Digital Polyphony

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Harold Ramis

Posted on February 26, 2014 at 7:05 PM


Harold Ramis


If there’s any genre of film that is pretty damn subjective, it’s comedy. That has to do with how we perceive what is funny and what isn’t funny - going back to your childhood and teenage years as things become molded and shape your view of what you’ll laugh at and what you won’t. Something that scares someone can be pretty universal, or make someone cry, but comedy is a hard thing to gauge. It’s all about the execution of the comedy as well as the subjectivity of the person watching or hearing it. In other words, there’s a lot of factors that go in to make someone laugh.

So what I find funny today has a lot to do with what I grew up with. Movies and television shows I watched. Comedians I listened to. Jokes I would read in books or tell other kids at school. Growing up in the 1980s, there are only about five or six people I would say heavily influenced what I laughed at. One blog I did back a few years ago when he passed away in John Hughes. I dread the day I have to do one for Bill Murray, Steve Martin or John Landis. But one that I’ve always had up there with them was Harold Ramis who passed away earlier this week and I'm equally dreading writing more about it. What can I say? As the nerdy guy, I was drawn to the nerdy guy.

Nerdy but cool, Egon was a lot of people's favorite Ghostbuster. Smart, awkward, strange and pretty content to be the #3 guy in his fiendship with Peter and Ray. Harold Ramis played him perfectly.

Back in the day when there were only four or so television channels, options were limited, kids. There really wasn’t a lot on television, especially on weekends at home where the afternoon movies would come on. But there were some “staples” that your NBC or ABC seemed to always play. One of those was Ghostbusters in all its edited-for-television glory (I wouldn’t actually see it as it was to be seen until I bought it on VHS).

Let me tell you that if there is one thing that defined me from, say, age five or six to ten or eleven (mid 80s to early 90s) it was Ghostbusters. Yes, I liked your other things from that era as well: Transformers, He-Man, Ninja-Turtles, Nintendo, Back to the Future…but I didn’t wear clothes of those things and sleep in their sleeping bags, did I? So that right there was a major influence on what I liked and what I found funny.

Of course, being a kid, I didn’t know who Harold Ramis was except for “that guy in Ghostbusters.”

But I would see “that guy” a few years later when, on television again, I would come across Stripes. “Hey,” I said or probably said. “There’s Bill Murray…and John Candy…and that other guy from Ghostbusters…who is that guy?” Of course, I loved Stripes, but I was still young and couldn't quite "get" it yet…and I also started to get in to that age where I could watch Animal House, a movie I came to appreciate more upon repeated reviewing, or National Lampoon’s Vacation, a movie that my family certainly related to having taken quite a few car-trips.

As a kid, jokes like these were always over my head, but as an teen and later as an adult, I practically admire the clever wit, dialogue and everything else in movies like Stripes or Animal House. Stuff you don't notice when you're nine or ten years old. There's a reason why Ramis's work is so re-watchable, you always discover something new.

Then along came Caddyshack at some point, likely on TV or maybe it was on video where I first saw it. Now I wasn’t really in to golf or anything. I was only about six or seven when I first saw the thing. But there was something universal about it. Perhaps it was its simplicity and straightforwardness that allowed it to be so accessible. I started to notice a few things: a lot of the same people are in a lot of my same movies. A lot of them had a certain “feel” that wasn’t like a lot of other comedies I saw or was allowed to see.

As it turns out, I was being “molded” and my comedic sensibilities being determined by someone I didn’t even know. I wasn’t even a teenager yet, but here was this guy, working a lot behind the scenes, that I “Kinda knew” from his acting but I had no perspective on who writes or directs movies. To a kid, they were just “things that I watch.” Well those things that I watched ended up being more important than I realized and the guy that helped put a lot of those together just as much.

This guy was defining how I viewed comedy and I didn't even know who he was until I finally grew up and could appreciate it.

Harold Ramis wrote Ghostbusters, Stripes, Caddyshack, Back to School (which I didn’t mention), and Meatballs (which I also didn’t mention, but that was one of those movies I only caught later when I was allowed to see it). He directed the likes of Caddyshack as well, and National Lampoon’s Vacation…these were all movies in the 1980s that I grew up with, and the fact that the person behind it all is gone is a sad realization on how old I’m getting and how much we think back to our past and miss it.

