May 9, 2004 | home
How Harold Ramis’s movies have stayed funny for twenty-five years.
Issue of 2004-04-19 and 26
The lives of many young comedy writers and directors are divided into two parts. There is childhood, ruled by bland Hollywood comedies such as “The Goodbye Girl” and “Oh God!” And then there is the glorious, unruly adolescence of the person they became after seeing a film that spoke to them in ways their parents didn’t—a film that moved them to emulation. For Jay Roach, the director of the Austin Powers films, that movie was “Groundhog Day,” in 1993. For Jake Kasdan, the director of “Orange County,” it was “Stripes,” in 1981, and, even more powerfully, “Ghostbusters,” in 1984. For Adam Sandler, it was “Caddyshack,” in 1980. And for Peter Farrelly, who directed “There’s Something About Mary” with his brother Bobby, it was “Animal House,” in 1978.
These comedies have several things in common. They attack the smugness of institutional life, trashing the fraternity system, country clubs, the Army—even local weathermen—with an impish good will that is unmistakably American. Will Rogers would have made films like these, if Will Rogers had lived through Vietnam and Watergate and decided that the only logical course of action was getting wasted or getting laid or—better—both. In “Caddyshack,” the teen-aged caddy, Danny, asks his club’s best golfer, Ty Webb (Chevy Chase), for advice about life. Webb frowns thoughtfully:
Another thing these films have in common is that they were all directed and/or co-written by Harold Ramis. Ramis also acted in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters” and directed the movies “Vacation” and “Analyze This.” Anyone who saw these films as a teen-ager can probably still quote from one of Ramis’s signature tongue-in-cheek pep talks, which resemble John F. Kennedy’s “Ask Not” speech turned inside out. In “Stripes,” for instance, Bill Murray exhorts his fellow-soldiers by yelling, “We’re not Watusi, we’re not Spartans—we’re Americans! . . . That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We’re the underdog. We’re mutts. Here’s proof.” He touches a soldier’s face. “His nose is cold.”
Ramis was one of the first of the new generation of comic voices to come out of the Second City improv troupe in Chicago, which trained Murray, John Belushi, Chris Farley, and Mike Myers, among many others, in the sketch-driven style that has come to dominate modern comedy. “Sloppiness is a key part of improv,” the screenwriter Dennis Klein told me. “And Harold brought that to Hollywood, rescuing comedies from their smooth, polite perfection.” The secret of American commercial success is to hijack a subculture and ransom it to the mainstream. What Elvis did for rock and Eminem did for rap, Harold Ramis did for attitude: he mass-marketed the sixties to the seventies and eighties. He took his generation’s anger and curiosity and laziness and woolly idealism and gave it a hyper-articulate voice. He wised it up.
“Animal House,” which is set at Faber College in 1962, broke all box-office records for comedies, earning a hundred and forty-one million dollars. The film’s humor was raunchy for its day: the oddballs of Delta House drink and loaf and chase girls, living a male adolescent’s dream of college life. But what really engaged the audience was the antagonism between the frat and the dean. Dean Wormer, a sneaky and paranoid character, is clearly a Nixon figure, and by opposing him the Deltas came to seem like the moral equivalents of Daniel Ellsberg or John Lennon. They weren’t, of course. After the Delta leaders, Otter and Boon, have destroyed their young fraternity brother’s car on a road trip, Otter throws his arm around him and explains, “You fucked up. You trusted us.” When Ramis was writing dialogue for Otter and Boon, whose irony and worldliness set them apart from the others, he had himself and a college friend in mind, and it’s Otter (played by Tim Matheson) who delivers the requisite nonsense speech when the fraternity is hauled before the disciplinary council: “You can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few sick, perverted individuals. For, if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And, if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this . . . an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do what you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you bad-mouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!”
“Animal House” made wise-ass hedonism seem political; “Caddyshack” made it seem mandatory. When Judge Smails (Ted Knight), the Waspy leader of Bushwood Country Club, lectures the caddy about mending his ways, his sanctimony almost compels disobedience: “Danny, Danny, there’s a lot of, well, badness in the world today. I see it in court every day—I’ve sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn’t want to do it—I felt I owed it to them. The most important decision you can make right now is, What do you stand for, Danny: goodness, or badness?”
Bad is usually good in Ramis’s films, if only because good is so obviously bad. In “Groundhog Day,” Ramis’s masterpiece, a jaded Pittsburgh weatherman named Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is forced to repeat Groundhog Day over and over again in the tiny town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. At one point, he devises numerous ways to kill himself:
The director Jay Roach says that the six films Murray and Ramis made together define a level of achievement he calls “extreme comedy.” “You would watch people in the audience just lose their minds,” he told me. “Harold Ramis is the yardstick of what you want to reach for, of people’s bodies around you going into convulsions of joy while your brain is thinking and your emotions are deeply tied in to the characters, and you’re going, ‘Oh my God, This is the best two hours I’ve ever spent.’”
