I first met Harold Ramis about 40 years ago when I produced the sketch comedy stage show, The National Lampoon Show. Along with Harold, the cast included John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Joe Flaherty. Even in that remarkably talented, yet to be discovered ensemble, Harold stood out. Not because he was the loudest, nor the most flamboyant, nor even the funniest…although in his quiet intelligent way, he often was. Harold stood out because it was clear he was their unofficial leader. The man to whom they could all turn, to solve both creative problems and any of the myriad conflicts that would arise among this high-powered ensemble.
I first witnessed his quiet strength early in the Lampoon Show’s development. It happened in my hometown of Toronto, where the show was booked to do two performances in a local popular tavern. After a raucous and very successful first show, we were shocked to discover that instead of clearing the house as we had expected, the patrons from the first performance stayed, happily drinking and waiting for more comedy.
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Backstage the group was in a panic. They had been expecting to do their prepared material for a new audience and had nothing else. Interrupting the growing panic, Harold pulled the cast together and suggested quietly, “Let’s just do the show again, except this time we’ll change every joke and every punch line.” It was an audacious challenge that in normal circumstances would have been immediately dismissed. But something in Harold’s confident demeanor relaxed the group. They started to laugh and immediately embraced the challenge. I believe it was the first time I heard Belushi bellow, “Let’s do it!”
Thinking back today, 40 years later, I only wish there was a video record of that amazing performance. It was the most remarkable display of comedy brilliance, dexterity, and borderline insanity.
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Harold Ramis and I went on to collaborate on five movies: Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters I and Ghostbusters II. He co-wrote all of them and co-starred in three. He went on to become a director himself and created such comedy classics as Vacation, Caddyshack, Analyze This and the remarkable Groundhog Day.
With the passing of Harold Ramis the world has lost a truly original comedy voice. He possessed the most agile mind I’ve ever worked with. He was extraordinarily generous to me and working with him changed my life. He had a wonderful gift for making people do their best work around him. He will be profoundly missed.
Among Reitman’s many films as a producer, director or both, are Dave, Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, and Ghostbusters I and II.