Interview: Harold Ramis

Dec 23, 2009

harold ramis death+taxes 150x150 Interview: Harold RamisYep, that’s Egon. If you don’t know already, Harold Ramis is one of the titans of comedy. He’s the man behind Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Vacation, and and the list goes on.

D+T contributing writer Drew Fortune was one of the lucky attendees at last week’s 50th Anniversary gala celebration of Second City, the Chicago institution that brought us everyone from Ramis and Bill Murray to Steve Carell and Eugene Levy. He was tenacious enough to badger Ramis into an exclusive interview for D+T.

Follow the jump for Fortune’s reportage from Second City and his interview with Harold Ramis.

by Drew Fortune

Chicago’s historic Second City spared no expense bringing back some of its most legendary alums to celebrate the institution’s fifty years of improvisational-based humor, with celebratory alumni performances, panels and screenings running all weekend. “This weekend is a tribute to Second City, both those who make it a legend as well as those who will keep us legendary,” said Andrew Alexander, Proprietor and Executive Producer of The Second City. “At 50, we’re toasting our success of staying original and gleefully defying convention all these years.” The returning alumni read like a who’s who of legendary and contemporary comedy greats: Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Stephen Colbert, Fred Willard, Harold Ramis, Jeff Garlin etc. The list goes on, and it wasn’t unusual to approach the venue and see Jim Belushi crossing the street, or Tim Meadows on his way to the bathroom.

My first celebrity sighting occurred as I picked up my press tickets at the box office on a frigid Thursday afternoon, the day before festivities kicked off. The diminutive and bespectacled Tim Kazurinsky of Saturday Night Live and numerous film roles (C’mon, you gotta love him as Sweet Chuck in the Police Academy movies) was picking up his credentials and we stopped and chatted for a bit. He grinned widely as we talked about the upcoming weekend. I missed Friday’s red carpet and SCTV cast reunion (tickets ran from $175-750) but all weekend long, the buzz was that it was the performance of the weekend. Saturday I attended the “Second City and the State of the Sitcom” panel, featuring Scott Adsit, Kay Cannon (writer, 30 Rock), Kate Flannery (The Office’s Meredith), Jon Glaser (creater of Adult Swim’s Delocated),and Peter Murrieta (exec producer of Disney Channel’s Wizards of Waverly Place). Moderator David Miner (3 Arts Entertainment Partner, 30 Rock and Parks And Recreation executive producer) kept the vibe light and chatty, as the panel reminisced about Second City stage days, bad auditions, worse jobs, and the future of the sitcom. Everyone seemed to agree that the future of sitcoms lies in cable, who can offer creative freedom and the ability to nurture challenging shows (Dexter, Mad Men), allowing them to find their legs and gain an audience.

Sunday I caught the “Second City: From Stage to Screen” panel with Jim Belushi, Betty Thomas, Jeff Garlin, Dan Castellaneta, and Harold Ramis. The 1:00pm panel was a packed house, and the discussion was hilarious and touching. Garlin was booming self deprecation and humble sincerity towards his fellow panel. Betty Thomas was gonzo energy, telling stories about splitting her days as a waitress at Second City and part time substitute teacher, and how she only took the stage on a dare from a bartender. This was after she quit her job as a sub following an altercation with a student who hit her. When the police approached her about filing a police report, Betty replied, “I don’t want to fill out all that paperwork. Can I just punch the little fucker back?” Ramis had some foul mouthed recollections regarding Robert DeNiro’s improv style: Deniro simply substitutes fuck with motherfucker and asshole for cocksucker. During the Q&A, an audience member asked Belushi about the night he heard the news of his brother John’s death. The room was pin-drop quiet as Jim took a moment to gather himself and talked about the night he lost a friend and brother, and the world lost one of its favorite funnymen. It was a touching moment, and a great way to end a panel that was illuminating, tender and generous. Immediately after, I sat down with Harold Ramis, who graciously offered some time to talk about the impact of Second City on his career and its impact on the state of modern comedy.

