From the Archives: Ramis' realm: Comedy creator surveys career from Second City to 'Year One'
Harold Ramis, one of the most influential writer-directors of modern movie comedy, died on Monday morning, Feb. 24, at the age of 69. FJI pays tribute with this career Q&A conducted in 2009 by Frank Lovece.
He ain't ’fraid of no ghosts—nor raunchy frat guys, smartass caddies, vacationing suburbanites, clones of Michael Keaton, psychoanalyzed mob bosses or, in his latest outing, cavemen wandering through Biblical times. Writer-director-actor Harold Ramis can claim some of cinema's most sublime (Groundhog Day) and sublimely silly (Caddyshack) works, as well as some of its most stupid (Club Paradise) and sorry (Multiplicity, Bedazzled). His professional life stretches back to the Second City stage in Chicago, “The National Lampoon Radio Hour,” “SCTV” and a screenwriting career that began with a bang and the highest-grossing movie comedy up to its time (National Lampoon's Animal House)—and that's only up to 1978.
Born in Chicago, the son of convenience-store owners, Ramis, 64, was a child of the Vietnam War era and the early days of "guerrilla television," as part of the 1960s do-it-yourself video collective TVTV, formed by his friend Michael Shamberg—later the producer of films like Erin Brockovich and Pulp Fiction. Through that background, plus stints working in a mental institution, as a public school teacher in the projects and the jokes editor for Playboy magazine, Ramis developed a twin trajectory that was both humanist and intensely media-informed.
While his films since the classic Groundhog Day (1993) have often met with less-than-resounding success—though Analyze This (1999) was a hit and The Ice Harvest (2005) an underappreciated gem—Ramis’ return as director and co-writer of a big-screen comedy is welcome news. Even when he fails, his failures are intriguing, and given the pairing of popular stars Jack Black and Michael Cera and hot-streak producer Judd Apatow, chances are good that Year One could be (and please, how could we not say it?) prehysterical.
Ramis, who's receiving the Screenwriters Tribute award at the 14th annual Nantucket Film Festival (June 18-21), headlining "An Evening With Harold Ramis" at the American Museum of the Moving Image (June 12) and a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Just For Laughs/Chicago festival (June 17-21), spoke about how comedy is serious, why you shouldn't do certain films, where he came up with the name Egon Spengler, and what's happening with Ghostbusters 3—which, he says, will not reunite the entire old gang.
FJI: You wrote the story, co-wrote the screenplay, co-produced and directed Year One. How did it come about, and why will we be laughing?
Harold Ramis: It's based on some things I’ve always felt were funny, like, since college, [such as] Mel Brooks' "2000-Year-Old Man" [sketches]. I love the idea of taking characters with a contemporary consciousness and interpreting the past through them. Then I thought of [Monty Python's] Holy Grail and Life of Brian, and thought these are very good expressions of the same kind of juxtaposition. And then my religious and theological interests and my interest in history started to come together. After 2001, I read the history of the great religions. I realized how little I knew of Islam, so I read the history of Islam, I read a biography of Mohammed, and I started to get into my own Judaism in a small way—just thinking about where did it all come from, and why do we end up in these horribly destructive global conflicts seemingly based on religion. And [the topics of] fundamentalism and orthodoxy seemed worth talking about.
You can’t really read the Bible as history. Someone said, "[The Book of] Genesis starts off as mythology, then it becomes legend and then it becomes history." So I wanted to connect it all, connect what in the real world might have given rise to the mythologies and the legends, and bring it up to the beginning of urban civilization.
FJI: I thought I was interviewing Harold Ramis, not Joseph Campbell!
Ramis: Well [laughs], y’know, I'm a firm believer that anything can be funny. But I like to kind of touch on vital interests of mine, whether psychological or personal or whatever.
FJI: What interests were you touching on that led to Groundhog Day (1993), which everybody from The New Yorker to my buddy Barry calls one of the greatest movie comedies? [It appears as #34 on the American Film Institute's "100 Years...100 Laughs" list (2000) and as #8 on the AFI's "AFI's 10 Top 10: Fantasy" list (2008).]
