5:11pm

Mon February 24, 2014
Remembrances

Harold Ramis: A Big-Screen Comedy Nerd, Eager To Please

Originally published on Mon February 24, 2014 8:02 pm

Harold Ramis, who died Monday at 69, helped create such hits as Animal House, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack, Meatballs and others. And he brought an impish spirit to all of them.

Onscreen he was a big smiling lug: shaggy, upbeat, cheery. He was almost always a supporting player, but invariably a forceful one you really couldn't ignore.

In his first big-screen appearance, in the military comedy Stripes, he and Bill Murray play buddies who decide to join the Army just for fun. But first, they have to get past a recruiter, who asks: "Are either of you homosexuals?"

There's a long pause. Ramis and Murray eye each other, trying to figure out what answer is likeliest to get them in.

"No," Ramis' character says. "We're not homosexual. But we are willing to learn."

Rambunctious and sloppy, Ramis was amusing in his eagerness to please, and you could say much the same thing about the comedies he wrote — or rather co-wrote. Like most great improvisers, he was also a great collaborator, bouncing ideas and riffs off the likes of Murray, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.

He'd orchestrate the resulting chaos into something that occasionally made sense, but almost invariably made you laugh — whether it was a food fight in Animal House or a convoluted plan to neutralize poltergeists in Ghostbusters.

Ramis got his start as a joke editor for Playboy magazine, then joined the Chicago improv troupe Second City. From there, he moved to New York and the National Lampoon Radio Hour, where the aesthetic was sort of '60s counterculture meets the Borscht Belt.

While he was a successful performer, Ramis realized some of his compatriots — John Belushi, for instance — were connecting more forcefully with audiences. Happily, he found writing and directing even more satisfying than performing, and his resume soon included a long list of what you might call rebellion-against-authority comedies. His films allowed stars to tear up a summer camp in Meatballs, a golf course in Caddyshack, the Army in Stripes, all of New York in Ghostbusters and the mob in Analyze This.

Ramis' characters even rebelled against time itself in Groundhog Day, a comedy that was not just crazed, but also cerebral. The central conceit — a character caught in a loop, reliving the same 24-hour period over and over — has inspired doctoral dissertations.

Ramis, meanwhile, inspired a host of successors, including Judd Apatow, the Farrelly Brothers and Adam Sandler. And he's left a body of work that will allow audiences to get caught in a loop of comic anarchy for the foreseeable future.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The creator of some of the most successful movie comedies of the '70s, '80s, and '90s died this morning. Harold Ramis was 69 and had many titles - director, screenwriter, actor, producer. He helped define a cultural moment with such hits as "Animal House," "Ghostbusters," and "Groundhog Day." And as NPR film critic Bob Mondello remembers, Ramis brought an impish spirit to all of them.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Onscreen, he was a big, smiling, lug: shaggy, upbeat, cheery, almost always a supporting player, but invariably one you really couldn't ignore. In his first big-screen appearance, in the military comedy "Stripes," he and Bill Murray played buddies who decided to join the Army just for fun but first had to get past a recruiter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STRIPES")

WILLIAM LUCKING: (As recruiter) Now there's a couple of questions that I have to ask you. They're a little personal. Have you ever been convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor?

HAROLD RAMIS: (As Russell Ziskey) Never convicted.

LUCKING: (As recruiter) That's good. Good. Are either of you homosexuals?

MONDELLO: There's a long pause. Ramis and Murray eye each other. Ramis is clearly trying to figure out what answer is likeliest to get them in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STRIPES")

RAMIS: (As Russell Ziskey) No, we're not homosexual but we are willing to learn.

MONDELLO: Rambunctious and a tad sloppy, Harold Ramis was always amusing in his eagerness to please. And you could say much the same thing about the comedies he wrote, or rather, co-wrote. Like most great improvisers, he was also a great collaborator, bouncing ideas off the likes of Murray, Dan Aykroyd, director Ivan Reitman, and then orchestrating the resulting chaos into something that occasionally made sense but almost invariably made you laugh, whether it was a food fight in "Animal House" or a convoluted plan he cooked up to neutralize poltergeists as the most scientific and optimistic of a trio of ghostbusters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GHOSTBUSTERS")

RAMIS: (As Dr. Egon Spengler) We'll cross the streams.

BILL MURRAY: (As Dr. Peter Venkman) Excuse me, Egon. You said crossing the streams was bad.

DAN AYKROYD: (As Dr. Ray Stantz) Cross the streams.

MURRAY: (As Dr. Peter Venkman) You're going to endanger us. You're going to endanger our client, the nice lady who paid us in advance before she became a dog.

RAMIS: (As Dr. Egon Spengler) Not necessarily. There's definitely a very slim chance we'll survive.

MONDELLO: Harold Ramis got his start as a joke editor for Playboy magazine, then joined the Chicago improv troupe Second City, and moved from there to New York and the "National Lampoon Radio Hour," where the aesthetic was sort of '60s counterculture meets the Borscht Belt. While he was a successful performer, he realized some of his compatriots - John Belushi, for instance - were connecting more forcefully with audiences.

Happily, Ramis found writing and directing even more satisfying than performing, and his resume soon included a long list of rebellion-against-authority comedies that more or less defined an era. Once it allowed stars to tear up a summer camp in "Meatballs," a golf-course in "Caddyshack," the army in "Stripes," all of New York in "Ghostbusters," the mob in "Analyze This" and even to rebel against time itself in "Groundhog Day," a comedy that was not just crazed but also cerebral.

The central conceits - a character caught in a loop, reliving the same 24-hour period over and over - redefined a previously uncelebrated holiday on its way to inspiring a host of doctoral dissertations. Harold Ramis, meanwhile, inspired a host of successors, among them Judd Apatow, the Farrelly Brothers, Adam Sandler. And he left a body of work that will allow audiences to get caught in a loop of comic anarchy for the foreseeable future. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.