Three Powerful Lessons From the Films of Comedy Maestro Harold Ramis

The Story:

Four of the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest comedies would not exist without Harold Ramis, the writer, director, and actor, who passed away in his hometown of Chicago on Monday morning. The most memorable comedies of a generation owe their particular brand of wit and charm to the pen or the direction of Ramis, whose filmography includes classics such as CaddyshackAnimal HouseGhostbusters, and Groundhog Day.

Although many of Ramis’ early films captured the zeitgeist of the ’60s and ’70s, fusing iconoclasm with a blue-collar appreciation of the everyman and the underdog, Ramis’ later films (Groundhog DayAnalyze ThisBedazzled) were characterized by their sympathetic treatment of the deeper elements of human existence, including the search for spiritual meaning and the longing for inner peace. These later efforts were heady as well as humorous, containing philosophical expositions on the good life that were artfully intertwined with a light-hearted jocundity.

As one commentator noted, Ramis always seemed to be on the verge of laughter, and that infectious quality penetrated his films. Viewers were pulled into Ramis’ comedic universe and invited to laugh along with him. Moreover, that universe seemed always to be filled with other great talents who served as frequent collaborators (he worked with Bill Murray on six different films). The rapport, familiarity, and conviviality that developed between Ramis, Murray, Dan Akroyd, and John Belushi added yet another endearing quality to Ramis’ films.

An alumnus of the famous Second City improvisational group, Ramis refused to sacrifice smarts to slapstick. In fact, Ramis’ work is perhaps so appealing because of its Midwestern sensibility — its down-home American vibe that connects with audiences and invokes irresistible laughter from people across the ideological and socio-economic spectrums.

Upon hearing the news of his death, the most popular names in comedy issued official statements, praising Ramis’ intellect, kindness, and comedic acumen. In a tweet honoring Ramis, Seth MacFarlane noted that he was a “brilliant, shining example for every comedy writer hoping to achieve excellence [in] the field.”

Groundhog Day, Ramis’ masterpiece, is considered along with Chinatown and The Godfather, to be the perfect example of a soundly written screenplay, which is proof that, even in the realm of comedy, a dedication to one’s craft can result in a film that is both profoundly meaningful and fun.

The efforts of later directors, such as Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old VirginKnocked Up), to replicate Ramis’ efforts have fallen short precisely because, in most modern comedies, raunchiness overshadows redemption and cynicism has drowned out Ramis’ signature sanguinity. Still, Judd Apatow considers himself to be operating in the tradition started by Ramis, saying, “[Harold] was the person that I wanted to be when I was growing up. … His work is the reason why so many of us got into comedy. … [H]e literally made every single one of our favorite movies.”

Ramis was lauded not only for his “sense of humor, of humility, [and] sense of self,” but also for his willingness to mentor others, to teach, to help, and to guide others in the industry, so that they might experience a similar level of success and fulfillment.

As we remember the work of the comedy maestro, let’s look at lessons we can learn from three of his best-known films.

Ghostbusters — Pro-Market Solutions Trump Governmental Micromanaging

Appreciation for Ramis’ films bridges not only the age and income divide, but also the political divide. Conservatives always stand ready to describe Ghostbusters as groundbreaking comedy for both its special effects and its pro-market message, which is rare in Hollywood.

Early in the film, when Columbia University cuts funding for their science program, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Peter Venkman are forced to make a living by starting a private firm that specializes, of course, in catching ghosts. Hesitant to leave academia for the business world, Stantz (Dan Akroyd) says, “Personally, I liked working for the university! They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector … they expect results!”

Thus, the Ghostbusters go from not producing anything but shoddy theories in a university setting to providing a necessary service that just so happens to save New York City from the terror unleashed by Gozer the Gozerian. By entering private industry, exceling in their particular area of expertise, and solving public problems (“Are you troubled by strange noises in the night?”), they are able to meet people’s supernatural elimination needs as the government and educational institutions simply cannot.

It is difficult to think of any other film in which the primary villain is an obnoxiously smarmy regulator from the Environmental Protection Agency. By investigating the Ghostbusters and shutting down the power grid, the intrusive Walter Peck releases every ghost from the containment system. When ghosts run roughshod over New York — a problem created by the government — the only people who can save the day are the heroic small-business owners — the Ghostbusters.

Bedazzled — Be Careful What You Wish For

In Bedazzled, a remake directed by Ramis in 2000, hapless goofball Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser) has no greater desire than to date Alison Gardner, his beautiful co-worker who has absolutely no idea he exists. Elliot, the lonely, friendless nerd who idolizes Alison is approached by Satan (Elizabeth Hurley), who offers Elliot the fulfillment of seven wishes in exchange for his soul.