One morning in late February, the producers of a film called “The Ice Harvest” gathered in the banquet room of Forty One North, a restaurant in Northbrook, Illinois, for their first pre-production meeting. Harold Ramis arrived early, wearing his standard uniform (titanium-rimmed spectacles, an untucked long-sleeved black T-shirt, and black pants) and his standard expression (the therapist scanning his waiting room). Ramis’s line producer, Tom Busch, greeted him with a warning: “The schedule has us starting to shoot on April 5th, which is the first day of Passover.”
“There is no evidence that Exodus happened in the spring,” Ramis replied. “It’s totally arbitrary.” Leaving Busch looking blank, Ramis moved to the buffet and piled his plate with lox. He loves to eat, and in recent years his gangly six-foot-two-inch frame has filled out, catching up to his size-14 feet.
Focus Features had finally greenlighted the film the day before, after six weeks of haggling with actors’ agents over the lean fourteen-million-dollar budget. The “Ice Harvest” script, adapted by Robert Benton and Richard Russo from Scott Phillips’s novel, is about a lawyer named Charlie who just stole two million dollars from his boss. The action takes place on Christmas Eve as Charlie, who is trying to skip town, gets trapped by a snowstorm, old relationships, and a series of double crosses. Although the film is set in Wichita, it would be shot in Chicago’s northern suburbs, close to Ramis’s house, in Glencoe, which he shares with his wife, Erica, and their two sons. Ramis loved the material and had agreed to cut his regular directing fee—five million dollars—by more than eighty per cent. This would be his first directing job in two years, and his first attempt to make a comic film noir. John Cusack had signed on as Charlie, with Billy Bob Thornton in a supporting role.
Ramis had also been weighing an opportunity to direct “The Dinner Party,” a comic remake of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” starring Bernie Mac as the disapproving father. “Interracial couple, big issues, and it would be my full fee,” Ramis said. “Ashton Kutcher is in,” he later told me dryly. “So that’s a relief.” But he turned the film down. “It’s too Disney. It would need a page-one rewrite to get at the real issues.” He went on, “I have no trouble selling out—I’m a benevolent hack, in a certain way—but I want to pander for something I believe in.”
Ramis was born in 1944, two years before the official commencement of the baby boom, and he has always been just the right age for whatever was starting to happen in the culture: he grew his hair long when the Beatles did, in 1964; moved back to Chicago just in time to witness the riots at the Democratic Convention, in 1968; joined Second City as it was being transformed from a bunch of guys in skinny ties trading arch banter about psychoanalysis into a no-holds-barred freak-fest; became the first head writer of Second City’s cultish syndicated show, “SCTV”; then, in 1978, he brought that style of irreverence to Hollywood. After becoming financially successful, in the eighties, Ramis began, in the L.A. way, to look inward: he tried couples therapy, family therapy, parenting therapy, past-lives therapy, and personal therapy; he divorced and remarried; he lost forty pounds on a liquid-protein diet and then regained it and more; he joined a men’s group—the Road Kill Men’s Council—and became something of a Buddhist. In all, he has resisted the claims of late middle age. When Violet, his daughter from his first marriage, gave birth recently, Ramis declared that he wished to be addressed not as Grandpa but as GrandDude.
At the restaurant, Ramis was joined by a half-dozen executives and producers. Ramis told me that he visualizes meetings in advance, planning how he wants them to go, and often speaks last, synthesizing the best remarks. “Harold’s too secure and wealthy not to be open to good ideas,” Amy Pascal, the chairman of Sony’s Motion Picture Group, says. He has always taken the long view: when he was sent to the principal’s office on the first day of first grade for chewing gum, he remembers thinking, Well, there goes college.
At this meeting, Ramis spoke first. “All the delay means that we won’t have snow for a film set on a snowy Christmas Eve,” he said. “So I was picturing a credit sequence that starts on a crèche, and a raindrop hits the baby, and then more rain, then you cut to a Santa ringing his bell and holding an umbrella, cut to a frozen wreath, and you’re getting the idea of a really soggy and depressing Christmas.”
“So if it’s rain, you’re thinking of a different title?” a producer asked.
“If there’s no ice, it’s hard to call the film ‘The Ice Harvest,’” Ramis said. “I was thinking of ‘Nothing Like Christmas.’” There was a silence, and Ramis appeared to consider whether it was worth explaining the double meaning—both a nod to and a sardonic distancing from the holiday—but then he shrugged.
