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Mon, Feb. 24th, 2014, 08:00 pm
Comedy, Harold Ramis & Modern Society

Harold Ramis has just passed away. This has spurred me to write this article, but for some time I have been thinking about the comedy of him and his peers. People like Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Ivan Reitman, Rick Moranis... skip it, you know I mean the Second City/SCTV/Saturday Night Live crowd. But you can extend that a bit to people Ramis never worked with, like David Letterman and the better, usually older writers for the Simpsons (Sam Simon, John Schwartzwelder).

A quick aside, I know I only mentioned one woman in all this, and that's probably because society and showbiz has been much harder on women comedians. You can count Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Kristen Wiig as the direct comedic descendents of this crowd, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

On the internet, everybody likes to dissect pop culture. It's what I'm about to do right now. And one of the things people are just now noticing about Ghostbusters - "Wait, does the movie support Reaganomics?"

And it sure looks that way. And I've seen fans of Ghostbusters have to work their way around this fact, or try to dismiss it for the necessities of the plot. But to understand this puzzle, that the human villain of the story is an Environmental Protection Agent, and the nutty protagonists of the movie are right when the bureaucracy of New York and the federal government is wrong, is to understand the comedy of Harold Ramis' generation. And it all starts with Watergate.

If you talk to the baby boomer and post baby boom generation of Americans, they'll tell you the Watergate Scandal in 1970 was a seminal moment for the US. Go do a google search and I'm sure you can find pundits talk about how it altered American society. It will seem quaint to younger people today, but you'll hear people who were alive at the time experiencing this shift from being able to trust the US government, to it being this mechanized bureaucracy, often with villainous intent. The Watergate Scandal also almost exactly coincided with the decline of hippie culture. Hippies were against the government for its oppression of minorities and war in Vietnam, to be sure, but if you were a white American you assumed the evils and mistakes made by government and "square" society was because they possessed old fashioned thinking. The war in Vietnam was a horrendous and ongoing mistake, but you didn't doubt the perceived narrow-minded, good intentions of past presidents. Hippies were also unrealistically idealistic, believing they could change all of society just by sticking to ill-defined axioms of love.

Then between 1969 and 1970 you had the killings at the Altamont Free Concert, the Charles Manson family murders and the Watergate Scandal. Hippie culture had failed, and what's worse, the US government was more broken than the youth had ever suspected. In the 1950s there was the American dream, where any (white) family could buy a car and a house in a good neighbourhood. America was a country designed for upward mobility. Fast forward to 1970, and the president is a crook. American government, no, society itself, was a well greased machine designed to fool the common folk. You could still live your life in prosperity, but your tax dollars are going to fund some slime ball politician and his corporate cronies, not help build something productive like a road or a school.

Harold Ramis was 26 in 1970. Ivan Reitman was 24. Bill Murray and John Schwartzwelder were 20. You get the picture. Comedy has always been about "truth to power," but for several generations American comedy had been pretty toothless. That's not me insulting comedy before 1970, I'm just saying that the Marx brothers scandalising members of the upper crust in their movies is not biting satire. Neither was Big Crosby and Bob Hope's wacky Road movies. Even the funniest man just before the baby boomer generation, Mel Brooks, fits into this mold. I think the Producers (1968) is probably the greatest comedy on film, but it has no political message other than that the Nazis were bad, and they had been gone for more than 20 years.

You see a shift in comedy after 1970. It's not a natural evolution of the art form, it's directly tied into society's change after the Watergate Scandal. In 1975 you get Saturday Night Live. It would openly mock public figures, including presidents. While the Watergate Scandal was American, the new trend of distrust in society extended to young Canadians as well. Basically the whole SCTV crowd of Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, John Candy, etc.

Examine this Saturday Night Live sketch. "Consumer Probe" from 1977, particularly the Halloween costume sketch. Jane Curtin plays the straight woman, a talk show host with common sense. Dan Aykroyd plays a sleazy businessman who is selling incredibly dangerous costumes to kids, including a bag perfect for suffocation and a black suit called, "Invisible Pedestrian."


