A beginner’s guide to comedy legend Harold Ramis

A beginner’s guide to comedy legend Harold Ramis

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: comedy legend Harold Ramis.

Harold Ramis 101

An admiring 2004 profile in The New Yorker timed to the release of The Ice Harvest recounts how Harold Ramis returned to Second City in 1972 after an extended absence to find his place taken by John Belushi, a young performer who was everything Ramis was not: messy, ferociously alive, and simultaneously blessed and cursed with raw, anarchic, out-of-control charisma and magnetism.

Ramis recognized that he was not that kind of performer himself; he was a more cerebral and detached comic mind, more of a thinker than a brash physical comedian. Where Belushi angrily demanded the spotlight, Ramis was and remains an inveterate collaborator. Ramis’ name can be found on many of the best and most beloved comedies of the past 35 years, but they’re almost invariably accompanied by the names of other screenwriters. Similarly, he has acted in several hit films over the years, many of them enormously successful, but it’s telling that Ramis never really starred in a movie. Despite the hit films he’s appeared in, co-written, or directed, there has never been a Harold Ramis vehicle. But he does have a gift for custom-creating vehicles for the John Belushis and Bill Murrays of the world, icons with the kind of electric presence Ramis lacks. 

Before establishing himself first as a screenwriter and then as a director, Ramis paid his dues in three of the most prestigious comedy incubators in existence: Second City, where he learned the art of improvisation, a gift that would serve him well in all his far-flung endeavors; the massively influential Canadian sketch-comedy series SCTV, where Ramis served as the original head writer, in addition to performing; and The National Lampoon Radio Hour, where he first collaborated with Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, relationships that proved to be essential in his later career. 

In a comedy (and entertainment) world ruled by ego, Ramis is seemingly content to be the man behind the man, or, particularly during the earlier stages of his career, when he acted more regularly, the man beside the man. He has ascended to the apex of American comedy through an unparalleled gift for harnessing the potential of our culture’s preeminent smartasses, particularly Bill Murray, with whom Ramis shares a long, complicated, and fruitful history. 

Ramis transformed the default rebelliousness and sneering sarcasm of the 1960s counterculture into a commercial comedy force, elevating (or reducing, based on your perspective) the intergenerational and interclass clashes of the era into a crowd-pleasing battle between slobs and snobs, one in which the filmmakers and the audience’s sympathies are never in question. (Here’s a hint: It’s not with the snooty country-club types with ascots and monocles.)

That’s especially true of Ramis’ 1980 directorial debut, Caddyshack, which he co-wrote with National Lampoon’s Douglas Kenney and Bill’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray. With Caddyshack, Ramis plugged into the cultural zeitgeist with a ramshackle golf comedy crudely but effectively engineered to showcase the talents of four very different sensibilities: Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, and Ted Knight. 

Chase was undoubtedly the biggest star in the cast at the time. Hell, in 1980, nobody was cooler or bigger or hipper than Chase, whose heyday was rapidly coming to a close but who still effortlessly and hilariously conveyed sublime Zen detachment as a playboy who glides through a charmed life as a wealthy man of leisure; for Chase’s iconic golfer, not giving a fuck has become a state of grace. 

Ramis was always willing to defer to the singular talents of others; after co-writing the script for Caddyshack, he famously let Murray improvise his entire role as a demented, sideways-talking groundskeeper locked in an eternal war with a rascally gopher. This resulted in some of the most beloved moments in the history of contemporary comedy, like Murray’s monologue about caddying for the Dalai Lama, who informs him that in lieu of an actual tip he will attain “total consciousness” upon his deathbed. “So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice,” Murray observes with the perfect note of understated satisfaction in a speech that epitomized Ramis’ gift for investing dumb comedy with unexpected smarts and shining a light on the gifts of his collaborators when it served the overall piece.  

But nowhere is Ramis’ gift for anarchy and his affection for the underdog more apparent than in the Caddyshack’s riotous relationship between Rodney Dangerfield, a whirling dervish of bug-eyed comic mayhem, and uptight über-WASP Ted Knight. 