A Focus vice-president cautiously mentioned another issue. “We’ve talked with John”—Cusack—“and he has a concern with the ending.” In the script, Charlie finally gets away with the money, and then is run over by an R.V.
“Everyone feels that if Charlie dies it’s like the punch line to a shaggy-dog story, and if he lives it shouldn’t be redemptive—he should lose the money,” Ramis said. (He had told me earlier, “My instinct is to shoot both ways, and, if one is not demonstrably better, to test both. The cosmic fuck-you of him dying works intellectually, but John Cusack is very appealing, so you’re not going to want him to die. I’d better be covered.”) Ramis continued, “In general, John feels that Charlie seems a little reactive and weak, and he thinks that Charlie’s relationship with Renata”—the female lead—“seems mysterious, and that he should have a private, intimate moment with her earlier in the film. These all seem not unreasonable.” Cusack’s notes were, in fact, entirely foreseeable: stars always want to look as active and funny and sexy as possible.
As a director, Ramis isn’t known for adventurous camerawork. Rather, he has a natural ability to make actors funnier. Although never a star himself, he creates and burnishes stars, imbuing them with confidence. Coming from a background in improv, he views a screenplay as just a set of notes toward a performance. When he was preparing to direct the 1999 comedy “Analyze This,” about a neurotic Mob boss (Robert De Niro) who invades the life of a therapist (Billy Crystal), Ramis told De Niro that his character was motivated by “anxiety, rage, grief, and guilt.”
He gave Billy Crystal different notes. “Bob and I were trains coming from totally different tracks,” Crystal says. “There were times when I thought the film was becoming too gangstery, and times when Bob thought it was too funny. We were like pit bulls on Harold’s pant leg.”
De Niro says, “Harold was good at saying yes to me, and yes to Billy, and yes to Jane and yes to Paula”—the film’s producers—“and then figuring out what he wanted to do.”
Ultimately, though, Ramis ended up sharing Crystal’s view. He told me, “You have to decide who you’re making the movie for, and that’s . . .” He paused, considering. “I don’t want to say the lowest common denominator, but the biggest audience you can get. I’ve had a lot of people tell me they loved ‘Analyze This’ until Billy Crystal does shtick pretending to be a mobster”—all improvised—“and that’s where we lost them. If the audience is divided, I have to cast the winning vote, and it’s always been comedy first with me, even at the expense of story or continuity.” He believes in testing a film with preview audiences, cutting bits that don’t score well, and devising “scene enhancements”—reshoots—to plug the resulting holes.
Ramis admits to having had misgivings about a sequence he cut from his 2000 film “Bedazzled,” a mediocrity in the Ramis canon. Preview audiences rejected the bit, in which Brendan Fraser, playing a nerd who is given seven wishes by the Devil, wishes he were a rock star. “Brendan thought it was his best work; he cried when we cut it,” Ramis said, cuing up the scene for me on his office television. We watched Fraser being idolized onstage, staggering around backstage and nuzzling his extremely stoned girlfriend, and finally vomiting on his drummer. Ramis looked on, without expression. “Not funny!” he said, when it was over. “Interesting. It’s awful!” He seemed strangely pleased: the scene’s wretchedness reaffirmed his faith in the audience.
One afternoon, Ramis and I went to visit his eighty-eight-year-old father, Nate, who lives in an apartment in Northbrook, fifteen minutes away from his son. Sitting erect in an armchair, Nate Ramis said, “I like to tell jokes, to balance my insecurity.” He added, “I don’t think Harold has any insecurities.” Ramis, who was paging through one of the fifteen scrapbooks that his father has devoted to him, cleared his throat softly—his father is quite hard of hearing—and rolled his eyes.
Nate and his wife, Ruth, who died a few years ago, ran a store called the Ace Food & Liquor Mart, on the West Side of Chicago. Nate said that Harold was never the rebellious sort. “We always got along great,” he said. “We had a ten-inch Philco set, and I’d sit on the chair and the two boys would sit on the arms, and we’d watch the Marx Brothers.” He thought for a moment. “I’ve never seen Harold’s anger. Never.”
“Not that they’d know,” Ramis murmured. In fact, Ramis conducts secret vendettas against inanimate objects that don’t obey him—“Fucking shirt!”—and is prone to road rage.
“He was head and shoulders above me in terms of success and accomplishment,” Nate continued. Ramis kept quiet, for once, acknowledging his masterliness. He completes the Sunday Times crossword in twenty minutes and beats the computer at Scrabble; is a skilled fencer and ritual drummer (his living room is filled with djembes, dunduns, congas, and tomtoms); plays a set of eight songs a day on his acoustic guitar; can tie a monkey-fist knot; speaks Greek to the owners of his local coffee shop; taught himself to ski by watching skiers on TV; makes his own hats out of felted fleece; and is prepared, and even eager, should the occasion arise, to perform an emergency tracheotomy.