I think this sketch is very funny, but can you imagine it if it was told in the 1950s? Viewers would have called it disgusting. The entire premise is based on children possibly dying. It's a precursor to a dead baby joke. By the way, I've never found a dead baby joke funny. Not necessarily because they are generally disgusting, but because there's no good satire or punch line. In this sketch, the humour comes from the unscrupulous business practices of Aykroyd's character. But this joke works in the context of a post-1970 society. "You can't trust the government. You can't trust businesses. You can't trust society."

This article hasn't been an in-depth look at Ramis' work. But to get back to him in, you get movies like Animal House. Sure, most of the students in Delta house are screw-ups and should never receive diplomas. That said, the conflict comes from Omegas (the youth of upstanding society) being assholes and the Dean going above and beyond trying to destroy some college kids. Meatballs is about some screwup kids, isn't it? It's been too long since I've seen that one. But Caddyshack is that same premise, with a kid trying to make headway in a sea of assholes, finally overcoming them by playing against Ted Knight (By the way, how great does Ted Knight make for a high society villain, huh? I wish he had done that even more).

Stripes is close to the zenith of the things Ramis' generation was lampooning. It began life as a "Cheech and Chong Join the Army" concept, but when Cheech and Chong wanted creative control and to personally rewrite it, the script was rewritten for Bill Murray and Harold Ramis. Ramis never did consider himself an actor, only really doing bit parts for Second City as needed, but Ivan Reitman and Murray wanted him so badly he relented. Again, the plot is a couple of screwups, this time proving themselves superior to freaking United States Army! The idea permeates that one individual with eyes wide open, and always being skeptical of the world and its institutions around him/her, knows better than the rest of society. The misfits of society are going to see what's wrong with the popular kids, with school, with the rich people at the golf club, and even, apparently, the entirety of the US army, because the army's very strength comes from being an institution. The movie ends with a fake Newsweek cover, "The New Army: Can America Survive?" Of course the real US army doesn't give a damn about what some comedians were suggesting, but Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman saw this as an honest question. Where the hippies had idealism and love, these comedians had sarcasm and the ability to see fault in any institution. Can the US army, can the US government, can ANY institution, survive forever when they saw institutions as inherently flawed?

Ghostbusters is a strange beast because it marries that generation's comedic oeuvre, finding fault in every institution, with Dan Aykroyd's genuine enthusiasm for the supernatural. It being one of my favourite movies, I could write an entire article on what's going on comically in Ghostbusters. But to keep it short, Bill Murray and company are faced with the biggest scientific, supernatural, and spiritual discovery of all time, and their response is totally sardonic. OK, Aykroyd's Ray Stantz is boyishly excited, but even he goes along with the first suggestion to turn it into a business. Not to let scientific and religious leaders know about what they've found out, but to make a buck. Their discoveries don't change them or society, it just opens a business opportunity. The start of the comedy is their lackluster response when faced to the greatest discoveries of all time. Lines like, "Well, there's something you don't see every day," when faced with a giant marshmallow monster are inherently funny on their own, but also fit into the grand scheme of the movie, as well as the scheme of these men's careers. Approaching any topic, regardless of what it is - its strength or importance or ridiculousness, with a healthy dose of cynicism will grant you a better picture of reality, and better equip you to combat the shit life throws your way.

The second component to Ghostbusters is easier to see when compared to these comedians' past work. Walter Peck (William Atherton) from the Environmental Protection Agency wants to investigate the Ghostbusters and see if their equipment is dangerous. Bill Murray makes fun of him for the second half of the movie, so viewers go along with the idea that Peck really is this asshole who shut off the containment unit and nearly caused the apocalypse. But here's the thing, Peck is right! He's not even a jerk in his first scene. Bill Murray is totally playing the jerk to Peck's reasonable questions. Peck comes back with a search warrant, but the Ghostbusters (Venkman) didn't offer him any alternative.

