The summer 2005 hits The Wedding Crashers and The Aristocrats have reinvigorated fans of brainy comedy. Back in the summer of 1998, one of the genre’s true geniuses, director and writer Harold Ramis, was filming Analyze This with Billy Crystal and Robert De Niro.
Harold Ramis, director of the movies you know cold, has a comedy problem. No, it isn’t quite enough for him that he has directed or written most of the top-grossing comedies of his generation–from the hellacious Animal House (1978), which he wrote with National Lampoon founder Doug Kenney and Lampoon writer Chris Miller; to the loose and loopy Caddyshack (1980), which he directed and wrote with Brian Doyle-Murray and Kenney; to Stripes (1981), the first countercultural service comedy, which he rewrote for director Ivan Reitman; to the darkly cheerful PG blockbuster Ghostbusters (1984), which he wrote with Dan Aykroyd; then on through a rough patch (drugs, sequels, Club Paradise, divorce, a second marriage) to the sublime Groundhog Day (1993), which he co-wrote and directed. Mr. Ramis needs to believe that each of his mainstream comedies has a moral reason for being. And that kind of thinking can drive you a little crazy, if you’re someone who had anything to do with that “Baby Ruth in the pool scene” in Caddyshack.
“My ex-wife used to call me ‘the rabbi,’” said Mr. Ramis during a lunch break on the Montclair, N.J., set of his latest movie–Analyze This, starring Robert De Niro (hit man who goes into therapy) and Billy Crystal (psychiatrist who helps hit man work through rage issues). “I can really go overboard on the morality.”
Like Sullivan, the fictional director in the 1941 Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels who was embarrassed to have made such romps as Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939, Mr. Ramis sometimes wonders if the end of comedy (i.e., big laughs) always justifies the means (e.g., the cry of “Doody!” at the sight of the floating Baby Ruth bar during “caddie day” at the club pool). The first thing that needs a little moral justification is Animal House, a picture that Entertainment Weekly recently dubbed one of the original “gross-out movies” from those golden days long before there was There’s Something About Mary.
“I was in college from ’62 to ’66,” said Mr. Ramis, who is 53 years old. “I entered college just when people were in the post–Korean War fraternity wildness. You know, no cares, everything looked great, Kennedy, Camelot, our generation taking over the world–and suddenly, my second year of college begins with Kennedy killed, and everything goes to hell. Civil-rights demonstrations and cities burning and the Vietnam War and by the time I finished college, they were burning down the R.O.T.C. building.
“So I had been raised in Chicago, and for some reason, I think I identified with the beatniks even before there were freaks and hippies, and I always felt countercultural. When they warned us, in high school, to look out for someone hanging around the schoolyard selling reefer, I went out there–Where’s the guy? You know–Where’s the guy? He’s not here! My beliefs were not mainstream. I sang folk songs when everyone else was singing rock ’n’ roll and I could be outraged about union problems in the railroads and coal mines in the late 19th century. So I had that kind of healthy righteous indignation and I had this big sense that history was a series of great injustices against the poor, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised, and part of that is being Jewish and growing up in Chicago, which had a great radical history.”
He paused. He was wearing olive green pants. His feet looked huge–size 14–and he has a big belly now. He looks like a prosperous M.D., maybe an internist. That must be what James L. Brooks saw in him when he cast him as the saintly doc who saves the sickly kid in As Good as It Gets.
“I say all this leading up to the idea that Animal House was not just a movie about how great college was in the early 60’s,” said Mr. Ramis. “In our minds, that homecoming parade at the end of Animal House was probably like November ’63. Literally a week after the movie ends, the world changed. So I thought the anarchy of Animal House was really a precursor to the political anarchy that swept my generation in the later 60’s. So, in other words, even in those early, dumb comedies, for me, I invested them with meaning. Whether the audience ever saw it or got it, to me they were statement movies …. Even though, like, Stripes was not my conception–but even then I tried to follow an old Second City dictum, which was Always work from the top of your intelligence. It is kind of self-justifying, but we’d always said to ourselves, Broad comedy is not necessarily dumb comedy, and I think we set out to prove that.
“When we were working on Caddyshack, Doug Kenney said he always wanted to do a kind of really smart adult Disney movie–as American as Disney films, but really embodying all our values.” He laughed a little bit. “And Caddyshack clearly had a big social message–you know, the outsiders and the wackos are the good guys.
“It’s funny. When Animal House was being shopped to the studios, the biggest reaction, even at Universal, which eventually bought the picture, was, ‘These guys are the heroes?’”