Ramis: It was just a wacky farce.
FJI: Yeah, yeah, so you say. You know it's one of people's most beloved movies.
Ramis: I know. I know. And much analyzed, believe me. A lot's been written about it from a religious point of view, a psychological point of view… Y'know, a psychiatrist saw this movie and told me it was a perfect metaphor for psychotherapy: You keep revisiting the same material over and over, and each time you get a different insight until you finally get clear of it. Religion, the same way—Christians, Jews, everyone saw it as embodying their own philosophies. Y'know, it's about being stuck in one place and how do we get unstuck?
FJI: Was that something you were feeling yourself, and then you watched a “Twilight Zone” and things came together?
Ramis: [laughs] No, it was an original script by a guy named Danny Rubin, who I collaborated with on the [eventual shooting script, credited to Rubin and Ramis]. He's something of a Buddhist, as am I. I see it as about the human condition and not so much my own personal struggle. A lot of people start doing the same thing every day, thinking the same misguided thoughts every day.
Y'know, every movie is like a Rorschach test—it says as much about the audience as it does about the creators of the film. Some people come up to me and they want to talk about Caddyshack  or Animal House [1978, directed by John Landis] or they'll come up to me with their eyes shiny and talk about Groundhog Day for a long time.
FJI: Which of your films does that for you yourself?
Ramis: Probably that one, yeah. And Animal House. I mean, I lived Animal House [in college]. But Groundhog Day sort of summed up a lot of things I think and feel.
FJI: As does, apparently, Year One, from what you were saying.
Ramis: Well, Year One…y'know, I can turn people off by overanalyzing this. In the end, it's a really silly broad comedy based on some good ideas.
FJI: Caddyshack has become a comedy cult classic [It appears as #71 on the AFI's "100 Years...100 Laughs" list.], but it only got middling reviews when it came out.
Ramis: Oh, boy, did it. And so did we as filmmakers. Someone wrote after our junket weekend, "If this is the new Hollywood, let's have the old Hollywood back!" But Caddyshack grew in people's estimation. Over time they just seemed to embrace it more strongly.
FJI: Why, do you suppose?
Ramis: I don't know. The New York Times called it an amiable mess. Which actually I thought described it pretty well.
FJI: Do you think it played well on TV and was rediscovered there?
Ramis: That's absolutely part of it. Gotta be. But also [audiences] revisiting it. Y'know, people come with expectations. People came to Caddyshack expecting it to be like Animal House. I'm sure it was marketed that way: "From the people who brought you Animal House." Well, if you go in expecting Animal House, it's not Animal House, it's a very different thing. Once people got past that, once they accepted that it's not Animal House, I think they maybe they seemed to like it for what it was.
FJI: I remember Animal House as being this unlikely breakthrough when it came out in ’78—a raucous, raunchy comedy from a mainstream studio like Universal. How did that ever come about?
Ramis: Well, we were doing The National Lampoon Show [the successor to National Lampoon's Lemmings] in New York—it was John Belushi, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, Joe Flaherty, Gilda Radner and me—and Ivan Reitman saw us do our show in Toronto, [where] we were on tour. And he thought it was great and he wanted to produce a National Lampoon film. The magazine was at the height of its circulation, there was a radio hour that was pretty funny, and Ivan wanted to produce; he was doing low-budget films out in Canada. So when I left that show, Ivan asked me to write a treatment for a Lampoon film based on the show we were doing. And my wife at the time [San Francisco, California artist Anne Plotkin] said, "Your college experience was so funny, and you've always wanted to write about it, so why not shape the material into a college movie?" So working on my own I did a treatment called "Freshman Year." And no one at the Lampoon really responded to it; it didn't have a real Lampoon tone, it had a more a Harold Ramis tone, actually. It was a little too redeeming, it was not cruel, it was not as sick as the movie. So I thought, maybe this would work with writers from the Lampoon. And I teamed up with Doug Kenney, and Doug suggested that we work with Chris Miller who [also] had been writing for the Lampoon. I didn't know Chris at the time, but we got along great and at that point it kinda fused into the Animal House concept.
