When critics reference our generation’s most influential comedic forces, you always hear a tired litany of the same names (enough with the Woody Allen already). But there’s a gentle giant among Hollywood’s humor powerhouses who doesn’t get nearly enough props: Harold Ramis (Egon from Ghostbusters). Arguably, the man’s responsible for writing and directing more classics than Mel Brooks (National Lampoon’s Animal House, Stripes, Caddyshack, Vacation, Back to School, to name a few).
Even if the director suddenly decided to hang up his moviemaking mantle, he’s already provided enough laughs for a lifetime—or a solid week of AMC programming. In between SNL gossip and assurances about the next Ghostbusters, Ramis explained why today’s comedians fail to excite him and how Groundhog Day is his free pass to each and every religion.
I heard that the original cast for Animal House was supposed to be filled with SNL players, but then lesser-known talents were cast. Was there any concern that the movie would flop without big names?
We wrote [Animal House] thinking of the funny people we knew best: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, et cetera. I think Chevy declined because he generally didn’t play well with others’ and had visions of breaking into more adult, mainstream films. John Landis probably wanted to avoid the perception that this was somehow a Saturday Night Live movie. The studio was happy to have Belushi and didn’t want to run up the meager budget with other potentially costly names.’
Tim Matheson, Peter Riegert, Bruce McGill, Tom Hulce and Stephen Furst were brilliant in their auditions and probably cost about a dollar and a half, which was what we were paid as writers.
Back to School was so full of clever dialogue—especially the standoff between businessman Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) and Professor Terguson (Sam Kinison). Did you write it all?
I wrote the Sam Kinison scene based on a history teacher I had in high school who turned insanely angry when the subject of Franklin Roosevelt came up: He sold us down the river at Yalta!’ she’d scream.
It surprises me that resort comedy Club Paradise isn’t celebrated like the others in your repertoire.
Club Paradise was just about the most fun you could have and still pretend you were working. [Brian] Doyle-Murray and I felt that for authenticity we needed to write the script in the West Indies, so that required seven weeks on the island of Nevis, then Jamaica. Then we spent three months shooting in Jamaica with an amazing cast. Stylistically, we were trying to pay homage to the great British comedies of the 50s and early 60s, and thematically we wanted to talk about economic colonialism and globalization. The film is kind of a mess, but we got two rave reviews: Pauline Kael in The New Yorker and Reggae Beat magazine.
Speaking of celebrated films, Groundhog Day seems like a movie philosophy professors would be interested in. Have you discussed the film in academic circles?
Oh yeah, I’m always lecturing (for free) on Groundhog Day. Depending on who you talk to it’s Jewish, it’s Christian, it’s Buddhist, it’s Existentialist, it’s a metaphor for psychoanalysis, and a tool for motivational speakers and life-coaches. The Museum of Modern Art in New York used it to open their religious film series, ‘The Hidden God: Films of Faith.’ It’s on everybody’s all-time whatever list, and as a result of having done it I’m welcome at every ashram, synagogue, church and zendo in the country.
To quote Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, â€˜So I’ve got that goin’ for me which is nice.’
You are also responsible for giving Warren Oates his career swan song in Stripes.
Working with him was a pleasure. His history with Sam Peckinpah and inherent ‘manliness’ made us feel like Hollywood pussies, but he brought credibility and real meaning to his role and elevated it beyond the broader comedic stereotype of the tough sergeant.
Here comes the Ghostbusters question: What’s up with part three?
Something’s going to happen. Dan [Aykroyd] did write a spec GB3 screenplay a few years ago, but no one was motivated to pursue it. Now, 25 years after the original, there seems to be some willingness to proceed and apparently a substantial public appetite for a sequel. We’ll introduce some new young Ghostbusters, and all the old guys will be in it, too. Think Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future … GB3 is progressing with plans to shoot next summer and release in 2011 … Oh, and I have two one-of-a-kind Ghostbuster yarmulkes sent by fans.
What do you think of today’s comedians? Are they up to par with all the greats you’ve worked with?
I don’t want to say that there’s nothing new in comedy, but having seen Andy Kaufman in the mid-70s in clubs in New York, nothing surprises me conceptually. There’s a difference between getting the joke and liking the joke. Popularity isn’t the only measure of success. Sometimes the public is an idiot, but obscurity and perversity for its own sake can be a solipsistic jerk-off and real waste of time. I have no rules or expectations; I just like comedy that works.