In the lobby of The Second City Theater in Chicago, the walls are lined with old cast photos, spanning from the 50s to the present. Among the faces, you’ll find some of the biggest names in comedy, like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, John Candy, and… well, it looks like some skinny kid with spectacle glasses and a truly staggering afro. If you don’t recognize him, you’re far from alone. Harold Ramis never became a household name like many of his fellow SC alumni. But without him, the national comedy landscape would look very, very different.
During the last 30 years, Ramis has written or directed (and sometimes both) some of the most popular movie comedies of all time. His credits include Animal House, Stripes, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Analyze This, Groundhog Day… actually, it might be easier just to mention those films that he didn’t write. Like, say, Home Alone. Or Old School. We’re pretty sure he had nothing to do with either of those films.
You can also blame Ramis for all of the quotable lines that have become such oft-repeated clichés. Every time a frat guy starts bellowing about toga parties, or some drunk dude summons his best Bill Murray impression and announces to the room, “We came, we saw, we kicked it’s ass,” just imagine that somewhere, Ramis is smiling sheepishly and muttering a silent apology. Honestly, he had no idea that his words were going to have such staying power. They seemed kinda clever at the time, but who knew?
These days, Ramis lives a quiet and unassuming life in Chicago, where he continues to churn out movies at a frightening pace—his latest being the critically lauded black comedy The Ice Harvest. He agreed to speak with me by phone on the condition that we did not, at any point in the interview, refer to his career as a “Cinderella Story.” Somehow, we managed to resist the urge, which is more than we can say for every other Caddyshack fan on the planet.
I. “I LEARNED OVER THE YEARS THAT IT’S EASY TO APPEAR SMART REFERENCING THINGS THAT PEOPLE DON’T KNOW.”
THE BELIEVER: Let’s start by talking about the Second City. You joined the Chicago cast in the late 60s, during a pretty volatile period in the city’s history. Did it feel at the time that the comedy you were doing had more social significance?
HAROLD RAMIS: Oh, sure. We called ourselves “the Next Generation,” because we were the long hairs and we were bringing in this whole new consciousness, or so we thought. Up to that point, the Second City had a reputation for being like modern jazz beatniks. The theater was formed during the great national nap of the Eisenhower years, when things were so placid. But after Kennedy’s death, everything went crazy. The 60s were like a ride, and we were riding the crest of that wave. Our shows were much more overtly political than what Second City was known for. And there were plenty of things happening at the time to fuel that. There was the war in Vietnam, and the Democratic Convention, and the riots taking place just blocks away from us. There was a lot to talk about. But while we liked the idea of being radicals, we were still ambitious actors. We all secretly wanted our shot at Hollywood.
BLVR: I’ve heard stories that Abbie Hoffman hid out at the theater during the Chicago 7 Hearings. Is that true or just an urban myth?
HR: There was an appeal after their first conviction, and during the appeal process, the Weather Underground had planned a Days of Rage demonstration. They ran up and down the street, smashing car windows and stuff. My first reaction was, “Yeah, right on!” But then I thought, “Wait, I’m parked out there.” Abbie came in to improvise with us, because we were doing material that seemed sympathetic to the conspiracy. But the fact was, I think he wanted an alibi so he could be seen in front of a lot of people at the time that the disturbance was going on outside. He could say he wasn’t part of it. 350 people saw him on stage. The judge in that case was a guy named Julius Hoffman, who became a famous symbol of the establishment. Abbie got to play Julius Hoffman in the show, which was pretty amazing.
BVR: You also got to work with director Del Close, who had a reputation as a sort of mad genius.
HR: Del was brilliant, and sometimes impossible to figure out. He emphasized ensemble playing and submerging your own ego into the group identity. His premise was, “If you concentrate on making other people look good, then we all look good together, or we all fail together.” I had developed a survival skill of using my wit to score for myself. If a scene was dying, I’d lob in these little bombshell lines that would get me some attention and a laugh without really helping the scene. I’ve always had that overweening desire to be liked by the audience. Del once said to me, “One day, you’re going to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m so cute, and I’m only 50 years old.’” [Laughs.]