FJI: Some of your movies, like Multiplicity [1996; director only], Bedazzled , Analyze That  and the very underrated The Ice Harvest [2005; director only] ,didn't really connect with audiences. No matter how successful one might be, that must be hard to go through.
Ramis: Um…yeah. I get over it pretty quick, though. Basically, if you lead a mindful existence, you're kind of doing your best all the time, right? I'm stuck with my own brain [chuckles] and I can only have the ideas I have.
There was a great will to do a sequel to Analyze This. Robert De Niro really wanted to do it. Borrowing motivation from someone else is not always the best way to go. But it was in a way an interesting exercise. And the movie's pretty good in lots of ways, and has some really great stuff. But the audience just didn't seem that interested. It wasn't like they flocked to see it and were disappointed—they didn't flock. I can understand. If they thought it was a one-joke movie, I can see not going to the sequel.
FJI: Speaking of sequels, Caddyshack II , which you wrote but didn't direct, is…
Ramis: …horrible! [laughs] …Rodney Dangerfield [who co-starred in the original] wanted to do the movie, and the studio insisted on doing that thing and enticed me to write it—with the warning that if I didn't do it ,someone else would do it and it would be horrible. Then Rodney pulled out and they made the movie anyway [with Jackie Mason]. No one was involved in the second one, after the first draft, who had anything do with the original.
FJI: Well, Chevy Chase had a cameo.
Ramis: That's true. But not a good way to make a sequel.
FJI: So what did you learn from all this?
Ramis: One thing I've learned, even from my initial success, is just because you can do something doesn't mean that you should. Careers are so difficult in Hollywood. The opportunity to direct is so hard to come by for most people that they'll direct anything. Actors have it even worse. Most actors find themselves happy to get work they don't even want, and wouldn't take if they had the choice. What I've learned is don't do anything unless you really believe in it yourself, personally.
FJI: If you can reach that point. Not to put too fine a point on it, you don't need the money.
Ramis: I don't? [chuckles] Michael Shamberg, who's now a very successful movie producer, and I have been friends since ’62. And way back, we shook hands and said, "Let's never take a job we have to dress up for. And let's only do what we like." We've been very lucky.
FJI: You had such a string of hits from the late ’70s through the mid-’80s—in addition to what we've talked about so far, you co-wrote Meatballs , Stripes , Ghostbusters  and Back to School . Whereas Club Paradise , which you co-wrote and directed, and Armed and Dangerous , Caddyshack II  and Ghostbusters II , all of which you co-wrote, didn't work so well. But then something like Stuart Saves His Family , the Al Franken vehicle that he wrote and you directed, which came out and did less than a million dollars in box office—I don't know that it worked as a comedy, but if you take it as a kind of surrealist drama, it is absolutely heartbreaking.
Ramis: Yeah, it is. A lot of critics kind of praised that tightrope walk between the comedy and the drama. Stuart had some great reviews, like from Siskel and Ebert [as well as from The Washington Post and the Chicago Reader, though not from the majority of critics]. As for Multiplicity [1996; director only], there weren't a lot of raves but…it tested great. And I think it's a better movie than people know.
FJI: Bedazzled has been your only remake. [The 1967 U.K. original, a modern-day version of the Faust legend, starred the comedy team Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.]
Ramis: I really liked the Peter Cook-Dudley Moore film, and I didn't want to just copy it but put my own spin on it. Not many Americans were real familiar with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's film. I just thought it was idea worth doing. For me it was a movie about the wishing we do, and how we're conditioned to think that if only we could be certain things or have certain things, we would be happy. It might be both a function of being American and a function of being in a consumer culture: "If only I have my hair look right, I would be popular. If only I had enough money or I were handsome enough." In the end, externals aren't the source of our happiness.
FJI: What's the source of your happiness?
