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Harold and Humor: An Evening With the Director of Year One

In his upcoming Bible-belting farce Year One, Harold Ramis stars as Adam, an opportune role for the former ace of American comedy. Indeed, Ramis was in large part responsible (as the lead scribe) for modern comedy’s version of Original Sin, that ne plus ultra of Greek-life propaganda Animal House. On Friday night at the Times Center, the cheeky writer-director-actor regaled the audience with thirty-plus years of anecdotes and asides to hype his latest film.

After a reel of Ramis excerpts from hits like Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, and Analyze This, our favorite “never-nude” David Cross — fabulously offbeat as usual — introduced the evening’s subject. “The American Heritage Dictionary defines Harold Ramis as an opaque, filmy gauze,” Cross lead off after an amusingly maladroit climb onto the stage. “Only a handful of people should be called a comic genius,” he soon concluded in a pseudo-serious and improvisational tone, whispering his scoop that, “Mark Twain is one of them.” The comedian, who plays o-brother-where-art-thou Cain (Paul Rudd) in Year One, then went ahead and claimed such status for himself: “So from one comic genius to another…”

On queue, Ramis emerged from the front row with the Ghostbusters theme on blare — we imagine the first guest to receive such rah-rah treatment at the elegant Times Center.

The hundred-minute discussion was facilitated by the Museum of the Moving Image’s chief curator David Schwartz, who steered through Ramis’ famous oeuvre with finesse, taking care to focus on the classics and to sidestep the “oof”s (Bedazzled or Multiplicity anyone?). The exception: 1986 Caribbean misadventure Club Paradise, which Ramis remembers garnering only two positive reviews, one from Pauline Kael in The New Yorker and one from that “highly-regarded” pub, Reggae Beat Magazine.

In between additional clips, Ramis characterized his ideal of masculinity as a “combination of Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, and Harpo Marx,” a roll call that embodies his comedic meld of the sophisticated, adventurous, and the outright silly. He briefly touched upon his post-collegiate career as a writer for Playboy, emphasizing the dead-end nature of the pursuit. After all, as Dr. Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters, the man coolly insisted that “print is dead” a mere quarter-century before the present fact.

Ramis, of course, would find his dry niche as both a performer and penman for Chicago’s high-profile improv group, Second City, and its later TV series with Martin Short, Rick Moranis, John Candy, et al. Throughout his career, he’s simply adhered to early advice that “broad comedy is not necessarily dumb comedy,” his best films managing to be acclaimed while adored by the masses.

After discussing his breakthrough script for Animal House, which he “knew” would be a sure-fire smash, Ramis talked candidly about the outlandish ideas he had for his own directorial debut. The first “comedy” involved documenting the Neo-Nazi’s attempt to march through the densely Jewish town of Skokie, Illinois, which would have been absurd. His back-up idea was a revisionist Marxist Western — a project he still hopes will see the dark of a theatre.

Studio bigwigs obviously passed on his left-field ideas, suggesting something more “urban and contemporary.” The result was the above-par classic Caddyshack. The New York Times deemed it an “amiable mess,” but Ramis affectionately termed to it his “nine-million-dollar version of film school” and offered that everything Bill Murray said — save for one scene — was improvised and shot in six quick days.

The ever-mercurial Murray would serve as inspiration for the better part of Ramis’ heyday (the ’80s). He summed it up as such: people would ask, “are you the class clown?” and the response would simply be, “No, I write for the class clown.” Yet, Murray almost lost out on the laudatory payola of Groundhog Day, which Ramis dreamt up as this generation’s feel-good classic, an It’s a Wonderful Life for the age of media ad infinitum. The two funnymen had suffered a falling out of sorts during Ghostbusters 2, their working relationship soured to an extent that Tom Hanks was initially offered Groundhog‘s narcissistic weatherman.

But Ramis and Murray eventually reconciled and the trouble-free shoot resulted in their most indispensable collaboration and one of the best and most beloved comedies of the ’90s. Even Hanks confessed that Murray was the only person to make the film’s moral about-face credible, because with “Bill, you never know.”

Which brings us to Year One, a project with Judd Apatow on credits as a producer: “I wanted to track the psycho-social development of man through Genesis,” Ramis quipped when asked about his original pitch. Like Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I, the film’s humor resides in droll, fill-in versions of WW__D; that is, what would ancient so-and-so do as seen through the modern prism of irony?

In this case, the dramatic personae include the aforementioned Cain, Abel, and Adam, as well as Eve (Rhonda Griffis), Abraham (Hank Azaria), son Isaac (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and various monarchs of yore; Sodom becomes the Las Vegas of the ancient world, and so on. Playing hunting-and-gathering odd couple Zed and Oh, Jack Black and Michael Cera are banished from their hamlet and set off on a picaresque road trip through this antiquity. From the bits we previewed, such as a facetious take on circumcision’s origin, Year One seems to be Ramis at his lighthearted and escapist best. God bless him.

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