I should be grading or reading or doing anything else, but instead, I’m on the Internet reading the various tributes to Harold Ramis, who passed away on Monday. The news that he had passed hit me much, much harder than I had expected. This post will be filled with various clichés that we bring out when someone “famous” dies, in the ways we internalized a relationship with them, even though we never really knew them beyond what (in this case) we saw up on the screen.
But I grew up with Harold Ramis, and he played such an important role in shaping how I understand comedy and what’s funny. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as the head writer at SCTV, he started to inform my young mind as to what comedy could be. Growing up in Canada, if it was cheap and Canadian-made, chances are it ended up in syndication after school or in the early evening (this is also how I discovered Kids in the Hall). I didn’t get a lot of the comedy I was seeing, but it made other people laugh, and I desperately wanted to understand the grown-up world of laughter. Other times, it was funny in a way I completely understood and laughed alongside my father. Comedy, in the way Ramis did it, was both a mystery and completely transparent, at least to a very young kid.
One of my favorite movies was Ghostbusters (aka the original post-academics). Was it possible to over-identify with a character in the way I over-identified with Egon? He was smart, dour, and a little oblivious. He was just as crazy as Ray and Stan, but in a way that I recognized, intensely focused to the point of exclusion and social awkwardness. And he didn’t seem to care. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone, just get to the answers through “science.” My kids now love that movie now, too (it was the first age-inappropriate movie my husband showed the kids, and I’m kinda glad he did).
We might, within academia, rue him for introducing Animal House into popular culture and the idea of college-as-never-ending-party, shaping generation after generation’s idea of what the “university experience” means. At the same time, how many of us recognize Dean Wormer or Professor Jennings even still today within our own institutions?
A lot of people have pointed out that his movies all involve man-children who, at least in his later movies, grow up a little (or, in Groundhog Day) a lot. But there are a few things that stick out for me, too. One was the female characters he created on-screen. While there were many, many male characters, and usually only one main female on in his comedies, they were (largely) all professional, capable, and had a lot more agency than most other women I saw in many comedies at the time. Neither are they expected to “fix” the man-children of the plot. It might not seem like much, but in the vast expanses of 1980s comedies, it’s something.
Also, I appreciated that his movies were collaborations, ensembles. But he also built many of his movies around the idea that these bands of misfits could become family. That power to be able to create your own family from a group of goofballs, a group who do just about anything for you, that was powerful to me. There was a place for me somewhere, with a group of people who would appreciate whatever weirdo I happened to be, and that we could create something as strong and meaningful as a family.
It took writing this piece to come to this realization about Harold Ramis’ movies. I might be reading too much into it, but for a weird kid who was bullied and didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere, even within my own family, his loose, ramshackle ensemble pieces made me believe that maybe somewhere out there, there was a group where I was welcome, filled with people who could make me laugh and bring out the best in me.