Ramis held his own in that crowd. I remember Apatow using the F-word a lot (I have it written in my notes) and Henry speaking eloquently about craft, but Ramis was very modest about his success, with a droll delivery that made me wonder if he was there ‘in character.’ “Find the funniest person in the room and stand near them,” he said, a perfect encapsulation of his career when you think of all the amazing performers he has had the opportunity to write for and direct.
With that in mind, I present the five most enduring Ramis collaborations, a virtual who’s who of comedy over the last thirty-five years. Laughter is always better shared with another person, and I thank Harold Ramis for sharing these with me.
Harold Ramis and John Belushi – When John Belushi joined the Second City Improv Company in Chicago in 1971, Harold became his deadpan foil. Ramis said in an interview in the New Yorker “in the midst of a scene, John would come out with something like ‘Eat a Bowl of Fuck.’” He described himself as a person of intellect, and Belushi as a person of instinct – it was his job to “guide and deploy” that instinct. After Second City, Belushi brought Ramis to New York for The National Lampoon Radio Hour (also featuring Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Brian Doyle-Murray, Joe Flaherty and Christopher Guest), nationally broadcast on 600 stations. A few years later, Ramis and Belushi broke into film together with Animal House. Ramis said in an Onion A.V. Club interview that Animal House “introduced to me very early in my career the idea that, working with the people I knew, we had the potential to have that kind of impact… commercial instinct even though we were considered sort of cutting-edge.” Universal couldn’t believe that the Delta fraternity were the heroes but “we knew that our generation would get it completely. We represented something that was going to happen.” Ramis and Belushi gave up Toga!, Food Fight, that ‘College’ shirt and the fact that it’s not over, even when the Germans bomb Pearl Harbor.
Harold Ramis and Chevy Chase – Caddyshack was Harold Ramis’ first directorial outing and he called upon an ex-SNL cast member who had had a legendary fight with his other biggest cast member (Bill Murray) before leaving the show after one season. They managed to make the film together, only appearing in one scene, entirely improvised and done in two takes. In Caddyshack, Chase gets many of the most quotable lines and snatches of dialogue, his character’s Zen philosophy based off of Ramis and Co-Writer Doyle-Murray’s friend and National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney (also a writer and producer on the film). But again, much of Chase’s work was improvised. Ramis said “we always start with a script, then realize, “Oh, we can do better. You owe it to your producers or whoever financed the film to make it better, right? It doesn’t take any longer to improvise 10 takes than it takes to shoot 10 takes of the same thing. It turns out to be just as responsible from a business point of view as anything else.” One of Ramis’s greatest abilities is to bring out the best, sincere performances from other actors – whether its an off-the-cuff joke in the moment, or by getting them to reach into their own heart to give us something truly universal. When Chevy Chase starred in Vacation, it was not as an aloof millionaire like in Caddyshack, but as everyone’s well-meaning but a little over the top dad. It’s another man vs. the institution film, but in this case, the institution wins. By the time Chase’s Clark Griswold makes the big speech to take us into the final act, he is unhinged. The underdogs of Animal House had grown up and here is Harold Ramis showing them toil against the trappings of real life monotony.
Harold Ramis and Rodney Dangerfield – As if Caddyshack could survive any more loose cannons, Ramis brought in noted comic (but film novice) Rodney Dangerfield to play yet eccentric golfer. His role was supposed to be much smaller, but he and Bill Murray and Chevy Chase all saw their roles increasing as filming continued due to their improvisation skills. Dangerfield is an interesting character in the usual Ramis lexicon – he is a full-grown adult, but he still thinks and acts like a kid. As if to prove this, he and Ramis teamed up again for Back to School, which finds Dangerfield as a millionaire returning to get the college degree he never achieved, and Ramis returning to the college confines of Animal House, remade in the excess of the eighties. It was essentially asking what if the nouveau riche interloper from Caddyshack joined the Delta fraternity, it’s slobs-vs-snobs again. Once again, the funniest man in the room gets a memorable speech, in this case, its at the end of the movie, when Thornton Melon tells the kids “Don’t go, it’s rough out there. Move back with your parents!”
Harold Ramis and Bill Murray – Murray was another Second City and National Lampoon Radio Hour alum and Meatballs was his feature film debut. Ramis was actually recruited to do a rewrite on the script because he knew Murray and maybe could get him in the movie. It was not until a week before shooting that the production staff knew Murray would be in the film. In Meatballs, Ramis basically invented the Murray persona, smartass disenfranchised man against the institution. This same conflict appears in Animal House (with had a part originally intended for Murray), Meatballs, and Stripes. Like Belushi’s speech in Animal House, Murray delivers the turning point in Meatballs, declaring “it just doesn’t matter.”
In Caddyshack, he took Murray aside and asked him “When you’re playing sports, do you ever just talk to yourself like you’re the announcer?” and the Cinderella story was born, an improvised monologue in one take. Directing Stripes, Ivan Reitman said “Bill is this great improv player, but he needs Harold, the focused composer who understands setting a theme and the rules of orchestration. So I told Harold, ‘One, I want you to co-star in my movie, and, two, I want you to rewrite it for two really intelligent guys—you and Bill.’ ” When the studio balked, Murray refused to do the film without Ramis, he felt guilty that he hadn’t gotten on to SNL (or so the legend goes). In Stripes, Murray makes another rabble rousing speech, a homage to the wretched refuse. There are even moments during the scene where Ramis seems to be laughing at his own writing.
Thank you Harold Ramis. You will be missed by many, but your genius will live on, in eternal repeat, on our betamaxes, vhs’s, laserdiscs, DVDs, blurays, streaming videos and whatever they invent next to capture comedy.