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David Poland

By David Poland

Harold Ramis & The Last 35 Years Of Comedy

Stolen from Judd Apatow’s Twitter feed.

On October 11, 1975, comedy changed.

Before that, the pieces were there. Second City (both Chicago and Toronto) and The National Lampoon were hot. The Groundlings (based in LA) were new and promising. But the launch of Saturday Night Light brought all the pieces together. One chunk of the original SNL Not Ready For Primetime Players came from the Lampoon live show… some of whom had been Second City performers. Some talent, like Christopher Guest and Tony Hendra, didn’t make the leap at that time. Other SNLers came from Second City Toronto. Lorraine Newman came from The Groundlings. Jane Curtin and Garrett Morris came from outside of the improv comedy world, performing in other theatrical venues.

Harold Ramis was a part of that National Lampoon/Second City Toronto scene. Like Bill Murray, he got relegated to writing before he became a television – then film – performer. Murray went to SNL and Ramis went to Second City Toronto, where SCTV launched.

After showrunning SCTV, Ramis’ side-job as screenwriter took over with National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978. The connection to National Lampoon was stronger than the one to SNL – John Belushi and really nothing else – as Ramis worked with Doug Kenney and Chris Miller on the script. Kenney (along with Brian Doyle-Murray) would also write Caddyshack with Ramis. But it was Stripes, which Ramis wrote with his Meatballs co-writers Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum, where the world really got a full taste of Ramis as a performer. Ramis was also written into Ghostbusters, which he co-wrote with Dan Aykroyd, and made him recognizable worldwide.

In the midst of all that, the only film of these classics that Ramis directed was Caddyshack. (John Landis did Animal House, then Ivan Reitman directed 3 of the next 4.)

Film comedy was also messing around with the sex comedy at the time (Porky’s, et al) and Amy Heckerling came of age with Fast Times, but there wasn’t a lot that stuck in the early 80s (aside from randomly-spilt seminal fluid watching soft-core cable through squiggly lines or the nightly showing of Hardbodies) except for John Landis, who followed Animal House with The Blues Brothers, Trading Places, and Coming To America. Eddie Murphy (with a mixed lot of directors) and John Hughes led the way through the rest of the 80s.

There were some good comedies in the early 90s, but around the time Reitman had gotten caught up in Schwarzenegger as a comedian, Ramis came up with a masterpiece, as writer and director, Groundhog Day. It was a film in which his generation finally grew up.

A year later, the next big comedy director,s The Farrelly Bros, took control of the comedy world with Dumb & Dumber, which led into a 7-year run of dominance. Taking over from them was Apatow, Sandler, Ferrell and others who still dominate the comedy scene, really. The scene aches for the next vision, as Sandler sequelizes Grown Ups, Ferrell sequelizes Anchorman, and Apatow, who stays young by drinking the blood of Lena Dunham, is making personal movies about middle age (That Was Really 45). But no one has wrestled the crown away and they keep making big hits, whether critics like it or not.

So if I were going to make a list of the most important comedy directors of the last 35 years (and I haven’t even mentioned Rob Reiner, Nora Ephron, Jay Roach, Frank Oz, Jonathan Lynn, Zucker/Abrahams, Martha Coolidge, Tom Shadyac, Adam McKay by name, or Todd Phillips, amongst others), I would say it’s groups that have created major landmarks over this time period, not (generally) individuals.

The Farrelly Brothers
Murphy & Co.
Apatow/Ferrell-McKay/Sandler & Co.

There are still good and great comedies made every year. But I personally feel like we are in a fallow period. It felt like we were going to go into the Sacha Baron Cohen era for a moment… but it only lasted a film and a half, really. Wes Anderson is great, but so unique that he doesn’t really lead. Same with Spike Jonze. Are the next seriously important comedy voices going to be primarily on TV? Maybe.

So is, as someone suggested, Harold Ramis one of the most 5 most important comedy directors of the last 35 years? No.

