I still remember the first time I laughed until I couldn’t breathe: it was the first time I saw “The Mr. Bill Show” on Saturday Night Live. The first time I laughed so hard in a movie theater that I couldn’t breathe, however — that I laughed so hard I literally fell out of my seat onto the floor next to me — was when I was 14-years-old. The movie was Ghostbusters. And the line that turned me into a big blob of Jello, unable to catch my breath for a good full minute or so was this one:
Harold Ramis was the star and co-writer of Ghostbusters. He also played a part in most of the comedies that defined my generation, from Animal House, to Caddyshack, to Stripes, to National Lampoon’s Vacation, to Groundhog Day, all movies that every red-blooded kid who grew up in the late 70s and early 80s can now quote from memory. What’s more, having come up through Second City in Chicago, he was behind quite a few of the best moments from SCTV, which is still one of the funniest and most consistently outrageous sketch comedy shows to ever assault the small screen.
It’s astonishing to think just how much Ramis contributed to the world of comedy. His work wasn’t simply influential, it was groundbreaking. Ghostbusters was the highest-grossing comedy of the 80s and it’s as beloved today as it was when it was first released in 1984. There’s never been a movie quite like it and there likely never will again; it was a flawless combination of comedy, action, sci-fi and, yes, sweetness.
It was that last quality, the fact that so many his characters exhibited a certain kind of warmth and humanity, even the ones who were the most loutish on the surface, that set Ramis’s work apart from that of his contemporaries. Think of John Winger and Russell Ziskey, whose good natures and reluctant heroism balanced out their smart-alec wit in Stripes; or mob boss Paul Vitti in Analyze This, his tough exterior hiding unresolved heartbreak over the murder of his father; or Phil Connors, who learns to become a better man by repeating the same day over and over again until he gets it right in Groundhog Day. Ramis was always searching for the heart and soul at the center of his films to add another dimension to the slapstick, and that made him great.
He’s going to be missed. He was talented beyond the capacity for rational thought.