RIP Harold Ramis: His Four Films That Shaped Adult Comedy Filmmaking
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.
Harold Ramis as Russell Ziskey in Stripes.
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.
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.