Written by Denis Faye
If you’ve ever quoted Bill Murray, odds are you were actually quoting Harold Ramis, the writing-directing-acting-producing quadruple threat whose co-scribing credits include Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.
Yet, despite his impressive resume, the Second City alum remains humble when it comes to the craft of comedy. Recently, Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, his writing partners for the upcoming historical comedy Year One, suggested Ramis direct a few episodes of NBC’s The Office. The pair are writer-producers on the sitcom so, knowing he was in good hands, Ramis made his debut as a television helmer.
When asked if perhaps he was a bit, well, beyond a gig like that, he was quick to scoff. “I don’t think I’m beyond anything,” Ramis insists, “I feel like an amateur. It was a free scholarship to TV school. I was learning from people who did it really well, and I knew they wouldn’t let me fail.”
Ramis sat down recently with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site for an introspective discussion about Year One, which he also directed. While we were at it, we also discussed the evolution of comedy over the last 30 years, how he keeps his ideas fresh and why, despite all good intentions, President Obama wouldn’t make a good comedian.
What was the genesis of the Year One script?
The influences have been kicking around in my head for my whole life. I include anything that puts characters with a contemporary consciousness in a historical setting, like Mel Brooks – specifically, the 2000 Year Old Man. I thought that was hysterically funny when I was in college. I memorized all that material. And I really admired Life of Brian and Holy Grail.
Then a lot of religious thoughts started kicking around for me as I got older. And then post-9/11, I started thinking about fundamentalism and orthodoxy and the role they play in world conflict. The history of religion seems like an ongoing tragedy of some kind – persecution and injustice, torture, inquisition, and the way religion is used to justify politics.
Then I thought back to an improv that I directed in the ‘70s that had Bill Murray and John Belushi. I had been watching PBS and I didn’t realize that Cro-Magnon – modern man – had co-existed on the planet with Neanderthal. So, I had John and Billy do an improv. Bill played Cro-Magnon like a hipster and John played Neanderthal like a moron. It was very funny, I thought.
So I thought about trying to track some of my religious and political ideas through the dawn of man, and then I thought, Why not Genesis? And I started using the early start of Genesis as a template for these ideas. And it just started coming together in the summer of ‘05.
Photo: © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.
Jack Black and Michael Cera in Year One.
Why did you bring Gene and Lee into the process? Why didn’t you just write this by yourself?
Oh, it’s lonely. In my experience, all the best comedy work – the only work – I’ve ever done is collaborative. And I’ve worked in every type of collaboration, like the old-style three guys in a room together for three months at a time. One paces, one types, and one lies on the sofa, then you switch. Then I’ve done serial collaboration where I write and send it off to someone, and they write and send it off to me. If I have a good idea, and I choose the right collaborators, it could always be better. It’s a synergistic effect; multiple brains working on the same problem. It seems like the way to go. Also, their age. I’ve known these guys since they finished college. They represent a younger sensibility for a younger audience. So I wanted the movie to have broad appeal, not just appeal to people my age.
A lot of writer-directors from your generation have dated themselves into irrelevance, yet you seem to remain contemporary. How do you go about doing that?
Well, by remaining immature myself. Some of the issues of my youth have really not gone away – personal, social and political. I’m still outraged by the same things in the political world, and I’m still wrestling with the same adolescent issues of shame and peer pressure. Stuff that affects teenagers, I get it. Also, I have young kids. I have sons who are 19 and 14 and grandchildren who are 7 and 2 from my daughter from my first marriage. I have this active relationship with adolescence, both internal and external.
So, for you, comedy is a vehicle for social commentary?
Yeah, just coming from the late ‘60s, one of the slogans was “Everything is political” and certainly everything can be viewed that way. So I figure everything we do creatively makes a statement, intended or not. Every romantic comedy is saying something about gender politics. Every depiction of human life can be extended through psychology, sociology. There’s semiotics involved.
Is Year One satirical?
It is satirical, although on the surface, it just tells the story of these two numbskulls, the worst hunter-gatherers in the tribe, who are expelled from the security of their life in paradise, and then enter the existential world. The first people they meet are Cain and Abel, so it tracks Genesis in that sense, but it’s just telling the story of these two guys. The commentary is all in my head.
