It seems like just yesterday, my seven-year old self was running about my backyard in Ohio pretending to wield a proton pack to capture some troublemaking specters! Yes, I had just seen Ivan Reitman’s classic 1984 film Ghostbusters. The beloved comedy introduced me to many wonderful actors: Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and have course the late Harold Ramis. But Ramis, who tragically succumbed to an autoimmune disease last year, possessed talents beyond acting. A gifted writer with a knack for comedy, Ramis spent the better part of four decades writing and directing some of the most enduring comedies of all time.
Trained at Chicago’s legendary Second City Improvisation outlet, Ramis not only became part of its successful SCTV, but also soon began writing for the National Lampoon. Not long after, Ramis burst onto the film scene, co-scripting both the successful groundbreaking comedy Animal House and Meatballs in one year. Not long after, Ramis co-wrote and made his directorial debut with Caddyshack. In the following four decades, Ramis would co-write, direct and co-star in some of the most successful comedies of all time. Although Ramis specialized in comedy, he proved versatile within that genre, from the raunchy antics of Vacation, to the heartwarming romance in Groundhog Day. Few people have given us as many enduring laughs as Ramis did.
The following four films, which Mr. Ramis either wrote, or directed, have stood the test of time:
After Animal House and Meatballs got him on Hollywood’s radar, Harold Ramis made his first foray into directing with Caddyshack. Ramis along with co-writers Douglas Kenney and Brian Doyle Murray created a tale of “Snobs versus Slobs”, centered in the uppity Bushwood Country Club. The story (sort of) centers on young Danny Noonan, for whom a typical workday consists of Zen advice from Ty Webb, a laid back millionaire for whom he caddies and fooling around with his Irish girlfriend Maggie. Wishing to attend college, Danny soon learns of an available Caddy scholarship. However in order to apply, he must first get in the good graces of the club’s rigid president, Judge Ennui Smails, who is increasingly disgruntled with the shenanigans of obnoxious new applicant Al Czervik. Further shaking things up amongst the caddies is the arrival of Smails’ promiscuous niece Lacey Underall. Meanwhile beneath the course lurks a pesky, dancing Gopher, whom greenskeeper Carl will stop at nothing to eliminate!
If Caddyshack sounds like an unfocused mess, well… it is! Fortunately it’s a damn funny one! Ramis and company deviated heavily from the film’s original script, which focused far more on the Bushwood caddies, and while it still does to an extent, the only remotely developed character of the bunch is Michael O’Keefe’s Danny.
Caddyshack’s strengths lay not in its story, but the three very distinct comedians whom headline it. While Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield and Bill Murray were initially only slated to make cameos, Ramis uses the film as his playground, using his extensive improve background to bring out the best in these three. As Ty Webb, Chevy Chase is at the top of his game, creating a character who’s as eccentric as he is funny, especially at the deadpan delivery of absurd dialogue (Who else could pull off “Your uncle molests collies” as a comeback?). Under the guidance of Ramis, Bill Murray molds Carl Spackler into one of his greatest comedic roles to date. Skeevy, bizarre and infinitely overzealous in his feud with the gopher (great puppet work from Star Wars veteran John Dykstra), Carl spouts many memorable lines with subjects ranging from the Dalai Lama to his hatred of varmint poontang! Dangerfield on the other hand is essentially doing his stand up act as obnoxious party crasher Al, but the film’s insane atmosphere allows him to get away with such random acts as blasting the rock band journey on the fairway, or yelling triumphantly, “Hey! We’re all gonna get laid!” Thanks largely to the presence of its three comedians and a gopher with rhythm, I’m glad to say Caddyshack is easily a par, if not a birdie!
NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, 1983
All Clark Griswold wanted was to give his family the perfect cross-country road trip to the legendary theme park Wally World (Disneyland meets Six Flags). Instead every conceivable pitfall, from car trouble to dead passengers befalls the clan, in a journey that might be as perilous as any quest through Middle Earth!
Remember when Chevy Chase actually made funny films? What about Randy Quaid before his Canadian exile? Or when National Lampoon’s actually meant laughs? If not, you’re in for a treat with this comedy from 1983. For his follow up to Caddyshack, Harold Ramis turned to a script from fellow National Lampoon alum John Hughes about a disastrous road trip, adapted from his “Vacation ‘58” story. Now three decades, four sequels and numerous imitators later, Vacation remains a favorite, and for good reason. Unlike its many counterparts, Vacation is rather broad in its comedic gags. While R-rated, the film wisely does not rely solely on raunchy humor or profanity (un-like this summer’s relentlessly crude sequel/reboot), instead treating the audience with a fun variety of jokes, many of which result from the improvisational talents of its cast.
Re-uniting with Ramis is Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold. The ultimate over-compensator, Clark wants desperately to spend more time with his wife “Ellen” (Beverly D’Angelo) and their children “Rusty” (Anthony Michael Hall) and “Audrey” (Dana Barron), and tries to meticulously pre-plan everything, only for it blow up in his face. What helps to make Clark Griswold a memorable comedic character is the occasional darker side he shows when pushed, namely his profanity-laced tirades! In the end Clark remains a great personification how trapped one can feel in suburban America. As Ellen Griswold, Beverly D’Angelo is sassy and levelheaded, and isn’t afraid to call Clark out on his antics. The chemistry D’Angelo and Chase share is both heartfelt and hilarious, and is undeniably one of the few things that have worked throughout the subsequent films. Future brat-packer Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron are also very believable as Clark and Ellen’s offspring. Rounding out the film’s supporting cast are Imogene Coca as the mean Aunt Edna, and Randy Quaid as the amusing white trash cousin Eddie, along with a plethora of great cameos (Eugene Levy, John Candy, Henry Gibson to name a few).
