I’ll miss Harold Ramis’s presence in the world because no one in my generation is getting any younger. Before you dismiss that sentence as a tautology, I should explain. My generation can be roughly defined as those born in or near 1970, growing up watching (read: worshiping) Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and other shows like them, and then finding that comedies such as Caddyshack, Animal House, and Ghostbusters are part of their culture, their lives, and their minds, regardless of what supposed intelligence they may, as viewers, presumably bring to the table—and then, beyond that, finding that they are quite grateful to have Groundhog Day as part of their culture, and then, going even farther, finding that they loved all of those films, and can’t conceive of replacements for them, and can’t, as adults, readily explain why. But there is, in fact, a reason: these movies, with which Harold Ramis was inextricably associated, in either a large or small degree, stood for a set of comedic values which are no longer with us.
What values? Well, these films had, as their calling card and as a force which animated them, a sense of utter abandonment. To crassness. To vulgarity. To spontaneity. To irreverence. Anything as openly vulgar and as indulgent of objectification as Animal House made these days would either not be noticed or would be placed under a microscope so intense as to render its integrity as a whole utterly unrecognizable. No one would dream of making a film as over-the-top as Ghostbusters, with its marshmallow man walking through Manhattan, today—unless it were attached to a franchise, of some sort. The makers of these films weren’t trying to market anything: they simply wanted to create an absurd situation and see where it led, to open things up as wide as they possibly could. Ramis is an indelible part of their success because, as the most gawky character in the room, he reminded us most strongly of ourselves, sitting in the dark, living vicariously through others’ adventures either ghostbusting or being slimed.
And, above and beyond that, these films were successful executions of outrageous ideas, a harder task to accomplish than one might think. Groundhog Day is a perfect example. The story Ramis tells with this movie, that of daily reincarnation, is a sophisticated one, but he presented it to us with the open-hearted brio of an everyman filmmaker. The actors he chose, as well, from Murray to MacDowell to even Elliot or Tobolowsky, are actors it’s hard, in a sense, to dislike—none of them carried, at the time of filming, any special baggage, any notably distasteful films in their history, that would have distracted from the miraculousness of the story—they are wholly participating in the prolonged joke of this movie, this project, the one they’re in right at that moment. And the mood Ramis maintained throughout was consistently light—a lightness that results in a subtlety one doesn’t find that often, an ease of laughter that recalls much earlier films, even silent films. Is there mean-spirited humor in Groundhog Day? Sure, but it’s comedic mean-spiritedness. No one’s bones, hearts, or lives are ever at risk of being broken, though it might look that way: philosophical exercise rendered as comedy.
The cultural influences that produced the sort of comedy Ramis participated in, wrote, and ultimately directed were very different from those driving today’s comedies. The cultural legacy Ramis and his contemporaries had was that of the 1960s and 1970s, eras heralded for their freedoms and excesses but rarely examined as recovery from the social, economic, and historical traumas of the 1950s and 1940s. The comedic films made today are made in the shadow of a technological advancement that has rendered our culture dispersed and distracted to the point of soullessness. Ramis is, in a sense, a symbol of certain kind of comedy: a comedy with a beginning, a middle and an end, all equally ridiculous, all equally enjoyable, and all developed with the intention of fulfilling a film’s full potential. Those kinds of comedies—comedies with a soul that you can practically see—simply don’t exist anymore. Rest in peace.
Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.