<em>“Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.”</em>
—Dean Vernon Wormer, from the film “Animal House”
I saw “Ghostbusters” in a theatre right on the Wildwood, New Jersey boardwalk on June 18th, 1984, the day before my 14th birthday. Despite it being in the middle of the week, the theatre was packed for the matinee showing. And every single person in that theatre, including me, laughed hysterically throughout the whole damn movie.
I was not going to see the movie. I had sworn a blood oath to never watch another Dan Aykroyd film again—not while the psychological scars were still fresh from the traumatic experience that was “Doctor Detroit.” And that song, that stupid “Ghostbusters” song, with its cheesy video that looked like it was made for $500 at a middle school AV club. Three decades later I still froth in maddening apoplexy when I hear that stupid song!
The summer of 1984 will be on my mind quite a bit with its 30th anniversary this year. And of all the memorable things that happened to me in that magical year, watching that film stands out as a highlight.
That’s my Harold Ramis story.
When I heard that Harold Ramis, who co-wrote and co-starred in “Ghostbusters,” died this week, I felt the same profound sense of loss than when John Hughes died. Hughes, who collaborated with Ramis on “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” was the writer/director behind classic 80’s films such as “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Some Kind of Wonderful” and, most notably for me, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
When Hughes died, I reflected on his films. He knew how to speak in a decade that distinctly had its own language. He understood that most of us silly humans live, learn and thrive in conversations with each other. The kids in “The Breakfast Club” and “Some Kind of Wonderful” were real to us who were teenagers during those years.
We did not mimic the language in those films. They mimicked us.
And now that Harold Ramis has died, I feel compelled to honor his genius. A genius that was easily forgotten. Think about this:
If you were asked to name the best film screenwriters of all time, there is a very good chance Ramis would not have been named immediately. But, when you remembered him, you would place him high up on the list.
Take the film that launched him into notoriety, “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” Considered a raunchy film in 1978 when it was released, it became an instant comedy classic. The film’s great irony is that it makes fun of the White Elites that ran America in the pre-Beatles 1960’s while simultaneously being nostalgic for the era.
And while Ramis’s screenplay drips with disdain for authority figures, the frat kids who are the targets of the establishment are vulgar and irresponsible. It’s as if Ramis wants us to hate everyone and still like them.
Ramis would return to this theme in the film “Caddyshack.” I always thought this was an overrated film. But I am in the minority. And while I do not consider it to be a comedic gem, the “slobs vs. snobs” motif of the film was in keeping with the Ramis model.
In short, cynicism was funny to Ramis. Allowing all of his characters to be terrible people, and still liking them, was Ramis’s signature.
If you rewatch his 1981 film “Stripes,” pay close attention to the beginning of the film. Bill Murray, who thrived playing the loathsome jerk who got away with it because of his brutal sarcasm, plays a disgruntled, irresponsible cab driver who hates everything and everyone in life. He is mercilessly unlikeable. Even after his character joins the Army, he still sneers at everyone around him. And we love it.
No wonder Murray and Ramis worked as well together as Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart; or Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Murray could act crazy or scornful and make it funny. Ramis could write a screenplay filled with faulty humans and give every one of them a human element we could laugh at.
Look at the film that will most likely go down as the masterpiece for both Ramis and Murray, “Groundhog Day.” Much like “Stripes,” Murray spends the beginning of the film as a wet blanket dripping with vinegar. His openly visceral contempt for everyone around him affects no one around him. He’s a jerk, the world remains the same, and he has to live with this every single day, the same day, for years.
Murray and Ramis severed their friendship during the making of this film. Murray wanted a much darker film. Ramis still saw it as a comedy with a happy ending. They argued bitterly and never worked together again.
And now Ramis is dead. A genius who leaves us with a filmography that guarantees him immortality. For so long as Otter uses the obituaries to pick up sorority girls, or
Phil Connors drives off the side of a rock quarry with an innocent groundhog on his lap, or the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man terrorizes New York City, we will be reminded of a man that saw the world through a skewed lens and thought it was hilarious.
WRITER’S NOTE: Speaking of films, this Friday I will be appearing on KVNU’s For the People program at 5 p.m. with local film critics Andy Morgan and Aaron Peck. We will discuss the upcoming Academy Awards and give our picks for who we think will win. It will be an entertaining hour and I encourage you all to listen in.