Dangerfield and Knight make for an unbeatable comedy team: the irrepressible Jewish ham with the lascivious gleam and the rigid exemplar of uptight repression. The perfect straight man, Knight performs an exquisite symphony of exasperation attributable partially to Knight’s genuine frustration with his co-stars’ manic, nonstop improvisation. 

Caddyshack was very much a film of the moment; it even boasted the requisite Kenny Loggins soundtrack. But like a surprising number of Ramis’ films, it’s proven strangely resilient. Critics tended to dismiss, if not deride, Ramis’ ’80s comedies as “merely funny,” but making generation upon generation of audiences laugh, as his best films do, is a hell of an achievement. 

The rebelliousness of Ramis’ comedies often has more to do with personality and attitude than politics. In Caddyshack, the stuffy world of the country club is ultimately liberated by the shameless, unapologetic vulgarity of Dangerfield, whose cavalier disregard for propriety and authority marked him as a figure of youthful rebellion despite his age and enormous wealth.

But before Caddyshack could make Dangerfield an unlikely movie star and box-office attraction, Ramis made his screenwriting debut with a different instantly iconic, massively influential lowbrow comedy that chronicled the eternal battle between slobs and snobs, between the irreverent troublemakers and the arbiters of propriety. 

It is a testament to Ramis’ enormous success and influence that a primer on his films in many ways doubles as a primer on contemporary American studio comedy, and it would be hard to imagine American comedy without the 1978 sleeper blockbuster Animal House. 

Animal House found Ramis riding a massive cultural wave alongside co-screenwriters Douglas Kenny and Chris Miller, producer Ivan Reitman, and director John Landis. The film brought the smartass, stoner, anti-authoritarian humor shared by the vastly overlapping worlds of Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and The National Lampoon to a mainstream cinematic audience, changing the tone of studio comedies in the process. 

Ramis’ genius as a writer, director, and co-star was to lend order to chaos and chaos to order. He was peerless in his ability to get the best out of his collaborators. For Animal House, that meant creating a rickety but fundamentally sound thematic structure for the improvisatory genius of John Belushi, whose King Kong-sized performance obscures the comedy’s status as a quintessential ensemble comedy populated by a who’s who of up-and-coming stars along with an odd luminary like Donald Sutherland, who contributes a funky character turn as a professor whose personal proclivities anticipate the debauchery of the ’60s counterculture. 

Animal House marked the first in a series of smash hits Ramis co-wrote, comedies that pitted the SNL/SCTV axis against cultural institutions begging to be taken down a notch: While Animal House set its sights on college, a modest 1979 Canadian comedy called Meatballs stuck it to the venerable institution of camping, and 1981’s Stripes delivered a satirical ribbing to the Armed Forces. 

On Saturday Night Live, Bill Murray specialized in playing pandering phonies, but it took 1979’s Meatballs to introduce Murray’s cinematic persona as a smartass, eternally sarcastic man-child locked in a one-man war against authority. Meatballs softened some of Murray’s more abrasive elements by making him the head camp counselor who is more of a peer to his campers than an authority figure. The film smartly cast Murray as a friend to children and misfits everywhere, an irreverent but fundamentally big-hearted anti-hero forever on the side of the little guy. It’s a role he would play throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, often in movies co-written, directed, or starring Ramis. 

Ramis merely co-wrote Meatballs for Reitman and Murray. But in 1981, he graduated from co-writing to co-starring alongside Murray in Reitman’s Stripes, a comedy that was originally intended as a vehicle for Cheech & Chong before Reitman decided that the smarter move, in every conceivable way, would be to ask Ramis to re-write it as a vehicle for himself and Bill Murray. 

As happened throughout his heyday, the stars aligned for Ramis, who found in the U.S. Army the perfect glowering, autocratic, humorless institution for his favorite one-man insurrection. Stripes featured the ideal combination of star, co-writer, and subject matter, but the filmmakers kept stacking the deck with a ridiculously overstuffed, overqualified supporting cast that included John Candy, Dave Thomas, Joe Flaherty, John Larroquette, a young Judge Reinhold, P.J. Soles, Sean Young, and the great character actor Warren Oates. Ramis understood that every great anti-hero needs an equally great hardass to go up against, and Oates fit the bill. 

