For teenagers — boys, mostly — of a certain age who are now Baby Boomers of a certain age, writer-actor-director Harold Ramis, who died Monday at age 69 from an autoimmune disease, wasn’t just centrally involved with comic masterworks ranging from Animal House (1978) to Stripes (1981) to Ghostbusters (1984) to the chronically under-appreciated series SCTV.
Ramis was nothing less than one of the subversive auteurs behind a whole new way of laughing at the world that mixed brains (he was a National Merit Scholar after all), cheap gross-out gags (see Caddyshack’s scene in which a Baby Ruth candy bar is mistaken for a turd in a swimming pool), and unapologetically anti-authoritarian antics (Ghostbusters enjoys a strong reputation as the most libertarian movie ever due to its hostile depictions of regulators as figuratively “dickless”).
From the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, he made it seem as if the Boomers were not simply going to inherit the Earth but transform it into an edgy paradise that our parents, stuck in a past where Bob Hope and Johnny Carson and other dinosaurs still roamed the world, could never really grok.
Sometimes as a writer, sometimes as an actor, sometimes as a director — and unbelievably, sometimes as all three — Ramis made it not just OK but required to be smart, funny, and scathing. With the occasional exception of Bill Murray, his other contemporaries and collaborators — such as John Belushi, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, and Chevy Chase — never managed to hit that trifecta even once, much less on a regular basis. However divinely hilarious at various points in their careers, they tended to degenerate quickly into one-note versions of themselves.
At the top of his game, Ramis seemed to be stretching himself — and comedy. Animal House, which he co-wrote, hasn’t aged well — Delta House’s members come across not as high-spirited pranksters and more as relentlessly misogynistic, self-entitled jerks more disturbing and smug than their ROTC foils. But it’s hard to overstate how liberating it was to see college, just then becoming a universal experience for Americans, thoroughly lampooned and authority figures from Dean Wormer on down thoroughly humiliated. Ghostbusters, which he co-wrote and starred in, wasn’t just funny; it was a great satire of urban politics, of horror films, and of message movies; it also stands as an early indicator of how nerds would go on to dominate American culture. 1993’s Groundhog Day, which Ramis directed and co-wrote, was a fully mature movie that managed to be funny and touching at the same time.
As with many talented creators, virtually all elements of Ramis’s repertoire were on display in his earliest work, especially the series SCTV, which not only lampooned particular celebrities via characters such as Sammy Maudlin (a low-rent, lachrymose stand-in for Carson) and Lola Heatherton (a dead-on parody on inexplicable “star” Joey Heatherton) but the whole medium of television itself. It was set at a fictional third-rate network and worked on a much higher level of meta-analysis than Saturday Night Live has ever managed. What made the show — and the characters he played, especially the addled and corrupt station manager Moe Green — great was that it lovingly satirized the television that Baby Boomers had grown up with. It managed to mock and honor icons of an earlier time while exploring how modern media created a patently false world that we all loved to live in anyway. Without SCTV — and without Ramis, who contributed to the series first few years — there would be no South Park or other shows in that vein.
Yet Ramis’s oeuvre flattened out after Groundhog Day. In the wake of critical and commercial success, his output became increasingly programmatic and uninteresting. Rather than taking chances and blow up comic forms, he directed movies such as Analyze This and Analyze That, schmaltzy, safe-as-milk comedies featuring Billy Crystal as the shrink for Robert DeNiro’s by-the-number mob boss. He appeared in vanilla roles in forgettable movies such as Baby Boom, a late '80s fantasy in which Diane Keaton’s businesswoman protagonist not only turns her back on New York’s demanding capitalist but gets rich by pushing gourmet baby food.
The raging bulls and easy riders of the boomer generation — who had turned Hollywood and America on its ear in a sustained blast of antinomian anger and humor — slowly became as dulled and self-satisfied as their parents had seemed.
Any survey of Harold Ramis’s career leaves you not just laughing but gasping for breath, really. But his passing — like the long-ago, self-inflicted deaths of collaborators such as John Belushi, John Candy, and National Lampoon’s Doug Kinney, not to mention the living-career-deaths of people such as Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd — also leaves those of us of a certain age sad for the ultimately unfulfilled promise of those early years.