Harold Ramis died at his home in Chicago this morning from complications of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. He was 69. Harold Ramis is most recognized for his roles in Ghostbusters and Stripes, and as the guy who made Robert De Niro funny in Analyze This. Yes, De Niro had been funny before, but in the hands of Harold Ramis, it changed the trajectory of his career.
Harold Ramis changed the trajectory of comedy. Everyone remembers the first time they saw Animal House, whether they went to college or not. I’d already read the National Lampoon college booklet, when Animal House first came out, so I was already primed. The rest of the world immediately called it their own. It hit the funny bone, but it also pulled up something from the collective consciousness. People took Animal House very personally, they quoted lines like it was a new comic Bible. Students emulated these kids. Directors emulated this style. It changed colleges forever. Food fights became commonplace. It changed film forever. Gross-out and insanely fast paced jokes became commonplace. Harold Ramis was also one of three writers on Animal House.
I read a Playboy interview with Blake Edwards, the renowned director of The Pink Panther, S.O.B. and Victor/Victoria, where he said Animal House was the beginning of the end of American comedy films. At the time, I thought Blake Edwards was just being jealous. Without Animal House there would be no Meatballs, Porky’s, The Hangover or Deuce Bigelow. That might have been what scared Blake Edwards, but it didn’t explain Harold Ramis.
Harold Allen Ramis was born in Chicago on November 21, 1944. He wore glasses like Groucho and had curly hair like Harpo and took his inspiration from the classic comedy of The Marx Brothers, who flew in the face of polite society. Ramis would add to the vocabulary of comedy. Giving the voice back to the underdog, the underfunded and the undereducated; the overindulgent and the overfed. He wrote socially satiric plays in college and then jumped headfirst into guerilla television. After being declared unfit to die in Vietnam by taking enough speed before his physical to keep him awake for months, that is. Just like his turn as ESL teacher Russell Ziskey in Stripes, Ramis paid the bills in his early days as a substitute teacher. Ramis worked for a while at a mental institution, which he later said taught him how to deal with actors.
Ramis freelanced as writer for the Chicago Daily News and a joke writer for Playboy while he honed his comic chops at Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe. When he took a break from SCTV, he was replaced by John Belushi, who was instrumental in bringing Ramis back into the fold and unleashing him on New York in The National Lampoon Radio Hour, created by the darkly hilarious Michael O’Donoghue. Performers on The National Lampoon Radio Hour reads like a who’s who of comedy, besides Belushi, it featured Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Anne Beatts, Richard Belzer (as a DJ, the “best looking man you’ll never see”), Brian Doyle-Murray, Joe Flaherty and Christopher Guest, who left after O’Donoghue blasted his windows with a shotgun, according to comedy legend. The show lowered the bar on what could be acceptable in a world where that had changed because of Vietnam. Everything was becoming fair game.
Ramis was the original head writer of the television series Second City Television. He also performed. Logically, he did his impression of Mr. Spock along with introducing the characters Maurice “Moe” Green, amiable cop Officer Friendly, exercise guru Swami Bananananda, board chairman Allan “Crazy Legs” Hirschman, and home dentist Mort Finkel.
When John Belushi brought the cast of the National Lampoon Radio Hour to New York, much of the cast, like Gilda Radner and Bill Murray moved on to Saturday Night Live. Ramis wrote screenplays. First he teamed up with National Lampoon magazine’s Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller to write National Lampoon’s Animal House. He co-wrote the Bill Murray comedy Meatballs and then wrote Caddyshack with Douglas Kenney and Brian Doyle-Murray and directed it. Caddyshack teamed Chevy Chase and Bill Murray with comic veterans Rodney Dangerfield and Ted Knight and became a cult hit that people watch over and over to this day.
Ramis was slated to direct a movie based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole which was supposed to team John Belushi and Richard Pryor, but it was never finished. He did get to give Dianne Keaton a nervous breakdown in the 1987 comedy Baby Boom.
In 1984, Ramis and Dan Aykroyd wrote Ghostbusters, one of the biggest blockbusting comedies of forever, a very big Twinkie. Ramis played the scientist Dr. Egon Spengler. It was the third movie Ramis did with Murray, but their later collaboration, Groundhog Day has been called “Ramis’ masterpiece.”
Ramis moved on to be one of the premiere American comedy directors. He led the Griswolds west in National Lampoon’s Vacation. He teamed Billy Crystal with Robert De Niro in Analyze This and Analyze That. I was always hoping for an Analyze The Other Thing. Ramis directed the remake of the funny Faust tale Bedazzled starring Brendan Fraser and Liz Hurley and the comic noir The Ice Harvest.
Harold Ramis made his last film, the caveman comedy Year One starring Jack Black, Michael Cera and Hank Azaria, in 2009. The same year he started teasing about a third Ghostbusters film.
Ramis was an influence and an inspiration. He gave hope to funny guys with glasses and curly hair. Ramis is survived by his wife Erica, his sons Julian and Daniel, his daughter Violet, two grandchildren and generations of comedians, fans and movie lovers. He didn’t destroy movies, like Blake Edwards predicted, he heralded in a new era of comedy. It was a newer, ruder era of comedy, but it had a tender heart and never lost its sense of funny.