By David Poland email@example.com
Harold Ramis & The Last 35 Years Of Comedy
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.