With its numerous quotable lines, broad comedic spectrum and iconic gags, this is one vacation I never tire of taking!
Parapsychologists “Dr. Peter Venkman” (Bill Murray), “Dr. Raymond Stantz” (Dan Aykroyd) and “Dr. Egon Spengler” (Ramis) finally make contact with a ghost at New York City’s public library, only to be unceremoniously dismissed from their jobs at Columbia University. Undeterred, the trio then forms their own firm, “Ghostbusters” for capturing supernatural pests. While business is initially slow, cellist “Dana Barrett” (Sigourney Weaver) approaches about mysterious demon in her apartment. Not long after, a rapid increase in supernatural activity turns the Ghostbusters into celebrities, causing the overworked trio to recruit a fourth member in “Winston Zedmore” (Ernie Hudson). However, the group soon discovers the tidal wave of supernatural events is signaling an arrival of a powerful Sumerian deity that could destroy the world! Now say it with me, “Who you gonna call…?”
Collaborating with director Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis teamed with Dan Aykroyd to develop a concept of Aykroyd’s that would ultimately become the iconic film that is Ghostbusters. Once again, several immensely talented improvisers re-unite to create a film that is distinct from their previous efforts, but every bit as entertaining and funny. A high-concept blend of comedy, fantasy and science fiction, Ghostbusters succeeds on practically every level, starting with the chemistry of its three leads. Each of the main heroes is very different from one another. Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman is group’s street-smart front man. More socially inclined than his peers, Venkman oozes sarcasm, while regularly flirting with ladies. As Ray Stantz, Dan Aykroyd is the ensembles most wide-eyed, childlike member, whose enthusiasm often causes him to enter situations without a plan. And this equation wouldn’t be complete without the pure brains, Dr. Egon Spengler, played by hilariously played by Ramis himself. Once described by Ramis himself as the group’s own Mr. Spock, Spengler is all logic, but seems less social than his peers, resulting in hilarious deadpan dialogue. Some of the film’s funniest moments come from his stiff interactions to otherwise emotional situations. And of course, if it weren’t for him, I doubt it ever would’ve occurred to the group to “cross the streams!” (Which has spawned a joke I’ll spare you here).
Beyond the leads, Ghostbusters sports a great supporting cast as well. A rising star from her breakout role in Alien, Sigourney Weaver not only makes Dana Barrett a great love interest for Venkman, but is also has a lot of fun with the role once she becomes possessed. And if you thought Spengler was socially awkward, try Dana’s rambling neighbor Louis Tully
GROUNDHOG DAY, 1993
For the umpteenth time, misanthropic Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Conners grudgingly heads to the small town of Punxatawny for his least favorite assignment: covering the town’s annual Groundhog Day Festival. If Phil is Ebenezer Scrooge, than nothing elicits a bigger humbug from him than February 2nd. However, Phil, his new producer Rita and cameraman Larry become stranded for a night in Punxatawny, due to an intense blizzard. However, the next morning He awakens to find the previous day’s events playing out exactly as they did before. Phil soon discovers he is trapped in a mysterious time warp, causing him to relive Groundhog Day indefinitely. While the self-centered Phil initially engages in acts of gluttony, deception and crime without the burden of consequences, the seemingly eternal time loop eventually causes Phil to rethink his life.
Harold Ramis triumphantly enters the 1990s with this unique comedic fantasy. Funny, heartwarming and endlessly re-watchable, Groundhog Day holds up extremely well. Working from a script by writer Danny Rubin, Ramis brings a unique concept to life and has fun with it, delivering a film that is just as much a fable of self-discovery as it is a comedy. In an era where films tend to spoon feed the audience contrived answers, it’s inspiring to see a film like Groundhog Day. Phil’s dilemma raises some big questions (What’s causing the time loop? How many times did he repeat Groundhog Day? Did he age at all?), but Ramis and Rubin wisely avoid attempting to muddy the film with contrived answers, because after all, the film is about Phil and his change.
Bill Murray is a perfect lead, pulling us right in with his best smug smartass! However, this is only one aspect to Phil’s character, as we witness him undergo a metamorphosis in his personality from selfish to warm-hearted. Importantly, Murray doesn’t go too far with Phil’s negative traits. While a self-absorbed prick, Phil is empathetic, and it’s easy to feel his panic when he first realizes catches on to the inexplicable time loop. Phil also responds to his plight in a very believable way, as he initially enjoys various hedonistic acts knowing the reset button will be hit every time, though he eventually tires of this. Murray also shares a great chemistry with romantic lead Andie McDowall, who portrays the sweet down to earth Rita, to whom Phil becomes increasingly attracted. Over two decades later, Groundhog Day hold up amazingly, and is Ramis’ masterpiece.