Getting back to your creative process, you mentioned a few techniques you’ve used. Which one did you use with Gene and Lee?
The story kind of came into my head intact, and I had a better knowledge of Genesis then they did, so a lot of the wider arcs and bigger issues were mine. I kind of laid it down and took the first pass and sent it off to them, then they’d kick it back to me. So I went through the whole script on my own and didn’t start incorporating their stuff until I’d gotten all the way through it.
Are you working on the Ghostbusters III script with them?
I worked on the story with them, and now they’re doing a pass. They’re great. The wonderful thing was that I’d send this thing out, and I had a lot of confidence in the story and who the characters were, but then the stuff would come back and I’d be laughing out loud at what they came up with.
I guess at this point in your career, you don’t have to worry about your jokes being funnier than theirs.
No, I just want the best result. My writer’s ego was kind of shattered by directing anyway. Even if you write or co-write a script, you definitely take that writer’s hat off because there’s no one to blame but yourself and you’re forced to rewrite on the set or improvise extensively. I have no illusions about what I write. I hope it’s good and there’s stuff I strongly believe in, but when you get out there, there’s just the reality of directing.
When you make your career choices, are you being strategic? Are you saying, “This story is the sort of comedy that’s currently being accepted, so the kids are going to like this”?
No, it’s more that I look for issues so embedded in human nature that they’re common in all of us. The particular expression of those ideas might change depending on the time you’re living in or the age of your players, but if the idea makes sense because it accurately describes the human condition, then I think it’s good for everybody. The trick is just, “How do I sell it? How do I make it palatable?”
How has the comedy landscape changed over the course of your career?
Of course, the style and players change from generation to generation. It seems clear that Bill Murray had defined a certain character, a way of being and speaking that young guys wanted to be and emulate. And people still repeat those lines. But that wasn’t everybody. There was, at the same time, a Woody Allen mode, which I think grew into the New York Seinfeld/Larry David school of comedy – more kvetching, a little more Jewish – even though they don’t acknowledge it – urban neurotic, shlemiels, and losers, to an extent. Our characters might have been outcasts, might have been alienated, might have been rebels, but we were never portrayed as losers.
And now, there seems to have been an evolution. There’s Will Ferrell’s protagonist – that’s half of Ben Stiller’s work too – vain idiots, clueless idiots. The other contemporary character seems to be the Seth Rogen/Jonah Hill, the smart slacker with no particular political orientation and not a lot of introspection, but definitely, there’s intelligence there.
Wow. Did you just answer that off the top of your head or have you put a lot of thought into this?
Well, the types, I’ve been thinking about how they’re defined. And certainly, I’ve thought a lot over the years about the differences between the Woody Allen model and the Bill Murray model. People are products of our time. We came from a time when we cherished radicalism. Once that radicalism died, these characters are just laying around trying to make sense of their lives, to find their purpose.
Our generation cherishes leisure more than activism.
Well, the political landscape changed. You don’t have activism. The cause for activism is always there, but the means seems to have evaporated.
Would you like to see a return to that?
I think the Obama campaign sort of did that. It mobilized a lot if young people. They had a strong sense of purpose during that campaign. To their credit, the administration is trying to keep that alive with organized volunteerism and keeping the force mobilized.
And will that ripple into comedy?
Comedy doesn’t do well with sincerity. Comedy thrives on disaster, dislocation, pain and suffering.
I was thinking about how activism played a part in movies like Stripes. Now that the zeitgeist is about caring and as those young activists grow and some move into comedy, do you think that might replace the ethos?
I’ve thought about that in terms of this movie. Year One ends with this sort of Frank Capra message. Jack and Michael kind of mobilize the common people, and they rise up against the power structure. At one point – it’s a loop line – but Michael even yells, “Yes we can!” But it’s a Frank Capra populism that’s been part of who I am since I was a kid watching Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or whatever. So this feels like an Obama movie in that sense. It’s about empowering the individual and thereby empowering society.