There’s no way any of us realized in the moment how great Harold Ramis was.
The comedies he directed, wrote and/or co-starred in have seeped into our systems through our pores and entered our DNA by this point — especially for those of us who grew up in the 1980s. We’ve all seen “Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Caddyshack,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters” so many times, we can quote them instantly, if not recite entire scenes by heart.
But I suspect that wasn’t necessarily the case the first time around. That kind of appreciation takes time — that kind of enduring legacy requires repeated viewings. We probably laughed our asses off when we first saw John Belushi silently smash a guitar against a staircase at a toga party or heard Bill Murray tell Sgt. Hulka that chicks dig him because he rarely wears underwear, and when he does it’s usually something unusual. But in retrospect and taken as a whole, Ramis’ output is staggering. It represents a collective act of intelligent rebellion — of slyly smart subversion. Back when I was in college, even the so-called “top tier” fraternities longed for the scrappy, underdog cool of the fictional Delta Tau Chi.
Ramis died early Monday after years of suffering from an autoimmune disease that caused inflammation and damage to his blood vessels. He was 69 years old. His work, in all its forms, surely will leave its mark for many more years to come. It’s not hyperbole to say that he defined film comedy for an entire generation.
On screen, opposite Murray in “Stripes” or “Ghostbusters” (both of which he co-wrote), Ramis often served as the bemused straight man — our conduit, if you will. We could only dream of being as twisted and quick-witted as Murray’s characters. Ramis’ steady presence made us feel as if we still could be part of the team, part of the action. Subdued and sardonic, nebbishy and bespectacled, he was usually the smartest person in the room in these films, but he never made us feel like idiots for wanting to join in the adventures.
“Groundhog Day” certainly seems more profound as time has passed. By 1993, a more quietly pensive Ramis had emerged, directing and co-writing a film that allowed Murray to be his ferociously verbal self, but with some room for introspection. The notion of what you would do with your time and your actions if given the opportunity to relive the same day over and over is both deeply existential and sweetly rueful. It’s high-concept but also highly thoughtful. (The fact that Ramis and Murray had a falling out during the filming of “Groundhog Day,” and didn’t speak for years afterward, adds a retroactive twinge of melancholy to their work together.)
As the years and decades passed and Ramis’ filmmaking tapered off, it was always a joy to see him appear in comedies in small supporting roles — as Seth Rogen’s no-nonsense father in “Knocked Up,” or John C. Reilly’s Orthodox Jewish manager, the hilariously named L’Chaim, in “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.” Both were Judd Apatow productions, and Apatow spoke for so many of us when he said that Ramis was the kind of dad we all wish we could have had.
Looking at my Twitter and Facebook feeds today, I see such an outpouring of sadness and love for this man and his movies. When he died, it’s as if a part of our childhoods died with him — the crazy side, the raunchy side, the side that fearlessly bucked authority and wrested control back for the freaks and the little guys. It’s as exciting an idea now as it was in the ’80s.
It just doesn’t matter. Be the ball. That’s the fact, Jack.