Ramis: Of my happiness? Well, I try to lead a good life. If I had to define it, if it comes down to one word, I would say mindfulness. I'm not a Buddhist, but I have a great appreciation for certain aspects of Buddhism. Proportionally, we all suffer. It's important not to define ourselves by our suffering.
FJI: You've been married to your second wife for 20 years—that speaks well of you.
Ramis: And we've been together 25 years. I was talking with someone earlier who had noted that I was working at one point on a kind of a brutal comedy about marriage. And I think anybody who is in a successful marriage understands it's not a storybook relationship, it's not a fairy tale, that the only way to be in a long, committed relationship, whether there's a marriage certificate or not, is to understand that living your life side by side with someone else is in itself a kind of noble experiment and a noble pursuit. And it doesn't require being happy all the time. It's impossible to be happy all the time, which is why we see so many marriages end. And there's no protection against it and I've often said every ended marriage isn't a failed marriage. But you need the understanding that if you share your life with someone, your whole life becomes a negotiation of some kind.
FJI: I've always wanted to know: Where did you come up with the name Egon Spengler for your Ghostbusters character?
Ramis: "Egon" came from a guy I went to elementary school with. The Hungarian revolt in the mid-’50s sent some Hungarian refugees to the United States . And two young men showed up, their last name was Donsbach, and they were brothers, Egon and Dieter. Then there's a famous artist, Egon Schiele, a German [actually Austrian] expressionist. So that's Egon. And Spengler came from Oswald Spengler, a mathematician [and philosopher/historian].
FJI: How did you get to be the jokes editor of Playboy magazine?
HR: I was a full-time substitute teacher—this was ’67, ’68—in the Chicago public schools. Michael Shamberg right out of college had stated freelancing for newspapers and got on as a stringer for a local paper, and I thought, "Well, if Michael can do that, I can do that." I wrote a spec piece and submitted it to the Chicago Daily News, the Arts & Leisure section, and they started giving me assignments [for] entertainment features. I took my first published stories and I just grabbed a Playboy—which, truthfully, I would look at it if someone else had it, but I never bought a copy of Playboy…
FJI: That's what they all say! [laughs]
Ramis: No, it's true! When I began to work for Playboy, I learned every issue went through seven people usually. So I looked at the masthead and I thought, "If I was gonna apply for a job, who would I call?" And I started at the top—"Publisher. He'll never take my call. Managing editor. No. Senior editor. Maybe not." And so I got down to the associate editors, and I thought, "This guy will call me back." So I called a guy named Michael Lawrence just cold and said I had written several pieces freelance and did they have any openings. And they happened to have their entry-level job, party jokes editor, open. He liked my stuff and he gave me a stack of jokes that readers had sent in and asked me to rewrite them. I had been in Second City in the workshops already and Michael Shamberg and I had written comedy shows in college.
FJI: “SCTV” was so much better than “Saturday Night Live” in the early 1980s. In New York, it came on at one a.m., and it was all low-budget and cardboard-set-looking, and just seemed like underground radio.
Ramis: Well, it was [similar to that]. We were doing it out of Toronto, we had no sponsors, we had no network executives, it was just everyone you saw in the show—we were the writers and we would just sit around and make each other laugh and nobody told us what we could or couldn't do. It was fun, really. What a great bunch of people
FJI: What 's next for you? Year Two?
Ramis: A sequel? Year One 2? [chuckles] Nothing yet. I'm just waiting for the next good thing to happen. My co-writers on Year One [Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, writers for NBC's “The Office”] are working on a Ghostbusters 3 script. I worked on the story for Ghostbusters 3, the plot, with them.
FJI: Are you reprising your role?
Ramis: We're all in if it works. If the script's no good, no.
FJI: Does that include the fourth Ghostbuster, Ernie Hudson?
Ramis: Yeah, definitely. And Annie Potts and whoever wants to come back. I know all the guys want to come back except for [Rick] Moranis, who's disappeared. Not disappeared physically. But he's not too interested in entertainment at this time. Don't know why.