Although Elliot accepts, every wish he makes is thwarted by some unsuspecting twist, so that he never gets the girl. Whether Elliot is rich or stunningly handsome, outrageously smart, powerful, or sensitive, something always goes wrong. No matter what identity he tries to adopt, Alison is never interested. After an incident lands him in jail, Elliot’s cellmate — representing either an angel or God — says, “The devil’s gonna try to confuse you, that’s her game. But in the end, you’re gonna see clear to who and what you are, and what you’re here to do.”

Finally, a disheartened Elliot wishes that Allison has a happy life. Once he performs a selfless act, his contract with Stan is voided, and Elliot returns to his normal life more grounded and self-assured, no longer pursuing an idealized woman whom he once considered to be the key to happiness.

Even though the film contains some dualistic elements (God and Satan arguably serve as equal powers symbolizing good and evil) and the need for redemption is replaced by the need for enlightenment, the overall message of the movie is clear: Do not chase after transient idols who will never satisfy, because by doing so, you will never find your identity (as a child of God) and your purpose (to honor God through thought, word, and deed, and to enjoy Him forever). Once we stop placing our identity on unstable, shifting ground, we will be forever planted in healthy soil that enables us to grow, mature, and flourish.

Biblical Insights:

Groundhog Day and the Spirit of Service (Proverbs 11:25)

“The generous will prosper; those who refresh others will themselves be refreshed.”

Harold Ramis’ masterpiece, Groundhog Day, which has been hailed by critics as one of the most spiritual and philosophical comedies ever made, was added to the National Film Registry in 2006 because of its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.

Phil Connors (Bill Murray), the cynical, misanthropic, diva-like meteorologist, is sent to the tiny town of Punxsutawney, Pa., to cover his least favorite event: Groundhog Day. Much to his dismay, the seething and contemptuous Connors becomes stuck in a time loop, so that Connors lives the same day, February 2, over and over again. (How many of us have felt as if our own lives are on repeat, so that we are reliving the same day, doing the same things, talking to the same people?)

While there has been much debate about how many times Connors relives Groundhog Day, Harold Ramis revealed in an interview that it was likely a long time, perhaps 30 years. For most of these 30 years, Connors lives by his own rules. He lives for the sake of pleasure. Eventually, Connors becomes melancholy, and the depressed meteorologist kills himself several times. But he comes right back to life — on February 2.

Ultimately, Connors’ unabashedly self-centered lifestyle leads to dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and regret. But one day, after coming to admire the example of Rita, his production manager, he hops out of bed, takes a deep breath, and becomes determined to live life in a new way — not for himself, but for others.

In the last scene of the movie, in which Connors finally wakes up to tomorrow, he turns to Rita and says, “Is there anything I can do for you today?” This line summarizes Phil’s salvific philosophy. It’s what led him to live the right way. Phil, by focusing on other people instead of himself, developed a spirit of service. Phil sought out problems, needs, and suffering. And he worked tirelessly to solve those problems, to meet those needs, and to ease that suffering.

Concerned with the well-being of others, Connors not only gives money to a poor old homeless man whom he had previously ignored, but he also talks to him, takes him to a restaurant, and buys him multiple bowls of soup. He takes coffee and pastries to work. He asks his coworkers about their families and hobbies. His snarky and cynical comments are replaced by light-hearted and well-intentioned words of encouragement.

“Is there anything I can do for you today?” Like Phil Connors, this is the question we must ask our family members, our friends, and our neighbors if we are to discover areas of need in our community. If we are going to lighten the burdens that weigh so heavily on our brothers and sisters in Christ, we must walk around with this question at the forefront of our minds.

This ethic — this spirit of service — was not discovered by Harold Ramis and Bill Murray. It was introduced by Jesus. It’s what characterized the ministry of our Lord and Savior. Jesus came so that we might have life to the full. To live life to the full, we must imitate Jesus, who came to save and to serve. Thus, we, too, must serve. First of all, we must serve God. But this very same service of God is most evident in the service of our neighbors. Jesus says that “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus told his disciples, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27).

And Jesus did not hesitate to give us everything we needed — even his own life. Jesus epitomizes self-giving love. “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). That’s what Jesus did for us. That’s a spirit of service.

A life of generosity is the life to which Jesus has called us. If we are to live a life of generosity, we must ask, “Is there anything I can do for you today?” When we do this, we, like Phil Connors, will find meaning and fulfillment, and we will break whatever routine — whatever funk — we happen to be in.