Harold Ramis, best known for writing, directing and performing in some of the most iconic American comedies of the 1980s and early 90s, died last night at the age of 69.
He was, as Mark Caro writes in the Chicago Tribune, “one of Hollywood’s most successful comedy filmmakers when he moved his family from Los Angeles back to the Chicago area in 1996. His career was still thriving, with Groundhog Day acquiring almost instant classic status upon its 1993 release and 1984’s Ghostbusters ranking among the highest-grossing comedies of all time, but the writer-director wanted to return to the city where he’d launched his career as a Second City performer…. Ramis’s 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.”
“What is there to say about Harold Ramis’s status as an icon that a game of Ramis Roulette can’t say more succinctly?” asked Brett Martin in a profile for GQ back in 2009. “The rules are simple: At any given time of the day or week, search your cable system to see how many Ramis-written-and/or-directed movies will play within the next forty-eight hours. You’ll not only find the subversive classics that made his name (Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack), the secondary cultural landmarks (Ghostbusters, Back to School, National Lampoon’s Vacation), the masterpiece (Groundhog Day), or even the more recent commercial successes (Analyze This); you’ll also see stuff like Bedazzled and Multiplicity—films you might be surprised to find yourself laughing through if you take the time to watch them.”
Also in 2009, David Cross introduced a live discussion with Ramis at the Museum of the Moving Image, which you can listen to now (94’02”).
Harold Ramis on David Letterman in 1983
“Basically, if you were alive and watching movies from the early ’80s onward, Harold Ramis taught you a new master class in comedy and character every few years,” writes Peter Hall at Movies.com. “Few filmmakers have had as wide an impact on not just audiences, but the industry, as he. His love for grounding everyday, relatable men and women into larger-than-life scenarios gave him a distinct brand of American humor that won’t be forgotten any time soon.”
“I was just a few years old when Ghostbusters premièred in 1984,” writes the Dissolve‘s Matt Singer, “but I watched and rewatched it over and over again throughout my childhood, my teenage years, and into adulthood. I realize now a big reason why: because the Ghostbusters are nerds. They’re Ph.D.s who sit around running experiments and playing with gadgets, but they still save the world and one of them even gets the girl. A good deal of credit for that appealing notion belongs to Ramis, whose movies were often about outsiders and misfits who didn’t belong in tawny universities or snobby country clubs, but who prove the value of their unorthodox ideas and behaviors. Harold Ramis’s movies made it cool to be weird.”
From the Telegraph: “Ramis told the Wall Street Journal in 2009: ‘My early movies were all about individuals against institutions, and empowering the underdogs. I always thought of our characters as smart rebels, as opposed to losers.’ The last film he directed was historical comedy Year One, starring Jack Black and Michael Cera, which was released in 2009.”
Dan Aykroyd via EW: “Deeply saddened to hear of the passing of my brilliant, gifted, funny friend, co-writer/performer and teacher Harold Ramis. May he now get the answers he was always seeking.”
The Playlist‘s Kevin Jagernauth: “It’s hard to imagine the films of Jay Roach, Peter Farrelly, Jake Kasdan, Jason Bateman or Judd Apatow without Ramis having cleared the path first, with comedies that could be both high concept and human at their best (the latter honored Ramis with a small role in Knocked Up).”
A 1977 sketch for SCTV
In a 2004 piece for the New Yorker, Tad Friend noted that Ramis’s comedies “have several things in common. They attack the smugness of institutional life, trashing the fraternity system, country clubs, the Army—even local weathermen—with an impish good will that is unmistakably American. Will Rogers would have made films like these, if Will Rogers had lived through Vietnam and Watergate and decided that the only logical course of action was getting wasted or getting laid or—better—both.”
“To have created one of the most influential comedies of all time takes talent and luck; to have created at least three takes nothing less than genius.” Hadley Freeman for the Guardian: “But perhaps Ramis’ greatest achievement was the love and trust his colleagues felt for him. No one who met him or interviewed him had a bad word to say about him, which is not, to be blunt, something one says about many comedians who emerged from his era.”
The Guardian‘s Xan Brooks: “At the peak of his success, Ramis would claim that his anarchic, freewheeling comic style was inspired both by an early love of the Marx brothers and a brief, post-college job working at a Missouri mental institution. ‘It prepared me for when I went out to Hollywood to work with actors,’ he explained. ‘And not just with actors. It was good training for just living in the world.'”
