Harold Ramis Gets the Last Laugh

What is there to say about Harold Ramis’s status as an icon that a game of Ramis Roulette can’t say more succinctly? The rules are simple: At any given time of the day or week, search your cable system to see how many Ramis-written-and/or-directed movies will play within the next forty-eight hours. You’ll not only find the subversive classics that made his name (Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, Caddyshack), the secondary cultural landmarks (Ghostbusters, Back to School, National Lampoon’s Vacation), the masterpiece (Groundhog Day), or even the more recent commercial successes (Analyze This); you’ll also see stuff like Bedazzled and Multiplicity—films you might be surprised to find yourself laughing through if you take the time to watch them. In three and a half decades of making movies, Ramis has hardly made one that doesn’t qualify for iconic status, or at least regular television rotation. My record at Ramis Roulette is eight, but there are plenty of channels I don’t get.

Any doubts that Ramis is a founding father of modern comedy were most recently dispelled when Judd Apatow cast him as Seth Rogen’s actual father in Knocked Up. The 64-year-old’s engagement with the new generation is one of the more remarkable turns in his late-career life, and it has continued with directing stints on The Office and with his newest film, the Apatow co-produced Year One, in which Jack Black and Michael Cera play a couple of cave dudes Zeliging their way through the Old Testament. And when not aiding and abetting the newest Great Men of Comedy, Ramis is known to hang out with some Great Men full stop: guys like Barack Obama (whom he met through his involvement in Chicago politics) and the Dalai Lama. (Ramis is a sympathetic, though nonpracticing, Buddhist.) Not bad for a guy once famous for teaching the world that “the only good varmint poontang is dead varmint poontang.”

So like generations of Caddyshack-line-dropping pilgrims before, GQ sought out Ramis on his mountaintop (actually, his stomping grounds in Chicago’s northern suburbs) to study at the feet of the funny.

By your early thirties, you had edited the jokes page at Playboy, performed with the premier comedy troupe of the past fifty years, Second City, and written one of the most influential and beloved films of all time, Animal House. Was there ever a moment when you worried about your career in comedy?
Once. I was living in Encino, California, with my first wife in a month-to-month rental, and I had $40 left in the bank. I had co-authored a novel with Michael Shamberg, and the editor sent back the manuscript along with a copy of The Elements of Style. My wife said to me, “Has it occurred to you that you might not be successful?” She wasn’t saying I wouldn’t be. She was just posing the question. And I said, “Oh man. It’s occurring to me right now.

How long did you beat yourself up over it?
I swear this is true: At that moment, the phone rang, and it was the owner of Second City asking me to come back and produce the television show that reconnected me with Bill Murray and led to the rest of my career. So it was like one really bad afternoon where I thought all was lost.

That’s it? Nothing since?
I’ve never had any kind of interruption that felt career-threatening.

I’ve heard you tell the story of coming back from a leave of absence from Second City, seeing John Belushi in your place onstage, and thinking, Oh well, I guess I’ll be a writer.
He was just so much braver than I was.

Braver, yeah. But was he also needier?
Well, sure. More desperate, in a way. John would start improvising, and everybody would look at their watches and say, “Oh Jesus,” and he’d be off. But you forgave it, because you liked him and it was funny. He made us all look good. John lifted us all and took us with him. And then he literally, physically took us with him to New York City, to work on the National Lampoon Radio Hour.

It seems like you’re the only one who didn’t end up on Saturday Night Live.
Lorne [Michaels] offered me a job, but at that point I was the head writer on SCTV. SNL was completely fueled by cocaine; the show was being written literally overnight. I didn’t want to stay up all night writing. And the show had a veneer of New York sophistication—very snide and superior. I thought, It’s just not me. Besides, we were already working on Animal House.

Were you surprised when that movie became such a phenomenon?
When we were writing Animal House, we assumed it would be the most successful comedy ever. Our generation had broken into television with SNL, and this was going to be the first “new” Hollywood comedy. It was our attempt to capture those years, right up to November 1963, when there was a feeling that the kids were taking over the country for the first time. In our minds, the end of that movie—the parade, all that euphoria—takes place the day before Kennedy was shot. Because the day after, none of that mattered anymore.

What was the atmosphere like on the set? Serious? Bacchanalian?
I didn’t even know that shooting had started. I had auditioned for the movie and didn’t get it. I thought, “Fuck that. I’m not hanging around to be an extra.” I saw it for the first time at a test screening. People went crazy. I thought, “Wow. It’s really good.”

