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Harold Ramis, a multipurpose comic force, dead at 69

Harold Ramis was a guy capable of directing, writing and performing with equal astringent skill.

Jim Prisching/AP

"I'm a god."

"You're God?"

"I'm a God. Not the God. I don't think."

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From Groundhog Day, 1993.

On the day the news broke that Harold Ramis, writer, director, actor and key player in the mid-1970s, baby-boom overthrow of American comedy, had died at age 69, I was sitting in the CBC radio studio. I was being interviewed on the subject of movies and spirituality, and Groundhog Day came up.

Groundhog Day, the story of an embittered TV weatherman named Phil (played by the sublimely condescending Bill Murray) whom fate compels to live the same day – Groundhog Day, as it turns out – ad infinitum until he gets it right, has become an object of not only of avid cult veneration but out and out metaphysical speculation – a movie that some look at and see the spiritual universe beyond.

No one was more surprised by this than Ramis himself. Groundhog Day was his fourth writer-director assignment after establishing his bona fides as an especially barbed countercultural smartass comic voice on TV (SCTV), radio (The National Lampoon Radio Hour), stage (The National Lampoon Revue), print (he was Playboy's joke page editor for a spell) and of course the movies. After co-writing scripts for National Lampoon's Animal House, Meatballs and Stripes, Ramis made his directorial debut with 1980's Caddyshack, by which time the revolution was complete.

Popular comedy had been transformed by the likes of Ramis, Ivan Reitman, Lorne Michaels and various other alumni of the stages of Second City and the pages of National Lampoon. Making funny was no longer the domain of suit-and-tied Borscht Belt veterans complaining about mothers-in-law and used-car sharks. It had become gross, irreverent and explicit, the punchline to the 1960s youth movement (best expressed by John Belushi's mashed-potato-spewing impression of a zit popping in Ramis's Animal House.)

Although Animal House marked the the ultimate triumph of this new kind of comedy – or at least the point of no return – it had been itself pustulating for years, and Ramis, born in Chicago to a non-observant Jewish family, had been there from the beginning. From the time he allegedly dodged the Vietnam draft by ingesting methamphetamine just prior to reporting for classification, to his stunts as joke-polisher for Playboy and contributor to the guerrilla TV collective TVTV, Ramis was busily establishing himself as a multipurpose comic force, a guy capable of directing, writing and performing with equal astringent skill.

But it was with Chicago's Second City Improv group, which Ramis joined in 1969, that the real roots of the comic revolution to come took hold: from there Ramis moved to National Lampoon's spinoff radio and stage franchises, frequently in collaboration with fellow Second City alumni such as John Belushi and Bill Murray, and from there that he connected with the Toronto Second City franchise – which included Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd and Eugene Levy – which gradually morphed into SCTV, the Canuck-based meta-TV sketch show that still stands as one of the most smartly funny and influential comedy shows in pop-cultural history.

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His reputation rising in tandem with the ascendance of Lorne Michaels's Saturday Night Live and its spinoff movies, Ramis entered the movie mainstream by collaborating on the script for the Ivan Reitman-produced Animal House, and following its release in 1978 moved deftly and ubiquitously between small and large screens. He also moved from in front of the camera – where he had an engagingly dorky persona – to behind – where he knew how to bring out the funniest of the funniest. Belushi, Murray, Rodney Dangerfield and Chevy Chase were all at their best when performing from Ramis's scripts or before Ramis's camera, and not just because he knew them well. It was also because he knew how to use them.

When Ivan Reitman – one of the very many Canadians Ramis played with so well – got around to making Ghostbusters in 1984, he turned again to Ramis as both on- and off-screen collaborator, and if Animal House fired the shot that toppled the old comedic order, Ghostbusters was the movie that established the hegemony of the new regime. A worldwide pop-cultural sensation and era-defining event, it confirmed that what had once been so subversive, snotty even, was now the new world order, and so it has largely remained. Without those comedic eruptions, the world of funny as we now know it would not exist: no Adam Sandler, no Judd Apatow, no Will Ferrell, no Steve Carell. Factor SCTV's world of postmodern mashup into this, and you can imagine a world without The Simpsons to boot.

And no Groundhog Day, of course. The movie that many consider to be Ramis's very best – and one many call a masterpiece – has, in the 21 years since its release, not only become an entrenched cult ritual almost as intensely observed as The Big Lebowski, The Matrix or The Rocky Horror Picture Show itself, it may be the only comedy with vomit jokes that also hints at divine grace.

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Geoff More


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