I miss those comedies I grew up with. There’s really nothing like them, they still hold up because Ramis was able to find a way to have broad appeal but never feel “broad for the sake of being broad” as though some ad exec at a studio was trying to figure out how to market it. They marketed themselves thanks to a funny script and funny people to bring it to life.

From that we have memorable characters, like your Venkmans and Egons and Rays or your Ty Webbs and Carl Spacklers, or your Oxs or Blutarskys. He created these characters and wrote these stories, often collaborationg with other brilliant comedic writers. He was part of that group of select few that I look to as both influential to my past and inspirational to my future.

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Less than two minutes, Ramis tells us how broad doesn't need to mean "stupid."

Lastly, I have to move past the “kid me” and move ahead to Ramis’s finest script, based off of a story by Danny Rubin and arguably his finest work: Groundhog Day.

Now let me tell you something, there’s few movies I would call “perfect.” Especially comedies. Even some of the ones I listed, some of my favorite movies of all time like a Caddyshack or Ghostbusters, I can see the flaws in. Sure, I love them, but as a critic I can see the problems in them. But then you have Groundhog Day…and Groundhog Day is a perfect movie and a lot of that is thanks to a perfect script by Ramis and Rubin. Then you throw in the fact he also directed it…and I think it’s safe to say it’s his masterwork.

I remember, at the time, a lot of people not liking Groundhog Day. It was one of those movies that people re-discovered years later, including myself which didn’t bother seeing it because reviews at the time were pretty mixed. Then I go to college and I start studying film and I start looking at movies differently and start watching stuff in a different way. In class, a writing class if I recall, someone mentioned how Groundhog Day has the perfect script. So, naturally I watched it.

They were right. It is. It’s the wittiest, most clever and endearing and beautiful comedy I had ever seen. I would argue that it still is. It was this rare breed of being funny, anything with Bill Murray is going to be funny, but with a huge sense of self-reflection - as though it’s deconstructing the “comedy” right before your eyes as it begins to go in various directions and, ultimately, ending up as not a comedy at all but as a drama. It starts normally, then turns to a farce, then a bit of slapstick, then to the absurd humor, then to a rather cynical comedy and, eventually, finding that important cornerstone that defines it: love.

Now there’s a lot of “romantic comedies” but this is one that likes to play a trick on you. Like I said, it doesn’t start that way, it just kind of goes all over the place, but it does so with a purpose. It likes to stay grounded in its fantasy roots and there’s no better way to do that than with what eventually becomes a love story.

Easily one of the best scripts for a comedy to ever exist can be found in Groundhog Day.

Looking back, I can see how the studio maybe didn’t know how to market it. It’s a little bit of everything, asking a lot of its stars (especially Bill Murray) and taking a lot of risks. But that’s why I love it and still do, and I would dare anyone to try and prove that it’s not a perfect film. Like so many of Ramis’s other films, it begins with the same formula: strong premise plus solid storytelling and memorable characters equals genius.

Ramis is a name that had always been synonymous to me for brilliant comedy, up there with your Mel Brooks or Monty Python. He managed some solid films after Groundhog Day, notably Analyze This and the rather underrated Multiplicity, but it’s hard to follow up Groundhog Day with anything no matter who you are. He even admitted as much, noting he’s been making films for decades but “only directed nine films in that time because I like to be careful.”

He was also a good person on top of that. Of course, I’ve never met him directly, but you can tell when simply listening to someone talk in an interview, or do a commentary track for a DVD or the way others talk of him…yeah, he’s going to be missed on a far more personal level for a lot of people than I can relate to, but that doesn’t lessen his impact at all on who I am and what I appreciate in comedy to this day. The measure of that is impossible to gauge, but I’m glad that I came to know who that person was behind all those movies that I loved and still love, even if from afar.

Like with John Hughes, I wish I could have met him in person, and, even for a second, say how great and wonderful he is and that he certainly earned his stripes.

Above art done by NinjainkArt

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