Just because Ramis was part of Stripes and Ghostbusters doesn’t really mean we get to forget that Ivan Reitman’s important. Or because Ramis co-wrote Animal House, forgetting Landis and Doug Kinney is kind of a nasty way to love Harold. The late great Mr. Ramis cannot be given credit for the form of improv known as The Harold (created by Del Close, who Ramis ust have worked with at some point) nor for Harold’s Chicken Shack of Chicago.

But he was a game-changer. And he was one of the 25 or 30 people, who are writers, actors, and/or directors, not only created classic comedies, but set the tone for comedy for many years of these last 35. He seemed to be at or around every key comedy trend from the early 70s into the early 90s. And that is a truly remarkable legacy.

19 Responses to “Harold Ramis & The Last 35 Years Of Comedy”

  1. lazarus says:

    Sorry, but The Naked Gun and Airplane! are just as landmark as anything the Farrelly Bros. did. And then you have Top Secret, Ruthless People, and Kentucky Fried Movie which were all hilarious. ZAZ certainly belong in that tier.

  2. David Poland says:

    But Landis directed Kentucky Fried Movie.

    I would say that The Farrellys started a trend in gross out humor that changed the game a lot more for a period. Like Mel Brooks, ZAZ were great, but they were really the only ones doing what they did.

    But can certainly argue it.

  3. YancySkancy says:

    All of Albert Brooks’ films were made in the last 35 years (beginning with REAL LIFE in 1979), and I think he’s more “important” than a lot of folks who have been more commercially successful. But if you mean important to the industry, then maybe not.

  4. Keil Shults says:

    Woody Allen?

    Edgar Wright?

    Alexander Payne? Wes Anderson?



    David Wain needs to relive the WHAS glory.

  5. Hcat says:

    I would put Ramis above Reitman, zaz, landis and comapany. Caddy shack and vacation are classics alongside of blues brothers and animal house but with a stronger undercurrent of social satire. Club paradise while a mess was at least taking shots at the whole paradise surrounded by poverty system that is still thriving today. Many will be able to praise the absolute genius of groumdhogs day better than I, but Ramis greatness also dwells in his misfires. A decade before Hollywood decided to take every possible marvel property for a spin they saw the same gold in SNL characters. And in the midst of these quick and cheap exploitations of familiar faces, Ramis drops a dark and twisted tale of dysfunction and alcoholism that is only hindered by the presence of th SNL charecter that got the project greenlit. Multiplicity got its funding to have Keaton provide Jim Carey laughs in multiple roles but seriously mocked white male self centeredness at the same time. And what I thought would be a Jack Black flatulence parade in Year One, was a ridicule of belief systems and the people of power that exploit them.

    Not everything was gold, but a lot of it was, and the rest was at least trying for something more.

    His stuff always had potential for greatness, which is why I will miss him.

  6. Jermsguy says:

    Of his three fields (acting, directing, writing), I’d say writing was where his contribution was most felt. His first six screenplays were Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Back to School. Groundhog Day was only the fourth movie he directed.

  7. The funniest satire of the time is undoubtedly John Landis’s TRADING PLACES

  8. KMS says:

    I love Ramis, but have always felt that many of those movies mentioned (Caddyshack, Animal House, Stripes, The Blues Brothers, and Trading Places) are somewhat overrated. Nevertheless, I sang “Ghostbusters” at karaoke last night.

  9. Hcat says:

    It might be depending on your age KMS, if you went into them being told they were absolute classics you might have been a little letdown, but for those of us who discovered them simply as current releases they were events.

  10. Spassky says:

    I feel like the difference between Ramis and his contemporaries was his ability to FINISH a film perfectly. I love Landis’ films, but there is a tangible lack of focus in the last third of all of them.

    EDIT: so, I essentially agree with the sentiment that his strength was in writing (or rewriting as it were)

  11. J says:

    All hail Ramis — and I (for better and worse) found myself among the target demo for ‘Stuart Saves His Family,’ bless them for that — but it’s a shame to whittle down genres the way it’s been done here. You can’t just cast aside, say, the legacy of John Hughes when drawing lines from Ramis/Landis/Reitman to Apatow. Or talk about 80’s comedy w/o bringing up Bob Zemeckis.