“I have this need to keep impressing people—and myself,” Ramis told me. “‘God, he can play the guitar and wield a sword!’” He chuckled, a mournful “eh, heh.” “I always wanted to experience everything—to be a millionaire by the time I was forty, to be Cary Grant and Errol Flynn, to conquer every woman and have her fall in love with me, to be President, to succeed in every conceivable way that our society has to offer.” He delights in being recognized, a form of attention that has only increased since 1996, when he moved back to Chicago’s North Shore from Brentwood to be near his aging parents. “In Los Angeles, Steven Spielberg walks in and you’re nothing,” Ramis says. “Here, there’s nobody better than me. There’s a few Bulls around, and the Cusacks, but, basically, I’m it!”
At the age of seven, Ramis began working in the family store on weekends, and he and his older brother used their bar-mitzvah money to buy their parents new wall-to-wall carpeting. Though he listed his life ambition in his high-school yearbook as “neurosurgeon,” as an undergraduate at Washington University in St. Louis he shunned organic chemistry and began writing parodic plays. “In my heart, I felt I was a combination of Groucho and Harpo,” Ramis says, “of Groucho using his wit as a weapon against the upper classes, and of Harpo’s antic charm and the fact that he was oddly sexy—he grabs women, pulls their skirts off, and gets away with it.”
After college, Ramis avoided service in Vietnam by checking every box on the Army’s medical-history form, claiming to suffer from conditions ranging from night sweats and bed-wetting to homosexuality. Having escaped the war abroad, he married Anne Plotkin, an artist he’d met in San Francisco. He was twenty-two and quite unprepared for domestic drama. Anne would do things like fly to Bulgaria on a whim to find a Bulgarian psychic to teach them French, or slap Ramis just to gauge his reaction. She likes to recall the time a soap bubble from the sink glistened on their wall for three miraculous days. She told me, “I consider that one of the high points of our marriage.”
In 1969, after they moved to Chicago, Ramis was chosen for the cast of the Second City theatre. One of the theatre’s precepts was “Always work from the top of your intelligence,” and Ramis felt right at home. Then, one evening the following year, he and his wife dropped acid. “I remember seeing Harold as an amoeba, this amoeba with big ideas,” Anne Ramis recalled. “I was having a really bad trip.” Ramis called a local clown named Corky, who had a sideline in LSD rescue, and Corky suggested making Anne drink maple syrup. Giddy with sugar, Anne decided that she and Harold should move to the Greek island of Hydra. Ramis marched straight to Lincoln Park, where Bernie Sahlins, the co-founder of Second City, walked his terriers every morning at dawn. When Sahlins arrived, Ramis told him he was going to leave Second City. “It embarrasses me to go out there every night begging for the audience’s approval,” he said. “I don’t want to vest my self-esteem in the approval of strangers.”
“Well, you can leave,” Sahlins said, “but I think you’ll find that those feelings have nothing to do with the theatre.”
When he was younger, Ramis envisioned himself playing Gary Cooper parts: strong, silent leading men. Instead, his most recent role, in 2002, was a cameo in “Orange County,” as a dean of admissions, a cranky figure who turns wide-eyed and cuddly after accidentally ingesting three hits of Ecstasy. The script called for the drugged dean to offer to perform oral sex on a prospective student, but Ramis wanted the scene rewritten so that he just kisses the boy: “I didn’t want to be walking down the street and have school buses of kids rolling by and shouting, ‘Hey, Blow-Job Guy!’”
When Ramis returned to Second City, in 1972, he had been replaced in the cast by John Belushi. “Harold would never make a fool of himself onstage—he was too smart,” Betty Thomas, the director and Second City alumna, said. “But making a fool of himself was exactly what John went for.”
“It was like, I’m not the zany, the stoned hippie crazy guy anymore. John is, and he’s crazier than I am—he’s totally inhabiting these characters,” Ramis said. “In the midst of a scene, John would come out with something like ‘Eat a bowl of fuck.’”
In 1974, Belushi, who loved having Ramis as his deadpan foil, brought him—and several other Second City actors, including Bill Murray—to New York to work on “The National Lampoon Radio Hour” and “The National Lampoon Show.” Ramis slowly came to accept his role as the whetstone. “As a person of intellect, I could complement John or Bill, who were people of instinct; I could help guide and deploy that instinct,” he says. Even now, Martin Short told me, if someone in a group of comedians cracks a joke, “everyone skirts their eyes over to Harold first, to see if he laughs.”
