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How I Made It in Comedy: Harold Ramis

"At the time—it was the late 1960s—the Playboy editors wanted to modernize the jokes a bit, to make them more counterculture. A big part of my job was changing 'the farmer' into 'a swinging advertising executive.'"

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From National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) and Caddyshack (1980) to Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984), Harold Ramis perfected a comedy genre with a deceptively simplistic formula: lovable characters who are considered losers rebel against the establishment and save the day with their goofball high jinks.

Born in Chicago in 1944, Ramis dreamed of becoming an actor. In 1969, he joined Second City, where he performed sketch comedy and improv with such future superstars (and collaborators) as John Belushi, Bill Murray, and John Candy. In 1974, he moved to New York to write and perform on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, as well as the off-Broadway sketch revue The National Lampoon Show.

Perhaps his greatest achievement is Groundhog Day (1993), which he directed and cowrote. The story of a TV weatherman (Bill Murray) condemned to repeat the same day, over and over, it's a perfect mix of comedy and philosophy; as the New York Times pointed out in a 2003 article, "Since its debut a decade ago, the film has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in 'Groundhog Day' a reflection of their own spiritual messages."

You've said that irony is more available in Chicago than anywhere else. Why do you think that's the case?

Growing up in what was called "the Second City," you always felt like you were on the outside looking in. New York and LA were the real centers of culture in America, and we were kind of a sideshow. There's always more comedy in being alienated than in fitting in. It's the alternative comedy posture. It's what Rodney Dangerfield created with his "I get no respect" routine. The other end of the spectrum isn't so funny: "I get so much respect." No one will laugh at how great things are for somebody.

Woody Allen was the great comic genius of my early career, and there was a tendency to measure everything against that standard, that kind of posture. He was always writing about losers and schlemiels and schlubs, but I was never interested in losers. I was more intrigued by the alternative comedy posture. The characters I enjoyed creating were the dropouts and the rebels. They voluntarily opted out of the mainstream. It wasn't because they couldn't join it. It was because it wasn't worth doing. Or there was some serious hypocrisy going on. Or it wasn't cool.

From what I've read, you had an interesting job after you graduated from Washington University, in St. Louis, in 1966.

I worked in [a] psych ward for about seven months, and then I moved back to Chicago and I began to substitute-teach at a public elementary school—kindergarten through sixth grade. While I was teaching, I did some freelance writing for the Chicago Daily News, and I took a few of these pieces to show to Playboy. They happened to be looking to fill an entry-level editorial staff job, which was joke editor, and they hired me.

It was amazing how many of these jokes were written in pencil on three-ring notebook paper, or came from people who were incarcerated. It was also amazing how many of them dealt with farmers and farm animals.

At the time—it was the late 1960s—the Playboy editors wanted to modernize the jokes a bit, to make them more counterculture. A big part of my job was changing "the farmer" into "a swinging advertising executive."

Did you start to recognize categories of jokes—basic types and groupings?

I would say in the first month, I already knew 95 percent of the jokes in current circulation in America. I could not hear a joke I didn't know. I could anticipate the punch lines, because most jokes are like any other joke. In fact, the way I did the job was to spend an hour each morning just slitting open the mail and lining the jokes up before me. Then I would read punch lines, one every second. If I knew the joke, I'd throw the card away. I practically recognized them all. But as soon as I'd see one I didn't recognize, I wouldn't even finish reading it—I'd set it aside to savor it later, just because it was new. Not because it was necessarily good, just different.

How did Caddyshack come about?

Brian [Doyle-] Murray, Bill's brother and a writer and performer for Lampoon, had caddied when he was growing up, in and around Wilmette, Illinois. Brian would talk to Doug Kenney about his country club experiences, and Doug could relate, because he had worked in a tennis shop, in a country club in Ohio. Brian understood it from the point of view of a poor Catholic kid in WASP territory. And I understood it from the Rodney Dangerfield point of view, which was the Jewish outsider.

How was Rodney as an improviser?

Terrible. Just awful. We were originally going to use Don Rickles, but at the time Rodney had just done a run of Tonight Show appearances that were hysterical. He was brilliant. Rodney was a joke comedian, and every joke he told was based on very precise wording and timing. His act had a specific rhythm that could not be violated. Every word and syllable was important. So there was no improvising with Rodney, unless it was him coming up with a line he had used somewhere in a past act of his. Or he would want to sit down every night and hammer out the jokes he would use the next day.

How much of Bill Murray's performance was improvised?

Pretty much everything he did in the movie was improvised, except for the one big speech he gave on the Dalai Lama. The speech he performs as he cuts off the heads of the flowers with a garden tool was completely improvised.

Some reviewers at the time felt that it seemed too improvised, and that maybe it wasn't as tight as it could have been.

I knew it had some very messy elements. But that was the trade-off. The only way to get all that Bill Murray content into the movie was to settle for the fact that it was off-story and that it had nothing to do with the plot. Whatever arc there was to Bill's story was crafted later, when we shot the gopher material and everything else.

Do you think audiences are willing to forgo perfection and craft if the characters are strong and the jokes are solid?

In any genre, viewers want to feel something. They want to have an experience. There are more well-made movies than good movies. That's sort of my new mantra. Plenty of people can shoot beautiful films. There are a lot of great editors, a lot of great designers. But where is the content? Who are the characters? Is it moving? You want the audience to feel something, and if it's comedy, you want them to laugh hard, even if it's at the expense of a better shot or a better edit. There are many times when the editor will say to me, "Well, that's not a real good cut." And I'll say, "Yeah, but it's funny. Let's just do it."   v

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