Of course the movie is on the Ghostbusters' side. Ivan Reitman's favourite scene, and I would have to agree it's the best, is in the mayor's office. The Ghostbusters explain the world is about to end, and it comes down a decision between the guy from the EPA or these crackpot-sounding Ghostbusters. Bill Murray gives a great speech:

If I'm wrong, nothing happens! We go to jail. Peacefully, quietly, we'll enjoy it. But if I'm right, and we can stop this thing... Lenny, you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters.

That's fantastic. And it's a prime example of the comedy from these people. Venkman is speaking truth to power again, but framing it as a win-win scenario for the mayor. The Ghostbusters are right, the rest of the world is wrong, and it's only by showing the man in power that he's got nothing to lose by letting the misfit protagonists do their thing that he lets them.

I'll end off where I started, Reaganomics. So Ghostbusters, at its heart, is about some guys who discover the universe's greatest secrets (as represented by there being ghosts and monsters) and their reaction is deadpan. The cynical, misfit individual - or small group - knows what's going on when society, and particularly the government, are too much a part of a united, flawed system to recognise how right the individual is.

Ronald Reagan was the US president from 1981-1989, pretty close to all of the 1980s. There's no one thing that made him president - the public got rid of Jimmy Carter and the Democrats at the first opportunity, for one thing - but the same thing that made comedy like this popular also contributed to Reagan's popularity. Reagan preached the Republican party was better, yes, but more importantly he preached that LESS government was best. Lower taxes, and less bureaucracy intruding on Americans' lives. He was basically stating the same things Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Ivan Reitman were saying through jokes: "You know what's best for you, and institutions get things wrong." It's an appealing message.

So yes, Ghostbusters has a villainous guy from the EPA for the sake of plot, but that plot comes from a group of people who are always showing institutions are wrong. Ghostbusters doesn't preach Reaganomics (small government, no interference, let businesses flourish) because they believe in Reaganomics. It preaches Reaganomics because Harold Ramis, Ivan Reitman et al. approached the decade from the same way Ronald Reagan did, that institutions tend to screw things up. By the way, Ronald Reagan would go on to increase taxes. Perhaps that says something more about the comedy of that generation than it does about Reaganomics. Ultimately, institutions like government do screw everything up.

And the comedy from Ramis' generation extends to this day. Tina Fey's 30 Rock is about show business, and just plain business, and how simple things like putting on a TV show get screwed up by huge egos' competing interests. Ditto for the UK and US versions of the Office, but just strictly business and made funny because of how small the stakes often are. Harold Ramis directed several of the US episodes.

We might be entering a post-1970s cynical world in comedy. Dan Harmon's Community was, for its first three seasons, anyway, some of the freshest stuff in years. Main character Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is named after Bill Murray's character in Stripes, John Winger, and the two are very similar characters. The two actors look like they could be related, and Harmon even said he would have liked Murray to play Jeff Winger's father (a season without Harmon's involvement shot down that idea by using a different actor to play the dad). Jeff Winger is essentially a Bill Murray character 2.0. He goes through life with the same cynicism, the same vocal rhythm, the same sense of superiority over fools around him who are deluded by idealism, religion, group mentality (i.e. to the college), and more. But at some point in almost every episode his notion of self is challenged, and he realises the importance of being open to friends, family, and new experiences. It's kind of ridiculous that the character has learned this same lesson for over five years now, but it's a great show that's informed by Ramis and Murray's work, but is taking it a step further past the skepticism for the rest of society.

I look forward to new comedy! I'm considerably younger than Dan Harmon, but like him my sense of humour was largely shaped by the same people, including Harold Ramis. As a kid, I loved a variety of heroes, including Indiana Jones, James Bond and Peter Venkman. But I knew immediately I would never be as tough or as cool as Harrison Ford or Sean Connery. Bill Murray, though? I could model myself on that.

Extra Notes!
- You might think I'm overstating the importance of the Watergate Scandal. But ask some of those comedians, or just people of that generation about it. I don't think I am overstating it. Now perhaps other factors would have nudged society in general, and comedy in particular, to one of distrust and cynicism compared to WWII and the 1950s, but I think the fact remains that for North America it started at Watergate and then spread out to Canada and much of the worldwide society.

