Whether you know it or not, Harold Ramis has been making you laugh for years. In front of the camera, you probably remember him as Bill Murray’s buddy Russell in Stripes, or as Egon in Ghostbusters. But you definitely remember his work behind the camera. Over the past twenty years, Ramis has written and/or directed over a dozen films, several of which are among the highest grossing comedies of all time. In 1978, Animal House became a blockbuster, and Harold began a long, successful (and hilarious) string of hits, including Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Back to School, Groundhog Day, Analyze This and Bedazzled. Ladies and gentlemen…
What books do you remember reading as a kid?
I don’t remember reading a lot of books when I was a kid. I do remember learning to read with Fun with Dick and Jane, which was one of the basic reading books. I probably started kindergarten in 1949 and learning materials were very basic; there were no audio/visual materials. Everything was in very simple textbooks- very traditional- and not what I’d call student-centered. And so I learned to read with Fun with Dick and Jane – you know ‘see Dick run, run Spot run,’- the whole thing. As an adolescent I started reading sports books. Which was ironic, because I wasn’t athletic at all, but I’d read books like Spark Plug of the Hornets (about a shortstop), but that wasn’t really that interesting.
I remember reading a book about Grand Prix racing, which I thought was real interesting, called The Green Helmet. Suddenly at 13, I knew everything about the Grand Prix circuit. Not that I had ever seen an automobile race, but I was interested. Then I remember a book about the first successful climb of one of the five tallest mountains in the world. That was an important book. I read Candide when I was about 13, just skimmed inappropriate parts and was real excited about that.
I remember reading Lions, Tigers, and Me, which I actually did an Amazon book search for and found! It’s the memoir of a world-class animal trainer. Every chapter had someone being disemboweled or devoured by a lion or tiger, and that really impressed me when I was 13 or 14. That was a big reading period, and I remember all those books. After that it was school stuff.
What were your early memories of television?
Well, I’m old enough to actually remember the days before there was a television in every household. Television actually made a false start in 1939 before the Second World War began. They had to convert all that technology to war-time use, so broadcast TV didn’t really get going until after the war in ’45, and I was too young to even know about it.
I remember coming home from school and listening to radio programs at lunchtime and after school. Soap operas, and mysteries and all that stuff. That’s a very vague memory, but I have very distinct memories of seeing television for the first time at my cousin’s house. They had a 12-inch television.
My father got extravagant and we bought a 10-inch Philco television set, which was about as big as a Volkswagen with a 10-inch screen. The whole family would gather around that snowy image and you’d spend most your time adjusting the antenna. You’d get an image that you could sort of see. You could at least see the people and see their mouths moving.
TV shows were 15 minutes at the time when they first started; and the broadcast day was very short. But I was so excited by it. I used to get up on Saturday mornings like a full half hour before programming even began and I would watch. First I would watch the snow on the screen until the test pattern came on. It was this great Indian head test pattern, which I’m sure a lot of people remember. I’d watch the test pattern until the national anthem came on. Mighty Mouse, in my memory, was the first show of the Saturday morning line up. That’s what I’d be waiting for. Mighty Mouse was a very big hit with me.
What else did you watch on Saturday morning?
I remember a show called Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, which was very cheesy. Even then, I knew it was cheesy. There was no anti-gravity stuff. They wore magnetic shoes so they never had to float anywhere. I remember Captain Video. I remember Sky King, the film series. [I remember] Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, many versions of Batman. I remember Superman as a movie serial first, and then as a TV show. Lunchtime little theatre was a big hit. I’d come home for lunch, a guy name Uncle Johnny Coons was the host and I actually kind of copied some of that stuff for a SCTV piece I did later, “Ullie’s Round House.” I played a railroad switchman up in the roundhouse.
Uncle Johnny would ask you to ask your mom if it’s okay to bring your lunch in front of the TV set, and then’ let’s see what we got.’ Then he’d show cartoons. Three Stooges, The Tons of Fun. [The Tons of Fun] were three enormously fat guys. It was like three Chris Farleys. They just did kind of Stooges material but with a lot of falling down and a lot of fat jokes. There was another cartoon, kind of silent movie comedy show hosted by a guy named Two-Ton Baker, who was kind of a well-known TV personality. Another enormously fat guy; but he sat at a piano and played. Those were big. A lot of those shows contained recycled material from old silent films. Kids who grew up then really got a history of silent film comedy, which I think was really important for me because I got to see all the greats.
They weren’t making original kids programming of any kind of quality, so they just recycled everything from day one. All the Mack Sennett comedies, all the Keystone Kops, all of Laurel and Hardy, all got recycled as little segments on kid shows. I had no historical context to put any of that in. I knew it was old, of course, but I just thought I was seeing stuff that I thought was funny. That was kind of my early TV experience. Got a little older and discovered Ernie Kovacs and some of the more off beat TV comedy stuff that changed my life.
What about prime time?
