In the Beginning
‘Year One’ writer-director Harold Ramis looks back on his early days
Filmmaker Harold Ramis’s concern with Jewish matters dates back to well before Year One, the Genesis-inspired comedy opening today. In this interview—excerpted from Mike Sacks’s forthcoming And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 18 Top Humor Writers on their Craft and the Industry—the force behind National Lampoon’s Animal House and Caddyshack reflects on his school days, the comedy born of alienation, and the spirituality of Groundhog Day.
I understand you were president of your Hebrew school. What platform did you run on?
I don’t remember any kind of an election or anything. I was just a very responsible young fellow, and I felt that being good was the direct path to Heaven.
You’ve said that irony is more available in Chicago than anywhere else. Why do you think that’s the case?
I kind of equate it with this experience of always feeling that you’re slightly on the outside of the mainstream. Growing up in what was called the “Second City,” you always felt like you were on the outside looking in. New York and L.A. were the real centers of culture in America and we were kind of a sideshow. There’s always more comedy in being alienated than in fitting in. It’s the alternative comedy posture. It’s what Rodney Dangerfield created with his “I get no respect” routine. The other end of the spectrum isn’t so funny: “I get so much respect.” No one will laugh at how great things are for somebody. I once analyzed all this. Woody Allen was the great comic genius of my early career, and there was a tendency to measure everything against that standard, that kind of posture. He was always writing about losers and schlemiels and shlubs . . . did I just use three Yiddish words in one sentence?
You were the president of the Hebrew school.
True. Anyway, I was never interested in losers. I was more intrigued by the alternative comedy posture. The characters I enjoyed creating were the dropouts and the rebels. They voluntarily opted out of the mainstream. It wasn’t because they couldn’t join the mainstream. It was because it wasn’t worth doing. Or there was some serious hypocrisy going on. Or it wasn’t cool.
You had an interesting job after you graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1966.
I worked in a mental institution in St. Louis, which prepared me well when I later went out to Hollywood to work with actors. People laugh when I say that, but it was actually very good training. And not just with actors; it was good training for just living in the world. It’s knowing how to deal with people who might be reacting in a way that’s connected to anxiety or grief or fear or rage. As a director, you’re dealing with that constantly with actors. But if I were a businessman, I’d probably be applying those same principles to that line of work.
I’ve heard that quite a few of the scenes from Animal House were based on real-life events.
It was probably worse in real life, believe me. All three of us [Ramis and co-writers Doug Kenney and Chris Miller] were involved in situations that ended up with cars being wrecked and girls being abandoned. That movie came from a very real experience of college life in the early 1960s. I wasn’t as bad as some of the others, though. I had a whole different kind of persona. I was legendary for having a kind of slacker mentality: falling asleep on the sofa watching TV in the fraternity house with a note pinned to my chest, “Wake Me at Noon.” I’d hate for my kids to read this, but I never went to class. I was famous for never going to class and still doing well in school.
Do you remember any specific jokes and scenes from the movie that you wrote?
I wrote a good portion of the “Germans at Pearl Harbor” speech that John Belushi gave. And the speech that Tim Matheson gave before the disciplinary council: “You can’t hold a fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few individuals. If you indict us, shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system?” Also, the scene that took place in the Dexter Lake Club with Otis Day & the Nights. The “Do you mind if we dance with your dates?” scene. That was taken from a real-life experience.
There was a club on Delmar Boulevard in East St. Louis, a blues club, called Leo’s Blue Note. There was a very good B.B. King-style guitar player called Bennie Sharp who used to perform there. His band was called Bennie Sharp & the Sharpees. We used to go there all the time. But, actually, there was also different club on that boulevard that was similar. We had some girls with us one night and a guy came over and asked if he could dance with our dates. We said, “Sure, no problem. Go right ahead! Dance with our dates!” It didn’t end badly. But it wasn’t long after that that racial politics in America soured to a point where kids like us were no longer going to blues clubs.
How did the script for Caddyshack come about?
Brian Murray, Bill’s brother and a writer for Lampoon, had caddied when he was growing up in and around Wilmette, Illinois. Brian would talk to Doug Kenney about his country club experiences and Doug could relate because he had worked in a tennis shop in a country club in Ohio. His father was the tennis pro. Doug came to the project from sort of the snobby members’ point of view, although he was not from that ruling class himself. Brian understood it from the point of view of a poor Catholic kid in WASP territory. And I understood it from the Rodney Dangerfield point of view, which was the Jewish outsider. I was on the outside looking in as the unwelcome guest.
Was Groundhog Day always intended to be a comedy? From what I’ve read, it started out quite differently.
It wasn’t anything broad. The first screenwriter, Danny Rubin, doesn’t have a style that goes for big jokes. But it was touching. I did get tears in my eyes after I read it. One of the differences was that when we first meet the Bill Murray character, Phil Connors, he’s already repeating the same day, which has gone on for 10,000 years already. There was a voice-over that sort of explained how that came to be.
Ten-thousand years? It sounds more like a horror story than a comedy.
That was one of the first big changes that I made right away in my rewrite. To show how Phil Connors first found himself in this situation, rather than coming into it after it’s already been going on for so long. I think this helped ease the audience into the movie. And it was kind of a clever device. Actually, I had assured Danny that I would never change that aspect of his original script. I told him, “It’s so cool starting right in the middle. I’ll never change that, I promise!” Of course, that was the first thing I changed.
What I love about that movie is that there’s no explanation as to why Phil Connors finds himself in this situation. It just happens. Which is the polar opposite of most Hollywood films, where everything is over-explained.
Actually, the studio insisted on an explanation. So I wrote one.
Which was what?
I wrote that Phil Connor had a disaffected lover who buys a book called The 101 Hex Spells or Enchantments You Can Do For Free. And she does some incantation and she burns something and then smashes a wristwatch, which was obviously Phil’s.
And the executives were happy with that?
Yeah, they were. But then the executive in charge lost his job at Columbia. A new executive came in, read the script and said, “What do you need this for?” I said, “Okay, thank you.” That was the last time we attempted to explain it.
Groundhog Day has also become very popular with religious audiences, of all faiths. And yet it wasn’t an overtly religious movie.
Everyone saw their own faith in Groundhog Day. And it really was not faith in a God, because there’s no God postulated in Groundhog Day. It’s really faith in humanity. And I’m nothing if not a secular humanist. You don’t need religion to be a good person. Maybe there’s a simpler way.