- Meanwhile over in the United Kingdom, you have interesting sketch comedies culminating in Monty Python's Flying Circus. The Python group have explained themselves that their comedy was a reaction to the orderly life of their parents, and all of UK society. The British "stiff upper lip" attitude and going to boarding schools didn't seem strange at all to their parents, but the baby boomer generation there were noticing the absurdities in the regimented life and culture in Britain. A lot of what they ended up doing runs parallel to North America, challenging institutional structures, the UK comedy at the time is decidedly more absurd, to just accentuate that life and society in general are absurd. Same fundamental messages, I suppose, but the Brits saw things as absurd while the Americans saw things as flawed (and which could be overcome on your own - now that's definitely American).

- I've neglected everything Ramis did post Ghostbusters! He started to branch out, sometimes returning to his generation's main theme. Year One (2009) - which I don't particularly like, but is interesting all the same - is a hybrid of poking fun at institutions, in this case Hebrew religion and what amounts to the Roman Empire, while also just making a commentary on weird stuff from the Old Testament. Check it out if you're looking to examine Ramis' work.
Ramis, like Bill Murray's acting career, also managed to completely branch out from this whole "against the system" thing I've been talking about this whole article. The Ice Harvest (2005) is not a comedy at all, but a straight up noir that just happens to have some moments of levity. It's a great modern noir movie and I highly recommend it.
Of course another whole article could be devoted to Groundhog Day (1993). It's brilliant, of course. It's also interesting in this whole discussion because it's basically transplanting the Bill Murray character he had developed (partly because I suspect it's not much of a character, it's closer to him) from Stripes, Ghostbusters and Scrooged, and putting him in a movie where his usual cynical self CAN'T win. Is the movie genius? Yes. Is Harold Ramis and/or Bill Murray geniuses because of it? Ehhhhh, I might not go far. As brilliant as it is, Groundhog Day is a comedic rip-off of a short story by Richard Lupoff (haha, rip--off, Lupoff) called "12:01PM" where a man is stuck in a time loop. It's serious sci-fi with a more horrific ending. Screenwriter Danny Rubin read this story, saw its potential as a comedy/romantic comedy and showed that to Harold Ramis, who did rewrites. Having stolen the time loop idea, now used for comedic effect, and knowing Bill Murray would be playing his jerkish character in the film, what is the logical resolution? Oh yeah, Murray should learn the value of helping others over "years" stuck in that loop. Ramis was supremely talented, but the ending is obvious when you have those other elements. So it's kind of by accident that one of Ramis' best creations eschews his usual ideas of a non-conformist being right and the rest of the world being wrong. I guess Bill Murray's character could have proven himself better or smarter than the entire universe and the trick it was pulling on him, but then you would ruin your movie's ending.

- A final note on Reaganomics and the idea of the lone person who knows best. While any country can have this way of thinking, you'll notice this is particularly in keeping with America. I won't disparage it. We've all had enough encounters with incompetent bosses, government officials or workers on the ends of telephones who are operating within the parameters given to them, incapable of seeing some truth that's easy for you to grasp. Unfortunately there were bad implications for this back in Reagan's time - bureaucracy might hamper businesses, but you need agencies like the Food and Drug Administration, and the EPA, to, y'know make sure everybody DOES NOT DIE - and now that idea is stronger and all over America's right. The Tea Party is entirely based around it, that governments screw everything up and the LONE INDIVIDUAL knows best. The lone individual might know what's best for him or herself in life matters - you don't want someone dictating what your job should be, or whether you can have gay sex or get birth control (cough, Republicans are hypocrites, cough!) but some Americans cannot fathom a government that can regulate society better than some Wild West free-for-all. Seriously, a lot of European countries have this society thing figured out. I don't even think Canada is the best country in the world, but most Canadians understand the value of the governments having societal regulations, being able to offer universal health coverage, etc. You know, and laws. Like a society. Point out all its flaws like any of these movies I mentioned, but it's a shame half of American politics today is about chucking away just about everything.