BLVR: I’ve heard that he was almost scarily intelligent, and he always pushed his actors to consume as many books as possible.
HR: That’s true. He was, if not better educated, at least more widely read and more experienced in a certain arcane knowledge that few of us had at the time. When we were thinking of ideas for scenes, he might bring up Gurdjieff or somebody like that. We had no idea who Gurdjieff was, but Del had read his books. Or at least I think he did. I learned over the years that it’s easy to appear smart referencing things that people don’t know. You don’t have to know much, just a little bit more than everybody else.
BLVR: In your Second City cast, you were known as the smart, sensible one among maniacs. Dan Aykroyd has said that you were the guy at the end of the party saying, “Okay, that was fun, but let’s take the car out of the pool.”
HR: [Laughs] Well, metaphorically, of course. I don’t remember that actually happening. But I guess it’s a fair assessment. I was the one you could trust to drive. Not because I was more sober, but because I was more controlled. For better or worse, there’s a certain amount of power that comes with being in control. It ties into why I’ve resisted acting. When John Belushi went on the Saturday Night Live, he tried to get me a job on the show. I was interested, but it was driven mostly by my envy of their success. [SNL producer] Lorne Michaels wasn’t offering me a performing spot, just a writing spot. I didn’t want to work for Lorne, I wanted to be Lorne. I realized that as an actor, you’re completely at the mercy of other people. You basically go begging for the opportunity to work. As a writer, at least nobody can tell me what to do. I can write what I want. I might not sell it, but at least I’m in control. And directing is the ultimate control position. If people offer me decent roles in good films, of course I’ll take it. But I just didn’t like the actor lifestyle. You end up focusing all your energy on trying to get parts you don’t even want. What does that do to your self esteem in the long run? As much as I liked acting for its playfulness and the reward of hearing big laughs wash over you on a stage, I always felt I should do something that I could control.
BLVR: Did this obsession with control come out of your experiences as a professional comedian, or was it something you learned at a young age?
HR: It was thrust on me by my parents before I even realized what I was turning into. I was the little guy who knew how to tie a necktie. It came from having absentee parents. They were tremendously loving and caring people who, by circumstance, had to go to work. So my brother and I were latchkey kids, left to ourselves. Instead of turning that into a delightful delinquency, we became overly responsible.
BLVR: Is that why you briefly considered becoming a neurosurgeon?
HR: Well, being the responsible young man, I thought I’d go to medical school. There was a TV show in the 50s called Ben Casey, and I think he might’ve been a neurosurgeon. It seemed like a cool thing to do. When you grow up in Chicago, your whole family is counting on you to go to college and do something distinguished. The last thing you’re thinking is that you’re going to make a career in show business. I loved writing and performing, but the idea of doing it for a living seemed so remote. But I eventually let it devolve to the point where it was the only thing I could do. I left myself few other options. I made a handshake agreement with my best friend in college, Michael Shamberg, who is now a movie producer. We used to write shows together, and we said, “Let’s only do what’s fun. Let’s never take a job where we have to dress up in a suit.” He was like a surrogate brother to me. I drafted on his courage and confidence, or at least his bravado.
II. “THERE ARE A LOT OF WAYS THAT (A TRACHEOTOMY) CAN GO WRONG.”
BLVR: So I understand that you’re ready and willing to perform an emergency tracheotomy, should the opportunity arise.
HR: [Laughs] That’s right. It’s just part of my wanting to be all things to all people. I did a piece for Premiere magazine once on being a hyphenate. I’m a writer-director-actor, which I’ve always kinda enjoyed. I compared it to the Olympic biathlon. “Not only can he cross-country ski, but he’s a terrific marksman as well.” I want people to say, “You mean that writer performed a tracheotomy?” That’s right, I do everything.