“It’s appropriate that Harold Ramis played the straight-faced, data-crunching member of the Ghostbusters, because he had all the big ideas,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “While he was best known as the nice guy from the same Second City class as John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray and Ivan Reitman…, Ramis was a serious filmmaker…. A smuggler of deep thoughts into universally beloved commercial art, Ramis was an ordinary guy with a lot on his mind and an extraordinary way of sharing it.”
“Ramis always seemed to shine the brightest when the spotlight was aimed on others and he could stand off to the side feeding them their most indelible gags,” writes EW‘s Chris Nashawaty. “The Chicago native got his start in comedy in the late ’60s, when after editing the ‘Party Jokes’ column at Playboy magazine he joined Second City. At the time, the legendary improv troupe was evolving from a buttoned-down cerebral performance group into a hotbed of counterculture anarchy. Ramis took to the new weed-and-patchouli-scented atmosphere. He moved to New York to write and perform in The National Lampoon Show with future Saturday Night Live cast members John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Murray. He then became the first head writer of Second City’s syndicated show, SCTV—an absurdist, loosey-goosey hybrid of Lorne Michaels’ SNL and Monty Python’s Flying Circus—that made a virtue of its low-rent budget, unknown cast, and surrealist, almost Dali-esque set-ups.” Then, in 1978, he partnered “with Doug Kenney and Chris Miller to write the screenplay for the slobs-versus-snobs classic Animal House…. ‘I think the feeling in Hollywood was that we had introduced a new kind of comedy,’ Ramis told me in a 2010 interview. ‘To us, it wasn’t new because that’s what we’d been doing all through college and at Second City, but it was new to the movies.'”
Bill Murray: “Harold Ramis and I together did the National Lampoon Show off Broadway, Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day. He earned his keep on this planet. God bless him.”
For Flavorwire‘s Jason Diamond, the team of Ramis and Murray “stands as one of the greatest comedy partnerships ever in terms of both the work it produced and its everlasting influence.”
Updates, 2/25: “Michelle and I were saddened to hear of the passing of Harold Ramis, one of America’s greatest satirists, and like so many other comedic geniuses, a proud product of Chicago’s Second City,” President Obama said in a statement issued today. “When we watched his movies—from Animal House and Caddyshack to Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day—we didn’t just laugh until it hurt. We questioned authority. We identified with the outsider. We rooted for the underdog. And through it all, we never lost our faith in happy endings. 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.”
For Variety, Alexandra Cheney talks with John Landis, who looks back on Animal House: “Harold wrote the part of Boon for himself [Peter Riegart was cast in the role]. I didn’t cast him because he was older than the rest of the cast, and someone else would be better. He was very angry with me for a long time. But if you watch Peter’s performance, he’s not playing Boon, he’s playing Harold Ramis…. Before Caddyshack [in 1980] came out he called me and said, ‘Now that I’ve directed my first movie, I get it, you were right, I’m not mad with you anymore.'”
Ramis “was a comedic genius who knew better than most how to deliver smart-alecky humor with a tender, humanistic touch,” writes Nick Schager for Esquire. “That gift was a perfect match for his friend and frequent collaborator Bill Murray, who starred in Ramis’s finest directorial effort—not to mention the best romantic comedy of the past thirty years—Groundhog Day. That 1993 film, about a weatherman (Murray) forced to live the same day over and over again is, from start to finish, a masterpiece of alternately goofy, sarcastic, wry, and melancholy humor. And Ramis’s deft touch with his repetitive scenario is on especially magnificent display during the scene in which Murray attempts to convince his coworker Andie MacDowell, whom he fancies, that he’s in a fact an immortal
‘god’ trapped in a never-ending 24-hour cycle.” The scene:
“I first met Harold Ramis back in the early 1990s through a friend from Second City,” recalls Ray Pride, and “from our first extended conversation, around the time of Groundhog Day, it was clear that Ramis didn’t require an introduction or connection in order to be generous: raising the temperature of the room, as well as the conversation, working from the top of his intelligence, was just the order of things.” Ray points us to Eric Spitznagel‘s 2006 interview with Ramis for the Believer and then posts his own 2005 conversation. Also at Newcity Film: Andrew Rhoades‘s 2010 report on Ramis’s thoughts on Todd Solondz‘s Happiness (1998).