The laziness of these early Bill Murray vehicles have largely been forgotten, or at the very least forgiven. We tend not to remember the arbitrary love interests, silly plot points, and other nonsense, but the films have otherwise remained fresh in the public’s imagination, both as a whole and for their individual setpieces. Time sniffed dismissively of Murray, Ramis, and Reitman’s military laugher, “Stripes will keep potential felons off the streets for two hours. Few people seem to be asking, these days, that movies do more.” But Ramis got the final word: More than three decades later, people are still enjoying Stripes, Meatballs, Caddyshack, and Animal House along with other films the gatekeepers of culture deemed merely useful for distracting the sub-literate and easily entertained. Yet countless Academy Award winners and nominees of the time have been forgotten.  When was the last time anyone you know mentioned Chariots Of Fire? Yet Caddyshack is reverently quoted around the world constantly. 

Part of what made Ramis’ films so easy to dismiss was that their scale was small. But as the box-office tallies and Murray’s fame grew bigger, the films followed suit. Ramis had acquired a reputation as a fix-it man, a gifted re-writer whose unique skill set allowed him to rescue dodgy or even impossible-seeming projects. Dan Aykroyd’s original script for Ghostbusters, for example, which he had written as a vehicle for himself and his friend and collaborator John Belushi, originally revolved around paranormal exterminators who traveled through space, time, and dimensions as they battled ghosts. 

Reitman dug the ghost-busting element, but understandably thought the script as written would be prohibitively expensive to make and brought in Ramis to take Aykroyd’s massive, billion-dollar idea and turn it into something workable. Ramis became the glue that kept a series of volatile elements together: the hyper-nerdy, dense, science-obsessed sensibility of Aykroyd’s writing, Reitman’s solid yet safe commercial instincts, a premise that pushed the limits of special effects and technology, and perhaps the biggest variable of them all, a mercurial star who may show up on set full of ideas that will make the film better or might not show up at all. 

In that respect, making Ghostbusters was less like making a movie and more akin to waging an elaborate military campaign, but, as co-writer and co-star, Ramis ensured that the film’s irreverent comic spirit was not swallowed up in all the clattering spectacle. He made sure that under the sloppy comedy lay solid comic craftsmanship, so while it might have appeared that the inmates had taken over the asylum, there was a serious adult intelligence at work underneath it all. 

The incredible success of Ghostbusters—even now, the world seems riveted by rumors of a third entry despite literally decades of false starts—made Ramis and collaborators Murray, Aykroyd, and Reitman among the biggest commercial filmmakers in the world. They became the tastemakers, arriving at the very apex of the profession and making the powers that be untold fortunes, which left one question: “Who is left to rebel against?” 

Intermediate Work 
No screenwriter, director, or writer had a better sense of Rodney Dangerfield’s strengths and weaknesses as a film actor than Ramis. Accordingly, the crowd-pleasing 1986 comedy Back To School—which Ramis co-wrote with Steven Kampmann, William Porter, and Peter Torokvei from a story co-credited to Dangerfield—smartly mashed-up two previous Ramis triumphs, essentially asking what might happen if Dangerfield’s nouveau-riche wisenheimer from Caddyshack were to immerse himself in a more respectable version of the college universe in Animal House. 

The film casts Dangerfield as a wildly successful but unfulfilled clothing magnate who ends up enrolling in college when he tries to convince his son (Keith Gordon) to give school another shot. It’s another culture-clashing slobs-vs.-snobs comedy as the irrepressible force of Dangerfield’s personality brushes up against the stuffy, rule-bound world of university. If there’s one immutable rule in the films of Harold Ramis, it’s that slobs invariably triumph in the end. 

Back To School imagines an upside-down world where the biggest collegiate troublemaker is older than the Dean was in Animal House, and Kurt Vonnegut pops by briefly for a cameo as the intellectual heavyweight Dangerfield hires to write a paper on Kurt Vonnegut for him. (He gets a poor grade on the paper from a professor who complains that whoever wrote the paper clearly knows nothing about Vonnegut.) Back To School illustrates that, with the right star and the right script-doctors, a “merely funny” movie can ascend to the level of classic.