Was it what you had imagined?
Very much. Except, of course, the cast was different. We had Chevy Chase as Otter. [Murray] was going to do Peter Riegert’s part. Aykroyd was D-Day. Brian Doyle-Murray was the president of the fraternity. We didn’t have a Flounder exactly. Maybe John Candy was going to be our Flounder. But Chevy didn’t want to be in an “SNL movie,” and the studio didn’t want it to be one.

That’s just a crazy alternate universe.
We seriously considered a kind of Fiji-island-tiki-bar-themed party instead of a toga party. It was going to be grass skirts, coconut brassieres, bones through the nose.

But then what would college kids today chant? “Tiki! Tiki! Tiki!”?
I know. We went back because togas were a standard fraternity thing. Everybody had a sheet, and it would get girls into something easier to remove. As far as the casting changes go, you write these things for people you know. I always had this kind of ability to get into people’s heads and think in their voices. I mean, I could write for people. I had Bill’s voice down. When people would read something I’d written for him, they’d say, “That is so perfectly Bill Murray.” Of course, the irony is that he’d read it and say, “Bullshit, I can’t say this.”

That brings us to Meatballs, which I’ve always thought doesn’t quite get the love it deserves.
I really only worked for about a month on Meatballs. What happened was that Ivan Reitman figured out that studios wanted to meet everybody involved with Animal House except the producer. So he thought he’d better start directing. So he raised a million dollars and decided to do a movie about summer camp. He wanted Bill in the movie, and he knew Bill and I had a good relationship, so he asked me to doctor the script. Bill left Ivan hanging, though. Ivan didn’t know if he was going to be there until the day they started shooting.

Now, what is that? Just balls on Murray’s part? Arrogance?
I have no idea what goes on in his mind. He was 18 when I met him, and he was already that way. He’d been strong enough at 16 to defy all the Jesuit priests teaching at Loyola Academy. He was just the biggest rebel in the world. It’s his job to defy all your expectations.

Meatballs was the birth of the Bill Murray screen persona—the clever, pugnacious misfit. Where did it come from?
All of that stuff he’d been doing on the Lampoon radio show. He was one of the most amazing street performers you’ve ever seen. He was funny and bold and said things no one else would say. The prevailing Woody Allen–type heroes at the time were losers, nebbishes, schlemiels. Bill’s character wasn’t a loser; he was a rebel. He was an outcast by choice. He had confidence and power.

Was there any predecessor for that character in pop culture? All I can come up with is Bugs Bunny.
I could probably make the case that Bill is all the Marx Brothers rolled into one. He’s got the wit of Groucho, the pantomimic brilliance and lasciviousness of Harpo, and the Everyman quality of Chico.

Did you see Lost in Translation?
I thought it was as self-revealing as I’ve ever seen him. It really captured his melancholy and loneliness. I think he’s done some good work in serious films. It’s an interesting career in some ways, but I think people long to see him in comedy again. His brother Andy told me, “I keep telling Bill, ‘Why don’t you call Harold?’ “

The fact that he’s cut off contact with you seems heartbreaking.
It’s a little heartbreaking to me. I don’t know that he’s heartbroken.

What happened?
I don’t know. You know, ask anyone in Hollywood. Everybody has a Bill Murray story. He just punishes people, for reasons they can’t figure out. He was a student of Gurdjieff for a while, the Sufi mystic. Gurdjieff used to act really irrationally to his students, almost as if trying to teach them object lessons. There’s a great story along those lines that Jim Belushi tells about Del Close, the improv teacher: Jim went up to Del once, when he was a young actor, and he said, “Del, I want you to know that I really, really trust you.” And Del kneed him in the balls, really hard, and asked, “You still trust me?” Bill was always teaching people lessons like that. If he perceived someone as being too self-important or corrupt in some way that he couldn’t stomach, it was his job to straighten them out.

Do you think he judged you as corrupt?
I have no clue. And because it’s unstated, it sends me to my worst fears: Did he think I was weak? Or untrue? Did I betray him in some way? With no clue or feedback from him, it’s this kind of tantalizing mystery. And that may be the point.

To leave you…
Baffled.

Let’s round out the Big Four: Caddyshack.
I can barely watch it. All I see are a bunch of compromises and things that could have been better. Like, it bothers me that nobody except Michael O’Keefe can swing a golf club. A movie about golf with the worst bunch of golf swings you’ve ever seen! It doesn’t bother golfers, though.

There are a lot of people who say that your best movie is the first half of Stripes—before everybody goes to Czechoslovakia in the supercamper.
That was just Ivan grinding his anti-Communist ax. His family were Czech refugees.

