It's easy to miss just how important the late Harold Ramis was to American comedy in the 1980s. He wasn't a big star, not the way that Bill Murray or Eddie Murphy was. He had a few nice-guy cameos in various films, as well as his memorable turn as Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters, but beyond that, people would be hard-pressed to say exactly who he was. Unlike a lot of comedians, he didn't need to be the center of attention.
You can see that in Ghostbusters, where he works for quieter, more subtle laughs while Murray and Dan Aykroyd score the home runs. Egon is soulless science incarnate, a man whose clinical detachment and lack of personality actually become a personality in and of themselves. He's very funny -- his line about being terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought is regularly quoted in my household -- but he seems just as happy delivering plot exposition as he does a choice zinger.
For Ramis, the joke was everything, not who delivered it. If he was the best guy for the job, fine. If not, he happily ceded the moment to any of the numerous talented people he surrounded himself with. He was the quintessential team player, which explains why his greatest successes came behind the camera instead of in front of it. He started his career as a writer, vetting jokes for Playboy before moving on to Second City and SCTV. Screenwriting landed him on the Animal House set, and from there he moved to directing gigs for Stripes, National Lampoon's Vacation and his eventual masterpiece Groundhog Day. Each of them was a huge hit and when taken collectively, the sum of his writing and directing helped shape an entire generation of comedy.
He wasn't always on fire. Lesser efforts like Multiplicity and Analyze This failed to hit quite as strongly as his best work, and his last film, 2009's Year One, was a flat-out embarrassment. But his work always came from an honest heart and he never took the laughs for granted. When his sensibilities came into sync with ours, it was pure gold.
He never forgot his Midwest roots, and though suitably subversive, he also evinced a deep affinity for the average Joe in over his head. The heroes in his films were sensible guys placed in ridiculous situations, clinging to their wits as best they could while the world turned inside out around them. That helped us connect to the gags more readily, as he commiserated with our own trials and tribulations behind the wise-ass quips and occasional pratfall. Beneath it all, he found a few deeper threads to meditate on from time to time. Groundhog Day betrayed a streak of existentialist angst, while Vacation touched on the myth of Americana that never actually existed. You could sense the sadness at these revelations, the hint of tragedy amid all the laughter. Because of that, his best films never aged the way their passingly hip competition did.
That stemmed from the man himself, who moved back to Chicago to be near his roots as he battled the illness that ultimately took him. He never forgot who he was and he always made the audience's enjoyment the ultimate purpose of the exercise. He strove to stay in touch with our worries and fears, and helped make them a little smaller by letting the steam out of them. Comedy today wouldn't be the same without his wit, his wisdom, and the modesty that let him poke fun at both. Rest in peace Harold. Our troubles never seemed quite as daunting as long as you were there to laugh at them with us.