Ramis’ early comedies were proudly broad, but as he pushed deeper and deeper into middle age his films tended to get quieter and more nuanced. That’s particularly true of 1999’s Analyze This, in which Ramis engineered an unlikely but ultimately inspired marriage between crime and comedy and the disparate personas of Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal. 

When Analyze This was released to strong reviews and even stronger box-office, the concept of Robert De Niro doing comedy still boasted an irresistible element of novelty. What’s remarkable about watching De Niro’s performance in the film today is how restrained it feels. He wasn’t doing a broad caricature of a mobster, as he did in the film’s sequel. He was essentially delivering a dramatic performance in a comedy and that ultimately proved essential to making both the comedic and dramatic elements work. 

De Niro has rigorously embraced self-parody in his comedy work, particularly in the egregious and excruciating Meet The Parents sequels, but when Analyze This was released, he hadn’t yet devolved into the paycheck-hungry ham of today. Crystal is even more inclined to going over-the-top, but Ramis gets a real performance out of him as well. 

Alas, time has not been kind to Analyze This. Its luster has been tarnished by an inadequate, arbitrary sequel, De Niro’s unfortunate turn toward mugging in subsequent comedies, and the emergence of “mobsters in therapy” as a popular entertainment trope. But it holds up today as a work of peerless comic craftsmanship from a director capable of turning down the volume without sacrificing the laughs.  

Advanced Studies 
The sneering young man element of Ramis’ persona might have enjoyed a good laugh at the expense of Stuart Smalley, the sweater-wearing positive-affirmation true believer Al Franken created and played on Saturday Night Live, a simultaneously scathing and affectionate parody of touchy-feely therapy-talk and support-group culture Franken clearly knows well. 

When he directed 1995’s Stuart Saves His Family, however, Ramis had evolved to the point where he was able to take the character’s spiritual journey seriously and acknowledge the very real pain underneath his sunny exterior. Stuart Saves His Family is one of the strangest, most idiosyncratic entries in Ramis’ filmography (in part because it’s such a perverse follow-up after the triumph of Groundhog Day) as well as the oft-undistinguished history of Saturday Night Live. It chronicles Franken’s attempts to make sense of his life, particularly the deeply dysfunctional nature of his family, after getting fired from his public-access show in a manner that’s far more dramatic than comic.

Rather than surround Franken with familiar faces from Saturday Night Live and comic ringers, Ramis casts primarily dramatic actors, most notably and impressively Harris Yulin, who is appropriately epic and terrifying as Franken’s alcoholic father, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Franken’s brother. In his early comedies, Ramis prized soul-shaking laughter above all else, but Stuart Saves His Family has a value and an integrity that goes far beyond its sometimes-faltering comedic value. It’s an odd choice for a heavyweight commercial filmmaker to follow up his most ambitious and acclaimed project, but that perversity constitutes much of the film’s weird charm. 

Ramis’ early films revolved around rebels at war with corrupt authority; his later films focus on troubled men trying to find their way out of spiritual crises. That’s true of Stuart Saves His Family, and it’s also true of John Cusack’s drunken, dissolute, dishonest mob lawyer in the darkly funny 2005 heartland neo-noir The Ice Harvest, which was adapted by novelist Richard Russo and legendary screenwriter Robert Benton from Scott Phillips’ novel of the same name. 

With his boyish good looks becoming an increasingly fading memory, Cusack stars as a booze-sodden lost soul who has embezzled more than $2 million from a mobster (Randy Quaid), with the help of his scowling partner in crime (Billy Bob Thornton) and just needs to lay low for a few days before he can split town en route to a new direction that is years, if not decades, overdue. 

In a performance that hits just the right note of existential weariness and bone-deep exhaustion, Cusack plays a man who understands intuitively that the redemption and new life he seeks will forever be just outside his grasp. In keeping with the icy, stylized fatalism of film noir, The Ice Harvest depicts life as a sick, grim joke with death as the inevitable and only punchline.

The more Cusack tries to extricate himself from a seemingly impossible situation, the deeper he falls. Ramis’ early comedies played their smartass, man-child heroes’ unwillingness to accept the responsibilities and compromises of adulthood for raucous, rebellious comedy. The Ice Harvest, in sharp contrast, plays it for sharply rendered tragedy. 

