Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Ramis – the eternal ‘straight man’ who made Bill Murray funny – dies

It was a bit of a blow to learn Monday that actor, comedy writer and film maker Harold Ramis – who started out at Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe – is dead.

Because he’s the guy we didn’t notice as prominently as people like Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray, but whose sense of how to play the “straight” role made the characters those other two played seem all the more off-the-wall, funny and entertaining.

RAMIS, WHO DIED early Monday at age 69 from a condition that caused his blood vessels to swell, was one of the Ghostbusters, along with Aykroyd and Murray.

He also was the friend of Murray’s “John Winger” character who got conned into enlisting in the U.S. Army along with him, thereby giving him somebody to watch his back – and join him when the two have to go into then-Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia to retake their army unit.

Who, by the way, were only captured because they were searching for the Murray and Ramis characters – who had taken the Army’s experimental prototype of a combat-ready recreational vehicle out for a spin to pick up some girls.

It literally is a line from Stripes (along with Murray’s quip about how Tito Puente was unappreciated in life) that still gets quoted by my brother.

WITH MURRAY’S CHARACTER telling Ramis’ role: “Come on, it’s Czechoslovakia. We zip in, we pick them up, and we zip right out again. We’re not going to Moscow. It’s Czechoslovakia, it’s like going to Wisconsin.”

To which Ramis’ “Russell Zitsky” character responds, “Well, I got the shit kicked out of me in Wisconsin once. Forget it!

Much of the humor was in the timing. It’s funnier on film than it is on the written page. Although I’m not about to reduce Ramis’ working life to a single quip about the cheeseheads to the north of us.

It was just this past weekend that I happened to be stumbling my way through television channels when I came across “Meatballs,” a Bill Murray comedy from back in that period right before I began high school.

WHICH MEANS ITS overly-horny prepubescent characters and trivial nonsense were at about my age level (I drooled back then over the blonde who, looking at her now, makes me feel like a dirty old man). With Murray as the out-of-control camp counselor who befriends a particularly vulnerable summer camper.

Ramis co-wrote that script.

While I don’t doubt that Murray can improvise with the best of them (the film was basically Bill Murray saying and doing outrageous things), it was Ramis who put the thoughts and images onto the page of a script so they could be turned into something resembling reality on the movie theater screens (and now our television screens every time we watch it).

Although I thought that the repeated running gag about the head camp counselor repeatedly finding his bed moved in the middle of the night (with him still in it) to various locations (up in a tree, alongside a lake, at the entrance to the camp) was a bit overdone.

THEN AGAIN, THIS is the man who also wrote the script for Ghostbusters who envisioned the idea that all of mankind could be threatened by a gigantic Stay-Puft Marshmallow man.

Which brings to mind Murray’s celluloid response of a quip, “Now that’s something you don’t see every day.”

Although it’s not just these moments that Ramis gave us. He also was the director of “Analyze This” (and the sequel, “Analyze That”), which purported to give us the concept of an organized crime boss (played by Robert DeNiro) having to see a psychiatrist (portrayed by Billy Crystal).

Which is very “The Sopranos” sounding. Although we should remember the Sopranos scene where the late actor James Gandolfini appears like he wants to smack upside the head the psychiatrist who tells his “Tony Soprano” character that he understands “the mob” because he saw “Analyze This.”

THESE ARE JUST a few of the career moments that have given us humor. It is why we’re better off that a one-time Rogers Park resident who actually once wrote freelance stories for the old Chicago Daily News decided there were better things to do with his life than try to report the news.

He’s given us moments to brighten our day, for so long as all those DVDs of his films continue to function properly.


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