New York‘s David Edelstein: Ramis “was a famously menschy and stable guy in a sea of loons—some of them not so menschy or at the very least troubled, needy, and subject to unending insecurities. You could argue that said stability contributed to his less-than-electric presence onscreen, and he would actually have been the first to agree. Ramis said he realized one night while performing at Chicago’s Second Stage that he could never compete for laughs with John Belushi—a whirlwind, a force, a man who followed his demons. What Ramis followed was in some ways more mysterious. The ones who cultivate an inner calm while others are dropping around them might well have the tougher job. He was a straight man on and off the screen. But oh, what timing.”
Glenn Kenny: “There was always a sense with him—as a performer and a writer and a director, as everything—of a guy who ‘got it.’ Even with a project as ostensibly retrograde/vulgar as Caddyshack. At the heart of that movie there’s an intense, but never self-righteous, hatred of injustice, and a slight but definite distrust of the fuck-it-all hedonism it poses as a counter to the class problem depicted therein. The thread of his intelligence, his sensibility, his sensitivity, runs through that film and into such an unlikely-seeming object as Analyze This and the refreshingly mordant passion project The Ice Harvest. He was unique, irreplaceable.”
“Viewers always got the sense that the films’ satirical heart was in the right place,” writes Jason Zinoman in the New York Times. “One lesson of his career is that you can get away with a lot if you mix it with a little innocence.” And Douglas Martin writes the NYT‘s obituary.
“Ramis was never heard to trumpet his own abilities,” writes Ryan Gilbey in the Guardian. “‘It’s not like I’m going to leap from Meatballs to 8½,’ he once said. Except that with Groundhog Day he became responsible for one of the most ingenious and affecting films ever made, a movie that can hold its own alongside the work of Luis Buñuel or Billy Wilder.”
“Groundhog Day is one of the few perfect comedies we have,” agrees the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin, “and even a brief summary of its plot, which is equal parts Franz Kafka and Frank Capra, reads like an unimprovable cosmic joke…. There are Bergman films that indulge in less hair-raising philosophical gymnastics…, and yet Groundhog Day’s profundity only hits you on the way out, like a swing door bopping Stan Laurel on the backside as he ambles out of a saloon.”
The New Republic‘s Isaac Chotiner: “Groundhog Day is not merely the most brilliant film comedy in 25 years; it is also one of the most rewatchable movies of the past several decades.”
“At the heart of director and co-writer Harold Ramis’s peak film achievement, Groundhog Day (1993), there’s an idea that comes straight out of a theater game popularized by improvisation pioneer Viola Spolin, the mother of Compass Players founder Paul Sills. The game predates the birth of The Second City improv and sketch emporium, even. It’s called ‘Rewind.’ Ramis, among hundreds of other Second City alums, knew his way around the format blindfolded.” The Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips explains.
Press Play editor Max Winter: “The cultural legacy Ramis and his contemporaries had was that of the 1960s and 1970s, eras heralded for their freedoms and excesses but rarely examined as recovery from the social, economic, and historical traumas of the 1950s and 1940s. The comedic films made today are made in the shadow of a technological advancement that has rendered our culture dispersed and distracted to the point of soullessness. Ramis is, in a sense, a symbol of certain kind of comedy: a comedy with a beginning, a middle and an end, all equally ridiculous, all equally enjoyable, and all developed with the intention of fulfilling a film’s full potential. Those kinds of comedies—comedies with a soul that you can practically see—simply don’t exist anymore. Rest in peace.”
If David Poland “were going to make a list of the most important comedy directors of the last 35 years…, I would say it’s groups that have created major landmarks over this time period, not (generally) individuals.” Still, Ramis “seemed to be at or around every key comedy trend from the early 70s into the early 90s. And that is a truly remarkable legacy.”
Ivan Reitman, who worked with Ramis on five movies, thinks back even longer, forty years, to the National Lampoon Show, when he (Reitman) was producing the stage comedy: “After a raucous and very successful first show, we were shocked to discover that instead of clearing the house as we had expected, the patrons from the first performance stayed, happily drinking and waiting for more comedy. Backstage the group was in a panic. They had been expecting to do their prepared material for a new audience and had nothing else. Interrupting the growing panic, Harold pulled the cast together and suggested quietly, ‘Let’s just do the show again, except this time we’ll change every joke and every punch line.'” Read the rest.
