My heart broke yesterday when I learned Harold Ramis had passed. A friend of mine, and also a huge fan of HR, said, “It’s interesting how the passing of a stranger can affect us.” He wasn’t really a stranger. Did I know him personally? No, but he was one of my influences. If you’re studying comedy, you can’t avoid looking at his work. You’d be doing yourself an injustice if you did. I think he gave a lot of people faith in comedy.
There are many things we can learn from the comedic genius. Here are some highlights:
Hello, Layers: Many of Ramis’ films are called “classics”, not only because they’re brilliant, but also because they can be enjoyed on many levels and by many people. Like “Hamlet” (or Pixar and Disney films), adults enjoy his work as much as kids. They each get something out of it. They can be watched and enjoyed just as they are or you can follow the different philosophical questions Ramis’ would work in there. Their themes transcend time and cultures.
He wasn’t afraid to make his work layered, even though they were comedies. He felt that’s how they should be.
Write What You Will: He wasn’t afraid to be smart. One of his characters was a Marxist accountant for the mob. He also knew how to make it entertaining. He knew where the funny was in the scene. People may not know what Marxism is, but they understood what was funny about this accountant who had just given away all the mob money, going toe to toe with The Boss, who wanted all his hard earned money. They could see the characters had different values.
Stick to your guns, but keep your audience in mind.
Go with the Flow, but Keep Going: When I started directing, I looked to my influences to see how they did it. I was told a story how Harold Ramis became a director. Second City creates revues through improv. They continue to refine the scenes through repetition, seeing what works, what didn’t. Ramis was in this mix, improving with the cast. There’s a lot of material to remember, so he started scribing the scenes, writing down what they did and what worked (he was already a writer, this is not how he started writing or continued to write). He then organized the performers. He said he didn’t feel like he was directing in a traditional sense, more encouraging what worked and asking, “What else?” I liked that philosophy. If it worked for him….
He was a writer and a performer. He organically became a director because he was trying to help. He also kept going. He didn’t do it once and fade into the backdrop.
And I’m glad he didn’t, because as Patton Oswalt said yesterday, “No Harold Ramis, no comedy as we know it.”
How did Harold Ramis influence your work? Let me know below. Thanks!