BLVR: Do you have any training in tracheotomies?
HR: I haven’t actually done one, but I know how to do it. I’m ready. I could probably fake my way through one. I’m not sure you’d want me to do it on you.
BLVR: What tools would you need?
HR: A ballpoint pen, my friend. That’s it.
BLVR: And how is it done, exactly?
HR: Well, you have to find that spot below the Adam’s Apple, just above the soft part of the throat. And then… well, it’d help to have a razor blade. You want to cut into the hard, bony part of the trachea. If not, you’re going to have to punch a tube down in there. There are a lot of ways it can go wrong. I’m sure that the liability for doing a tracheotomy would be tremendous. You make one mistake, and it’s over. Most doctors won’t even do it. I remember once my wife and I were leaving a movie theater, and a teenage girl fainted, just fell to the ground. As I looked at the faces in the crowd, I saw a well-known doctor turn away and start walking. And I called out to him, “Doctor, shouldn’t you do something?” It was like I busted him. I can sympathize, I suppose. You don’t want to be performing any emergency surgeries on people.
BLVR: And yet that seems to be exactly what you want. Have you always had this strange compulsion to rescue a stranger?
HM: Oh yeah, for years. I have tons of rescuing fantasies based on the movies I saw when I was growing up. I wanted to be Robin Hood and the Three Musketeers and the Scarlet Pimpernel. Y’know, stand up for the little guy and save the village, save the woman, save the nation, whatever. It was always about saving somebody. I once witnessed a fatality in LA. I was driving down a boulevard on a rainy, slick day. A car passed me, skidded out of control, and got broadsided by oncoming traffic. I pulled over to the side immediately and ran over to his car, ready to do the tracheotomy or restart his heart, whatever it would take. I pulled open his car door, and he was completely crushed. His shoulders were totally relocated, and his head was sitting on his body at an angle that made it impossible to figure out where his chest was. He was so completely rearranged. It was shocking. I felt for a pulse in his neck, but he was already dead. All of my fantasies of rescuing somebody were just ripped away. But I was ready.
BLVR: Have you ever considered examining this impulse in one of your movies?
HR: I actually wrote a screenplay a few summers ago about my experiences working at a psyche ward in the late 60s. It turned out to be about the desire to save other people, and how futile and impossible it is. We can barely save ourselves.
BLVR: Hold on, back up. You worked at a psyche ward? How did that happen? Were you just doing it for the money, or were you curious about what happens at those places?
HR: I went into it because I needed a job, and it was the only thing listed at the student employment service. I sort of had a fascination with extreme and deviant behavior. It was one of the things that, even while I was resisting the military service, made me curious about war, maybe in the way that Pierre in War and Peace was interested in war. It’s such a fundamental part of the human experience. I thought, well, if this is my generation’s war and I’m going to miss it, then this is my chance to see that part of human life. I wanted to see it all. Not necessarily be killed, but get close to extreme human experiences. The psyche ward seemed like the right place to do that. There were a lot of books being written about this sort of thing. Authors like RD Laing and Thomas Szasz with The Myth of Mental Illness. I wanted to know, what does it mean to be crazy?
BLVR: Did you meet any patients who helped you understand insanity?
HR: Absolutely. I worked in the locked unit for most of the seven months. We had people from thirteen to eighty, from minor depression to sociopathic problems to full-blown schizophrenia, paranoia, catatonia. People dedicated to ending their lives, or cutting themselves ritualistically.
BLVR: Did any answers come out of that, or did it just present more questions?
HR: It just sweetened the pot, in a sense. I guess I’d say that it made me an existentialist, though I could only argue that with somebody who’s read even less about existentialism than I have. My take on it is, some people don’t have control over what happens to them. At the time, psychiatrists tended to believe that conditioning was the most important thing. Now we’re leaning more towards nature over nurture. But it’s clearly some blend of both, and who knows how one triggers the other, or how they feed each other. I could see elements of it all in myself. There are things we all feel that some people just feel more acutely, and impulses that we have that other people just have no control over. To some extent, it showed me how my own feelings and experiences were on a continuum with what it is to be alive.
