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Harold Ramis: Expect the Unexpected

Harold Ramis talks about his career in comedy.

From Animal House to Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis has been behind the camera for some of Hollywood's biggest comedies. With his latest, Multiplicity, he may have grown up, but he still can't resist a nongratuitous fart joke.

PT: You seem to be able to recognize these big mythologies and transform them into movies. Animal House, Caddyshack, Stripes--they were very important for a lot of people.

HR: My first few films were institutional comedies, and you're on pretty safe ground when you're dealing with an institution that vast numbers of people have experienced: college, summer camp, the military, the country club. I didn't belong to a country club, but I had enough feelings about them. You can't not have feelings about country clubs, whichever side you're on.

PT: Growing up in the Midwest, did you feel like an outsider?

HR: The country clubs I'd heard of were predominantly restricted to Jews. I didn't know yet about Jewish clubs, which are restricted in their own way But I definitely had the sense of being the guy on the outside looking in. When I hooked up with the Murray brothers [Bill and Brian Doyle], they felt like outsiders because they were poor. They were the caddies and the greenskeepers.

PT: So Caddyshack got it right.

HR: When I made the movie, I didn't know what the physical layout of a country club was like, how they looked and felt.Those guys were the reality check.

Those movies are about how an individual relates to the establishment and by extension, how an individual relates to society They are movies about young men going to an institution and deciding what kind of people they're going to be. If the rules are wrong, do you knuckle under and play by those rules, do you change the rules, or do you opt out of the game? Those are the big questions.

We were dropouts who had basically opted out of the game. That's the kind of character I like to write. My characters aren't losers. They're rebels.

PT: They are all incredibly likable. As a matter of fact, they also win.

HR: That's the thing. They win by their refusal to play by everyone else's rules.

PT: As your film career has progressed, you've tackled more serious subjects, but there's almost a refusal to just be serious.

HR: I don't want to depart from comedy as my main mode of communication.No matter what I have to say, I'm still trying to say it in comedic form.

The last couple of films had a lot of things going on. Stuart Saves His Family was really a serious movie about substance abuse and codependency, but we certainly wanted it to be funny and it had some huge laughs. Not that it ever found an audience.

PT: How do explain the essence of Groundhog Day?

HR: It was about a guy discovering how to live his life, making a journey from narcissism to selflessness.

PT: It's an optimistic movie that has a real sense of spiritual yearning. Though I hesitate to say that.

HR: I wouldn't hesitate at all. That's what drew me to the material. it was like It's A Wonderful Life, a moving, mainstream Hollywood picture. It seemed so universal and was so redeeming. But what it lacked was comedy

PT: That's where you came in.

HR: I rolled up my sleeves and made it funny And Bill, of course.

PT: You seem suspicious of many things loosely described as spiritual.

HR: I used to be married to a woman who pursued every spiritual trend with tremendous passion and dragged me along. Dan Ackroyd and I had fun [with Ghostbusters] because even though I don't believe in anything and he does, I could still speak the language. I read books like Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain and had been to the Theosophical Society in London. I'd seen mediums and readers; we went to Bulgaria to find one of the characters in Psychic Discoveries.

PT: Do you believe in psychic powers?

HR: I believe that things happen that can't be explained, but so many people seem intent on explaining them. Everyone has an answer for them. Either aliens or things from the spirit world.

PT: Ghostbusters, in 1984, was so ahead of the spiritual trend.

HR: I know. No one had done it. I don't like to do things that I feel like rye seen before. Dan had written Ghostbusters for himself and John Belushi. When he wrote it, it was really out there, the paranormal thing. But the best thing about it, I thought, was the mundane edge it had; that where I thought the comedy had to go. I played more to the science of it.

PT: And that's where your character came in.

HR: Yeah, I said he was the new wave Mr. Spock. But I'm a guy who always smiles and the character I played never smiles--I don't think he smiled once in the whole movie. I wanted him to be the embodiment of pure science.

I got the character from the cover of a radical architectural magazine--I can't remember the name. It was very obtuse. The guy on the cover was an architectural theorist and his hair was standing up, and he had on a retro suit, though he wouldn't have known it was retro. He looked like such a classic egghead, and I thought, that's the guy I want to play, to have really tall hair, be totally unconscious about the way I dress.

PT: What about your new movie Multiplicity?

HR: In my quest for themes and ideas that are worth spending three years on, Chris Miller, my writing partner from Animal House, sent me a short story he'd written called "Multiplicity" it's pretty much the set-up of the movie we made. As Chris wrote it, the guy was an advertising executive with a couple of kids, lovely wife, likes his work. But the work is very demanding, so he doesn't get to spend as much time as he'd like with his wife and kids. And he certainly doesn't have enough time for himself. Then he sees an ad in the L.A. Weekly for a cloning service.

He finds out lots of famous people have been cloned. He gets cloned once and it's not enough, so he gets cloned twice. The clones live in the attic. But then, when he starts feeling estranged from his own life, the clones won't let him back in and, in fact, abduct him. He ends up shut out of his own life.

I thought that was such a promising start. It seemed to be about something. But the [short story's] ending didn't make sense to me. What does that mean? What does it say about the human condition?

