The recent death of Harold Ramis set us to thinking about comedy. Not because there’s anything funny about the death of Ramis, who by all accounts was a decent sort of fellow who deserved better, but because he was the most influential comedic filmmaker of recent years.
As a screenwriter, director, or actor, and oftentimes taking on all three jobs, Ramis had a hand in such hugely popular and widely imitated movies as “Animal House,” “Ghostbusters,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” and “Groundhog Day,” as well as the “SCTV” television series and the “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” This is an uneven oeuvre, to our old-fashioned tastes, but there’s no use denying its lingering effect. Get almost any white male of our age group drunk and he’ll sooner or later start quoting cherished lines from Ramis’ movies, perhaps even reciting the entire script of “Caddyshack” verbatim, complete with a mush-mouthed imitation of Bill Murray’s Carl the Groundskeeper character, and the smart-alecky anti-authoritarianism that defined a Ramis movie is still the default style of almost every aspiring comic. Commentators on both the left and the right have also acknowledged the inevitable political influence of Ramis’ movies, although they predictably disagree on whether it was for good or bad, and we suspect that Ramis would have found it all quite amusing.
So far as we can tell from his rare public political pronouncements Ramis was a conventionally liberal Hollywood baby-boomer, but his movies were inadvertently conservative enough to have thoroughly annoyed much of the left. Over at Salon.com the noted writer Thomas “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Franks did his best to live up to every detail of the humorless liberal stereotype with a scathing obituary, claiming that Ramis’ sense of humor “liberated Reagan and Wall Street” to unleash all the supposed catastrophe that humorless liberals have always associated with those stock movie villains. We once thought Franks was the funniest writer of his generation, until we realized that everything he wrote was intended in earnest, but we suspect his characteristically high dudgeon is at being the butt of a far better joke than he’ll ever write. The joke wasn’t written by Ramis, though, but by the strange cosmic shift over the past 40 years that has transformed Ramis’ movies into a conservative cause celebre.
Ramis came of age in the 1970s and the “National Lampoon,” and you really had to be there to understand what that meant. It was a post-Vietnam and in-the-middle of Watergate era when being young meant snidely questioning authority or being hopelessly square, and nobody questioned authority with the slide-splitting cynicism of the “National Lampoon.” The magazine was raunchy and irreligious and disrespectful of every convention of polite society, but just as irreverent toward the constraining pieties of the emerging counter-culture. Chafing at even the earliest restrictions of feminism and the civil rights movements the magazine was brazenly and hilariously sexist and racist, and it had a deliriously liberating effect even on readers who had to keep the latest copy out of sight of their disapproving parents. We recall issues devoted to mocking The Beatles and the Kennedy clan with a particular nostalgia, and proudly retain the courage it gave us to laugh at anything. Ramis was similarly affected, apparently, and had the good fortune to begin his career with the magazine’s radio show that somehow got past the Federal Communications Commission’s censors and onto the national airwaves.
Ramis’ first big movie hit was “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” which he co-wrote with the magazine’s Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, and at the time no one would have considered it a conservative movie. In the unlikely event you haven’t seen it, “Animal House” is an admiring account of a fraternity of drunken, horny, aggressively rude students at a typically staid early-‘60s college campus. A pretentious pot-smoking professor and a guitar-strumming folk musician are among the satiric targets, and some believably menacing black males figure in one of the gags, but the leading bad guys are from the Reserve Officer Training Corps and the blue-blood houses and the oh-so-establishment administration. This is hardly the stuff of right-wing propaganda, and doesn’t sound like an appealing premise for a comedy, but the passing of time can change a movie. “Animal House” has been so frequently re-made in one form or another that it would be hard for anyone encountering it on Netflix or the late show to appreciate how shockingly fresh and laugh-out=loud funny it was in 1978, and only in retrospect can Franks can accurately complain that it made fraternities cool again and that the Dartmouth fraternity “Animal House” was based on was a pipeline to Wall Street sinecures.
Franks and his fellow liberals have more plausible gripes with “Ghostbusters,” a silly little special-effects comedy that libertarians have embraced as a classic. The heroes in the movie are entrepreneurs who have bravely left the cozy but constrained confines of academia, despite one’s worry that “I’ve been in the private sector, and they expect results,” and the villain is a self-righteous and utterly incompetent Environmental Protection Agency bureaucrat. This does sound like the stuff of right-wing propaganda, and the premise for a first-rate comedy, but for some reason we never liked the movie any more than Franks did. The public loved it, and we defer to its judgment on the matter, but Franks’ opprobrium makes it all the more appealing.
“Caddyshack” is a class-conscious comedy about a proletarian lad who clashes with the bourgeoisie at an obscure country club, but even that seemingly Marxist pitch contained enough subversive comedy to offend the refined sensibilities of the left. Franks shrewdly notes that “country club Republican” is now a pejorative more often used by the Tea Party right than the respectable left, and that Rodney Dangerfield’s heroically slobbish character is a self-made businessman striving to crash an enclave of the crony-capitalism that conservatives now rail against, but we can’t share his view that is a fateful fault in the movie. “Stripes” was a frequently amusing tale of two fiercely individualistic losers who wind up in the strictly-regimented army, which spared it Franks’ scorn, but if he’d wanted to Franks could have griped about the grudging respect that the protagonists eventually gave to their old-school drill sergeant.
Any movie is best judged on its aesthetic rather than political merits, and on these grounds we found most of Ramis’ movies flawed. At the risk of sounding like the sort of cinephile snobs that Ramis could have cannily ridiculed, our notions of comedy were influenced by an earlier and more serious school of comedians. The Ramis movies gave us a lot of laughs, but rarely provided a fully satisfying movie-watching experience. They lacked the cinematic inventiveness of Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd in the silent era, the elegant sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch in the ‘30s or the carefully considered satire of Preston Surges in the ‘40s, or any of the great comedies made in the ‘50s and ‘60s before the heavy hand of the political correctness that the “National Lampoon” had to resist starting in the ‘70s. As much as we admire the slapdash anarchism of the Marx Brothers’ tweaking of Margaret Dumont’s propriety or W.C. Field’s drunken surrealism in “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,” most of Ramis’ films seem merely sloppy with chaotic endings and a good-enough-for-Hollywood feel.
There were a lot of laughs in those movies, though, and we appreciate that so many of them annoyed the liberals. If there really is any political lesson to be learned from Ramis’ work, however, it is that the liberals are now in authority and that a properly anti-authoritarian impulse should be directed toward those bastards. The great “National Lampoon” writer an editor P.J. O’Rourke has unabashedly embraced conservatism, and we see no reason why Harold Ramis shouldn’t be posthumously inducted into the ranks of right-wing bastards even if it would have annoyed him. President Barack Obama gave a respectful eulogy, saying that because of Ramis he and his wife “Questioned authority,” so one can only hope that Ramis will also inspire late-show viewers to question this president’s authority.
Ramis’ only true masterpiece, however, invited viewers to consider more important matters than the passing the political controversies. “Groundhog Day” is a deeply philosophical and fully-realized film about a man who finds himself trapped in the same day and only manages to escape the monotony of his selfish existence by rejecting the smart-alecky rebelliousness of Ramis’ other films and seeking a more spiritual existence. It’s funny, too, and will long survive the squabbles that Ramis would have laughed at.
— Bud Norman