DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Harold Ramis, who died earlier this week, was a writer, director and actor who played a key role in several of the most popular comedies of the last half-century. His list of credits includes "Animal House," "Caddyshack," "Meatballs," "Stripes," "Ghostbusters," and of course "Groundhog Day." Our critic-at-large John Powers is a fan and says there was more going on in Ramis' work than you might think.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in the '90s I was talking to a DP who'd been working on a Hollywood comedy. He told me how he'd been fussing over a lighting setup when the director politely urged him to get a move on. This scene doesn't have to be beautiful, the director told him, it has to be funny. The director was Harold Ramis and if there's one thing he knew, it was funny.
In fact, if you think of American comedies since the '70s as a muddy playground, Ramis is the guy whose big footprints are positively everywhere. As a writer, director and actor Ramis worked with Rodney Dangerfield, the National Lampoon, and Second City, whose "SCTV" was like the brainy Sherlock Holmes of skit shows to "Saturday Night Live's" plodding Dr. Watson.
And then there's the roll call of zeitgeist shaping movies that virtually everyone enjoyed from "Animal House" through "Ghostbusters" to "Groundhog Day." Ramis had pop culture in his bones. As a kid in Chicago, he would get up early to watch TV on Saturday morning before the programming even began. One imagines that he was always dreaming of what might appear onscreen.
I suspect those dreams were anarchic, for the work that made him golden in the late '70s and early '80s, including "Meatballs," "Caddyshack" and "Stripes," was freewheeling, often scattershot comedy fueled by the joy of flouting authority. Ramis loved to see the inmates running asylum. He backed the outs against the ins. This meant that his perfect actor was slouchy wise ass Bill Murray, who didn't merely act against authority in the movie but, like a latter day Groucho Marx, acted against the authority of the movie itself.
And because Ramis preferred showing off the individual brilliance of comic actors to making finely crafted work, he helped Murray do his thing. As he did with Robin Williams, Chevy Chase, and many others. Ramis' comic vision helped spawn everything from Steve Martin's clueless jerks to Judd Apatow's scabrous dialogue to the genial silliness of Will Ferrell's "Anchorman" pictures.
Ramis was the master of the smart dumb movie, which he could only make because he was actually one of the smartest guys around. He could fence, speak Greek, joke about Trotsky, and do the ritual drumming he learned attending Robert Bly's men's groups. He was always more serious than people originally supposed.
The great turning point for both was their 1993 "Groundhog Day," perhaps the greatest comedy of our era, which is casually steeped in philosophical notions from Buddhism and Frederick Nietzsche. Focused, not scattershot, it's about an acerbic self-absorbed weatherman who relives the same day over and over until he gradually learns to see and care about other people. Here, Murray's in a diner with his producer, played by Andie MacDowell, proving to her that he has a god-like knowledge of everyone and everything that's going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GROUNDHOG DAY")
BILL MURRAY: (as Phil) This is Doris. Her brother-in-law Carl owns this diner. She's worked here since she was 17. More than anything else in her life, she wants to see Paris before she dies.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Doris) Oh, boy, would I.
ANDIE MACDOWELL: (as Rita) What are you doing?
MURRAY: (as Phil) This is Debbie Kliser and her fiancee Fred.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Debbie) Do I know you?
MURRAY: (as Phil) They're supposed to be getting married this afternoon but Debbie is having second thoughts.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Fred) What?
MACDOWELL: (as Rita) Lovely ring.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Debbie) Thanks.
MURRAY: (as Phil) This is Bill. He's been a waiter for three years since he left Penn State and had to get work. He likes the town, he paints toy soldiers, and he's gay.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Bill) I am.
MURRAY: (as Phil) This is Gus. He hates his life here. He wishes he'd stayed in the Navy.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Gus) Well, I could've retired on half pay after 20 years.
MACDOWELL: (as Rita) Excuse me. Is this some kind of trick?
MURRAY: (as Phil) Well, maybe the real god uses tricks. You know, maybe he's not omnipotent, he's just been around so long he knows everything.
MACDOWELL: (as Rita) Oh, OK. Well, who's that?
MURRAY: (as Phil) This is Tom. He worked in the coalmine till they closed it down.
MACDOWELL: (as Rita) And her?
MURRAY: (as Phil) That's Alice. She came over here from Ireland when she was a baby. She lived in Eerie most of her life.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Alice) He's right.
MACDOWELL: (as Rita) And her?
MURRAY: (as Phil) Nancy. She works in the dress shop and makes noises like a chipmunk when she gets real excited.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Nancy) Hey!
MURRAY: (as Phil) It's true.
MACDOWELL: (as Rita) How do you know these people?
MURRAY: (as Phil) I told you, I know everything. In about five seconds a waiter's going to drop a tray of dishes. Five, four, three...
MACDOWELL: (as Rita) This is nuts.
MURRAY: (as Phil) ...two, one.
(as Phil) OK?
MACDOWELL: (as Rita) OK. That's enough.
POWERS: Ramis followed up "Groundhog Day" with two sadly underrated films, "Stuart Saves His Family" and "Multiplicity" which are also carefully conceived works about trying to be a good man. They didn't click with an audience that increasingly didn't go to comedies for lessons in how to be decent. They preferred the dumb part of smart dumb.
Then again, even his early successes had been tinged with ambiguous significance. Although Ramis was steeped in the left-leaning '60s - he even dreamed of making a movie about the anarchist Emma Goldman - his comedy offered no resistance to the grand cultural transformation of the Reagan era when gleefully bashing elites became a conservative style more than a liberal one. Like it or not, there's a lot of Ramis' DNA in Rush Limbaugh.
It must also be added that Ramis, who once worked as a jokes editor for Playboy, wasn't exactly great at putting the opposite sex onscreen. On the contrary, his hits were precisely the ones whose success had the unintended consequence of shrinking funny women's place in screen comedy, which largely turned into an animal house.
But I don't want to chide Ramis for what happened in the culture during his glory years. I'm here to praise him for making me enormously happy. Like a favorite uncle who perks up the family reunion by spiking the punch, Harold Ramis was one of those entertainment giants who may not seem like a great artist in any traditional sense but whose work means far more to people than the beautiful achievements of his supposed betters.
I don't know about you, but I'd rather watch "Groundhog Day" again than almost any Oscar winner you can name.
DAVIES: John Powers is film and TV critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. Harold Ramis died Monday. He was 69. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.