BLVR: Was there a moment during your experiences at the ward where you felt like you could really help somebody, or maybe even save them?
HR: There was a woman I ended up guarding one-on-one, in what we called SP, suicide prevention. She was a beautiful young woman with a handsome, wealthy husband and a beautiful child under two years old, and she was determined to die. After spending so much time with her, I honestly believed that I could save her. But after a few months, I realized how impossible that was. You can’t love somebody into a state of mental health.
BLVR: Did you try to help her mainly by listening, or by offering up whatever words of wisdom you could?
HR: Well, when you’re twenty-one, what do you really know? It’s sad to say, but my wisdom probably only boiled down to, “Cheer up. Life’s not so bad.” That’s how useful it was, I’m sure. A lot of people get into serious relationships thinking they’re going to heal someone with their love and attention. But it doesn’t usually work out that way.
III. “EVERY CHILD IS A MINIATURE FUNDAMENTALIST.”
BLVR: As someone who traffics mostly in comedy, does it bother you that comedy isn’t given as much respect as drama?
HR: Not really. I’ve always thought that comedy was just another dramatic expression. I try to measure the amount of truth in a work rather than just looking at the generic distinction between comedy and drama. There’s a lot of bullshit drama out there that leaves you totally cold. And there’s a lot of wasted comedy time too. But when you get something honest, it doesn’t matter what label you give it. Look at a movie like Sideways, which is funny and still so painful. It points to the idea that life is full of ambiguity. Most people live somewhere on the spectrum of anxiety and depression.
BLVR: I suppose comedy is just another way of exploring that. You had that great line in your New Yorker profile, “Sometimes what people perceive as my smile is a grimace of pain.”
HR: That about sums it up. But part of my smile is also about how absurd it all is. I think I got in touch with that absurdity quite young. Sometimes it’s hysterical irony and sometimes it’s a painful irony. Life has all of these contradictory feelings and contradictory results. People spend their whole lives struggling to get what they think they want, and even if they get it, they find that it’s either not what they wanted, or it comes with so many unwanted consequences. We’re always shut off from pure joy. Whatever bliss we think we’re going to find, we may find it in brief flashes, fleeting moments that come and go. There’s an impossibility to nailing down any good feeling.
BLVR: That brings to mind your old National Lampoon writing partner and friend, Doug Kenny. Was comedy an outlet for his sadness, or were they unrelated?
HR: The comic impulse is sometimes a reaction to sadness. You feel like you can make one choice or the other. You can perceive life as tragic, or you can laugh at the tragedy of it and that turns it into comedy. It doesn’t change the circumstances. None of that alters your fundamental nature. I think Doug’s problems predated his comedy career. Or probably formed them. There was a great construct I once heard about the Absurd Child Syndrome. Parents tell us things to protect us, or they educate us from their own misinformation or misconceptions. We tell our kids that policemen are good and God protects us and our country is noble, and at a certain point—and for some it comes quite early, five or six years old—we start to realize that it’s all a facade. So the child says, “Well geesh, the institutions that I’m supposed to respect—the church and the government—they’re telling me things that don’t appear to be true. Either I’m crazy or they’re crazy.” That creates the Absurd Child. The Absurd Child is one who says, “Well, I think they’re crazy.” So you live in this state of alienation from your culture and your society and your family because you see this rampant bullshit around you.
BLVR: But isn’t that blanket rejection of your parents’ values just an inevitable part of growing up?
HR: For most of us, yes. But some people have a fear of rejecting all the security that comes with family, church and state. They become fundamentalists. In a lot of ways, every child is a miniature fundamentalist. They need to believe in these things. It’s too terrifying otherwise. It takes maturity to embrace all that ambiguity. Once you’re alienated, you’re on your own. That takes you to the world of the existential, where things just kind of float.