Mr. Ramis is no tyrant on the set. His liberal ideals (collaborating is good) match up nicely with the rules of big-time Hollywood movie making: Collaborating is good–especially when the studio executives, the producers and the stars of the film, not to mention their personal screenwriters, all must approve practically every line of the script. So on the set of the De Niro–Crystal comedy, he ran down the long process of how the script came about with no complaints: He was writer No. 5 on the project, he said, and then he turned his draft over to Mr. De Niro’s screenwriter, and then Billy Crystal took a long look at it, and then Mr. Ramis got it back for yet another draft, and he didn’t start shooting until he had “numerous line-by-line readings” with the two stars to make sure that everyone saw eye to eye. And now, he said, Warner Brothers is on his back a little bit about the budget.
“My whole style is in one way a weakness and in one way a strength,” he said. “I try to please everybody under the assumption that if everyone agrees and is happy, then you’ve done something right …. I don’t have the kind of confidence that says I’m right and they’re all wrong. It’s fun being the director, but all that really means is you get to cast the deciding vote. It doesn’t mean you’re the only voter. Not in my world, anyway.”
The suburban set of Analyze This–which was also filmed in New York City and Florida–was lazy and calm. Crewmembers were sleeping on the grass in the front yard. The people who were standing around all day with headsets were drinking coffee and complaining about lower back pain. The main task of the day was to get a good shot of the huge, tackily ornate fountain that Mr. De Niro’s mobster had left in Mr. Crystal’s therapist’s backyard as an overly generous token of gratitude.
Mr. Ramis looked up at the big prop. “It’s a little broad,” he said.
The director of photography’s composition was nice, with the fountain standing out in all its gaudiness against the nice old yellow house. But Mr. Ramis took a look and suggested that the camera start up high–focusing on the cherub on top–and pan down little by little to the house so that the audience wouldn’t realize for a moment that the big ugly thing was in Mr. Crystal’s backyard. The fountain was a $100,000 prop, and Mr. Ramis needed to get a laugh. Then the camera operators set their sights on Mr. Crystal, the actor playing his son, and Lisa Kudrow, who was playing his fiancée, all standing in the driveway, doing a comedy reaction take. Eleven takes later, everybody was satisfied and it was time for the break.
“I went to Caddyshack with very little set experience, virtually none,” said Mr. Ramis, who worked as a feature writer for the Chicago Daily News and as an editor at Playboy while moonlighting with the Second City comedy troupe in the late 60’s. “I realized on the first day, there was no sense pretending I knew anything about the mechanics of filmmaking. I thought, Instead of telling, I will ask. People, you know, respected my ignorance and were eager to help. I ended up calling it the $8 million scholarship to film school …. I think I’m a good comedy editor, because editing is so close to writing in a certain way. I already know the rhythms of how I want to hear things and exactly what the timing of every line or scene is. I think the writer has already done 80 percent of the director’s work.”
Caddyshack is a strange movie in that almost every scene is pleasurable to watch. There’s no boring exposition. Mention the word Caddyshack to about 50 percent of the adult population, and you’ll see some dumb and happy grins. It’s just the big comedy revue of its moment, and this year, 18 years after its release, ABC paid $3 million to return it to prime time, recutting it to restore the Baby Ruth–in-the-pool scene, long absent from the TV version.
After the huge success of Animal House–the No. 1 box-office comedy of all time until Ghostbusters knocked it off the top of the list–Mr. Ramis and his collaborator Doug Kenney were hot in Hollywood. Someone representing the producer Jon Peters snagged the two screenwriters as they came out of the Animal House screening room.
“We had actually conceived it,” Mr. Ramis said of their impromptu Caddyshack pitch meeting. “Doug always talked about it as a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story of a young guy. But when we got Chevy [Chase], you realize he’s the million-dollar player. You’ve got to service that from the studio’s point of view. And then we were thinking [Don] Rickles or [Rodney] Dangerfield, and Rodney was really just raging at the time–he was doing The Tonight Show frequently, never better, never better. We hired Rodney and then, of course, Ted [Knight] came in, and he was an icon from television, and Bill Murray agreed to do this little part–he had one scripted piece. So the whole time I’m making it, I accepted that it was really about these four adult role models. That the kid [played by Michael O’Keefe] sees these different kinds of adult solutions to life and, you know, will go one way or the other.”
