Posts Tagged ‘comedian’

harold-ramisHere we are, yet again, to say goodbye to another comedy genius. Early morning, on February 24, Harold Ramis passed away at the age of 69 from complications due to autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis. Ramis was a beloved actor, writer, and director who was involved in some of the most iconic comedies of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. To name just a few: Caddyshack, Groundhog’s Day, National Lampoon’s Animal House, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Stripes, Meatballs, Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2. While his later work seemed to fizzle out with audiences, Ramis still managed to achieve noteworthy performances in Orange County (2002), Knocked Up (2007), and Year One (2009).

Though he often played second fiddle to Bill Murray during their six-film collaboration, to call Ramis just a straight man downplays his talent as an actor and a comedian. Ramis has always been a more subdued performer, relying on his dry wit to subtly poke fun at or comment on institutions of authority and the new bourgeois culture. This was a man who grew up during the tumultuous era of the 1960s and tried to infuse that same spirit of rebellion into his movies. Take another look at that list up top and it becomes pretty clear that Ramis was all about underachievers and underdogs, turning them into unlikely, though not unwelcome heroes. Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters 2, I think, are the best examples. As Egon Spengler, nerds and geeks alike got to see a positive depiction of themselves on the big screen. Spengler and his fellow Ghostbusters were action heroes, but they were also men of science with a sense of humor to boot. Venkman may have been the street-smart, cynical romantic, but Egon was the quintessential nerd and he still got to save the day. Unlike now where nerd and geek culture have been greatly elevated, back in the 80s, this was a huge deal. Above all else, Ramis brought intelligence to his work. Again, it’s too easy to call Animal House or Caddyshack examples of frat house, juvenile humor. Do they have slapstick and low brow jokes, of course, but Ramis was as sly as he was overt in presenting comedy. He’d re-write or punch up scripts to make sure there was something for the audience to latch on to, something that resonated. Case in point, we remember pretty much all of his movies. The good ones at least.

The outpouring of articles and videos honoring Ramis speaks to the long-reaching influence he’s had on at least two generations of movie-goers. Most of his movies are quotable masterpieces of comedy with each sporting at least a scene or a line that sticks in your memory the rest of your life. It’s one thing to write a joke, it’s another to write joke funny enough to get people quoting it the second they walk out of the theater and years later. I should know. I haven’t seen Caddyshack since I was a teenager, but I can still quote a great deal of Billy Murray’s lines. The same goes for the Ghostbusters movies. When I was a kid, I was scared out of my mind because of the ghosts! I still remember hiding my head in my father’s chest or sitting behind the couch because I was freaked out by Ghostbusters 2. In all honesty, I had a better appreciation of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon before I truly enjoyed the movies they were based on, but I still went back and watched them again.

It’s impossible to perfectly encapsulate one man’s impact on cinematic culture, so the best thing we can do is curl up on the sofa and facilitate our own time loops of Harold Ramis movies. All I know for certain is that Mr. Ramis is now a wry grin of stars shining down on us singing “Do Wah Diddy”.

Next time I promise to write about something a bit more positive.

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Sid CaesarA few days ago Sid Caesar passed away at the age of 91 from complications due to illness. His passing was mourned by the comedic community, but it’s hard to gauge the reactions of the general public to the death of the patriarch of sketch comedy. Sid Caesar’s influence on comedy is everywhere and you might not even realize it. Caesar was the star of two successful variety shows, Your Show of Shows (1950-1954) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-1957), both of which were live comedy programs that influenced generations of comedians not just through the stellar performances of Caesar, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, Carl Reiner, and Nanette Fabray, but also through the amazing writing talents of Mel Brooks, Reiner, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen, and Mel Tolkin.

Mel Brooks, as we all know, wrote, directed, produced, and starred in some of the most influential comedic movies and television shows (The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spaceballs, Get Smart, etc.). He even snuck Caesar into small roles in Silent Movie and History of the World Part 1. Reiner used his experiences as a writer and performer under Caesar as the basis for The Dick Van Dyke Show with his character, Alan Brady, Rob Petrie’s boss, based in part, on Caesar. Neil Simon went on to become a prolific playwright, winning Tony Awards for The Odd Couple (1965) and Lost in Yonkers (1991). His 1993 play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, was based on his experiences as a writer for Caesar with all of the characters as stand-ins for his fellow writers and Caesar himself. Larry Gelbart went on to co-create and write the television show M*A*S*H. Mel Tolkin, best known for his work on Your Show of Shows, was also a contributing editor and writer for All in the Family and Archie Bunker’s Place. And if you’re still a fan of Woody Allen, then you know how famous he went on to be as a writer and director. All of these men contributed to the landscape that would influence the next generation of comedic talent, but for every person who quotes a Mel Brooks movie, cites M*A*S*H as a show that changed the format of the half-hour sitcom, or praises a Woody Allen film, they’re inadvertently tracing that comedic lineage back to Sid Caesar.

Caesar himself was wildly praised by his peers and Hollywood for his comedic prowess and the intelligence with which he approached comedy. Even though his shows had to play to audiences most would consider the lowest common denominator, Caesar made sure that sketches never treated the viewing audience as dumb. Amongst his assembled staff of writers, there wasn’t a book read, a movie/play watched, or music listened to that couldn’t be referenced. Astonishingly, Caesar never wrote for his own shows, relying on his staff to create the scenarios and dialogue, though Caesar was still involved in punching up the material, performing the sketches out loud, over and over again, until he was satisfied. Sketches were an average of 10 minutes long so the performers could milk everything out of the material while the camera was allowed to capture every expression, which Caesar and his fellow performers had in spades. Caesar was adept at the art of pantomime, able to capture the simplest task and still make it hilarious, and an expert improviser. He also perfected the art of “double-talk”, which he’d been doing since he was a child in his parents’ diner in Yonkers, New York. Alfred Hitchcock even called him “television’s Charlie Chaplin”.

As a person, Sid Caesar was both praised and sometimes feared by his fellow performers and staff. A bear of a man, Caesar was a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, temperamental personality known for violent outbursts, which you can see even in his comedic approach. In many sketches, the characters Caesar often played reacted by pushing and shoving or through sudden bursts of emotion. One of his more infamous outbursts resulted in hanging a young Mel Brooks over the balcony of a hotel room while the writing staff was pulling an all-nighter for Your Show of Shows. Brooks would later reference another of Caesar’s violent actions in Blazing Saddles. The scene where Mongo punches a horse is supposedly based on Caesar doing the same when his wife was thrown from a horse while out riding. Regardless of his temper, Caesar was also a warm and caring individual; a loving friend, husband, and father, he was also an ardent supporter of the Humane Society who created an award in his name in 2005.

With his passing, I hope more people will rediscover Sid Caesar and understand his place in the pantheon of comedy gods. Caesar was a man who paved the way for other comedians, but his stardom, like the man himself, burnt out quickly in the eyes of the viewing public. I was fortunate to have a mother and grandfather who loved comedy and introduced me to Sid Caesar as a teenager, but there are some who vaguely remember him for his roles in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Grease (1972) and many who don’t know him at all. If you’re a fan of comedy, I encourage you to scour YouTube for sketches or watch interviews of him and his fellow writers and performers. Caesar was insightful, honest, hilarious, and poignant to a fault. The best thing we can do is celebrate him and all that he contributed to comedy because they don’t make ’em like Sid Caesar anymore.