When you first heard about the Second City 50th Anniversary, or when you think about your Second City days, what kind of emotions get stirred up?
Harold Ramis: To me, it’s not so much nostalgia, and I feel that everything that has happened since then has been a direct extension of my Second City experience. There’s no separation in my mind. It’s not like “Oh, that was then and this is now.” I’ve been in touch with the same people, and especially moving back to Chicago and revisiting the theater on a regular basis, and doing different promotional stuff and hanging out with Andrew Alexander. I’ve come back and improvised on the E.T.C. Stage, and we did a 40th reunion of my cast, my ’68-’69 cast last November. I keep working with Second City people constantly. I directed an episode of The Office, and Steve Carell and Kate Flannery (Meredith) are both from Second City.

So it’s kind of like that family that you can’t escape, but you’re glad you can’t?
HR: Oh yeah. It’s one of the great talent pools, and every cast turns out someone great.  If you’re casting a movie, you’re always seeing people in auditions who are Second City, Groundlings, Improv Olympic or Upright Citizens people. They all share a technique, and some of them have been to all of those places. But Second City is a great school of comedy, and it exists beyond the actual campus itself.

When you all get together, is it hard to think about friends who have passed, like Belushi or John Candy?
HR: You know, it’s always there. You can’t reminisce or talk about the past without thinking about Belushi, Candy, or Gilda Radnor. Doug Kenney, who I worked with on Animal House or Caddyshack knew all the same people. Chris Farley was another Second City veteran, so it’s just all part of the conversation.  But it’s probably no different than any group of friends who get together and remember people who aren’t there anymore. Candy’s name came up during the SCTV panel because everyone wanted to honor his memory, and we told John Candy stories for the audience.

What are some of the lessons that have always stuck with you from Second City and you still apply to your career and the creative process.
HR: Well, the two big ones for me were to always work from the top of your intelligence.  Don’t dumb it down. What Del Close always said was that instead of worrying about how you’re doing, focus on making everyone else look really good. Either we’ll all look good together, or we’ll fail together, and either way it’s a better lesson for the audience. That’s a good one. And there’s the one that you’ve heard a million times, which is “Always say yes.” The full statement of that is to never say no onstage. Never deny what someone puts out there. You just say “Yes…and”. I do that even as a director, or when I’m critiquing someone else’s writing. Or between takes, if an actor does something, I may not like it, but I never say no. I say, “Oh, I see what you’re going for there”.

Or, “‘Let’s explore that.’”
HR: Yeah, or “Tell me what you’re looking for and maybe I can help you find it in a different way.”

In an age when someone can post a Youtube clip or someone can write a comedy blog without any formal training, do you think that Second City’s style of formal comedy training is becoming obsolete, or will there always be a place for Second City?
HR: The real question isn’t can you become a sensation in a week on the internet, it’s what do you do next week, and the week after that, and a year after that, and ten years after that and thirty years later. Or fifty. Life is long, and being a sensation implies a short-lived quality. Sensations don’t last in pop culture. It came up in a panel discussion today that I was on. What are you working for at this point? To be a sensation? Well, everyone wants that at least once. It gets you money and gets you laid. Which is what most young people are working towards in this business. Picasso once said, “When you’re young, you’re working to get women. When you’re older, you work for the work.” [Laughs] So, I always thought it’s not about the technological means of distribution. I don’t care if it’s Youtube or new forms of video or distribution. Whether it’s a disc, a tape or a phonograph record, you still have to have something that’s worth saying, or a bare stage with six chairs. It doesn’t matter. It’s what you bring to the stage that matters. I’m throwing slogans at you, but it’s like character destiny. Your career is somewhat defined by who you are, and what ideas you have to express. What’s the nature of your character, and what are you bringing to the audience that’s worth their time and interest.

Something I’ve always wondered, and I think you’re the perfect guy to ask, is comedy, or a sense of humor or improve timing, something that can be taught?
HR: Look at any ensemble. You might go in thinking “Oh, this is the pace of comedy, or this is what timing is.” Then you watch someone like Eugene Levy [Snaps fingers slowly] You know? But that’s Levy. Some people are really quick, and some are big and some are subtle. You can’t deliver a well written tight joke slowly. It won’t work. It’s really a matter of finding the material that’s right for your style and adapting your style to the material that you’re being asked to do. That’s the challenge. No one can really teach you that. But people can help you find your own comic voice and shape material that’s appropriate to who you are.

Animal House and Caddyshack definitely have an anarchic, us-versus-them spirit. Is that fearlessness and sensibility something you brought from Second City?
HR: I brought it from my life. From growing up through my college experience, and my own interests and my desire to shake it up a little bit, in every way. Socially and politically. Comedy is inherently disruptive, and makes people laugh usually because it’s improper and shocks the people a little bit.

