I feel perfectly comfortable calling Harold Ramis, who died Monday at the age of 69, one of the funniest people to have ever lived. There's comfort in doing so because humor appreciated by the masses is a relatively recent development in human history, and because few humans have entertained the masses in so many different ways as Ramis. I knew who Ramis was when word began circulating that he died. For someone my age, you just know Dr. Egon Spengler, the character he played in Ghostbusters, and so you recognized him every other time you saw him after that -- as Don Durkett in Orange County or Seth Rogen's thoughtful, sweet stoner dad in Knocked Up. What I wasn't prepared for when I fired up his IMDb page was just how unaware I was of the full body of his work until that moment.
In addition to Ghostbusters, which he wrote as well as starring in, Ramis directed and/or wrote Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes, National Lampoon's Vacation, Back to School, Groundhog Day, Multiplicity, Analyze This, Analyze That and Year One. Being the creative force behind just one of those films (in a few cases) would be enough to make someone film and comedic royalty. That's all that exemplary work was done by one man is staggering.
Ramis is almost singlehandedly responsible for making the great Bill Murray the star he is today. That too is a great gift to the world.
Beyond even that, though, Ramis, without me even really realizing it until his passing, was the voice that defined the golden age of film comedies. Pressed to come up with a list of their favorite comedies, Ghostbusters would rank near the top for many people. But so would Animal House. And Caddyshack. And Groundhog Day. And Stripes. And Vacation. One could easily argue that their top three or top five comedies ever involve Ramis in some way. That's a mind-boggling, stupendous legacy to leave behind.
Now, in thinking about what I consider the golden age of comedy (roughly 1980-1995), I keep circling back to Ramis and finding an inextricable link between his greatness and the greatness of that era. What is different about the great movies of that era? I think there is a playful earnestness that was present then and that has been replaced by cynicism, irony, self-awareness, a few too many winks in the direction of the audience.
Stephen Tobolowsky, the character actor who played Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, remembered Ramis as someone who, "looked like he was trying to suppress a smile. It was as if laughter was always trying to escape." I think that came across in his films, and I wish there were more like that these days -- humorous pieces that sought a less acerbic quality, that went for something more than putting Will Ferrell in a silly outfit and having him ad lib for 90-plus minutes.
Fortunately for us, Ramis' work is going nowhere even though he has departed this world. Dotted amongst DVD collections and the listings on basic cable, Ramis will live on and on.