BLVR: It’s not a happy place to be. You have to make up your own rules as you go along.
HR: Yeah. “You mean we’re not going to heaven? This is it? I can’t trust my parents or my teachers? The people who govern us are sadistic idiots?”
BLVR: Do you still have shades of the Absurd Child in your own personality, or is it something that you’ve grown out of as you’ve gotten older?
HR: It dissipates over time. When you’re young and you first see the extent and depth of the world’s hypocrisy, it’s fun to go after it. But by the time you’re sixty, it’s so commonplace and so expected. What’s the point in ridiculing these people anymore? Their existence itself is a sort of sick joke. Which is different from joining it or being completely co-opted by it. Even though I live in the suburbs, I pride myself in being the guy who will refer to an unpleasant reality in polite, mixed company. I’m still the guy most likely to say “fuck” at the dinner party. That’s kinda pathetic, I know. These are minor victories.
IV. “MY RIGHTEOUS INDIGNATION WAS A FORM OF ENTERTAINMENT. I LOVED GETTING PISSED OFF AT INJUSTICE. I DIDN’T DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT, BUT I LIKED THE FEELING OF BEING PISSED OFF.”
BLVR: I’ve heard you make some rather critical comments about satire. You’ve more or less said that, as comedy genres go, it’s a fairly useless gesture.
HR: Somebody once told me that if you laugh at a George Bush joke, or you send an email cartoon to your friends that makes Bush look like a fool, you feel like you’ve done something significant. “I did my part, I let people know how much I hate George Bush.” But really, what have you actually done? Just expressing contempt for your leaders doesn’t really accomplish anything.
BLVR: I suppose that’s true. It’s probably the most inactive form of social outrage.
HR: There were a lot of political films coming out of Europe during the late 60s. Movies like Costa-Gavras’s Z and stuff like that. I used to go see all of them, and I realized that my righteous indignation was a form of entertainment for me. I loved getting pissed off at injustice. I didn’t do anything about it, I just liked the feeling of being pissed off.
BLVR: Is that a phenomenon unique to our culture?
HR: I think so. A friend of mine is trying to do a documentary where he brings Jewish and Arab comedians to occupied territories in Israel. He wants to do shows as a way of finding some comedic common denominator. When he proposed the idea to one of the officials at the Jenin refuge camp, the guy just stared at him and said, “This is not a joke to us. We don’t think that laughing is the answer.”
BLVR: Would you agree with that, or do you think he’s missing the point?
HR: Well, I see how serious they are. Everyone has experienced laughing at a funeral, and not even inappropriately. It could be a response to a moment of absurdity or some fond memory. We’re human beings so we understand that laughter and crying aren’t always disparate emotions. But for people in the world who are struggling for basic human rights or their survival, it’s a little harder for them to laugh about it.
BLVR: So in those cases, you think that satire is pretty much pointless?
HR: I think it’s a luxury of literate middle-class people. The one thing I noticed from the documentary, when he was in the Jenin camp, there was incredible widespread poverty all around him. I mentioned this to somebody from Israel, and I asked him, “What’s the unemployment rate in the occupied territory in Gaza?” He said, “Oh, about 80%” And I said, “Well, what about Israel?” And they said, “Oh, it’s high right now. It’s about 12%.” So if you look beyond the religious fundamentalism, from a Marxist point of view, a lot of economic and class issues are driving these struggles. People who are well fed and relatively secure in their beds can laugh at their troubles. They can enjoy sitcoms. For those who aren’t quite so lucky, well, the irony might be lost on them.
BLVR: It’s hard to appreciate irony if you can’t eat.
HR: [Laughs.] Yeah. “Look at how poor we are. That’s funny.”
BLVR: I know a few young satirists who might be upset to think about it that way.