I’m thinking back to the Marx Brothers…
HR: Oh yeah. Definitely. The Marx Brothers were very socially satirical, without ever saying it. So the anarchy on Animal House and Caddyshack…that was the times, you know? Those were the times I grew up in, and we just thought, “No one’s really exploited this yet in comedy, and no one’s brought it to the big screen yet.”

What’s one of your favorite or wildest memories from your Second City days?
HR: You know, it was all crazy. We were pretty low budget in the beginning, and Second City was kind of struggling when I first started here in ’68 and ’69, so we were the touring company in ’68, and we had quite a nice following here in Chicago. We wanted more jobs and we were always saying to Bernie Sahlins, “Why can’t you find us more jobs?” So we got booked at West Point Academy, during the height of the Vietnam War, and half our show was anti-war material. I said, “We’re going to take the bus to West Point? That’s about a 24 hour drive. Can’t you charter us a plane?” They chartered like a Piper Cub airplane, and we’re sitting there with luggage in our laps.

Roosters flying around you?
HR: [Laughs] Totally. Terrifying flight to West Point. Terrifying flight back. We did the West Point show on Sunday, flew back, and they had us do a show at Second City on Sunday night. You have these bonding experiences with the whole company that are so terrific and intense. We had a similar experience when they sent us to a nightclub in Louisville. It was ’69, the year they landed on the moon. The place was called The Mousetrap, and it was like a bad version of a Playboy Club. Their symbol was a mouse instead of a rabbit, and the waitresses wore mouse ears and skimpy costumes. This is another great thing. We were in the Bible Belt and had a lot of sacrilegious material [Laughs]. David Bloom, who has passed away, used to do a solo piece that was a parody of a TV commercial for a life-sized, plastic Jesus to ride with you that sits next to you in the car. The audience was just dumbfounded, and part of the pitch in the bit was, “What do you think of that folks?” There was an extremely long pause and one guy in the audience said, “It makes me sick.” The next thing we know a glass hits the stage. Boom! And we all duck into the wings saying ,”Shit, what are we gonna do now?” So I had been the joke editor for Playboy magazine, and we had all this material about the war and all this sex and religious stuff that no one in that audience wanted to hear. So I said, “Ok, we’ll act out Playboy party jokes, and do them as skits with blackouts.” I wrote down a bunch of jokes and we went out and did them, and got cancelled after that night.

What do you think of the current state of improv, with shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Curb Your Enthusiasm or Apatow’s troupe? Do you think the beats and rhythms have changed over time?
HR: It’s pretty much the same deal. It’s not just ad-libbing. As Jeff Garlin explained about Curb during the panel, you know what the scene’s about, and you have something in exposition that you need to accomplish, you have some good ideas going in as to what’s funny and why the scene is going to be funny, so then you just make up the words. I always said that even when we would start with a script, and then start improvising in a movie, to me it wasn’t as audacious as people thought. I just thought that the improvising we did on camera was the last draft of the script. We wouldn’t write it down. We just wrote it on film. Chris Guest took it and made it work in movies, and Larry David’s made it work on TV. So why not?

Any projects you’re really excited about at the moment?
HR: We’ve got this Ghostbusters movie coming up. We’ll have a draft to look at probably by Christmas. The studio’s plan is to have Ivan Reitman direct, and all the principal Ghostbusters are back, and the hope is to shoot mid year 2010, and release it sometime in 2011.

Was it the right script that made everyone want to reunite?
HR: Ehh, partly. It wasn’t really that. There was just no group to do it for a while. Frankly, it’s a very expensive deal for the studios, and I think the last time Danny (Aykroyd) tried to get it all going they couldn’t make a deal. It was too rich for the studio. None of us felt like, “Oh, we need the money.” It’s always a little pathetic to me when people keep exploiting a franchise. The audience really wants it, so we figured what the hell? I’m going to direct The Office again at the end of January.

At the 70th Second City Anniversary, what would you say to your castmates?
HR: At the 70th? Man, I’ll be eighty five. I guess I’d say, “God, I can’t believe we’re still here.” There are people here at this Anniversary who are that old and older. Hopefully I’ll still be around.

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