  12. jesse says:

    Is that the actual Jonathan Lynn who just commented here? That’s pretty rad. Clue and My Cousin Vinny are two terrific comedies, and The Whole Nine Yards is pretty decent, too (and I remember liking Sgt. Bilko at the time but I haven’t seen it since ’96).

    Frankly, Ramis doesn’t have many more great movies on his directorial resume than Lynn or any number of comedy directors of the era. But what’s really amazing about his career is how much stuff he worked on in different capacities. It’s sometimes hard to keep straight what he directed and what Ivan Reitman directed, but the easy rule of thumb is that if it’s one of those types of comedies from the late seventies to first half of the eighties, Ramis was probably involved in some capacity. And even as his own movies grew less consistent, he kept up that collaborative spirit, doing some Apatow and Apatow-adjacent work with his smaller roles and Office directing gigs and the sorta-underrated Year One. He was so much more than his directorial filmography.

    The Ice Harvest is pretty strong, too. I wish we could’ve had a few more departures like that before we lost him.

  13. leahnz says:

    clearly Ramis was a collaborator at heart, which people might take for granted or as a given but this isn’t always true of people with strong comedic sensibilities; personally i think his greatest strength and most enduring legacy will be in his writing, but he was certainly a capable director and as a performer he was quite unique in his style and delivery – a big guy but so low-key and wry in his delivery it made for an intriguing contrast… he always seemed quietly amused, like he was in on some joke, and kinda stoned, my type of guy haha.

    (and i gotta say as someone who saw stripes, the shack, blue bros, animal house, trading places, vacation, back to school, meatballs etc all on their initial release at the cinema – and then wore many of them down to nothing on VHS – it was pretty fucking awesome. ramis was part of the fabric, truly the end of an era)

  14. Roy Atkinson says:

    Yesterday with the sad news, I found an old SCTV clip on one site from about 1977 with Harold Ramis hosting a viewer call-in show. I played it back and found myself laughing out loud. Ramis sat there calmly taking some very strange viewer feedback. One caller,voiced by John Candy,said he was going to kill himself by putting a plastic bag over his head.Moments later,the same caller was back saying he had changed his mind and now had his head in a gas stove. Ramis told him the stove might work better if he first took the bag off his head. Though suicide is normally no laughing matter, somehow the whole thing ended up as brilliantly funny. Mr. Ramis, thanks for the memories. Earlier this month, I found myself enjoying the “Groundhog Day” scenes of Bill Murray waking up each morning. All beautifully shot, co-written and directed by the gifted man from Chicago.

  15. Smith says:

    Acually I like this one . After showrunning SCTV, Ramis’ side-job as screenwriter took over with National Lampoon’s Animal House in 1978. it is amazing for the first time I see on youtube.

  16. Popcorn Slayer says:

    “I love Landis’ films, but there is a tangible lack of focus in the last third of all of them.”

    I’m sure you meant to say “except for ANIMAL HOUSE.” AH has one of the most satisfying and rousing third acts of any US film in any genre.

  17. cadavra says:

    No one’s mentioned Larry Blamire yet? Fine, up to me.


  18. SamLowry says:

    ANIMAL HOUSE lost its focus in the middle, IMHO. The beginning and end were great but it seemed to coast in between, with the Boon and Katy parts in particular inspiring a desire to hit FF.

  19. doug r says:

    “Are the next seriously important comedy voices going to be primarily on TV? ” As Keli says above -Edgar Wright, especially with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.
    Matt Groening-Futurama was one of the best shows on TV and The Simpsons made the jump over to movie(s). His show also had Conan O’Brien and Brad Bird working on them.
    And let’s not forget Seth McFarlane. Family Guy, while uneven has some hilarious spots. American Dad is wonderfully uncomfortable to watch at times.
    And Ted. The most convincing fight with a Teddy Bear ever. Not to mention hilarious.

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