"We had no fear of doing parodies of obscure movies. Our parody of MOULIN ROUGE was the Toulouse-Lautrec story. We loved that movie. Flaherty, of course, did a great Jose Ferrer. It was a very heady piece: Babe Ruth came in and Monet showed up. It was very smart and very stupid at the same time, which I thought was SCTV at its best, both smart and goofy." - Harold Ramis, from Dave Thomas's SCTV: BEHIND THE SCENES
"Smart and goofy" was Harold Ramis's sweet spot. Consider the swimming pool scene in Ramis's directorial debut CADDYSHACK: within the span of a minute or two, the film hops from a raucous caddy takeover of the Bushwood Country Club pool to a parody of FOOTLIGHT PARADE to a full-scale panic set off by a Baby Ruth floating in the water. That's a Busby Berkeley-inspired gag capped off with one of cinema's greatest poop jokes - a flash of highbrow and lowbrow humor that gave a legion of aspiring filmmakers license to indulge their every comedic whim.
And yet you can't talk about CADDYSHACK without acknowledging the input of Ramis's co-writers Brian Doyle-Murray and Doug Kenney, nor would Ramis want you to. He was a master collaborator. He learned early in his career, via his improvisational comedy training at Chicago's The Second City, that he had a gift for setting up and accentuating the brilliance of his fellow artists; he could be hilarious on his own, but he got off on the joy of watching the likes of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Catherine O'Hara, John Candy and Bill Murray explode comedic situations. With all the remarkable talent bubbling up from the improv scene in the 1970s, someone had to be selfless and give it all direction. This, ultimately, was Ramis's role, and he played it brilliantly.
As head writer for the first two seasons of SCTV, Ramis played a significant part in shaping the most gleefully subversive sketch comedy series in the history of television. Given the show's low budget and lower ratings expectations (it initially aired on Canada's Global Television Network), they could get away with just about anything conceptually. And while they gradually developed recurring characters, these creations were never run into the ground like SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE's Coneheads or Killer Bees. This is why SCTV has aged so well: rather than a week-to-week reaction to what viewers were discussing at the water cooler, the sketches were always built around the pop culture that amused/interested its performers and writers.
Likewise, all of Ramis's big-screen creative triumphs came from a personal place. Starting with NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE (which he co-wrote with Kenney and Chris Miller), Ramis rattled off a string of snobs-versus-slobs comedies that worked primarily because the films so closely identified with the underdogs and so clearly loathed the exclusionary assholes in power. ANIMAL HOUSE, MEATBALLS and CADDYSHACK are particularly noteworthy for their rebellion against WASP values; for example, when the caddies raid Bushwood's pool, it's a pollution of anglo-saxon purity by a bunch of "lowbred" Italians and Irish Catholics. As a Jew, Ramis was obviously firing back at polite, whiter-than-white society; while there was a political component at play (one that's far more pronounced in STRIPES), the central conflict in these films is one of ethnicity.
GHOSTBUSTERS was a screenwriting collaboration with Dan Aykroyd, and thus was a good-natured validation of the SNL-alum's paranormal beliefs in the face of rigorous scientific skepticism. Ramis's role here was to rein in Aykroyd's wild ideas and give them a more human/mainstream dimension - which, in classic Ramis style, set the stage for another performer (Bill Murray) to run off with the film as horn-dog academic Peter Venkman. This was Ramis's third film with director Ivan Reitman (following MEATBALLS and STRIPES), and his performance as the flat-toned, socially-awkward Egon Spengler is easily his most beloved. When we think of Twinkies or the death of print, we think of Egon.
It's only when Ramis's resentments grew formulaic that he began to falter as a filmmaker. Despite Rick Moranis and Eugene Levy doing heroic work as a pair of hirsute, hot-to-trot sight gags, CLUB PARADISE was just one too many trips to the snobs-versus-slobs well. It's possible Murray and John Cleese could've salvaged the film had they starred as originally intended, but Robin Williams and Peter O'Toole were respectable fallback options; unfortunately, the material just didn't have the bite of Ramis's previous work. CADDYSHACK II was an even more egregious flail at former glory, though I'm sure Ramis was paid very well; GHOSTBUSTERS II was a classic by comparison, even if it only comes to life when Moranis and Peter MacNicol are onscreen (I had the great honor of drinking with Bill Murray once, and when GHOSTBUSTERS II came up, he immediately sang the praises of these two performances).
Just when it seemed Ramis's run had come to an end, he reappeared with his old co-conspirator Murray in 1993 with GROUNDHOG DAY - which was largely viewed as a sweet, if small-scale success at the time. It was only on repeat viewings that critics began to realize just how potent a mediation on free will and self-improvement Ramis had crafted from Danny Rubin's original screenplay (which is significantly different from the finished film). This Zen Buddhist philosophizing coincided with Ramis's own spiritual rebirth, and marked a clean thematic break with the anarchic comedies of his '70s-'80s run. This was the new Ramis: smart and goofy and heartfelt.
And yet Ramis's best post-GROUNDHOG DAY film is his nastiest. Essentially dumped by Focus Features in 2005, THE ICE HARVEST (adapted from Scott Phillips's novel by Robert Benton and Richard Russo) is a modern-day noir that cheerfully guides its mob-lawyer protagonist, Charlie Arglist (John Cusack), through a series of torments before depositing him at the genre's obligatory bad end. With its Wichita Falls setting, the requisite murders and double-crosses all feel amusingly mundane. It's actually somewhat Biblical in the way it heaps indignity after indignity on Cusack, but there's no potential for rebirth or redemption here; Arglist probably deserves better than he's received, but the universe is decidedly indifferent. He's a sap, and sap's lose. GROUNDHOG DAY is obviously Ramis's masterpiece, but THE ICE HARVEST is his most visually accomplished film; I didn't know he had this kind of movie in him, and I dearly wish we could've seen more like it.
If I seem more inclined to make a case for Ramis's less celebrated films, it's because I don't know what more to say about SCTV, ANIMAL HOUSE, MEATBALLS, CADDYSHACK, STRIPES, VACATION, GHOSTBUSTERS and GROUNDHOG DAY than "Thank you." I watch ANIMAL HOUSE whenever I'm feeling blue. Like most American men of a certain age, I can quote CADDYSHACK front-to-back. GHOSTBUSTERS is GHOSTBUSTERS, and we probably would've lost the Cold War without it (trust me on this one). And it's just... I can't believe I'm writing this. Ramis was only sixty-nine (good one, sir), and I was hoping for at least one more in the vein of THE ICE HARVEST.
But as Charlie Arglist learned, the universe simply does not give a shit. Fair enough. Because as Phil Connors discovered, life is what you put into it. And I cannot imagine my life without Harold Ramis.