As Belushi and other Second City actors were becoming famous on “Saturday Night Live,” Ramis began writing what would become “National Lampoon’s Animal House” with Doug Kenney, one of the founders of National Lampoon. (A third writer, Chris Miller, soon joined them.) They were paid ten thousand dollars each and wrote eight hours a day for three months. Ramis took the lead in constructing the script, but its tone owed a lot to Kenney, a sarcastic Harvard graduate who became Ramis’s constant companion. “Doug was the Wasp me, the me with alcoholism thrown in,” Ramis says. “He used to say that ‘just because something’s popular doesn’t mean it’s bad,’ which I really took to heart, because my stance had always been that people are idiots and sheep. Our other motto was ‘Broad comedy is not necessarily dumb comedy.’ Doug envisioned ‘Animal House’ and, later, ‘Caddyshack’ as edgy, adult Disney films. He understood that if you make it look like Disney and feel like Disney, and then inject a much edgier message, you have a way of reaching people without threatening them.”
Crude as “Animal House” was, it was also rambunctiously optimistic. By setting the film in the early sixties, the writers tapped the source of their earliest ideals. “Our generation’s revolutionary energy had slipped away after Kent State and the rise of the violent fringe of the Weather Underground,” Ramis says. “We revived it.” They revived it by making their obvious outsiders into not so obvious insiders. “Woody Allen had defined the American nebbish as a loser,” Ramis adds. “But we felt instinctively that our outsiders weren’t losers. They may not achieve anything in the traditional sense—they may not even be smart—but they’re countercultural heroes. The movie went on after the credits to tell you that these were your future leaders, while the guys from the ‘good’ frat would be raped in prison and fragged by their own troops.”
Ramis describes Doug Kenney as the only person he knew who would hit the accelerator if he saw a car crossing his path. When they wrote “Caddyshack” together, along with Bill Murray’s older brother, Brian Doyle-Murray, Kenney was using a lot of cocaine and seemed depressed. In July, 1980, after becoming so hostile at the “Caddyshack” press junket that the film’s publicists asked him to leave, Kenney took a vacation on the Hawaiian island of Kauai and disappeared. When his body was found, under Hanapepe Lookout, a few days later, it was Ramis who delivered the verdict that everyone repeated: “Doug probably fell while he was looking for a place to jump.”
Ramis had always been his circle’s designated driver, the guy who, as Dan Aykroyd says, “after the all-night drunk, announces, ‘That was fun, but now we’ve got to take the cars out of the pool.’” But Ramis couldn’t save John Belushi, either. After Belushi died, of an overdose, in 1982, he was buried on Martha’s Vineyard in a March blizzard. His widow, Judy, asked Ramis to deliver a eulogy at the grave. Trying to make himself heard above the press helicopters circling overhead, Ramis spoke about a Second City bit that featured Belushi as the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, wearing a First World War flying helmet and a tiny pair of wings that would bounce, just so, as he tiptoed across the stage. “That’s a part of John a lot of people never saw, or forgot,” Ramis told the mourners, “and that’s how I’m seeing him now, that wonderful delicacy of spirit.”
Remembering that day, Ramis’s expression flickered before recomposing itself as he described the funeral’s dénouement: “John’s mother, one of the sourest women I’ve ever met, came up to me at the reception and said, ‘You spoke at the grave.’‘Yes, I did.’ And she went, ‘Ennh.’”
As “The Ice Harvest”’s pre-production meeting continued, Ramis turned to casting the role of Pete, an alcoholic who is married to Charlie’s ex-wife. Ramis reported that John Cusack “likes the names Oliver Platt, Stanley Tucci, and John C. Reilly.” He added, “But I’d like to take one shot at Bill Murray. He’d be great as Pete.” Seeing a circle of doubtful faces, he continued, “And he could also play Gerard”—the jaded boss from whom Charlie embezzles.
“But would he do it for the love of the movie?” a Focus executive wondered, alluding to Murray’s high salary and the film’s tight budget—before adding, politely, “I’m sure you have a personal connection.”
“No,” Ramis said evenly. “I don’t. I don’t even have Bill’s phone number. But I just talked to him eight years ago.” Everyone laughed, and several of the producers began trading stories about Murray’s legendary elusiveness. Ramis, who has plenty of his own stories—Murray is godfather to his daughter—kept silent.
A few days earlier, he’d told me, “I had a dream that Bill was going to be in ‘The Ice Harvest.’ I felt really relieved and confident. In comedy, we’re out there alone, and it turns out I don’t want to work alone—Bill was a tremendous source of strength and protection. If a scene didn’t work, I’d just say, ‘O.K., let’s start lighting,’ and Bill and I would talk for half an hour, and we’d get something great.” The classic “Cinderella story” speech from “Caddyshack” had been written as an interstitial camera shot: Murray’s character, the greenskeeper, was to be “absently lopping the heads off bedded tulips as he practices his golf swing with a grass whip.” Ramis took Murray aside and said, “When you’re playing sports, do you ever just talk to yourself like you’re the announcer?”