I think there’s a good case to be made that your Jewfro in that movie is directly responsible for Seth Rogen’s entire career.
Columbia Pictures didn’t want me. Ivan told them, “Forget it. He’s in.” I look at Andy Samberg now and think he would have been that guy today. I hear people describe that character as a nerd, but he wasn’t a nerd at all. He was a cool guy! I got Sean Young in that movie!

As a kid, I found it shocking how casually you guys went to the army and joined up.
You know, I heard enlistments went up like 10 percent after that movie came out.

And you had been a draft dodger, right?
Part of me wanted to go. I had this War and Peace thing of wanting to experience war as a kind of incredible human enterprise. I even applied to Officer Candidate School. Then the practical side of me kicked in and I thought, I really don’t want to get drafted. So I went down to the physical and checked every psychological disorder and drug on the medical-history form. There were these long lines of people in their underwear, handing their forms to the clerk. He glanced at mine and said, “Jeez. I guess you’re going to be fighting this one on the home front.” Of course, I’d also taken the precaution of taking a massive dose of methamphetamine before I went.

Why didn’t everybody do that?
Well, in Greenwich Village everybody did do that. In St. Louis, I was pretty outlandish. I don’t think the psychiatrist had ever talked to anybody like me. He asked me, “What drugs do you take?” I said, “Well, marijuana, LSD, peyote, MDA, DMT, methamphetamine, dioxin, Ritalin…” I just named every drug I could think of. His final question was, “Do you think you’d be happy in the military?” And I said, “I don’t think so. Sorry.”

I have trouble imagining you as a hippie. Weren’t you a little cynical for Haight-Ashbury?
I was out there in 1966, but then I came back to St. Louis. I ended up working in a locked psychiatric ward at the Jewish Hospital of St. Louis. Half the patients were depressed women who would come in for a tune-up because their families didn’t know what to do with them. Then there were full-blown psychotics. It helped me learn the difference between what’s really crazy and what’s just antisocial or bizarre. Throughout college I had this ideal—I’m not sure who said it—”Nothing human offends me.” That becomes real in a psych ward. You know, “Okay, that person has just shit in their hand and is now painting the walls with it. He’s probably upset about something.” So the next time you see someone shit in their hand, you’re not that surprised.

Sounds like good training for working with comedians.
Well, there’s a chicken-and-egg aspect to it. I might have been suited to that job because I have an amazing tolerance for outlandish behavior, and an interest in it. But yeah, I think I was well equipped to deal with actors, especially the ones who feel the need to act out in antisocial ways. We’re fond in this business of talking about the horror shows, but a guy like Greg Daniels, who runs The Office, is as reasonable and even-tempered as anyone you’ll ever work with. There are a lot of good people who are essentially healthy.

So why do you work with the crazy ones?
It’s not always by choice. There was a moment when we were casting Groundhog Day when Bill Murray was not at the top of my list. He’d been getting crankier and crankier. By the end of Ghostbusters II, he was pretty cranky. I thought, Do I want to put up with this for twelve weeks?

Who else did you have in mind?
I offered it to Tom Hanks, who I thought would be a pleasure to work with. After the film came out, Hanks said, “It’s lucky I didn’t do it—the audience already sees me as a nice guy. They would have been waiting for me to make that turn throughout the whole movie.” It would have been obvious. While with Bill, you never know.

Do you buy the idea that Groundhog Day is your masterpiece?
I buy that it’s the most meaningful film. And the best crafted in certain ways. It was the original script by Danny Rubin that sold me. My development partner had told me the premise, and I said, “Eh, sounds formulaic.” About a week later, he called and said, “You have to read this thing.” So I did, and I got teary-eyed at a certain point. I thought it was like an It’s a Wonderful Life for our generation.

It’s become a kind of spiritual touchstone for many people.
That was intentional. I’ve had people say to me, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that movie. It’s more than just a comedy.” I don’t want to be patronizing to them, but you know, it’s all in there. It takes some people a while to come to it. It’s really been embraced by the Buddhist community.

You’ve spent some time with the Dalai Lama. What’s he like?
He’s cool. He’s jolly. The funny thing is that when I first met him, the Tibetans were all familiar with Groundhog Day, but they didn’t understand the Dalai Lama speech in Caddyshack. They’re like, “The Dalai Lama does not play golf.” I said, “I know, I know. But if he did…

Does it bug you that people always want to talk about your older movies?
Well, Groundhog Day came midcareer. Analyze This was very successful. As long as I keep producing a movie that’s popular every once in a while, I’m doing okay. The past has served me really well. I get respect from people one and two generations younger than me. When Michael Cera showed up for the Year One table read, he was carrying a Ghostbusters wallet.

