The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Harold Ramis
Last week, we took a look at the topsy-turvy career of badass extraordinaire Liam Neeson. This week, we’re switching gears to examine the career of a late comedy-icon who often worked behind the scenes, but through it all remained one of the defining figures in modern big-screen comedy.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the great Bill Murray. As brilliant as he is (and he IS brilliant) without Harold Ramis, Bill Murray as we know him would not exist. That’s not to take anything away from Murray, but it can’t be denied that his on-screen persona benefited in a big way from Ramis as a director/writer/co-star. If you think of his most iconic films pre-1993, Ramis was involved in most of them. He wrote MEATBALLS, co-wrote and directed CADDYSHACK, co-wrote and co-starred in STRIPES, and ditto on GHOSTBUSTERS.
Ramis got started as part of Chicago’s iconic Second City comedy troop, before moving on to THE NATIONAL LAMPOON SHOW, a touring comedy show that was the training ground for a whole whack of future legends, including Murray, John Belushi, Christopher Guest and Gilda Radner. While many of his contemporaries went to SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, Ramis did SCTV in Canada with Joe Flaherty, John Candy, Dave Thomas, Rick Moranis and many others. He left to write ANIMAL HOUSE, and the rest is history.Since his heyday in the eighties, Ramis’ career had its highs (GROUNDHOG DAY) and lows (BEDAZZLED) but through it all, he remained a respected figure, beloved by people like Judd Apatow, Jack Black, and many others. Truly, his passing has left a hole in the comedy world, and his legacy should be cherished.
Given his body of work, this was a tough category to narrow down. As such, I’m going to cheat and list two movies. The first is GHOSTBUSTERS. When you think of Harold Ramis, you think of the pompadoured Egon Spengler. When I was a kid and we played GHOSTBUSTERS, I always ended up as Egon (thanks to my glasses). His impossibly buttoned-up Egon is a brilliant comedic creation, and incredibly influential. If you doubt this, look no further than THE BIG BANG THEORY. All of the characters in that show (minus Penny) are variations on the Spengler persona. While Murray’s still the star of the show, Ramis steals lots of scenes, and his chemistry with Annie Potts as Janine is one of the movie’s highlights (“print is dead”). The fact that she was paired off with Rick Moranis – rather than Ramis – in the sequel is one of that movie’s biggest failings.
My second choice is GROUNDHOG DAY, which Ramis directed. While apparently the shoot was chaotic to the point that it led to an irreparable rift between Murray and Ramis (that one hopes was patched up before Ramis’ passing) the movie undeniably a modern classic. With a premise that could have been lifted from THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Ramis made a film that works on so many levels, being a great piece of sci-fi, a sidesplitting comedy, a heartwarming drama with a strong message (don’t take anything for granted), and a romance. It works on all of those levels. Ramis was rightly proud of his work, to the point that in the retrospective documentary on the DVD, he breaks into tears while discussing its enduring legacy.
Ramis made a bunch of movies that I’d call underrated, including the Michael Keaton vehicle MULTIPLICITY (which I maintain would have been a gargantuan hit if Bill Murray had played the lead), CLUB PARADISE, and – especially – STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY. A flop that was all-but buried by Paramount Pictures after a disastrous test screening, this was an attempt to do for Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley what WAYNE’S WORLD did for Wayne & Garth. Sadly, its reception was even worse than IT’S PAT, making under a million dollars at the box-office. As a kid I was a huge Smalley fan, and despite heavy promotion (on the Oprah Winfrey Show of all places) it barely hit theaters, skipping my hometown, Montreal, altogether. I caught up with it on the Canadian equivalent of HBO, and I thought it was a really solid film, albeit far less wacky than one would think given the character. Its quirky mix of comedy and drama was too radical for a mainstream audience at the time, as it has the temperament of an indie dramedy. While it’s next-to-impossible to find these days, STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY is a hidden gem and well-worth tracking down.
This one was tough. I debated putting in a scene from one of the movies Ramis directed, but instead I'm focusing (here anyway) on his acting. This scene is GHOSTBUSTERS, where Egon tries to distill his mammoth scientific brain into laymen's terms for his less academic follow paranormal investigators is genius.
Ramis’ passing hasn’t dissuaded Sony from going ahead with GHOSTBUSTERS 3, which Ramis apparently had a hand in developing. While Murray was always reluctant to participate, Ramis’ passing makes his involvement even more unlikely, so it’s possible the film may never get off the ground, at least in its current form. Ramis may be gone, but he’s not forgotten. To anyone out there who may not be that familiar with his work outside of the classics I listed in my top five, there’s tons of stuff just aching to be checked out, including his run on SCTV, and movies like BACK TO SCHOOL and more. Look him up and IMDB and dig in. You won’t be sorry.
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