Murray said, “Say no more,” and did his monologue in one take. As he lops the flowers in the finished film, he shyly mutters, “What an incredible Cinderella story—this unknown comes out of nowhere to lead the pack at Augusta. . . . Tears in his eyes, I guess. . . . This crowd has gone deathly silent. A Cinderella story, out of nowhere, a former greenskeeper now about to become the Masters champion.” He swings, then follows the flight of the imaginary shot. “It looks like a mirac— It’s in the hole!”
When Ivan Reitman was planning to direct “Stripes,” in 1980, he was working from an undistinguished script written for Cheech and Chong. He wanted Bill Murray as his star, and he knew precisely how to get him. “I thought, Harold is my secret weapon,” Reitman says. “Bill is this great improv player, but he needs Harold, the focussed composer who understands setting a theme and the rules of orchestration. So I told Harold, ‘One, I want you to co-star in my movie, and, two, I want you to rewrite it for two really intelligent guys—you and Bill.’”
Ramis said yes, of course, and so did Murray. Ramis prefers rewriting to facing the blank page, and finds it easier to rewrite a bad script than a good one. “Sometimes I think writers are afraid to invest in what their project is really about,” Ramis says. “I’m often willing to be truer to the original concept than the original writer was.”
A few years later, when Reitman was thinking of directing Dan Aykroyd’s “Ghostbusters” script, he suggested that they ask Ramis to join the cast—and to do a rewrite with Aykroyd that would play to Murray’s strengths. “Harold added the irony, the heart, the romance with Sigourney Weaver, and all the adult writing, as well as the structure,” Aykroyd says. “And he knew which passes to throw Bill, so Bill would look funny throughout.”
At Forty One North, “The Ice Harvest”’s producers tacitly dropped the idea of casting Bill Murray and reached a consensus that John C. Reilly would make a great Pete. “He wants to be gone to first,” an executive said. “I think we lose him if we go to Oliver Platt first, but we don’t lose Oliver if we go to John first.”
“Let’s do that, then,” Ramis said. “And I’ll try Bill for Gerard.”
“Is Bill worth the trouble?” someone asked.
Ramis looked pained. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. But I’d like to take one shot.”
On May 15, 1984, Harold Ramis wrote two words in capital letters on a red index card and taped the card to the inside of a kitchen cabinet in the house that he and Anne shared in Santa Monica. Anne Ramis has preserved the memento in situ, and with a faint smile she opened the cabinet door to show me its message: “new life.”
“That resolution was inspired by a combination of marital discontent and being hung over in some way,” Ramis says. “The image I was cultivating was Last Man Standing, but I realized I felt sick most of the time, that anhedonia had set in, just as it did with Doug near the end.” Ramis left Anne, forswore drugs and, later, cigarettes, and, in 1989, married Erica Mann, his former assistant. Erica and her mother had both spent time at Buddhist retreats, and Ramis began to move in that direction. “I’m Buddh-ish,” he likes to say, acknowledging that he has been unable to divest himself of “sarcasm, cruelty, self-indulgence, and torpor.” He developed a laminated “5 minute Buddhist” card that he hands out, enjoying the joke of presenting the path to salvation—“The Four Sublime States,” “The Five Hindrances”—as if it were a Chinese menu.
When the script for “Groundhog Day,” by a writer named Danny Rubin, came along, in 1991, Ramis was ready for the next phase of his career: the “redemption comedies.” (His later films about a man’s search for meaning include “Multiplicity,” “Analyze This,” and “Bedazzled.”) Rubin’s script about Phil the weatherman was smart and unusual, but his ending was a cosmic irony of a sort that, in Ramis’s experience, audiences dislike: Rita, Phil’s producer and love interest, reveals that she’s trapped in her own endless repetition, and that there’s no existential relief in sight.
About midway through Rubin’s original draft, Phil realizes what he really wants:
PHIL voice over
Ramis made Phil less homiletic and more charmingly hopeful, and had Rita lay out the road map for how Phil needed to change.
By pointing up Phil’s smugness and the way he uses humor to keep people at a distance, Ramis’s rewrite, which brought Bill Murray aboard, turned Phil into a classic comic hero: a man in need of comeuppance. Rubin says, “Harold built it into a three-act studio movie by giving it a very clear arc: ‘This is the worst day of Phil’s life. What would make it even worse? Repeating it every day.’ ”
Phil is ultimately unable to impress Rita with his accomplishments—he learns to play the piano, speak French, and sculpt ice—and wins her over only when he stops trying, when he begins to care about helping other people. The movie became not only a hit but also a touchstone for rabbis, Zen masters, and psychoanalysts.
Offscreen, Ramis and Bill Murray were trapped in a cycle of personal strains. Murray’s marriage was breaking up, and he was behaving erratically—the whirling, unpredictable personality that Dan Aykroyd calls “the Murricane.” Ramis sent Rubin to New York to work with Murray on the script, because he was tired of taking his star’s 2 a.m. calls. Rubin says that when Ramis phoned him to check in, Murray would shake his head and mouth the words “I’m not here.” “They were like two brothers who weren’t getting along,” Rubin says. “And they were pretty far apart on what the movie was about—Bill wanted it to be more philosophical, and Harold kept reminding him it was a comedy.”
“At times, Bill was just really irrationally mean and unavailable; he was constantly late on set,” Ramis says. “What I’d want to say to him is just what we tell our children: ‘You don’t have to throw tantrums to get what you want. Just say what you want.’”
After the film wrapped, Murray stopped speaking to Ramis. Some of the pair’s friends believe that Murray resents how large a role Ramis had in creating the Murray persona. Michael Shamberg, a Hollywood producer who has known Ramis since college and who used to let Murray sleep on his couch, says, “Bill owes everything to Harold, and he probably has a thimbleful of gratitude.”
Except for brief exchanges at a wake and a bar mitzvah, the two men haven’t talked in eleven years. “It’s a huge hole in my life,” Ramis says, “but there are so many pride issues about reaching out. Bill would give you his kidney if you needed it, but he wouldn’t necessarily return your phone calls.”
In early March, Ramis prevailed on Brian Doyle-Murray to ask his brother if he would take part in “The Ice Harvest.” Brian reported that Bill said no, thanks. When Ramis asked if Bill had said anything more, anything personal, Brian said that his brother hadn’t mentioned Ramis at all.
At around the same time, I reached Murray, after several attempts, and told him that I was writing about Ramis and would love to talk to him. “Really?” Murray said. It was hard to tell what he meant by that “really.” He suggested that I call back in a week. When I did, he said, “I’ve thought about it, and I really don’t have anything to say.”
One evening this winter, Ramis and his wife and their sons—Julian, thirteen, and Daniel, nine—were having dinner at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Northbrook.
“How did things go in school?” Ramis asked Daniel, grinning. That morning, when the boy expressed concern that he’d get yelled at for being late, Ramis had said, “If your teacher says anything, you say, ‘You know why I didn’t wear a belt today? So I could get my pants down to make it easier for you to kiss my ass.’” Erica gasped and said, “Oh, Harold!” Ramis explained, “It’s like Viktor Frankl’s idea of paradoxical intention—it’s clear he shouldn’t actually do it, but suggesting it is empowering.” Ramis’s sarcasm, once the epitome of generation-gap-creating behavior, has become a parenting style.
Ramis and Daniel exchanged a few classic jokes. “Then, there’s the two-suppositories joke,” Daniel said.
“Oh, Daniel,” Erica said.
“Go ahead,” Ramis urged. Daniel told it well, tossing off the punch line: “For all the good they did me, I might as well have shoved them up my ass.”
Ramis laughed. “I thought you were going to say ‘butt.’”
“It’s better with ‘ass.’” Ramis glanced at his wife, who was trying to look disapproving, as if to say, “Kid’s got a point.”
Later, in his office, Ramis told me, “It’s a birth-order thing. As the younger son, Daniel needs to win everybody, to be funny, as I did.” I asked him about an observation that the director Jake Kasdan had made to me: that Ramis seems to move through life with a thought bubble over his head that says, “Can you believe we’re getting away with this?” He said, “Part of it is, Hey, we’re in a movie! How cool is this! And then the other joke is the big joke of life, the ultimate irony that none of it means anything, that it’s all ridiculous—whatever we think is important isn’t. We’re standing here on a set talking intensely, like it really matters, we’re spending a zillion dollars, two hundred people are standing around waiting for us, and we’re arguing about what’s the funniest candy bar.”
He chuckled. After a moment, he said, “Sometimes what people perceive as my smile is a grimace of pain. At this point, it’s a mask, like the Joker in ‘Batman.’ My face is a frozen mask.”
Violet Ramis, who is now twenty-seven, seems nostalgic for her father’s passionate youth. “I’ll say, ‘Now that you’re rich, you can do an indie film and say what you really want,’” Violet told me. “And he’ll say, ‘But the problem with indies is bad craft services’”—that is, bad catering. “He likes that I’ve picked up the torch of his ideals, but he also gets mad—partly because he knows what I’m saying is true, but partly because I’m living off him. And he’ll say, ‘I hope you’ll tell your boys not to burn my house down when the revolution starts.’”
Ramis was never a revolutionary; he was a satirist. Where revolutionaries have ideals, satirists have targets, and those targets shift and blur if the satirist falls prey to empathy. Satire is a tool of the young, who can’t conceive that the chairman of G.E. might be gentle with his children and kind to his dog. When he was writing and co-starring in “Stripes,” Ramis says, “My whole problem was, We’re doing an Army movie and we’re not going to talk about Vietnam? What can I put in this movie to convey my antiwar sentiments?” In the end, after filming at Fort Knox and coming to admire some of the local Army personnel, Ramis says, “We did it when Bill says, ‘We’ve been kicking ass for two hundred years—we’re ten and one!’That was my reference to Vietnam.”
Ramis wants to believe that his films have affected social attitudes. “People hear a character like Bill’s in ‘Stripes,’ and they’re emboldened to think, I can say these things, I can use them as modes of operating in the world. Of course,” he acknowledges, “our movies haven’t ended war or defeated the Republican Party or inspired huge strides in social justice. By allowing people to laugh at injustice or hypocrisy, satirical comedy enables them to feel like they’ve done something: I’m cool, I get what’s wrong with that. That self-satisfaction works against activism, so satirical comedy might actually be counterproductive.”
The voice that Ramis originated—a defanged sixties rebelliousness that doesn’t so much seek to oust the powerful as to embolden the powerless—remains the dominant mode in comedy today. “The ideas behind most comedies now—put the underdog in the corner and let him win, the marriage of comedy and anarchy in a single molecule, and having characters do all these unlikable things but remain completely winning—are all Harold’s,” Brian Grazer, the producer, says. “He is the father of the modern Hollywood comedy.” “Animal House” was thoroughly ripped off by the “Porky’s” series, the “Revenge of the Nerds” series, and “Old School.” “Caddyshack” was ripped off by “Happy Gilmore,” “Ghostbusters” by “Men in Black,” and “Groundhog Day” by the current Adam Sandler comedy “50 First Dates.”
A rule of thumb in the comedy world is that social attitudes change every four years. A comedy director can keep pace for only so long. Preston Sturges had seven straight hits, ending with “Hail the Conquering Hero,” in 1944, did solid work through “Unfaithfully Yours,” in 1948, and then more or less vanished from the screen. Billy Wilder directed back-to-back classics in 1959 and 1960—“Some Like It Hot” and “The Apartment”—worked at a lesser level through “The Fortune Cookie,” in 1966, and then petered out. Now some of Ramis’s colleagues are wondering about his future. “Harold should have moved on from ‘Groundhog Day,’” one of his friends says. “I mean, Einstein didn’t keep postulating all the other things that E was equal to. But maybe he doesn’t have that much else to say.”
Ramis’s lack of much else to say may in fact explain his longevity. He has produced hits for more than twenty years by being the opposite of an auteur: by channelling and focussing prevailing opinion. Ramis told me, “I’m sure my agents think of ‘Ice Harvest’ as a departure that will announce to the industry, ‘He can do a whole new thing!’” He chuckled. “Well, maybe I can’t. Maybe I fuck it up.”
One afternoon, Ramis and I had lunch at a tavern near his office. He began talking about another star of his early films, Chevy Chase. “Do you know the concept of proprioception, of how you know where you are and where you’re oriented?” he asked. “Chevy lost his sense of proprioception, lost touch with what he was projecting to people. It’s strange, but you couldn’t write Chevy as a character in a novel, because his whole attitude is just superiority: ‘I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not.’”
Ramis said that he identified with Nathan Zuckerman, the alter ego in many of Philip Roth’s novels: “Watching other people having experiences I’m not going to have. But understanding, empathizing. Much as I want to be a protagonist, it doesn’t happen, somehow. I’m missing some tragic element or some charisma, or something. Weight. Investment.”
After a moment, he continued, “One of my favorite Bill Murray stories is one about when he went to Bali. I’d spent three weeks there, mostly in the south, where the tourists are. But Bill rode a motorcycle into the interior until the sun went down and got totally lost. He goes into a village store, where they are very surprised to see an American tourist, and starts talking to them in English, going ‘Wow! Nice hat! Hey, gimme that hat!’” Ramis’s eyes were lighting up. “And he took the guy’s hat and started imitating people, entertaining. Word gets around this hamlet that there’s some crazy guy at the grocery, and he ended up doing a dumb show with the whole village sitting around laughing as he grabbed the women and tickled the kids. No worry about getting back to a hotel, no need for language, just his presence, and his charisma, and his courage. When you meet the hero, you sure know it.”
He smiled. “Bill loves to get lost, to throw the map out the window and drive till you have no idea where you are, just to experience something new.” And you? “Oh, I’d be the one with the map. I’m the map guy. I’m the one saying to Bill, ‘You know, we should get back now. They’re going to be looking for us.’”