By Ross Bonaime
Growing up in the eighties and nineties, I always felt like I was one of the few kids who wasn’t raised watching Meatballs, Stripes, National Lampoon’s Vacation and Ghostbusters. I didn’t think I was being raised on the work of Harold Ramis, but in hindsight, I actually was. His work wasn’t just restricted to the many now classic comedies he wrote and directed, but reached farther than that, influencing comedians, writers, directors for over thirty-five years.
One of my favorite toys growing up was of Dr. Egon Spengler from The Real Ghostbusters, yet I didn’t know who the real counterpart was. I remember watching Groundhog Day constantly on TV, but I didn’t know who wrote it. When I was twelve, I always liked the nice doctor who saved the day in As Good As It Gets, however I didn’t realize the resume that the actor playing him had. It was a surprise Ramis attack I was completely unaware of.
For decades, Ramis worked behind the scenes bringing some of the greatest comedic talents of all time into the limelight. It was with John Belushi and Bill Murray that Ramis left Chicago’s Second City to come to New York, where the three of them would work on The National Lampoon Radio Hour. This trio of greats teamed up with Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner and Joe Flaherty for The National Lampoon Show. This group of incredible talents would go on to be creators and members of two of the most important sketch comedy programs of all time: SCTV and Saturday Night Live.
After three years as the head writer and performer for SCTV, Ramis left to start his film career. He found immediate success with his first screenplay in 1978 – which he co-wrote with Doug Kenney and Chris Miller – called National Lampoon’s Animal House. Instantly the film became one of the most successful comedies ever and the influence can still be seen today, with films like American Pie, Old School and The Hangover.
From there came a string of successes for Ramis, not only in writing, but in directing and occasionally acting. He followed up Animal House by writing Meatballs, Stripes, Back to School, Caddyshack – which he also directed – and directing National Lampoon’s Vacation. In 1984, Ramis co-wrote Ghostbusters with Dan Aykroyd, which would be the biggest success of his career. To this date Ghostbuster sremains one of the highest-grossing films of all time and would give Ramis his most famous role, that of Dr. Egon Spengler.
For the next decade, Ramis continued to write and act, yet for the first time in 1993, Ramis would do triple duty for the first time, writing, directing and acting in what is largely considered to be his greatest project, Groundhog Day. It was the fifth and last time Ramis would work with Murray due to conflicts on the set, but it would be a highlight in both of their careers. When Sight & Sound made their list of the greatest films of all time, Groundhog Day would have the top 300, having directors as varied as Monty Python’s Holy Grail’s Terry Jones and American Hustle’s David O. Russell each calling it one of the ten greatest films ever made. With fans like that, its placement will surely only grow over time.
As the 2000s hit, writers and directors who had grown up with Ramis’ films and were influenced by him began working with him, even though Ramis was still directing films like The Ice Harvest and the hit Analyze This. Judd Apatow – who interviewed Ramis as a child and has stated was a large influence on him – put him in films Year One, Walk Hard: The Legend of Dewey Cox and as Seth Rogen’s father in Knocked Up. Ramis was also brought in to direct episodes of Greg Daniels’ The Office, directing four episodes, “A Benihana Christmas,” “Safety Training,” “Beach Games,” and “The Delivery: Part 2.”
Becoming a comedy legend early on, then rounding up his career with people he inspired near the end, Ramis became a voice for several generations. He loved the slacker, making “seven years down the drain” sympathetic while also hilarious and bringing fun into the U.S. Army. He would speak to those who felt trapped, whether it was in the monotony of everyday life in Groundhog Day, the inability to reach success, even in your own family, with National Lampoon’s Vacation or the inescapability of life in a paper company. He showed that these types could succeed, helping his son realize the greatness of having a son in Knocked Up or helping save New York City from a monster made of marshmallow.
After four years of fighting autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, Ramis died yesterday, yet its impossible to see his influence stopping anytime soon. Without Ramis, we wouldn’t have some of comedy’s greatest characters, lines, even certain genres of comedy film wouldn’t exist without Ramis. It might be cheesy to say “he may be gone, but his legacy will live on,” but for Ramis – an undeniable legend – nothing could be more accurate.