When Everyone Else is Off the Wall

Courtesy of IndieWire

Onscreen, Harold Ramis was best known as Dr. Egon Spengler, the Ghostbuster with all the animation of a brick wall. While the movie was filled with the most frightening ghouls on the New York side of the Hudson, Spengler barely raised an octave. This was left to Dan Aykyord, Bill Murray and Ernie Hudson. The character of Spengler, in many ways, defines Harold Ramis’ work. It was always surrounded by raucous and boisterous personalities but the protagonists were never quite one themselves.

In 1968, Ramis was an early member of the now famous Second City. He took a leave of absence and then returned in 1972 only to find himself replaced by the living cartoon known as John Belushi. This led to Ramis’ decision to place himself behind-the-scenes where he started writing for a project that Belushi and fellow Second City member, Bill Murray, were working on called The National Lampoon Radio Hour. The show took off and became a stage act where many of the comedians that Ramis wrote and played out with would soon be asked to come to New York to work on a new, weekly television show called Saturday Night Live. The young comedy writer was asked to come along with cohorts like Gilda Radner and Dan Aykyord but he declined since he was already producing Chicago’s Second City Television as well as writing for a film called Animal House. 

National Lampoon’s Animal House became a huge hit with audiences and became one of the most profitable films in cinema history with a budget of $3 million and over $141 million in box office earnings. It was a high wire balancing act of the sophomoric with the clever. The movie was not so much a celebration of testosterone-fueled life in a fraternity as it was about youth and it’s relationships with institutions. There were plenty of sexual scenes as well as misconduct from John “Bluto” Blutarsky but it didn’t use sex as both a joke and a selling point in the way Porky’s did. Animal House was much more interested in exposing the inept and corrupt administration of Faber College than female genitalia.

Sex was a part of Harold Ramis’ work used to set up jokes rather than be the central player as opposed to the many films who have tried to copy Animal House, Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation. The leading love interests all bared a bit of themselves for the parts that they played only to have the protagonists pursuing them look like complete idiots in the process. This is best exhibited in Vacation when Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold is standing nude at the edge of a hotel pool, staring down at a naked Christie Brinkley with whom he has seen speeding alongside the Family Truckster during his folly-ridden trip to Wally World. He jumps into the pool and then freaks out because of the temperature. This leads to other hotel guests observing the almost extra-martial affair including Clark’s wife, Ellen, and their children. After Brinkley embarrassingly exits and a little “explanation” is given to his wife, Clark is soon joined by Ellen. The scene is a microcosm for Clark’s failure to fulfill a fantasy he has built into his head. Like a naked Christie Brinkley, a chance to impress his children and his wife is fleeting.

Many of Ramis’ early works post-Animal House were, like the aforementioned movie, jabs at institutions. Caddyshack was an attack on the moneyed old guard which was personified by Judge Elihu Smails (Ted Knight) who seemed more buffoonish than the multi-colored, leather golf bag of Rodney Dangerfield’s Al Czervik. His writing for Stripes took issue with the military industrial complex as well as the self-seriousness of marching drill competitions. Ghostbusters took issue with the sometimes reactionary nature of government entities. The anti-establishment themes would later give way to more philosophical, introspective films about man’s relationship with himself.

Phil Connors seemed like a less wealthy extension of Scrooged’s Frank Cross. Connors was a self-centered crank who had no time for old school mates like Ned the Head. If reporting on the other Phil from Punxatawney did not give any satisfaction or substantial gain, what was the point? Connors gets caught in a time loop and tries breaking the loop through suicide until realizing his need to change. It seems like a personal film for Ramis as he explores his own priorities and what his new aims should be. Other philosophical themes are explored in Bedazzled and Analyze This though less effectively or as funny as the transformation of Phil Connors.

Ramis worked with a universe that was inhabited by a dearth of comedians who had personalities that were larger than the solar system. These are names that are in the pantheon of comedic greatness: Belushi, Murray, Aykyrod, Radner, Chase, and Richard Pryor. He was the dry wit that permeated through the dozens of caricatures that these comedians portrayed through their roles, acts and sketches. The early 1980s were the peak years of Harold Ramis and his band of co-conspirators. Nobody was writing or making comedy that was as smart as it was outrageous. This was, of course, before the oncoming bullet train known as Eddie Murphy made his way from the outer reaches of space to Earth as one of the biggest comedians of his day.

There will always be studios that will try to capitalize off of the silliness that was embedded in Ramis’ writing with remakes or reiterations of Animal House or Caddyshack. The only problem is that they lack any sort of subversion to their story. The movies are just mired in sleaze without saying much other than look at how profane we can be. It is vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake. It’s making you faint from the appearance of actual fecal matter rather than a Baby Ruth bar enjoyed at the bottom of an empty pool.

Harold Ramis died on February 24th, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. He was 69 years old.

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