"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 14 November 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Almost Ramis


"Boom chaka-a-laka laka boom chaka-a-laka laka boom chaka-a-laka boom!"

That's maybe the best line in the signature scene of Harold Ramis and Bill Murray's army comedy Stripes (1981), in which Murray leads his misfit platoon in a laugh out loud funny proto-hip hop parade drill. It's clever, it's cool, it feels rebellious. But in the end, Murray and his outfit are just doing what they're told — they're marching in the US army. It's a classic baby boomer This Is Not Your Father's ________ moment (Oldsmobile, jeans, GOP convention, pro wrestling, etc.). But it's an Olds all right, and rest assured, Dad is very proud.

It's a seemingly contradictory moment coming from a writer with Ramis' background. A former editor of Playboy party jokes, he went from Chicago's Second City theater in the late 60s to the National Lampoon and SCTV of the '70s to his first movie, Animal House (1978). Ramis often retells the story of performing at Second City while the 1968 Democratic convention riots raged just five blocks away in Lincoln Park. Civil rights, assassinations, Vietnam; Ramis was front row center for the biggest show of American unrest since the Civil War. And he sat it out. "We weren't really in the streets," he recently told his alma mater, Playboy, "but we looked like the guys in the streets."

And Ramis has stayed out of trouble ever since by writing, directing, or acting in films like Caddyshack (1980), National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), Back to School (1986), Multiplicity (1996), and his latest, Bedazzled (2000). His clean rap sheet shows in film after film which specialize in a comedy of, as he calls it, "wacky redemption." Whether its Murray's jerk cum nice guy from Meatballs (1979) to Groundhog Day (1993) or Robert DeNiro's career killer turned New Age fuzzy in Analyze This (1999), Ramis has a knack for reshaping remarkably funny people into upstanding citizens.

Ramis, Murray, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Ivan Reitman — they came from the baby boom, the post war era of prosperity in the 1950s. They didn't grow up in orphanages, whorehouses, or overcrowded tenements as did, respectively, Charlie Chaplin, Richard Pryor, or the Marx Brothers. And Ramis' films, about country clubs, frat houses, family vacations, and grad students, reflect it. "We wanted to revolt against the establishment," Ramis told Playboy, "at 23, you're supposed to. When you're young you tend to blame society. But as a function of getting older ... I began taking personal responsibility for what happens in my life, and that became the issue."

Dismissing social criticism as kid's stuff is a unique turn in American comedy, especially for a generation so impressed with its revolutionary self-image. Some comics rage against the machine, Ramis rages against comedians. Chaplin, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Jerry Lewis, Lenny Bruce — they came from hard scrabble backgrounds and transitory show biz lives that produced comedy about a broken world. They were right, the world was wrong.

The suburban habitat Ramis knew wasn't broken, so he looked at the people in it who were — baby boomers. Thus, when he set out to write an army comedy it wasn't like any ever done. Having aged out of the draft, the generation that ducked Vietnam now saw the military as a frat house. Riding on early '80s Reagan jingoism, Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, and all those Be All That You Can Be ads, Ramis and Murray play aimless goofs who join the army to give their lives some focus. Contrast that with the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (1933) or Chaplin's Shoulder Arms (1918) — even Abbott and Costello had to be drafted.

And Ramis' military isn't led by the kind of military madmen found in Catch-22 (1970) or Dr. Stranglelove (1964). At its worst, its full of what the suburban boomer hates most — squares, crewcuts who act like your dad. Murray never questions the fact that he might have to kill for his country. But why does he have to do push-ups and sing those doofus drill songs? Murray's arch enemy is his drill instructor, Sgt. Hulka, a regular army crank who can't stand Murray's wiseass attitude and punches him out in the latrine. For Murray and Ramis, this isn't a man to be taken apart as Hawkeye and Trapper John saw Frank Burns in MASH (1970). No, it's about earning Hulka's respect (in their own wiseass way, of course — boom chaka laka laka boom!). Thus, in Stripes' finale — a covert op in which the roguish Murray steals a government vehicle, attacks a foreign power, and rescues his friends — he returns home a hero and gets a salute from Sgt. Hulka, his beaming daddy. Like that other smug '80s boomer soldier who couldn't be bothered with the rules, Oliver North, Murray does it on his own terms and the public, if not the squares, love it.

