Harold Ramis created the vocabulary that guys my age use to connect with each other.
Believe it or not, that vocabulary has a Manhattan connection – and it’s not just that my buddies and I watched his movies so often that we can recite them from memory. I’ll get back to that connection in a minute.
Ramis, who died earlier this week, was at the heart of “Animal House,” “Caddyshack,” “Vacation,” “Stripes,” and “Ghostbusters.”
He wrote, directed and/or acted in all those movies, plus more. My friends and I watched those five movies more than 150 times, easy. We internalized the language, the comic timing, the characters.
But it wasn’t just us.
Wherever I’ve gone, all over the country, I can pull out a line from one of those movies and guys my age from anywhere else immediately get it. They can usually quote the next line. It’s an invisible fraternity with a secret handshake.
(I should note that I’m saying “guys” not because I want to exclude women, but just because my observation is that they fill their brains with more important information. Such as how to actually relate to other human beings, rather than just quoting movie lines.)
• “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” That’s the universal rallying cry in the face of long odds. It’s from John Belushi’s character in “Animal House.”
The appropriate reply: “The Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” and then “Forget it, he’s on a roll.”)
• “So I got THAT goin’ for me. Which is nice.” From Carl Spackler, the groundskeeper played by Bill Murray in “Caddyshack.”
You can use this when you win an award, or are particularly proud of your lawn mowing job, or, for that matter, if you get bird droppings on your windshield.
• “Looks good on YOU though,” from Rodney Dangerfield in “Caddyshack.”
That’s useful whenever you want to poke fun at something somebody’s wearing. Including yourself.
• “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.” Dean Wormer to Belushi in “Animal House.”
Use it any time somebody has had one too many.
• If anybody asks you about any of your past troubles, go to this one from “Stripes”: “Convicted? No, never convicted.”
• Car problems? “You think you hate it now, but wait ‘til you drive it!” That’s from “Vacation.”
• “Don’t cross the streams!” This is from “Ghostbusters,” and universally applicable in men’s rooms.
I could do this for hours. Believe me. I can hear our kids screaming at me to stop already. So I’ll cut you a break.
In publications around the country, Ramis has gotten the credit he deserves for his comic genius. He’s been called the “Steven Spielberg of comedy.” He’s been hailed as the guy who created the template for more recent directors such as Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers.
He even gets credit for his straight-man acting roles alongside Bill Murray — in “Stripes” and “Ghostbusters.”
A big part of what he did was to bring some of the techniques and the vibe of improvisational comedy to the movies. He was willing to set up the concept of a scene but let the actors riff on each other while the camera rolled.
For instance, he gave Murray the idea for the scene in “Caddyshack” where the groundskeeper whacks the heads off flowers as he narrates his way through a championship hole at the Masters.
But he let Murray take the idea and run with it – and the result was better than anything that could have been scripted.
This is where the Manhattan connection comes in.
Ramis learned improv comedy at the Second City theater in Chicago. The director: Del Close, born and raised in Manhattan.
Close graduated in 1952 from Manhattan High, where he’s now on the Wall of Fame, having been inducted with a stirring speech here a few years ago by Bill Murray.
Close mentored Ramis, Murray, Belushi, Dan Akroyd—a who’s-who of the comedy world.
This is hardly a surprise, but Close was a well-known jokester around here, pulling off a gag involving a fake murder near downtown. He played the role of the corpse. Local legend stuff.
Anyway, back to Harold Ramis…
When Close died several years ago, Ramis said: “Del was the single most powerful force in improv comedy in America. He’s the intellectual and moral standard that guides us all in our work. He taught everybody the process.”
So, when you think of contemporary comedy, when you think of the conversations that knit together American males of a certain age, you can draw a line back to Harold Ramis.
And that line goes straight back to a little house in the 1700 block of Poyntz Avenue, where Del Close grew up.