The Great Canadian Pop Cultural Infiltration reached its apex of global saturation 30 summers ago with Ghostbusters, a movie that consolidated a decade of Canuck comedic attitudes and influence into an irresistible urban live-action cartoon about the triumph of irony over catastrophe.
Laughter was big in that year of Sixteen Candles, Beverly Hills Cop, Police Academy and Bachelor Party, but it was also a time of imminent hell breaking loose: Indiana Jones faced the Temple of Doom, future-dispatched killer cyborg Arnold Schwarzenegger was locked and loaded in The Terminator, and even that year’s other big comedy of chaotic supernatural invasion, Gremlins, tilted toward the unwinnably apocalyptic.
But not Ghostbusters. The brainchild of Ottawa-born writer-star Dan Aykroyd and Czech-born, Toronto-raised producer-director Ivan Reitman, the script was first written as a vehicle for Aykroyd and fellow Saturday Night Live alum John Belushi. It told the futuristic story of a world where ghosts were dispatched from this dimension by teams of paranormal bouncers equipped with ectoplasm-repelling ordnance.
Although originating in the supernatural fixations of Aykroyd’s imagination, Ghostbusters assumed its less fantastical science-fiction proportions when it was handed to Reitman. By then, he had already helped rewrite the American comedy book by producing the off-Broadway smash National Lampoon’s Show (a talent-feeding artery for the original Saturday Night Live) and National Lampoon’s smash film hit Animal House. Reitman in turn brought on Harold Ramis (who died earlier this year), a veteran of Chicago’s Second City improv group who had worked in Canada as part of the sublime SCTV ensemble, to write and help execute their Ghostbusters vision.
Reitman also suggested situating the story in then-present-day New York, and therein lay Ghostbusters’ potential to seize the zeitgeist and win the war on global anxiety. It would be a throwback comedy in the old Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein vein: A team of unemployed, entrepreneurial bumblers would face down the underworld, kick its ass, and emerge sticky but sweet from an Upper West Side encounter with a Godzilla-sized Stay Puft marshmallow man.
Lowbrow and high-concept, the Ghostbusters formula represented the largest-scale pop-cultural application yet of the improv sketch-comedy approach that began at Chicago’s Second City in the 1950s but was nurtured, refined and cross-pollinated primarily in Toronto. There, sketch-comedy vets such as Aykroyd, Belushi, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty, Martin Short, Bill Murray and Dave Thomas were instrumental in translating the comedy of boomer irony to fit television. The style gained momentum with the phenomenal success of Torontonian Lorne Michael’s Saturday Night Live in New York, with the popular hilarity of SCTV and with the massive big-screen splash of Animal House. Then, with Ghostbusters, this new comedic form would lay claim to complete global domination.
While TV incubated the largest demographic bulge of the century, it appeared to have a particularly productive influence on Canadian boomers, who grew up exposed to pop culture coming from somewhere else. And in that identity gap – between what you watched and where you lived – a Canadian comedic approach developed: ironic, junk-culture-fixated and promiscuously genre-plundering. This was the tone that reached such world-conquering expression with Ghostbusters, which not only went on to become one of the year’s top box-office hits, but with its mash-up of old-studio comedy, what-me-worry? insouciance and city-trashing playground antics came to represent the temper of its times. Like Ronald Reagan, Born in the USA, Purple Rain and Miami Vice, Ghostbusters is pure 1984, albeit calcified in marshmallow goo.
Movie comedy has never really recovered. From the subsequent rise of stars such as Eddie Murphy, Adam Sandler, Steve Carell, Jim Carrey and Seth Rogen (more CanCon) to the improv-based, high-irony approach of directors such as Judd Apatow and Edgar Wright, the sketch-com aesthetic forged in Canada has changed the way we laugh at movies.
It’s almost too easy to forget where it came from and how utterly it rewrote the rulebook. But there’s something Canadian in that too. In some ways, the country’s most potent cultural strength has been in its stealth invisibility – to infiltrate the imperial centre and mess with it surreptitiously, subversively and with ticklish good humour, a ghost in the machine leaving a thick but transparent coat of permanent slime.