Well, Ghostbusters had to be the biggest phenomenon of your career. Not just because it made $200 million, but also because of the lunchboxes, the trading cards…the wallets. It was Aykroyd’s idea, right?
Dan created it for himself and Belushi, before John died. He was always very interested in parapsychology. He claimed there were psychics in his family going way back. And I loved the idea, because my ex-wife was also a believer. I’d been on the receiving end of this stuff for eighteen years; I’d been to readings of all kinds, had my aura read, my coffee grounds read, my chart done…

The thing that got me was how deadpan the premise was: “Okay, these guys are Ghostbusters. It’s their job. So they’ll need to get uniforms, find a place to work, advertise,” and so on.
In Dan’s original script, the Ghostbusters already existed as a large company. Our Ghostbusters were just one of many units of Ghostbusters out there. Ivan and I had the same instinct: We wanted to know how they got started. We were missing the moment when people first make contact with the other side and how that feels. Otherwise it’s just an increasingly bizarre set of paranormal circumstances that people can’t track at all. It really doesn’t matter who Shandor is. All that’s just mumbo jumbo.

Were you guys still a fun threesome at that point?
Oh yeah. Dan and I rewrote the whole script together, and we got Bill’s contributions on the fly. It was tremendous fun running around New York City in those suits, because everybody in New York loves Bill and Dan from Saturday Night Live. People would cheer; restaurants would stay open after hours for us. And even if they couldn’t see who we were, they were seeing this ambulance with the logo on it.

In Muppet terms, I was thinking that Belushi was Animal, Murray was Gonzo, and you were probably Kermit. But who was Aykroyd?
Ernie.

Wow. That’s exactly right.
Dan’s like an alien. He’s a chameleon. The Canadian tradition is a strange blend of American and British. The British tend to bury themselves in every role. Dan likes to do that—bury himself in extreme characters. Our breakdown in Ghostbusters was that I was the brains, Dan was the heart, and Bill was the mouth.

What’s he like offscreen?
Oh, Dan’s got a commanding presence. A big voice: “Wine! We need wine!” He makes sure that everyone is comfortable, everyone’s fed. He’s really magnificent.

I just watched Ghostbusters II, and I have to say there were more funny lines in there than I remembered.
My idea was that negative human energy collects under big cities and has explosive potential on a psychic level. So people would have to be nice to each other. I thought that was a big satirical idea. No slime involved; that was all Ivan. And then I wanted the Statue of Liberty to be inhabited by the evil spirit, so that they’d have to destroy it. My image—how socialist is this?—was that the Statue of Liberty ends up lying on Wall Street with her skirt up over her knees. A Marxist comedy!

I think we were all relieved to hear that Ernie Hudson is on board with Ghostbusters III. Are you concerned about doing another sequel?
It does feel a little like tempting fate. Someone got the idea that Seth Rogen was involved and asked him about it in an interview. He said, “That would have to be one motherfucking good script.” And I think he’s kind of correct.

Do you think you’ve been ambitious enough in your career?
I’m always just doing the next best idea that comes along. I’m not the most energetic guy in the world, but it has to be an idea that I can invest in philosophically and morally and spiritually and politically. Name any of my films: To me, each one represents a whole huge area of human concern and behavior. Like Stuart Saves His Family allowed me to say everything I ever wanted to say about addiction and co-dependence.

Is that really true for every movie? What about Multiplicity?
Multiplicity is about the divided self—the way we have an inner child, an inner feminine side, and so on. And how sometimes those sides are at odds.

Bedazzled?
Bedazzled is about living in a culture where most people walk around wishing their lives were different, and wishing for the usual things: money, women, good looks, superintelligence. And how those things don’t, in fact, make us happy.

Vacation?
It was an attempt at defining the dilemma of the American dad. John Hughes is a specialist in adolescence and puberty, so he had written the story from the point of view of the 13-year-old boy. I was much more interested in the father, the guy who wants to be a good dad, wants to be a good husband, but only has two weeks a year to do it. And then there’s Christie Brinkley.

I’ve heard you divide your career into the early “institutional comedies,” about man’s relationship to institutions, and the later “self-help comedies,” about man’s relationship to himself—and that’s very much a kind of baby-boomer progression. Is Year One the start of a new group?
There’s a religious thing that happens to people later in life, looking at the downslope toward the inevitable end. It’s a more natural question when you’re 50—”What’s it all about?”—than it is at 20. When you’re 20, you know what it’s all about. So Jack Black plays a character who believes that he is chosen, that there’s a divine force that guides his every move and every circumstance, and that everything is happening for a reason. Michael represents a completely existential view: that life is meaningless and completely accidental. I’ve described it as a secular-humanist Torah.