Despite those lofty themes, the Baby Ruth sequence and Bill Murray’s twisted Carl the Greenskeeper character were definite precursors to the 90’s school of rambunctious comedy that gave us the talking buttocks in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the long pee of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and the extended bathroom sequence in Dumb and Dumber, but that kind of thing doesn’t hold much interest for Mr. Ramis. Asked about Bob and Peter Farrelly, the Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There’s Something About Mary auteurs, the director went right into rabbi mode.
“Well, I always thought, in terms of style, where people said incredibly funny things, did incredibly funny things and where the story actually made sense and had moral value”–he chuckled–“in a way it’s not just ambitious, it’s a different kind of commitment. A lot of movies are made without moral concern. Our whole industry exists without a moral compass, it seems to me, but I have a strong one, and I always feel the need to serve that side of myself.”
Still, Carl the Greenskeeper would be right at home in a Farrelly brothers movie. He uses a masturbatory motion to clean golf balls in one of those red golf-ball washers (Doug Kenney’s visual gag) as he refers, out of the side of his mouth, to a golfer as a “monkey woman.” But this is Ramis, so even Carl the Greenskeeper has a kind of demented spiritual life. Pressing the sharp points of a pitchfork against a caddie’s neck (Mr. Ramis’ visual gag), he says in one speech, “So I jump ship in Hong Kong and I make my way over to Tibet and I get on as a looper on a little course over there in the Himalayas …. A looper, you know, a caddie, a looper, a jock. So I tell ’em I’m a pro jock, and guess who they give me. The Dalai Lama himself, the 12th son of the lama. The flowing robes, the grace, bald, striking! So I’m on the first tee with him and I give him the driver. He hauls off and whacks one–big hitter, the lama, long–into a 10,000-foot crevasse right at the base of this glacier, and you know what the lama says? ‘Goonga aloonga. Goonga goonga aloonga.’ So we finish 18 and he’s gonna stiff me. So I say, ‘Hey! Lama! How ’bout a little something, you know, for the effort?’ And he says, ‘Oh, uh, there won’t be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.’ So I got that going for me, which is nice.”
Practically the first thing you see in Caddyshack is a giant gopher puppet on a golf course. This puppet was a comedy prop the producer insisted on having. So here it is, the opening moment of Mr. Ramis’ first movie as director, and the audience is looking at a concession made to a producer. Mr. Ramis also added a few underground gopher scenes to the picture in post-production.
“I was reluctant, but Jon Peters insisted on it,” he said. “He just thought it would be cute to have this underground life–because Bill Murray was alone in the movie. It gave reality to his enemy.”
While Mr. Ramis was willing to compromise, the bemused wise-asses who were the heroes of his early movies were not. What they have in common is the baby boom’s ferocious need to overturn the World War II generation, a need that came under the heading of defying convention or shocking the bourgeoisie or, simply, rebellion. Again and again, Mr. Ramis set up straitlaced institutions (the Omega Theta Pi fraternity in Animal House; the country club in Caddyshack; the U.S. Army in Stripes; the American family in National Lampoon’s Vacation; bureaucrats and librarians in Ghostbusters ) and then put Bill Murray or Chevy Chase or John Belushi into Establishment-trampling mode. They spoke in a jivey, irony-laden language that the audience understood, but the old-guard villains didn’t. For the most part, it was a sure-fire comedy strategy. In Caddyshack, Chevy Chase, a drunken, weed-smoking Zen master, snorts margarita salt off of his girlfriend’s belly and doesn’t keep score on the golf course; in Stripes, Bill Murray introduces himself to the guys in the platoon by saying “Chicks dig me” and ends up in a fistfight with the drill sergeant before saving the world about an hour after the bikini-babe mud-wrestling sequence. In Vacation, Chevy Chase shares a can of beer with his young son during a heart-to-heart chat. In Ghostbusters, the heroes crack wise even in face of apocalyptic doom.
But when middle age strikes and you kick your addiction to what Mr. Ramis called “numerous substances” and go through a divorce and find yourself involved in a few bombs (Armed and Dangerous, Caddyshack II, Club Paradise), maybe you no longer feel like the old wise guy. Especially when there’s no longer an old guard to overturn and a representative of your own generation is in the White House, behaving a little bit like Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman character in Ghostbusters.
Groundhog Day was a breakthrough for Mr. Ramis (and Mr. Murray) not only because the script had an idea that spoke to his generation, now a weary, near-middle-aged, middle-class audience, but because the movie villains that had once been embodied in the one-note foils to the protagonists could now be found in the character of Mr. Murray himself. Mr. Murray, playing TV weatherman Phil Connors, is a monster at the start of the movie–but a believable monster.
