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RIP Harold Ramis: His Four Films That Shaped Adult Comedy Filmmaking

Harold Ramis as Russell Ziskey in Stripes.
Harold Ramis as Russell Ziskey in Stripes.

In what must be one of the most succinct one-sentence descriptions of a person's character in history, Harold Ramis said of Bill Murray, his longtime collaborator with whom he had a falling out during the making of Groundhog Day, "Bill will give you a kidney if you need it, but he won't necessarily return your phone call." This was, in part, the brilliance of Ramis, who died Monday at the age of 69. He understood that comedy wasn't just about writing jokes, but the inherent humor in the lives of everyday people.

By the late '80s, the rated R comedy that Ramis virtually invented was all but dead, replaced with teen, coming of age films and rom-coms. But, as comedians and writers who were still teens themselves when Ramis's films were made began to reach their 20s and 30s, the genre had a resurgence. From the Farrelly brothers and Adam Sandler to Adam McKay and Judd Apatow, it could be argued that Ramis is responsible to a great degree for popular comedies like The Hangover, Forty Year Old Virgin, Old School, Wedding Crashers, There's Something About Mary and Happy Gilmore. Ramis's poking fun at the institutions of snooty privilege opened the door for future writers and directors to do the same and still be part of the Hollywood mainstream.

In a wonderful 2004 New Yorker profile of the writer/director/actor and his films, Tad Friend wrote, "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." The films he was describing were the Mount Rushmore of Harold Ramis movies and four of the most iconic comedic films of all time. They would help to define a generation of comedic filmmakers and set the bar for adult comedies moving forward.

National Lampoon's Animal House Modern Comedy Equivalent: Old School

This timeless classic was an inspiration for every party film that followed, particularly those set on college campuses. The movie, co-written by Ramis, was a massive box office success and helped launch the big screen careers of actors like John Belushi, Kevin Bacon, Tom Hulce, Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert and Karen Allen. It pushed boundaries of raunchy comedies by late 1970s standards and redefined how people viewed fraternities and sororities. Most importantly, it launched an entire genre of comedies involving college kids, whether the film actually took place in school (Revenge of the Nerds, Legally Blonde) or nearby (Road Trip, Spring Break). It was a theme Ramis would revisit in the 1986 film Back to School.

Caddyshack Modern Comedy Equivalent: Happy Gilmore

Did anyone think golf was this interesting or funny prior to Caddyshack? In much the same way Animal House joked at the expense of the stuffy facade of Greek life, Caddyshack took direct aim at the culture of the country club through the eyes of its lowliest members: the caddies. Another ensemble comedy, it featured the immense comic talents of Ted Knight, Rodney Dangerfield, Chevy Chase and, of course, Bill Murray. Ramis co-wrote and directed, the second of six films he and Murray would collaborate on, forming one of the most important comedy filmmaking teams in Hollywood history.

 

Stripes Modern Comedy Equivalent: I Love You, Man

Admittedly, this is my favorite Ramis film. Though he co-starred (at Murray's insistence), and co-wrote rather than directed, it once again skewers a traditional American institution (the military) via a band of misfit, outsider enlistees. But, the army only serves as a backdrop for the brilliant comedic timing of Murray and Ramis, which set the stage for a whole host of buddy comedies like I Love You, Man, Wedding Crashers and The Hangover. And like Ramis's other films, it cast a bunch of talented newcomers including Sean Young, John Candy, John Larroquette, John Diehl and Judge Reinhold. Murray was the clear star, but Ramis was the perfect straight man, much the same way his contemporary Gene Wilder was to Richard Pryor in the classic comedies Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. The buddy comedy may be a concept as old as Abbott and Costello, but Murray and Ramis raised the bar for the next generation of filmmakers.

Ghostbusters Modern Comedy Equivalent: Men In Black

It is difficult to explain to those who weren't around when Ghostbusters was released in 1984 the intense interest in the movie. From the film itself to the song to the merchandising, it was everywhere. But what kept from turning it into a cheesy kids movie was the clever, fast-paced writing and perfect on-screen chemistry of its stars, Murray, Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, who co-wrote the film with Ramis. And despite the amateurish special effects by today's standards, it still holds up because it is just so damn funny. Ramis uses his straight man persona to perfectly channel a classic mad scientist (something Aykroyd always loved) with an Eraserhead hairdo. The result is a remarkably mature and hilarious film that laid the groundwork for broad, sci-fi comedies like Men in Black.


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