Those early comedies with Bill Murray also luxuriated in sloppiness. Sloppiness is what gave them their vulgar appeal, but Ramis’ 1993 masterpiece, Groundhog Day, is defined both by a refreshing maturity and an uncharacteristic but welcome precision. Where plots once seemed like an afterthought or an annoyance, some perfunctory nonsense that gets in the way of jokes, Groundhog Day is elegantly, even mathematically plotted in the way it depicts how small changes in Murray’s daily routine have big consequences over time. 

The glorious apogee of Ramis and Murray’s legendary collaboration, Groundhog Day casts Murray as a misanthropic Pittsburgh weatherman who trudges dispiritedly down to the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover yet another infernal Groundhog Day ceremony only to discover that his life has become a closed loop where he is doomed to repeat the same day over and over again, each morning beginning at the crack of 6 a.m. with an alarm clock playing Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” no matter what happened the night before. 

Murray plays the film’s prickly protagonist as a variation on a type he specialized in during his time on Saturday Night Live: the smug, self-absorbed phony whose plastic smile and overly ingratiating manner don’t quite mask the near contempt he has for the feelings of others. Before the universe throws him a cosmic curveball, Murray sees the world simply as a vehicle for getting what he wants. He has no time for small talk or intangibles until life forces him to re-examine everything about an existence he finally has the time and freedom to see as fundamentally empty. 

Without ever losing its champagne fizz, Groundhog Day tackles some of the weightiest issues known to humankind as Murray attempts to find meaning and substance in a world where moving ahead has seemingly become impossible. It isn’t until Murray escapes his own narcissism and attempts to connect with people that he finds a way out of his existential dilemma. 

Ramis and Murray began their fruitful partnership by making movies that were “just funny,” ramshackle goofs to be chuckled at for 90 minutes then forgotten. Although Groundhog Day was depressingly if predictably snubbed at the Academy Awards that year—it failed to net a screenwriting nomination despite winning the BAFTA award for best original screenplay—in 2006 it was added to the U.S. Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It was slobs and snobs all over again, only this time the tony snobs over at the National Film Registry were lining up to honor slobs-made-good Murray and Ramis. 

Demerits 
Ramis has never been averse to picking up a large paycheck for work that might not be gratifying for the soul. Few mortals would have been able to pass up the staggering amount of money everyone involved was offered to return in 1989’s utterly forgettable Ghostbusters II. There’s a germ of a smart, subversive idea in the premise of New York’s free-floating bad vibes becoming monstrous and overrunning the city, but the spirit of check-cashing prevails over Ghostbusters II, a project clearly willed into existence solely by the fervent wishes of the studio. Yet the lackluster shrug that greeted Ghostbusters II somehow hasn’t stopped folks from speculating feverishly about a third entry for the past few decades. With Ghostbusters, Ramis and his collaborators created something so powerful and irresistible that not even their own shitty sequel could dim interest in further entries. 

“Painfully arbitrary” is a good word to describe 2002’s Analyze That, a sequel whose title awkwardly broadcasts its very nature. Culture-clash sequels suffer from an innate flaw—what’s exhilaratingly exotic and foreign the first time around is inherently old-hat the second time around—and Ramis’ underwhelming sequel finds no real reason to justify its existence. 

As one of comedy’s great fixers, Ramis often seems more comfortable reworking someone else’s screenplay than starting from scratch himself, but 2000’s Bedazzled marks the first time Ramis has flat-out remade another film. Yet the shift in tone from Stanley Donen’s wry 1967 cult classic to Ramis’ remake is dramatic enough to induce whiplash. 

The remake proves to be a non-starter when it replaces the sophisticated social satire, droll humor, and lived-in chemistry of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook with the arch sexuality of Elizabeth Hurley as the devil and Brendan Fraser’s sloppy but ebullient physical comedy. Fraser’s love affair with green screen is passionately if fruitlessly consummated in a series of setpieces that propel his hapless dreamer through a series of fantasy identities: drug dealer, basketball player, Abraham Lincoln. Fraser has enough energy to power a medium-sized continent, but his guileless enthusiasm simply isn’t enough to elevate Bedazzled beyond the level of affable mediocrity.  

