The Timeless Comedy Legacy of Harold Ramis
Harold Ramis was a god. Not THE God, but a god.
That is me paraphrasing one of dozens of forever-quotable lines scripted by comedy writer/director/actor Harold Ramis, who died today at age 69.
When it comes to an artistic career there is only one true arbiter and that is Time. Before he died, Ramis was fortunate enough to be reassured that Time had already ruled in his favor.
Ramis directed "Caddyshack" (1980), "National Lampoon's Vacation" (1983), Groundhog Day" (1993), and "Analyze This" (1990). Ramis wrote or co-wrote three of the four listed above and "Animal House" (1978), "Meatballs" (1979), "Stripes" (1981), and "Ghostbusters" (1984). Eight comedies that are just as enjoyable today as the day they were released, and will be just as enjoyable a hundred years from now.
More than a few of those films were outright game changers. "Animal House" not only made John Belushi a mega-star, it launched the era of the raunchy R-rated teenage comedy. "Caddyshack" made Chevy Chase a superstar and the middle-aged Rodney Dangerfield cool. "Stripes" made Bill Murray a superstar and proved the service comedy didn’t die with Abbott and Costello. "Ghostbusters" effortlessly combined Ramis' comic sensibility with the high-concept blockbuster.
The immediate success of each of these films had an effect on the way Hollywood did business. But who would have ever guessed that thirty years on what looked like throwaway studio fare aimed at horny teenagers would now be widely regarded as classics.
This is not an accident of nostalgia. As a child of the eighties I can tell you that raunchy comedies aimed at horny teenagers hit the multiplex almost every weekend, especially during the summer months. These films were a dime a dozen and there were probably hundreds of them. Ramis's canon survives for a few very simple reasons: memorable lines, classic characters, universal themes, great actors, and very big laughs.
What Ramis brought to his best films was not only his priceless gift for comedy but also a ton of heart and warmth. Belushi, Chase, Murray, Crystal, Dangerfield -- Ramis cast likable actors who played extremely likable and sympathetic characters.
Most importantly, although Ramis's comedy was frequently R-rated and oftentimes involved bare breasts or a Baby Ruth, his humor was playful not dirty, impish not gross, mischievous not superior, naughty not mean. Best of all, it was irreverence with a grin not cold ironic distance.
Ramis loved individuality and those who walked to the beat of their own drum. Think of Murray in "Stripes," Chase in "Caddyshack," or Belushi in "Animal House." But Ramis also loved and sided with the American everyman -- the Clark Griswold's of the world who worked in skyscrapers, lived in suburbia, and just wanted to share the experience of a Wally World with their ungrateful teenagers.
Through these characters and stories, Ramis never talked down to or lectured us. And he certainly never made fun of us. He teased and kidded us, no question, but never from on-high.
What I loved most about Ramis, though, is that he was always at war with The System. His Ghostbusters fought an overbearing Environmental Protection Agency; his Delta House fought a corrupt university and its rich, white, joyless know-better frat boys (who now write for Business Insider); his servicemen fought the bureaucracy of the military (and for their country); his meatballs and caddys fought the snobs; his weatherman fought his own urban snobbery and narcissism.
Over the last twenty-five years or so, all of Hollywood's power and talent have only managed to produce a few truly timeless bawdy comedies: "The Hangover," "American Pie," "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo." I am missing some, but they are still few and far between.
In the span of just six years, Ramis brought us "Animal House," "Caddyshack," "Stripes," "Vacation" and "Ghostbusters."
Very few artists in any medium leave behind a run like that.
Harold Ramis the person leaves behind his wife of 25 years, three children, and a very healthy contempt for The Man.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC