Crossing the Streams with Harold Ramis
“There’s something very important I forgot to tell you! Don’t cross the streams… It would be bad… Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.”
Words spoken by Egon Spengler, the character Harold Ramis played in “Ghostbusters.”
It is unfortunate that this supporting part in one of the best comedy films of the 1980’s will be the most remembered, the one visual that will probably air at this Sunday’s annual memorial video during the Oscars. Harold Ramis gave so much more to comedy than the nerdish and awkward Spengler. He had as much to do with the transformation of comedy as the original cast of the “not ready for prime time players” from Saturday Night Live in the 1970’s.
Harold Ramis was one of the most influential filmmakers of the last 35 years. If it wasn’t for Ramis and his contemporaries, there would be no Judd Apatow, Peter Farrelly, Andy McKay or Jay Roach.
But what sets Ramis apart, was that he was content with staying in the background and letting others shine, despite his years of training with Chicago’s Second City improv troupe.
It’s a part he knew very early on that was his strength, and improved the performances of his peers.
“The moment I knew I wouldn’t be any huge comedy star was when I got on stage with John Belushi for the first time,” he said in a 1999 Chicago Tribune interview. “When I saw how far he was willing to go to get a laugh or to make a point on stage, the language he would use, how physical he was, throwing himself literally off the stage, taking big falls, strangling other actors, I thought: I’m never going to be this big. How could I ever get enough attention on a stage with guys like this?”
It was this attitude that enabled Ramis to succeed as a writer and director of the most-quotable films with a rotating cast of comedy all-stars. Ramis’s unique ability to collaborate with an eclectic group of talent, earned him the respect of his peers and admiration of his professional descendants.
Co-writer of “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Meatballs,” “Stripes” “Ghostbusters”and “Back to School” ; director of “Caddyshack,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Groundhog Day” and “Analyze This.”
Ask anyone today to quote one of these movies, and it’s a guarantee several will come flying at you.
I was first introduced to Ramis as Russell Ziskey in “Stripes,” when he played John Winger’s (Bill Murray) out of shape, disgruntled, foreign language teacher for immigrants and best friend, who somehow is coerced into joining the Army after one particular bad day.
The recruiting sergeant asks the hapless duo some standard application questions in the pre-“don’t ask, don’t tell” era of the early 80’s.
Recruiter: Now, are either of you homosexuals?
Winger: You mean like flaming?
Recruiter: Well, it’s a standard question we have to ask.
Russell: No, we’re not homosexual, but we are willing to learn.
Winger: Yeah . . . Would they send us someplace special?
Unfiltered, silliness mixed with a bit of anarchy, all with a knowing smile to each other and to us, the audience. A juvenile response to provoke the establishment by two 30-something misfits, and we were hooked.
The loser kids from North Star Camp became the drunken rebels at Faber College, unable to succeed as adults, eventually join the Army, get married, have kids and go on a disastrous road trip to Wally World.
A Quadrilogy of delinquent character studies, each with small redemption but huge punchlines.
Cleverly mixing slapstick with intelligence, Ramis’s early film work often poked fun as the establishment. Whether it was the Delta Fraternity in “Animal House,” or the blue blooded 1% in “Caddyshack,” Ramis identified with the 1960’s subculture of Middle America and poked fun at the materialistic elitists some of his contemporaries have become in the 1980’s. Turning the tables on them and making the have-nots heroes of a generation.
We won’t have Harold Ramis to laugh at anymore. Director/writer/performer does not fit anyone’s job description today.
Sure, there are plenty of hybrid entertainers today. But was anyone as selfless as Harold Ramis?
Is anyone capable of letting others shine?
When he first saw John Belushi, he took a step back and became his straight man for 2 years.
He did the same for Bill Murray over the course over 6 films and 15 years.
He came up with the greats. Belushi, Murray, Aykroyd, Chase, Guest, Radner, Candy, O’Hara, Levy, Martin, Flaherty, Thomas, Short, Kenney and many more.
It would be nice to wake up tomorrow morning to Sonny and Cher singing “I’ve Got You Babe” and pretend Harold Ramis is with us for one more day.