PT: But the basic idea . . .

HR: I thought it was a wonderful setup because it is common to everybody We all wish we could be in more than one place at the same time. People with families probably feel guilty all the time--if we spend too much time with our family, we feel we're not working hard enough.

I wondered what I could do that would make this more resonant for me. Then I realized it wasn't just about being busy, it was really about the divided self and that we are all several different people. There are different aspects of our nature that are competing. I realized that what the story really was about was how this guy fragments into his different component selves and finally gets reintegrated. That's the happy ending.

The message then becomes, you gotta own it all, recognize all these different aspects of your nature and own them. If it doesn't work in your life, find a way to make your life work.

A very good psychologist once said to me, there are only two important questions you have to ask yourself. What do you really feel? And, what do you really want? If you can answer those two, you probably can leave your neuroses behind you. That became the heart of what the movie is about.

PT Does this mean you're growing up?

HR: I've been working at it. I've done four years now in a ritual men's group. It has had some impact on me. The whole mythopoetic men's movement does a lot of processing of the mythical component, the archetypes that we all embody--the warrior, the king, the lover, the fool, the magician, whatever. That dovetailed nicely into this movie. In this group we've all been examining who we are in terms of these different selves, these different archetypes.

For Michael Keaton's clones, I reached back to Robert Johnson, who wrote three little books about the de-masculine self, the inner feminine, and the bonding thereof. When I threw this stuff into the intellectual, spiritual, psychological mix, it wasn't just a born the contemporary social phenomenon of being too busy, which is what got Chris going in the first place. That's an accurate assessment of modem life, but it's not the whole story.

PT: You don't want to be trivial, but you still have your fart jokes.

HR: If we weren't still laughing at them m my house, I probably wouldn't still be doing them. But these very human things continue to be funny I'd like to think I'd never do a gratuitous fart joke

PT: You've had the pleasure of being able to work with people you respect and like--Chevy Chase, Bill Murray . . .

HR: Beyond my affection for those people, they are stars because they are charismatic. Whether they were stars or not, they would draw people to them. If Chevy Chase had not been an actor, he might have been a very popular guy in advertising or whatever field he would have gone into, because of his charisma. But we all have our faults, and their bad qualities are as extraordinary as their good ones. They embody lots of extremes. I've always been more interested in these big personalities. When I got to work with them in the theater, I thought, Wow, this is exciting. Nothing reinforces a professional relationship more than enjoying success with someone.

PT: What does success do for you at this age? Do you get the same rush?

HR: It's different.

PT: Has it improved your character?

HR: I don't think it's success that's improved my character. To the extent that my work represents certain aspirations, it validates those aspirations. If you just want to be funny and you get laughs, okay, then you've fulfilled that goal. That was almost enough at the beginning; although part of me was always seeking more. Bernie Sahlins, one of the founding fathers of [the comedy troupe] Second City, would always say, "Work from the top of your intelligence."

PT: That's a very interesting expression.

HR: For me it evolved into other aphorisms, like "Broad comedy is not necessarily dumb comedy" You can be very funny without being stupid.

PT: You enjoyed success early One thing you might deduce from the death of two of your early cohorts--Doug Kenney [a founder of National Lampoon magazine], and John Belushi--is that they couldn't handle early success.

HR: I've got to believe that how one handles success or failure is determined by their early childhood. Whatever Doug went through, he had a painful childhood and adolescence. He was always in the shadow of an older brother who was a perfect preppie: athletic, smart, popular, successful. His brother died before he reached his full promise and I think Doug always imagined that he was a disappointment to his parents somehow. Even before I ever met him he was considered flaky. After Lampoon he disappeared for a year; he lived in a tent on Martha's Vineyard and was chronically abusing alcohol and drugs.

He had no reason to doubt he could become wildly successful. Lampoon was very popular. Then our first film was Animal House. That spoiled us, because it turned out to be the biggest-grossing comedy of that time And Caddyshack wasn't. It was like cold water for Doug: "This isn't gonna be easy Not everything I do will be a home run."

PT: It's hard to believe that somebody could feel bad about doing Caddyshack, after selling his share of National Lampoon for seven million dollars.

HR: Doug's crises started long before he ever saw the several million dollars that he had. If you don't feel good about yourself, no amount of money or success is enough to change that.

John died the year following Doug's death. And just as in Doug's case, John's problems predated his stardom. John was a tragedy waiting to happen for several years. He was pulled from more than one burning bed. If you're so intoxicated you fall asleep with a lit cigarette, that is a form of suicide by negligence, isn't it? And letting someone else inject you with anything is insanity. John lived really hard. He was very generous when I knew him best.

PT: What is the dumbest thing you've done?

HR: I couldn't begin to tell you. I've wrestled with substance abuse. I smoked cigarettes for almost 30 years, pot for 20. I went through a period of cocaine abuse. I gave it all up in the mid-80s.

PT: Slowly or all at once?

HR: All at once. I've not been back to any of it since. I'm 45 pounds heavier now--about 10 pounds per substance. But I'm happier as a fat, sober man.

PHOTO (COLOR): Harold Ramis

Photographs by Bonnie Schiffman