“It’s probably difficult for audiences inculcated by today’s commonplace CGI spectacles to realize just how anomalous Reitman’s Ghostbusters seemed upon its arrival in 1984,” writes Variety‘s Scott Foundas: “a large-scale, effects-driven ‘supernatural comedy’ that turned New York into a staging ground for the apocalypse and filled the screen with such wondrous sights as a 50-foot-tall marshmallow man in tilted sailor’s cap (which, to this 6-year-old’s eyes, was just about the funniest thing I’d ever seen). The movie was a major event at a time before the term ‘tentpole’ had entered the cinematic lexicon. It seemed to run forever, and then was re-released and ran some more.”
Sarah Larson for the New Yorker: “In Ramis’s movies, the nutballs, the slobs, the garish, the poor, the handsomely weird, the gross, and the sleazily charming dance around, reveling in the fun to be had within the establishment, and at its expense (‘You think I’d join this crummy snobatorium?’). The gopher in Caddyshack dances, too, and he’s not welcome at the country club, either.”
At the Awl, Ramsey Ess looks back on Ramis’s days with SCTV: “The premise of the show was simple: for half an hour, the small television channel SCTV, broadcasting out of the fictional town of Melonville, would take over with their own programming. This would vary from traditional interview shows, morning programs, parodies of popular movies or TV shows, and announcements from the seemingly insane people who were running the network. In just the three short years Ramis was on the program he not only managed to steer the show towards it’s strange, specific sense of humor, he also managed to carve out some classic characters of his own.”
Updates, 2/27: Stephen Tobolowsky, who played Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, at Slate: “My overall impression of the man will not be his enormous talent, even though his achievements will be lasting. I was struck by his courage. He was unafraid.” Tobolowsky recalls Ramis spending untold sums on a crucial scene, then looking at it and throwing it away. “He replaced it with simplicity itself.” Read that story.
P.J. O’Rourke for the Daily Beast: “An exact date can be named for the Baby Boom’s ascent to the power of relentless mockery: July 28, 1978. That was when Animal House was released. I prove my thesis with two words that appear at the end of the movie, ‘Senator Blutarsky.'”
“The movies are quotable and formative and surreptitiously deep,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “On long car rides and dates, I’ve listened to explanations of why Caddyshack is simply the greatest movie ever made or why Groundhog Day might be the second greatest. Some people believe it’s the other way around.”
Update, 3/1: Via Ray Pride:
Updates, 3/2: Tom Frank for Salon: “I am going to start with three beloved movies of my childhood, and end with a suggestion of why liberals will probably never be able to come to grips with what they winningly call ‘inequality.'” The three films are Animal House, Caddyshack and Ghostbusters. “It is also no coincidence that the fraternity at Dartmouth which served as one of the models for Animal House has of late become a kind of pipeline into the investment-banking industry.” And free-market conservatives are “the most likely to understand class conflict in the way Caddyshack does: as a rivalry between WASP old money and differently pedigreed new money.” And Ghostbusters? “Its Reaganism is fully developed, as numerous critics have pointed out.” In conclusion, “my liberal friends, don’t ask for whom the bird flips: the bird flips for thee.”
“[F]ollowing the lead of the critic Glenn Kenny, I was only half-joking when I introduced a screening of [Alain Resnais‘s] Last Year at Marienbad in a class just weeks ago by saying that it was ‘the arthouse version of Groundhog Day,'” writes Michael Smith. “Both movies explore the premise of having a character relive the same time frame over and over again while trying to convince others they are not crazy in the bargain.”
Updates, 3/30: In 1999, Kristin Thompson was looking for blurbs for a book she’d just written, Storytelling in the New Hollywood, “an attempt to suggest that, contrary to the talk of ‘post-classical’ or ‘post-Hollywood’ norms having taken over American filmmaking, the most important classical principles that had been at work since the 1910s were still going strong.” She received more than a blurb from Harold Ramis. In the letter she reproduces, he writes that “my only useful conclusion about structure is that nothing will work if you don’t have interesting characters and a good story to tell.”
For Tom Charity, writing for Sight & Sound, “the best of [Ramis’s] later movies is The Ice Harvest (2005), an accomplished crime thriller laced with a black comic edge, and yet another demonstration of Ramis’s bemused affection for (and identification with) the muddled, usually misguided manoeuvres of the middle-aged male in extremis.”