Harold Ramis passed yesterday. I suspect his personal impact can be categorized as generational effects. Depending on when he and his oeuvre entered your life, you will hold him in different regard. He went through phases like any artist, and that shifted his place in the cultural landscape to match his metamorphoses. Nothing, though, can erode away his meaning in my life.
Ramis’ early career was impressively irreverent. He produced work that only a very particular sect of the public would appreciate. Fortunately for us, that tiny contingent would come to forge much of what we appreciate as humor today. He worked with John Belushi and Bill Murray on The National Lampoon Radio Hour; he starred in The National Lampoon Show with Joe Flaherty, Gilda Radner, and Christopher Guest; and became head writer for SCTV in its first three years.
This is the stuff your parents watched and talked about at length while their parents scolded them for mushing their brains with such garbage. This is the stuff future legends would study and imitate for years to come, the first scholarly texts of modern comedy. Ramis and his fellow collaborators were building pantheons and they didn’t even notice the pillars rising up around them.
And then he got into the full swing of his astounding career. In the span of ten short years from 1979 to 1989, he cranked out Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and both Ghostsbusters. Do you know how some movies or songs or events graft themselves onto the DNA of society? Things like the Thriller dance or the “wardrobe malfunction” or Sail Cat. All of those films will be things I force my progeny to watch hours out of the hospital, let alone the womb.
Then he topped it off with Groundhog Day in 1993, the project which many have and will probably continue to call his greatest work. I’m inclined to agree; it certainly shows to greatest effect his directing and writing calling cards. The United States National Film Registry even mustered up the time to label it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
But Ghostbusters. My gosh Ghostbusters. In my severe youth, I held few things to be true that couldn’t be validated by touch, sight, or sound. (I was highly pragmatic. Surprise!) In fact, I can enumerate them here for you now: 1) The Force exists, 2) the laughing-floating bit from Mary Poppins is 100% accurate, and 3) ghosts are real.
All three were an extreme nuisance to my parents. I can only imagine how perplexed they were at their son and daughter trying to laugh themselves into defying physics and focusing their minds into levitating candy into their mouths. And the ghosts thing can be wholly blamed on Ramis and his busting of specters.
Two of those loves persist. I quote at least once daily a Star Wars film. I even dressed up for a recent Halloween as a Jedi, logging my fourth homemade lightsaber.
But Ghostbusters is something else. At various points in my life, I identified with different characters in the film. Peter Venkman was the obvious frontman. Charming, funny, effortlessly successful with women. (So perhaps it wasn’t identification so much as it was jealousy.)
Then you find yourself always a fish out of water like Winston. Or perpetually overwhelmed like Ray. Sometimes you’re hopeless while hopelessly optimistic like Louis Tully.
Lately it’s been a lot of Ramis’ own character, though. Egon Spengler. He was, to put it succinctly, a nerd. More than that, he was the nerd among a group of ghosthunting nerds. Do you remember the scene from Ghostbusters II where they come barging into a restaurant covered in slime, wearing nothing but their underwear while Venkman and Dana are on a date? There’s nothing nerdier than giving up social graces to pursue a passion.
That is exactly what Ego represents. More than that, it’s what Ramis represents. He is famously quoted as saying, “My characters aren’t losers. They’re rebels. They win by their refusal to play by everyone else’s rules.”
I sincerely doubt I would be where I am now—the way I am now—without that sentiment coursing through me by way of Ghostbusters and Caddyshack and Animal House and Meatballs and Stripes and Groundhog Day. It’s not even about being rebels; it’s about being precisely what you want to be and nothing else.
None of his characters changed for anyone else. In every odd, impossible, and outlandish predicament they found themselves in, they did what they knew to do: be themselves. Groundhog Day, a film entirely about change, only meant something because Phil Connors wasn’t satisfied with himself, not because anyone else wanted him to be something else.
It’s not about being better or worse. To Ramis, it’s about being exactly one thing: you. And even in his late career where you might only tangentially know him from directing Analyze That or Year One, that message has blossomed into a global-sized crater. His comedy? Obviously important. But his insistence that you believe in yourself and do what you know to be right. That’s his real legacy.
We’re not rebels. We’re not outcasts. We’re just…us.