HR: Maybe it’s a useful kind of venting. But it’s not productive. It has no ideology behind it. It’s not really interested in social change. At the Lampoon, we liked to laugh at any injustice, or laugh at death. Nothing was sacred. That’s different from saying that satire is inherently useful. Second City had a liberal idealism that one might associate with Chicago and progressive politics. They had a belief that, “Gee, if we just all work hard enough and hope hard enough, we can make meaningful social change.” There was more cynicism at the Lampoon. It was more along the lines of, “We’re all fucked.” Usually, satire is intended for the people who agree with you. Did Michael Moore’s film [Fahrenheit 9/11] convert a single person? I doubt it. He’s just a cheerleader for the already liberal crowd.
BLVR: How does that affect your choices as a filmmaker? Are you more concerned with being funny or expressing a strong point-of-view? Will you cut a laugh line because it contradicts the message of a movie, or cut something meaningful because it’s not funny?
HR: I try to work from both ends. I look for the meaning in what’s funny, and I look for what’s funny about things that are meaningful to me. I’m working on a big idea comedy now, which I haven’t started writing but I’ve made the deal. It’s about our assumptions about society and how we got to this point. It examines the origins of culture, going back to hunter-gatherers and the first cities on the planet. Which, ironically, is where we’re fighting our war right now. We’re still fighting on the same ground. I want this movie to be about the power of the church and the state. But you won’t see that on the poster. The details of it are funny to me. For me, most comedy scripts fail in the mechanical playing-out of the setup. They’ll pay lip service to a moral lesson or a psychological progression. The main character will learn something, but it’s usually something simplistic. He’ll learn that he loves his wife, or that family is a good thing, or that sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe. Those are minor lessons, and they don’t really work for me. I’d rather do comedies that strike at some bigger ideas.
BLVR: Rumor has it that you turned down the chance to direct Disney’s remake of Guess Whose Coming To Dinner because you felt they weren’t interested in really exploring racism.
HR: That’s pretty much it. The way they wanted to do it didn’t have a lot to do with the colossal amount of violence, pain and injustice that swirls around racial injustice. It would’ve been like an episode of The Jeffersons. What’s the point? But who knows, it might be successful and wildly popular. Maybe that’s as much as most people want. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think.”
BLVR: Does that offend you as a filmmaker?
HR: It offends me as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to think? What does that mean? Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head? Or people’ll say that they don’t want to see any negative emotions. They don’t want to see unpleasantness. I did a comedy with Al Franken about his character Stuart Smalley, which was really about alcoholism and addiction and codependency. It had some painful stuff in it. When we showed it to focus groups, some of them actually said, “If I want to see a dysfunctional family, I’ll stay home.”
BLVR: Wow. I guess they just want more movies about stoned teenagers trying to find their cars.
HR: I have no interest in that. I have a great respect for the movie-going experience. It’s such a unique thing. You’re not getting up and walking around the house or flipping channels during the dull parts. You’re in a dark space, hopefully, and the movie fills most of your field of vision. You’re surrounded by sound, and the colors are deeply saturated, and faces are fifteen feet high. If it’s done well, you’re really going to feel some big emotions or have some big belly laughs. That’s why I’ve tried to stay away from mild satire. I want an audience to feel something more powerful for their ten bucks. If they’re going to spend two hours with me, and trust me to lead them around, I’d like to take them someplace special. I’m thinking of doing a marital comedy for one of the studios, but I want it to be so painful that it’ll have a profound effect on married couples who see it together. I want husbands to cringe, and their wives to glare at them, and couples to talk about it later and ask, “Do you feel that way?” “What? No, no, of course not.” I want to explore marriage without the usual Hallmark Card platitudes. Life is difficult, and I like movies that acknowledge that.
BLVR: You seem to be evolving into a more challenging filmmaker. This is a huge stretch from the Ghostbusters fluff of the 80s.
HR: Well, I feel more challenged. Whether I can succeed or not remains to be seen.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 2006 issue of the Believer magazine.)