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Harold Ramis, a filmmaker who let us all laugh together

Published February 26, 2014 9:25 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"I always drink to world peace."

That's just one of the myriad oft-quoted lines from "Groundhog Day," by many lights the life's masterwork of Harold Ramis, who died Monday at 69. The 1993 film — which starred Bill Murray as a cynical weatherman who goes on a fugue-like journey through the time-space continuum while covering the holiday in Punxsutawney, Pa. — has entered the pantheon of classic American comedies, revered for its philosophical loop-de-loops, unabashed romance and characteristically deadpan Murray performance.

Before "Groundhog Day," Ramis — who cut his teeth editing party jokes for Playboy magazine — had delivered a batch of comedies now considered emblematic of the late 1970s and the '80s: "Animal House," "Meatballs," "Caddyshack," "Stripes," "Ghostbusters." Most of them starred Murray, whom Ramis met while they were in Chicago's Second City (that's also where Ramis met John Belushi, for whom "Animal House" was a breakout hit).

At a time when so many Americans are getting their comedy by way of YouTube links and late-night shticks, when what we find amusing is as narrow-cast and fragmented as how we vote and where we shop, Ramis's oeuvre allows us to reflect on a moment, now distant, when we could all laugh together.

"Groundhog Day," which Ramis co-wrote and directed (and played a small role in), also has come to be considered a perfectly written film — its screenplay, along with "Chinatown" and "The Godfather," is regularly taught as a textbook example of structure, pacing, dialogue and swift, vivid characterization.

Granted, Ramis was working with an original script written by Danny Rubin, who according to Hollywood lore had delivered a famously flawless first draft. But through their collaborative efforts — and thanks to Murray being willing to take new, darker risks with his heretofore lovably goofy persona — "Groundhog Day" has stood the test of time, taking pride of place alongside "It's a Wonderful Life" as a go-to holiday tradition for families the world over.

In many ways, "Groundhog Day" hews to the age-old conventions of romantic comedy, as Murray's self-involved protagonist pursues a pretty, idealistic colleague played by Andie MacDowell. But, within the deceptively simple confines of a glossy, accessible rom-com, the story achieved Beckettian heights of absurdity, skepticism and doubt.

"This is not an antisocial comedy," Ramis told Washington Post special correspondent Pat H. Broeske in describing "Groundhog Day" in 1993. "Nor is it yuppie-bashing. It really has to do with his character's narcissism, but it also has to do with anyone who feels they're stuck in a rut, living the same day over again. How do you deal with it? How do you change the quality of your life without changing the circumstances?"

Is it any accident that both Ramis and John Hughes — his fellow avatar of 1980s cinema — both hailed from Chicago? The world they collectively depicted on screen was by no means representative; it was blindingly white, conspicuously male and indeterminately middle class. But they nonetheless captured enough of the zeitgeist to touch a universal nerve — or, in Ramis's case, funny bone — having to do with love of the underdog, congenital mistrust of authority and ragged, sometimes self-deceiving, perseverance.

Just as TV anchors historically sought to acquire a flat, Midwestern accent, the better to appeal to the broadest swath of regions and states, Ramis's work broadly represents the America of its time. (The antic military satire "Stripes" may be his most thoroughly internalized film, if Twitter remembrances on Monday were any indication.) His films landed in that fertile middle ground somewhere between sophisticated and slapstick, outrageous and relatable, naughty and nice: They were flyover comedies, in the most compassionate, populist sense of the term.

Ramis saw his work as a continuation of the humanist tradition. "I think comedy without morality stops at a certain point," he told Diana Loevy, writing in The Post in 1983. "As simplistic as all the films I've worked on have been, they all have a simple Disney-Capra morality operating in them because that's what I grew up with. In Capra films the common man triumphed against the hypocrisy of people with power. All the good guys in 'Caddyshack' represent the middle and lower-middle classes fighting the snobbism of the country club system. The same thing is operating in 'Animal House.' "

"Animal House" ushered in a new, anarchic era of movie comedies, Ramis recalled to Broeske. "There was no comedy that came out of the late '60s that wasn't straight antiwar satire, the Smothers Brothers type of thing," he said. "But when we put Nixon away, a lot of energy was released."

Ensuing generations of filmgoers probably know Ramis best as the nerdy, Proton pack-wearing Dr. Egon Spengler in the "Ghostbusters" movies or, more recently, Seth Rogen's dad in "Knocked Up." He was a gracious straight man, especially in his work with Murray, whose eye never veered from the larger comic enterprise. "I didn't think I would be a happy person if my life depended on whether I was acting or not," Ramis told Loevy. "Fortunately, I had other work. Most actors act because they can't do anything else. Directing is the synthesis of those things."

"Knocked Up," of course, was directed by Judd Apatow, who counted Ramis as an influence on his own films, which took raunch and ribaldry to the next level, for better or worse. A glance back at Ramis's career invites us to reflect on less cynical, hard-edged times and tastes. As Bill Murray discovered in "Groundhog Day," it's usually a good idea to drink to world peace. But today, let's drink to Harold Ramis.