Teaching American Humor: The Essential Harold Ramis.

Ramis as Egon in Ghostbusters

Long live Harold Ramis.

Although he has never fully received his full due in the popular imagination on the par with one of his most devoted collaborators, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis is nonetheless a vital figure of American film     comedy. A major creative voice behind popular comedies from the late 1970s throughout the 1990s. Ramis deserves an enduring place in the canon of American humor. Consider his productive six-year run as writer, in particular: Animal House (1978); Meatballs (1979); Caddyshack (1980); Stripes (1981); National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983); and Ghostbusters (1984). He would later put together him most ambitious comedic film narrative with Groundhog Day (1993), a beautiful romantic comedy. For the long 1980s (I just coined that phrase–the long 1980s, which runs from 1977 -1992, from “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols to the election of Bill Clinton, but I digress), no other director/writer/actor was so integral to establishing the comedy best of the era while also effectively drawing on mainstream American comedic traditions.

His timing, his content, his comic framing were all on point. May his memory and that Egon hair stick with us.

For my take, the four films that should remain firmly within our popular and critical imaginations are Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, and National Lampoon’s Vacation. They exploit the most persistent and beloved of American comedic tropes–the tension between mainstream forces of respectability and the marginal forces of subversion, or, to be more concise: the snobs versus the slobs.

Ramis in 2014

From the barbarians at the gates who emerged Animal House to the subversive caddy-underworld of an elite country club, to the ne’er-do-well losers who join the army out of desperation, to the bumbling, ever-failing American suburban father–the beloved marginal characters in these Ramis films exploit our communal desires to root for the underdogs, the Cinderella stories out of nowhere. Out of everywhere.

That formula is the key to the continual and simple power of American humor, and its genius. Ramis’s work demonstrates again and again that he understood that core incongruity of American culture–and how funny it is. Ramis was a collaborator, co-writing with Doug Kenney and Chris Miller on Animal House; Kenney and Brian Doyle-Murray in Caddyshack; Dan Goldberg and Len Blum in Stripes; and Dan Ackroyd in Ghostbusters. I give Ramis the lion’s share of credit as writer for all of these films. That may not be fair to the others, but it strikes me a accurate in the sense that there is such a strong overarching humanity to these broad comedies. He is the figure in the carpet. He worked with director Ivan Reitman for the other major films, so I guess it is only fair to give a nod to Reitman for their success. When Reitman dies, I will do that.

For now, however, Ramis is the man for all of these films.

Let’s call it the Ramisian Effect (I just coined that phrase, too. You can use it.). The humor in these films often carries a strong obeisance to adolescent male silliness; that is undeniable, but they are also undergirded by a romantic sensibility of decency as well that celebrates a sweetness in characters that is never–for want of a better word–mean. The unrelenting boyishness of the “Ghostbusters” is the charm, for example, even while they are being subversive and raucous. Though there is certainly raunchiness informing similar American comedies in the Apatow and Rogan era that makes me nostalgic for Ramis’s work, they are certainly in debt to the vision of Harold Ramis and better for it.

The Ramisian Effect–there, that phrase is starting to catch on–culminated in Groundhog Day, but it is evident in all of these films. And I like it.

These films are crowd pleasers and all offer moments that rank among the best of moments in American film comedy. For many of us, these films shaped our expectations of how humor worked in film. We were lucky. In appreciation to the contributions Ramis made, I offer these scenes for everyone’s enjoyment. This is American humor:

From Animal House. the kangaroo court proceedings against Delta House:

The Deltas in Court

From Caddyshack, Carl the Groundskeeper’s Master’s Champion fantasy:

From Caddyshack, Cinderella Story Out of Nowhere

From Stripes, the motivational speech:

From Stripes “We’re Americans with a Capital A”

We all cried when Old Yeller got shot. And When Harold Ramis passed away. Goodbye, Harold Ramis. You knew us well.

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