Though it’s considered a modern comedy classic by many, Ramis’ 1983 smash National Lampoon’s Vacation has a sour, mean-spirited feel that clashes with the big-hearted, up-with-underdogs populist spirit of his other films of the era. Certain elements of the film stand up, like Lindsey Buckingham’s infectious theme song, but on the whole, Vacation lacks the ingratiating sweetness of its creator’s best work. 

By this point in his career, Ramis is the grand old man of slobs-vs.-snobs lowbrow comedy. He is a distinguished figure in an undistinguished field, but he’s seemingly also evolved beyond the raucous slapstick of his early work. Yet Ramis made an unfortunate return to balls-out, scatological wackiness with 2009’s Year One, a seemingly promising but ultimately dodgy collaboration with his creative progeny in the Apatow gang. 

Year One was supposed to be an intergenerational meeting of the comedy minds as Ramis joined forces with producer Judd Apatow, co-screenwriters Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky, and much of Apatow’s repertory company for a wacky comedy that cast Jack Black and Michael Cera as bumbling losers who stumble their way through misadventures involving figures from the Old Testament. Year One has a few moments of inspiration, but none makes even a fraction of the impact as an interminable sequence where androgynous man-child Cera spends an eternity kneading the corpulent unclothed flesh of a priest played by Oliver Platt, who is a long way from his role in The Ice Harvest. 

Instead of rejuvenating Ramis’ career or reconnecting him with his inner wild man, Year One ended up feeling like the cinematic equivalent of a middle-aged man’s graying ponytail: a silly, youthful affectation from a smart man who really should know better.  

Miscellany 
Any survey of Ramis’ career would be incomplete without mention of his pioneering work as the original head writer and a performer on SCTV, the iconic Canadian sketch-comedy classic that introduced a generation of comic geniuses, including Rick Moranis, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Dave Thomas, and Joe Flaherty. Ramis wasn’t a virtuoso chameleon like his castmates, but he was a dependable supporting player who played a big role in establishing the show’s lovingly obsessive tone and love-hate relationship with the sum of pop culture. Ramis left early but not before helping the show chart a course that changed the course of comedy. 

Otherwise, Ramis’ résumé is littered with weird, random projects he has been associated with over the years as a writer, producer, or performer from an animated vehicle for Rodney Dangerfield titled Rover Dangerfield to episodes of The Office he has directed as well as directorial efforts that seem to have fallen off everyone’s radar, like 1986’s Club Paradise and 1996’s Multiplicity. During the ’80s and ’90s, Ramis was almost too prolific for his own good, and while some of his projects have been forgotten, the essentials endure and are a tribute to the power and perseverance of mainstream comedy when done right. 

The essentials 

  1. Groundhog Day: Harold Ramis and Bill Murray graduated beyond the adolescent irreverence of their early work with this formally brilliant, emotionally satisfying exploration of man’s search for meaning in a strange, unfathomable world. Stephen Sondheim paid the film the highest possible praise when he told the world that he would not pursue a musical adaptation of Groundhog Day because it would be impossible to improve upon perfection. 
  2. Ghostbusters: Ivan Reitman’s 1984 smash hits the sweet spot between spectacle and satire, between seriously impressive special effects and smartassery in this richly realized science-fiction comedy about a group of supernatural shamuses at war with an angry and aggressive spirit world. 
  3. Animal House: Nobody could have predicted it at the time, but the weird little script Ramis co-wrote went on to revolutionize the art and business of comedy, transforming John Belushi into an icon and almost single-handedly making the world a raunchier, less respectful, and much funnier place. 
  4. The Ice Harvest: It didn’t do much business at the time and engendered mixed reviews, but The Ice Harvest’s exquisite world-weariness and bitter, pitch-black humor has aged beautifully. With this film, Ramis ventured into the icy waters of fatalistic drama and film noir while retaining the comic chops that have made him one of the business’ true professionals. 
  5. Caddyshack: As a first-time director, Ramis harnessed the conflicting and sometimes gloriously complementary comedic sensibilities of Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, and Ted Knight in an instant classic that illustrates his gift for making seemingly disposable comedies that endure.