Harold Ramis

The king of comedy

I first met Harold Ramis about 40 years ago, when I produced the sketch-comedy stage revue The National Lampoon Show. Along with Harold, the cast included John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray and Joe Flaherty. Even in that remarkably talented, yet-to-be-discovered ensemble, Harold stood out. Not because he was the loudest, the most flamboyant or even the funniest–although in his quiet, intelligent way, he often was. Harold stood out because it was clear he was their unofficial leader. The man to whom they could all turn to solve creative problems or any of the myriad conflicts that would arise among this high-powered group.

I witnessed his quiet strength early in the Lampoon Show’s development. It happened in my hometown of Toronto, where the show was booked for two performances in a popular local tavern. After a raucous and very successful first show, we were shocked to discover that instead of clearing the house, as we had expected, the patrons from the performance stayed on, happily drinking and waiting for more comedy.

Backstage, the group was in a panic. They had been expecting to do their prepared material for a new audience and had nothing else. Interrupting the growing panic, Harold pulled the cast together and suggested quietly, “Let’s just do the show again, except this time we’ll change every joke and every punch line.” It was an audacious challenge that in normal circumstances would have been immediately dismissed. But something in Harold’s confident demeanor relaxed the group. They started to laugh and embraced the challenge. I believe it was the first time I heard Belushi bellow, “Let’s do it!”

Thinking back today, 40 years later, I only wish there were a video record of that amazing performance. It was the most remarkable display of comedy brilliance, dexterity and borderline insanity.

Harold and I went on to collaborate on five movies: Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II. He co-wrote all of them and co-starred in three. He went on to become a director himself and created such comedy classics as National Lampoon’s Vacation, Caddyshack, Analyze This and the remarkable Groundhog Day.

With the passing of Harold Ramis, the world has lost a truly original comedy voice. He possessed the most agile mind I’ve ever worked with. He was extraordinarily generous with me, and working with him changed my life. He had a wonderful gift for making people do their best work around him. He will be profoundly missed.

Among Reitman’s many films as a producer, director or both are Dave, Animal House and Ghostbusters I and II

This appears in the March 10, 2014 issue of TIME.
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