Ramis and Murray's next film together, Ghostbusters, again cast them as lumpen boomers, this time loafing grad students studying parapsychology. Once they're booted off campus by a budget cutting dean, the boys start a small ghostbusting business. The Sgt. Hulka in their way here is a pesky EPA inspector whose endless red tape forces the boys to release all the spooks they've caught, creating a massive ghost problem in New York City. Hm, three goldbricks kicked off a welfare roll who become small businessmen and quickly get hamstrung by big government bureaucracy until society falls apart at the seams — could there be a better articulation of the Reagan era than Ramis' script for Ghostbusters? No wonder it made $238 million in 1984 and remains Ramis' biggest hit.

Like Stripes, Ghostbusters isn't about people scrapping to get by, it's about people coasting by until they decide to grow up. That's the theme dominating Ramis's work — prosperity with a purpose, as George W. Bush might call it — and it drives Ramis's comic masterpiece, Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray's go-nowhere middleaged TV weatherman must relive the same day of his life over and over until he grows up. It was another major hit for the team, with Ramis, comedy's Tony Robbins, motivating Murray into adulthood.

It was also Murray and Ramis's last film together. Since then Murray has sought to reinvent himself, following the instincts he showed early on in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) and Razor's Edge (1984) by appearing in Ed Wood (1994), Rushmore (1998), Cradle Will Rock (1999), and Hamlet (2000), and balancing those films with appearances in films like Charlie's Angels (2000) to pay the bills. In each, Murray has sought something more — even in flops like Larger Than Life (1996) — than simply turning his Midwestern smirk into a smile. For his part, Ramis has offered motivational seminars, with varying success, to Al Franken in Stuart Saves His Family (1995), Robert De Niro in Analyze This, and currently, to Brendan Fraser in Bedazzled. In each, Ramis educates unhappy comedians to his simple truth — we're OK, you're not.

And for country clubs and summer camps, Ramis is right. But outside that world he falls apart. In Analyze This, Ramis turns psychoanalysis patient/mob boss Robert De Niro into a blubbering child (the result of all movie psychoanalysis, for some reason) who reforms by film's end and renounces crime. Unlike Murray, however, DeNiro isn't a wiseass, he's a wiseguy — a killer making his living, we can assume, from drugs, gambling, loan sharking, and prostitution. But for all Ramis' posturing about personal responsibility, he lets DeNiro off the hook. This mob boss won't rat out his partners, and he's certainly not going to jail. No wonder Ramis could see no evil in Chicago in '68; he can't even find it in the mob.

Ramis's contribution to comedy may be in line with his generation's greatest literary achievement, the self help book. Perhaps after seeing 1960s America raging in the streets over social ills, Ramis, like many people, blamed the messenger for the message instead of seriously considering social change and the effort it takes. We love to watch Judge Judy and Dr. Laura setting whiners straight. It's not racism, sexism, greed, poverty, or a system that doesn't always work that's the problem — it's you. And if you do think something's wrong with the world, Ramis might tell you, well, grow up.

Or maybe you'll just grow out of Ramis. Ramis and Murray haven't worked together since 1992, and, according to Ramis, don't even speak. Whereas Ramis dismisses social protest as immature from the pages of Playboy, Murray just spent the last few months stumping for the enfant terrible of this current politcal season, Mr. Ralph Nader.

Some 32 years after Ramis saw society teeter, Variety named him to its elite $1 billion filmmaker club for directors whose work has grossed that sacred amount. And the political convention notable to boomers this year wasn't the DNC's and its street protests, but the Republican show in Philadelphia which nominated its first boomer to the ticket. They chose a once aimless, smirking wisenheimer, George W. Bush, who reassured the GOP faithful of his once wayward peers: "My generation has come home."

And so has Ramis, who moved back to Chicago, got a sensible haircut, and reappeared in the pages of Playboy. And no doubt, both Bush and Ramis's dads are very proud.


courtesy of Bertolt Blecht


pictures Terry Colon