only desire that Ramis and Hughes worked together on more projects, as there's a good chance that there would be some ingenuity that sparks as much creative gags as this film that transitions Ramis from his anarchy comedy phase to his philosophical absurdity phase.

Left to right: Dan Aykroyd, Murray, and Ramis

Involvement: Actor, Writer

If there is one film that will forever be synonymous with any cast member in this film, it is Ghostbusters. The sci-fi comedy not only reflected an understanding of satire, but it created some of the most iconic every man characters and the best scientists. The lines of quotes are endless and the costume and theme song are iconic. The whole film has continues to endlessly referenced and with Dan Aykroyd wanting to make a third film, there hasn't been much time for the film to disappear from conversation. Even if Ramis is third tier to Aykroyd and Murray, he holds up his end with an impressive performance that only highlights the unexpected joy and bizarre love of the occult that is present in this box office smash.

Rodney Dangerfield
Back to School

Involvement: Writer, Executive Producer

It seemed like a great idea for Ramis to team back up with the star of Caddyshack for a comedy that is just as ridiculous as Animal House. The film may be nowhere near as memorable as the anarchy comedy juggernaut, but it does rank rather highly for those that admire Rodney Dangerfield the comedian. The premise is simple: go back to college and graduate. What Dangerfield does with this particular role is find heart as well as time to spout his iconic one-liners and have Oingo Boingo play his house parties. The film may overall be one of the simple affairs that Ramis every helped create, but it is full of heart, humor, and continues to reflect the growing interesting in personal relationships between Dangerfield and co-star Keith Gordon who played his son. It is more focused than Animal House and is more of a one person show, but what a show it is, if just for that inspiring cameo by Kurt Vonnegut. 

Groundhog Day

Involvement: Actor, Director, Writer, Executive Producer

Whenever anyone will likely think of Ramis, it will be between his performance in Ghostbusters or his magnum opus Groundhog Day. The latter reflects a transition into an era of more philosophical, absurd comedy that challenges the growth of relationships and demands for something more. It ranks among one of Murray's best performances and even has been debated what the time frame of the film actually is. It is a beautiful tale of morality while allowing Murray to do whatever he wants and creating some of the best gags in his career. There is a reason that this film will likely be airing on some channel every February 2, and it isn't just because it is actually Groundhog Day. Ramis has made a film that celebrates a holiday in the least traditional way possible while making a term synonymous with "redundant days."

Jack Nicholson
As Good as it Gets

Involvement: Actor

It is likely that nobody remembers Ramis for As Good as it Gets, which could be for the phenomenal performance by Jack Nicholson. The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and remains one of the few successful films to explore mental illness in charming ways that only director James L. Brooks really could. In a small role, Ramis plays a doctor that gives news to Helen Hunt. It is a minuscule role comparatively, but it reflects a shift from his comedic tone and helps to fall more into his desire to explore philosophy in everyday life with some clarity.

Billy Crystal
Analyze This

Involvement: Director, Writer

Ramis' last great directorial efforts remain his mafia comedy and its subsequent sequel (Analyze That) with two great performances by Billy Crystal and Robert de Niro. While the film doesn't quite capture the zeitgeist as most of his other work does, it is a fun story that tears apart the tropes of the crime syndicate dramas and brings them into interesting new territory. Even if the film is a little light at times, it does reflect a desire to continue exploring the strengths and weaknesses of couples and most of all look at the people behind the personas. They are more madcap and crazy than most of Ramis' later films, but there is a sense of maturity here that leaves wonder of where Ramis could have gone provided that he was more prolific in the later years of his life.

Left to right: Seth Rogen and Ramis
Knocked Up

Involvement: Actor

In the later years of Ramis' career, he tended to show up in smaller roles in other people's films, including most notably in Knocked Up where he plays Seth Rogen's dad. In his one scene, he manages to bring humor and a sense of background to Rogen as they discuss what drugs are acceptable to take and the responsibilities that go with being a parent. It is an enjoyably candid scene that may have Ramis playing more of the straight man, but allows for the natural energy to flow from moment to moment, making this pregnancy epic of a comedy into something that feels honest and true to real life.

John C. Reiley
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Involvement: Actor

While this is essentially an excuse to watch John C. Reiley go crazy and sing songs, it is important to note that it also has one of the strongest supporting players in any comedy from recent years. With a hoard of comedians playing various celebrities and archetypes, the faux music biopic is an underrated gem that deserves more recognition. Among the supporting players is Ramis as a Rabbi named L'Chaim. Much like Knocked Up, his role is small and maybe a little stereotypical, but with it ranking among the films more bizarre depictions, it does show that Ramis was still capable of playing game and doing crazy roles even towards the end of his career.

While this isn't the entirety of his catalog (he also directed episodes of The Office and the film Year One), this is mostly a highlight of the moments in his career that stood out for me. These are the ones that when considering what made him great, I immediately turn to these. He gave us plenty of laughs and even had time to have a second career as a philosophical comedian whose multifaceted talents combined to make impressive films. It is only questionable what he would have done had he been given more years. As for now, we have his long, impressive career to make us laugh and think. He advanced comedy by making anarchy into an art form, and that is quite something.

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