Harold Ramis: Empathy for the Rebel

Harold Ramis’ oeuvre comprised a Hall of Justice for the nerds; people old enough to know there are no super heroes, but young enough to realize we could use them from time to time.

Consider this: a world without Animal House. Or Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.

I can’t fathom how much less happy my childhood would have been without any one of them. A life without all of them? Unimaginable.

And I know I’m not alone. This is Harold Ramis’s legacy: he brought humor and happiness — the real, enduring kind– to millions of people. In a world (then, now) that is full of quick hits, tweets, 15 seconds of fame, weekend blockbusters, and increasingly formulaic, artistically DOA drivel, and their inevitable, unending sequels, it’s worth noting, and celebrating, funny films that endure.

What makes a movie funny, of course, ultimately boils down to subjective criteria. But what makes a movie smart, particularly a funny movie that manages to also be smart, is a respect, if not affinity, with the viewer. Even at his most sophomoric (and the immortal Caddyshack might be the most sophomoric film consistently worshipped by adult males), Ramis was creating characters everyone could recognize and identify with on various levels.

Animal House, which Ramis co-wrote, aside from providing a template for so many comedies that followed, was notable for celebrating the outsiders and losers typically reduced to stock characters. We’re not talking about the underdog, necessarily, as that trope was well established (and predictable); Animal House subverted the entire notion of what being a “winner” meant. Delta Tau Chi was not just the fraternity that accepted the outcasts no other house would have, it was the fraternity full of guys who wouldn’t have any other fraternity.

The misfits and miscreants of the Delta House were rebels with a cause. Yes, they were down for mayhem and shaking things up by any means necessary, but they also lifted a middle finger at convention. They weren’t misunderstood so much as they understood they wanted no part of a culture that equated conformity with success and imitation as the most insincere form of self-flattery.

Naturally, it being a movie, the good guys get the last laugh, but importantly, all the ostensible winners get their comeuppance down the road. As has been widely noted, Ramis & Co. appreciated that the insufferable weasels from Omega House would be the ones working for Nixon and being fragged by their own troops in Vietnam. It’s a conclusion that is satisfying and depressing, because while true in part, everyone knows our country is still mostly run by the Omegas.

As silly as the movie gets the further it goes along, Stripes is notable for following a similar course: it’s the soldiers who refuse to, or are unable to, become part of the machine who ultimately succeed. It’s a fantasy, but one that adheres to reality: it’s the fat, ugly, unbearably plain citizens who do the dirty work and don’t usually have movies made about them. Ramis’s oeuvre comprised a Hall of Justice for the nerds; people old enough to know there are no super heroes, but young enough to realize we could use them from time to time.

As sheer escapism Ramis’s films are reliably consistent and satisfying. But we root for his protagonists because they are so ordinary, so fallible, so identifiable. Not for nothing was Caddyshack based on his own experiences as a caddy: the material probably wrote itself. Of course, even the best writing is doomed if the perfect actors are not cast. It’s difficult to imagine Caddyshack without Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, but it’s impossible to consider it without both Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield. John Candy in Stripes, Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters, every role in Animal House (especially John Vernon as the impeccably named Vernon Wormer), Stephen Tobolowsky in Groundhog Day: Ramis knew he needed the exact fit to sell his stories.

Speaking of Groundhog Day, this is generally considered his masterpiece; the Ramis film any adult can worship without embarrassment or circumspection. Is it a comedy cleverly disguised as a philosophical treatise, or vice versa? Perhaps it’s a bit of both, though it’s difficult, as usual with Ramis’s best films, to imagine a different cast. As a vehicle for Murray, Ramis gave him the opportunity to do some of his best work, and Murray in turn gave substance and nuance to what might have otherwise been a great idea on paper. Mostly, this movie is a slyly large-hearted affair, with the one-two punch of compassion and humanity transforming a repeated gag into something that resonates with repeated viewings.

Speaking of large hearts, while Ramis is rightly venerated for his mind and imagination, there is no doubt that he wrote and directed from his heart. One gets the sense, watching his work, that the plots are not engineered in order for the righteous to triumph so much as Ramis couldn’t bear the alternative. He was humble about his success and that humility informs almost everything he did. It’s the reason so many people quote his scripts and the reason he is arguably the most emulated comedic director of his generation. He was a likeable guy who made likeable films about likeable people. Not a bad way to spend one’s life.

Perhaps the greatest gift an artist can provide is the miracle of making you feel young. When you feel innocent, uncorrupted, optimistic, and it’s not the result of kitsch or sentiment, there is a sort of magic at play. Ramis is one of the best things that happened to kids coming of age in the early ‘80s. He remains one of the best things for us as we’re dragged into middle-age, kicking and screaming.

The coarser our discourse becomes, the more refreshing Ramis’s films remain. Their lack of pretension and cynicism offer a course of defiance, where we smile instead of surrender. We’ll return to his movies partly for nostalgia’s sake, and there’s nothing wrong with that: something making you yearn for a familiar experience has its own type of magic. His films remind us that occasionally, the good guys win. In this regard his work was also the story of his life.