Heavy.
The idea started to come together for me after 9/11, looking at the rise of fundamentalism around the world. My thinking was you can’t go after Islam or Judaism or Christianity and expect to survive, but nobody cares if you go after a pagan religion. I mean, there’s a little Judaism in the movie, because, as a Jew, I know Jews can take a joke. They may hate it, but they won’t kill me. Go after Muhammad and you’d have a fatwa in a second.

There are also penis jokes, right?
Oh, this movie has some of the crudest jokes I’ve ever written. Literal shit-eating. I’m a little afraid there are too many dick jokes.

That’s something you’ve been tagged with: being the godfather of gross-out comedy.
I’ve always thought that the generation of movies that followed Animal House sort of mistook the style for the content. Like I think the Farrelly brothers are more Porky’s than Animal House. [Animal House co-writer] Doug Kenney used to say this great thing: “Broad comedy doesn’t have to be dumb comedy.”

Doing a Baby-Ruth-in-the-pool gag doesn’t undermine that?
Not at all. That was based on something that really happened at a country club that Doug Kenney or Brian Doyle-Murray heard about. I thought it was really original. Being intelligent doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily quoting Shakespeare all the time. I mean, Carl Spackler, the groundskeeper: He’s clearly damaged in some way, but he’s not dumb. His dialogue is as clever and inventive as any in the movie, really. To write even dumb or crude characters in a smart way, that’s the goal.

You’re a big Philip Roth fan. Are there any of his novels you’d like to make into a film?
The problem with Roth is that his books are existential and ambiguous, and American movie audiences hate ambiguity. They want moralistic results. And I’m not sure I can handle the ambiguity, as an artist. I’m not sure I know how to make those kinds of movies. Which is why I’ve chickened out every time.

Is that how you see it? Chickening out?
Yeah. I mean, the thing about comedy is that the audience points you toward what works: They laugh or they don’t. In drama I’m not sure that I know the mechanisms. I don’t know how to fix things or make them work better. Nor have I surrounded myself with people who know how to do that stuff. The problem with movies is that it’s hard to make a small movie. So it would be an enormous amount of time and resources to devote to a learning experience.

The Apatow crew must look up to you like a god.
When people use the g words—god or genius—it’s nice, but I’d be insane to believe it. Sometimes they do go into awestruck mode. There’s a tendency to start telling stories from ancient times. I’ll be in the middle of some fucking Animal House anecdote and think, “Can they possibly want to hear this?” It reminds me of shooting Club Paradise, the movie I did in Jamaica with Robin Williams, Peter O’Toole, and Jimmy Cliff. We shot two weeks of nights, which are really hard and tiring. On the last night, just as the sun came up, Brian Doyle-Murray and I were getting ready to go home, and O’Toole, totally uncharacteristically, says, “Boys, let’s not rush off like we hate our work. Come to my dressing room!” So now it’s 6:30 a.m., we’re hanging out in his dressing room. We’ve been up for twenty-four hours, and O’Toole is talking about the beginning of his career, the plays he did as a student. Maybe I glanced at my watch, because he suddenly looked at us and said, “Oh God. I’m an old movie queen, aren’t I?”

I have to say that this generation of comedians seems disappointingly well-adjusted.
The first time I worked with Jack Black, I thought he was a healthy John Belushi.

Is that an oxymoron?
A healthy Belushi? Maybe. John was walking the edge and fell off. He was pulled out of a burning bed twice. I mean, how’s that for a sign? After the first time, you might think, Okay, maybe I should slow down a little, cut back.

But it’s a serious question: Do you need to be fucked-up to be funny?
I read an article many years ago about kids who, for whatever reason, see the world as crazy—they could have crazy parents, an abusive priest, some other awful circumstance. Some kids will blame themselves. They’ll say, “I know the priest is good. He’s a man of God. So what he’s doing is good, and I must be wrong.” But the other child, the Absurd Child, will say, “No, I’m not crazy. The world is fucking nuts. My parents are insane. That priest is crazy.” And that’s the beginning of the comic perspective.

Was there ever a point where you had dysfunction envy? Ever worry that you weren’t screwed up enough?
I’m not sure. I worked so much with Rodney Dangerfield, I really got to know a lot about his life and how true his comic posture was—the miserable childhood and all that. And I thought, Maybe my life was too good to have that kind of comic persona. What could my act be? “I get too much respect”? And then I’d say all these good things that happened to me? Who wants to hear that?

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