Tuesday, February 25, 2014

FTT Off-Topic: Harold Ramis

Not sports, read or skip.

Harold Ramis died today, at the age of 69, and it made a lot of the shows I watch, because Ramis was just incredibly influential in the field of American comedy in the past 30 years. Without him, there's no Animal House, no Caddyshack, no Groundhog Day, no Stripes, no Meatballs, no Ghostbusters, and a whole host of other stuff. Bill Murray isn't Bill Murray without Harold Ramis. And all of those things (particularly Groundhog Day, perhaps the best comedy of its era, and profoundly moving, really) are great and wonderful, and I somehow feel it's all too easy to think of those, the hits, as it were.

Here's a truism about music: if you like a band or solo artist for their hit single, and after listening to a lot of their tracks, you still like the single the best, you probably aren't going to be a fan of the band or solo artist for the long haul. It's the deep tracks that stay with you, the songs that only really resonate for you, that bring you back and let you know that you are tied deep with the product. My favorite Rolling Stones song? Maybe "Loving Cup", from "Exile on Main Street", this month. My favorite Beatles song? "Tomorrow Never Knows" from "Revolver." My favorite White Stripes song? "Ball and Biscuit" from "Elephant". And so on, and so on; if the best song to my ears is the one that everyone's into, I can't stay in that crowd for too long.

I first saw Ramis on late night television, the NBC broadcasts of SCTV's first year. This was pre-cable and pre-VCR, when you pretty much had to caffeinate yourself beyond all endurance and find a room where you could watch television until 2am, because that was when the show was on, dammit. Ramis was an edgy, vibrating presence on those shows before he moved on to other things, and I could not get enough of him; he hinted at places that I just wasn't getting anywhere else. Despite the ham-handed laugh tracks, and the fact that comedy rarely ages well, I'm still totally sold on him.

Take the plastic bag off your head, or the gas won't work, indeed.

These shows were incredibly influential to me, growing up. They told me that humor didn't have to be lowest common denominator, that you could reference stuff you hadn't even seen or were aware of and glom on to cultural touch points with a fraction of the work. Screw the Cliff's Notes of "The Grapes of Wrath"; I'd latch on to SCTV's treatment of "The Grapes Of Mud" and get most of what was being passed on. Maybe it was off-putting for a 12-year-old to laugh like a hyena at flopsweat, racism, professional termination and more, but it was just deeper stuff than fart jokes and catch phrases. (Both of which, of course, Ramis could also pull off. The man made money too, after all.)

Ramis said in an interview that he knew he was never going to be that big of a deal in comedy when he was on stage with John Belushi, and he realized just how far Belushi would go for a laugh; the answer was, well, anywhere. And Ramis was just never going to be that guy, or even mad at that guy, so he had to find another way to succeed, which led to all of the smarter stuff and writing and directing and so on, and yes, he found his way beyond just about all of the on-camera performers of his generation, and amen to all of that. But what he did on camera was actually pretty meaningful, because he brought this dark energy and intellect to what was just not a fertile ground for it.

A young Ramis today wouldn't find any trouble at all getting work, or becoming a big star; he'd be on "The Daily Show" as a correspondent, giving vent to bizarre rants of unreality, then playing that into feature roles and the like. Ramis is, clearly, the spiritual father to people like Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms and Steve Carell, and those guys just more or less define the era for me, really. Or he'd find himself in Christopher Guest's movies, or doing viral work on the Web, or hanging out with Patton Oswalt and the like as an alternative comic, getting voice work a la Kevin McDonald in his post-Kids in the Hall phase, and so on, and so on. Ramis' kind of performer, the one that can go from start to straight man to stooge and back again, all because they come from a place of reality, then just amp up the crazy from there... well, that won the day. One-note schtick guys used to rule the world, and now, they are marginalized for Vegas and Branson audiences. Ramis, in a not-small way, made that.

Ramis got that comedy worked better, frequently, as a team player. And did the revolutionary thing of turning the clock back 40 years, and making everything old, new again.

The world will remember Ramis for his movies, and they should; they are great, and I'm going to remember those, too. But, really, everything the man did was great. That's what we lost today, but his fingerprints are everywhere.

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