“I don’t suppose there’s any possibility of an espresso or a cappuccino, is there?” he says to the humble innkeeper. And instead of portraying a wise guy who’s fighting an unfair system, Mr. Murray is in this movie charged with the task of doing battle with himself. And, interestingly, the wise-ass-ism, the quick, cutting remarks, that were always so charming in the heroes of previous Ramis movies, are now considered poison. In real life, Mr. Ramis couldn’t bring himself to work on the screenplay with Mr. Murray. He sent the neophyte Danny Rubin, who wrote the first draft of the movie, to work with the star instead.
“The downside of sitting with Bill is getting him in a chair. ‘I’ll meet you at 2’–5 o’clock he walks in the door. I’m too old for that, but Danny wasn’t,” said Mr. Ramis. Early on in the movie, Bill Murray’s weatherman tells his producer, played by Andie MacDowell, “I think this is one of the traits of a really good producer: keep the talent happy.”
“Anything I can do,” she replies.
“Could you help me with my pelvis tilt?” he says.
That kind of a line would have been used in Ghostbusters or Stripes, not only to get a laugh, but to steer the audience to Bill Murray’s side. Everybody loved it, in Stripes, when he used a spatula to “flip burgers” with that lovely female M.P.’s butt. In this case, the raunchy pickup attempt gets a laugh–but its real purpose is to reveal the inner creep.
The brutal repetition of the same day eventually strips Mr. Murray’s character of his wise-ass layers, and his irony. The movie breaks him down little by little, until he doesn’t have a quick answer for everything and must react to other people authentically and with real kindness. Which makes for a strange system of values in a comedy. Most comedies are on the anarchists’ side. It’s as if Mr. Ramis’ script–written with Danny Rubin (who came up with the idea) and with considerable input from Mr. Murray himself–means to strip Bill Murray of all his Bill Murray–ness. The very things that were considered part of the solution in Stripes, Animal House and Caddyshack become, in Groundhog Day, part of the problem. Us became Them.
Maybe the movie is Mr. Ramis’ and Mr. Murray’s way of paying for the sins or smugness that went with their generation’s inevitable victory over the Bob Dole–George Bush axis. A beautiful montage sequence shows Bill Murray killing himself again and again. He drives a pickup truck over a cliff, with the groundhog (yes–it’s certainly a visual allusion to the gopher varmint of Caddyshack!) at the wheel. Completely deadpan, he takes a toaster, plugs it into the wall and drops it into the bathtub after he gets in the water. And the look on his face is thrillingly resigned to death when he steps in front of a truck. Next, triumphantly, he leaps off a church tower. Mr. Ramis shows us his gray body, dead, in the morgue–the corpse of Saturday Night Live!–and Chris Elliot’s character says sarcastically: “I really liked him. He was a really, really good guy.” Needless to say, there’s no Baby Ruth scene in Groundhog Day, and Mr. Ramis didn’t really have to push himself to rationalize making the movie; affirming letters from Buddhists, Hasids, Catholics and other religious groups did that work for him.
After trying to achieve similar effects with two box-office bombs, Stuart Saves His Family (1995) and Multiplicity (1996), Mr. Ramis will be trying to make another virtuous comedy in Analyze This. But instead of a comedic gangster like Bill Murray finding redemption through self-examination, an actual gangster (Mr. De Niro’s character) thinks he’s in need of psychiatric help because he’s not doing his job (killing people) very well.
Mr. Ramis became the rabbi once more: “It’s meant to be popular entertainment, but there’s something to serve here. For me, a moral premise, which is, John Gotti comes to you for help. If you’re the therapist, what does success mean? Billy has a line: ‘What is my goal? To make you a happier, well-adjusted gangster?’ So when I came in here, I wanted to define what the movie was really about–this guy getting in touch with his rage, his fear and his grief, in order to break the cycle of violence in his life. For me, it’s a big metaphor for gang violence in America. Fatherless young men full of unexpressed rage and grief and fear, taking it out on everyone else. Billy successfully breaks it by leading Bob’s character to a big cathartic moment. That’s something worth saying. I didn’t just want to do a gangster spoof. I’m not into spoofs.”
Harold Ramis at 53 is trying to pull off one of the hardest acts in show business–getting big laughs in the ratty game of comedy while trying to stay on the side of the angels.