With his sly, Cheshire cat grin and twinkling, half-mast eyes hidden behind owlish glasses, Harold Ramis always gave the impression of a guy who was guarding the punchline to the world’s funniest joke. And it’s quite possible he was. After all, if anyone had the merry-prankster genius to conceive it, polish it into a jeweler-precise gem, and deliver it with crack comic timing, it was Ramis, who passed away early Monday morning at age 69 from complications of autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that involves the swelling of blood vessels.
Although Ramis became a familiar face on both the small and big screens thanks to his deadpan appearances on the seminal ’70s variety show SCTV, and later in 1981′s Stripes (as the straight-man screw-up Russell Ziskey) and 1984′s Ghostbusters (as lab-coated uber-nerd Dr. Egon Spengler), he never achieved the same thousand-watt stardom as co-stars like Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, and most famously and frequently, Bill Murray. Nor did he seem interested in courting it.
Ramis always seemed to shine the brightest when the spotlight was aimed on others and he could stand off to the side feeding them their most indelible gags. Not surprisingly, his greatest success came as a screenwriter (Animal House, Meatballs) and director (Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Groundhog Day). Chances are, if you were born any time between the JFK and second Reagan administrations, your comic sensibility was largely set in stone by Ramis. He not only put a generation in stitches, he let them in on the joke.
The Chicago native got his start in comedy in the late ’60s, when after editing the “Party Jokes” column at Playboy magazine he joined Second City. At the time, the legendary improv troupe was evolving from a buttoned-down cerebral performance group into a hotbed of counterculture anarchy. Ramis took to the new weed-and-patchouli-scented atmosphere. He moved to New York to write and perform in The National Lampoon Show with future Saturday Night Live cast members John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Murray. He then became the first head writer of Second City’s syndicated show, SCTV — an absurdist, loosey-goosey hybrid of Lorne Michaels’ SNL and Monty Python’s Flying Circus — that made a virtue of its low-rent budget, unknown cast, and surrealist, almost Dali-esque set-ups.
Then, in 1978, Ramis brought his hip brand of Windy City irreverence to Hollywood, partnering with Doug Kenney and Chris Miller to write the screenplay for the slobs-versus-snobs classic Animal House. Directed by John Landis, the movie became a huge commercial success and launched Belushi into the comedy stratosphere. Ramis suddenly found himself a hot commodity, invited to pitch ideas to every studio in town. “I think the feeling in Hollywood was that we had introduced a new kind of comedy,” Ramis told me in a 2010 interview. “To us, it wasn’t new because that’s what we’d been doing all through college and at Second City, but it was new to the movies.”
What he pitched (along with Brian Doyle-Murray and Kenney) was Caddyshack — an antic comedy free-for-all set at a hoity-toity country club where the blue-collar caddies squared off against the blue-blood members of the WASP establishment. Over the decades, the film (which Ramis also directed) has snowballed into one of the most quoted films ever made, thanks to the onscreen mayhem of Chase and Murray – and the off-screen genius of Ramis.
Movie comedy in the ’80s largely followed a course charted by Ramis: Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Back to School. His unique brand of low-brow/high-IQ humor could be whip smart or go for below-the-belt gross-out laughs. But it was always gut-bustingly funny and disarmingly poignant. He had the rare gift of peppering his films with subtle messages and pants-wettingly funny lines that seemed expressly written to be swapped at recess by teenagers like Judd Apatow who would grow into Ramis disciples and credit the master for making them want to go into the business. Apatow, for one, would later repay the favor by casting Ramis as Seth Rogen’s father in Knocked Up.
In the ’90s and into the new century, Ramis’ quicksilver mind (and unfailing humility) continued to shine, directing his leading-man muse, Murray, in Groundhog Day (maybe the smartest and most subversive comedy of the last 30 years) and the mob comedy hit (and Sopranos prototype) Analyze This, and helming episodes of NBC’s The Office. His final film as a director was 2009′s Year One — a Jack Black/Michael Cera comedy that Apatow produced, perhaps as an attempt in some small way to pay back everything that Ramis gave him…and the rest of us.