Harold Ramis, who passed away today, wasn't just a comic genius. He was the comic genius. As a director, writer and actor, he helped define modern comedy with his silly, sarcastic and sweet tales of snobs versus slobs, ghost-hunting scientists, cataclysmic family vacations and time-looping tales of redemption. To look at Ramis' filmography as a movie fan is to be thankful for the gifts that he brought cinema. To look at it as a comedian, it's to wonder what you've actually accomplished with your life.
Picking only 10 favorite moments from Ramis' career is a challenge, mainly because most of his movies have dozens of moments worth talking about. Even his weakest films have noble intentions. Ramis may have left this world, but he's left behind a body of work that's as good and as important, as any filmmaker of the past 30 years.
Let's not cry over Ramis' passing. Let's watch some YouTube clips and laugh. We like to imagine that he would prefer that.
"That's a Big Twinkie"
Harold Ramis' Dr. Egon Spengler was always the least flashy of the Ghostbusters. While Peter Venkman had a wry barb for every occasion and Ray Stantz filled the screen with childlike joy, Egon was a quiet pro, a scientist and genius whose deadpan reactions to extraordinary events managed to be funnier than any over-the-top reaction shot. His calm, measured explanations for impossible supernatural situations make him the film's exposition machine, but they also make him a perfect straight man. In other words, he makes everyone else in the scene funnier. Take the classic "Twinkie" scene, where he subtly sets Ernie Hudson up for one of the best lines in the movie. A lesser comic actor and screenwriter would have saved a line that good for himself, but Ramis put great comedy before getting the laugh for himself.
'Groundhog Day' isn't just the best film Harold Ramis directed, it's one of the best comedies ever made. Ramis and star Bill Murray mine incredible comedy out of a weatherman being trapped in a bizarre time loop, but more importantly, they mine real humanity and never stoop for an easy laugh. In one of the film's best scenes, Murray repeats the same conversation with Andie McDowell several times, going from being a disinterested jerk to a lover of French poetry. It's a truly hilarious sequence but like the film itself, there's genuine beauty layered under the laughs.
Where would modern comedy be without 'Animal House'? Who knows. Modern comedy wouldn't exist without this classic college comedy, which Ramis scripted for director John Landis. In the film's most famous scene, John Belushi's slovenly Bluto instigates a food fight ("I'm a zit! Get it?!") and a comedy cliche is born instantly. The big question isn't how many films have ripped this off -- it's why no film has managed to do it better.
"We're All Gonna' Get Laid!"
'Caddyshack' is a silly, silly movie. In the final scenes, the truly insane screenplay sends the various characters and subplots on a collision course and it all ends with a bunch of explosions, threats of violence, an improbable golf championship, a dancing gopher and Rodeney Dangerfield inexplicably exclaiming that everyone is going to get laid. 'Caddyshack' was Ramis' first film as a director and his voice is already as clear as day. Yeah, it's a silly movie, but it's also one of the best sports movies and one of the funniest movies ever made, with the final minutes offering more laughter than the entire runtime of most comedies.
'National Lampoon's Vacation'
"This is No Longer a Vacation!"
These days, the National Lampoon name is synonymous with direct-to-DVD junk, but you can't blame Harold Ramis, who got the brand off to a running start with 'National Lampoon's Vacation.' Written by the legendary John Hughes, the film showcases Ramis as a director who could balance other unique comic voices in addition to his own. Take the scene below, where Chevy Chase's Clark Griswold finally snaps in the midst of his clan's catastrophic family trip. It's great moment, written and performed with just the right kind of mania by Hughes and Chase, but Ramis shoots it with just a tiny hint of horror, making an amusing freak-out scene into a legendary one.
"It Just Doesn't Matter!"
'Meatballs' isn't just the definitive summer camp comedy that dozens of other (lesser) films owe everything. It often feels like a mission statement for the rest of Ramis' career. Although he doesn't direct or appear on screen, his voice is loud and clear in the screenplay, telling a story of lovable slobs and goofballs who unite to take down The Man (or in this case, a rival camp of rich kids). Bill Murray's big motivational speech to the campers is a rallying cry for losers all over the world: even if the cool kids are winning, it just doesn't matter. Who cares? It's a message that would be repeated in his other screenplays (namely 'Stripes'), but it's this memorable rendition that is certainly the most direct and iconic.
"But We Are Willing to Learn."
There's a reason that most of Harold Ramis' absolute best moments tend to be behind the camera or on the pages of a script. When he did act, you'd rarely find a more generous actor, someone more willing to let the other actor get the laugh (see: 'Ghostbusters'). However, his script for 'Stripes' does give his Russell Ziskey one of the best lines in the film. When an army recruiter asks if he and Bill Murray are homosexuals, he responds with ... Well, why don't you just hit play and hear it for yourself?
'Back to School'
Harold Ramis was always adamant that "dumb comedy" required a certain amount of intelligence to actually pull off. His script for 'Back to School' has plenty of great dumb humor, but it also has a gag that will delight literary aficionados. When Rodney Dangerfield's lovably obnoxious businessman-turned-college student is tasked with writing a paper on the work of Kurt Vonnegut, he does what any wealthy slacker would do: he hires Vonnegut himself to write it. It doesn't end there, but final joke is too good to ruin if you haven't seen it. Any movie that squeezes in a Kurt Vonnegut gag amidst the more traditional jokes is fine by us.
'The Ice Harvest'
John Cusack's Awful Christmas Gifts
Harold Ramis' films tend to have a bright, cheery and optimistic air about them. Even when everything goes wrong for his heroes, they fight until they come out on top and worry about cleaning up the damage later. 'The Ice Harvest' is Ramis' last masterpiece as a director, a slice of pitch black, evil comedy that is unlike anything else in his filmography. The film is filled with biting, nasty little moments, but the best of them is a subtle one. Having barely escaped from the mafia with his life, John Cusack tries to make up for a forgotten Christmas by purchasing gifts for his children at a local gas station, where his options are, uh, limited. 'The Ice Harvest' doesn't have too many huge comic set pieces, but the details are as hilarious and sharply observed as anything else in Ramis' career.
"Are You Living Your Vision Right Now?"
Harold Ramis' role in Judd Apatow's 'Knocked Up' can be seen as a passing-of-the-torch between two generations of cinematic comics. As Seth Rogen's warm, accepting father, he makes the most of his limited screen time, building an instant connection between himself and the young star. Their improvised rapport is funny, moving and, in true Apatow style, as vulgar as you can get. Even in his old age, Ramis was slipping into new comedic styles and making it look easy. Rogen looks a little awestruck throughout the entire scene and you can't blame him. His career wouldn't exist if not for the man across the table.