Prime time was a lot of big family shows. I remember Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. That was considered the class act in TV comedy. Milton Berle had a huge variety show. Jackie Gleason of course had The Honeymooners and a variety show. Steve Allen had a big variety show. Red Skelton was not a favorite in my family, so we didn’t watch Red Skelton. I kind of followed my father’s taste in comedy and I thought Steve Allen was pretty funny hip. The Sid Caesar stuff was just broad and very well written and well performed. But Ernie Kovacs was the real kind of demented personality of TV in the ’50’s and probably early ’60’s too.
I really liked Ernie Kovacs. He started out with a daytime show. It was, like, a half hour, and completely weird. If you had to compare it to anything, it was like watching the Letterman show in the ’50’s. It was very conceptual and very weird and seemed to make no concessions to his audience. Then he had a nighttime show, which was not like a variety show, it was just more weird comedy. But these were the days when the whole world would watch Milton Berle show on Tuesday nights. It was a national habit. And then everyone would reference what they’d seen then night before you know next day at work or at school or whatever. But I didn’t love Milton Berle as much as I loved other shows.
It was the era of great variety shows. The sitcoms, the half-hour shows, were very bland. Leave it to Beaver, Make Room for Daddy, and Father Knows Best, were all the same show. I was never that interested in that stuff. Maybe when I was real little.
And I was young enough I guess to think Spin and Marty was kind of cool. I watch it today, you know as I flip channels and see the Disney channel recycling that stuff, and I can’t believe I thought it was interesting. I used to like Zorro. There was an early Robin Hood series that was pretty good, made in England I think with Richard Green.
Was going to the movies important to you at that age?
Well, movie going was a huge social habit for little kids. I grew up on the West side of Chicago, and there were three of four theatres where we would be dropped off. For maybe 25 cents we would see a double or triple feature. It could be three feature films, interspersed with cartoons. Sometimes it would be two features and seven cartoons. Sometimes there would be a cartoon jamboree – 25 cartoons, but always with a double feature. There was a lot of recycled patriotism from the Second World War- a lot of war movies. It’s like, kids growing up [at that time] kind of relived the Second World War in the films that were made.
I remember a double feature called Beach Head and Saber Jack. That was one of my favorite double features. They were actually serials. Flash Gordon was a big serial that was made in the ’30’s, but got recycled onto TV. But there were other serials that were still being made in the ’50’s. One was called Don Winslow of the Navy. Then when the war was over he was decommissioned to Don Winslow of the Coast Guard.
But the movies we liked? God help me! We liked Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the movies. I liked just about anything at that time. There was that rash of terrible monster movies. Although some of them were very good. Them! was a very frightening film at the time. And not even that silly now. It was pretty well done. But there were really bad ones like Tarantula, which is just the worst optical shots of a tarantula superimposed on a miniature landscape. At one time, I think you can see it, a pencil comes in and pokes the tarantula to get it moving. They didn’t even bother to cut it out of the shot. There’s a lot of that bad monster stuff.
But I just loved going to the movies. Every kid in the neighborhood would be at the theatre. We would go with eight or nine guys and we’d fill a whole row. The noise level would get so deafening; the ushers were like prison guards. They’d come by and they’d threaten to discipline you and then eventually they’d be ‘all right that’s it, that’s it. You go sit over there.’
They’d try to separate you. But then your job then was to sneak back to your friends in the dark. So kids were sneaking all over the theatre. No one was in their seat. It was like a mad house. From the kids in the front row of the balcony there would be a constant shower of popcorn and garbage onto the kids sitting below. That was every Saturday. It was a remarkable experience. We had such a good time. I just loved being in the theatre and I loved that whole experience of watching a movie on a big screen in the dark with an audience of my peers, which is really the hope and the future of theatrical films. Even if movies become digital, I don’t think you can replace that experience- that communal experience. I was very deeply psychologically influenced by movies as events.
I was probably happier in the movies than I was in my real life, although I wasn’t a miserable kid. But it’s where all my fantasies were formed and all my ideas about what it is to be a decent person, all my values, all my ideas about women. I wanted to be Cary Grant, I wanted to be Errol Flynn, I wanted to save the world. It was kind of inspiring. It’s the way people get programmed in our culture to accept these values, but I bought it. I just completely bought it.
What were some of your favorite toys?
There’s a joke in Ghostbusters II where we come into a child’s nursery and Danny Aykroyd and I were improvising and I said ‘I didn’t have any toys growing up.’ He said ‘you didn’t have any toys?’ I said ‘well I had half a Slinky once, but I straightened it.’ Whenever I tell people I didn’t have toys my wife always rolls her eyes. When I introduced her to my parents when we first started dating, she said ‘well Harold says he didn’t have any toys’, my father goes ‘I don’t think he did.’ [My parents] didn’t have a lot of extra money. So it was, like, you had to wait until you had all your wisdom teeth pulled so you could get a cap gun as a reward or something. You don’t have that many teeth, so we didn’t have that many toys.
We got a lot of hand-me-down toys from my cousin who seemed more prosperous than we were. But literally, my brother and I shared a pair of roller skates. But we were too impatient to share them sequentially, so we each wore one skate. We would go down the street like using a scooter. That was pretty pathetic.
We never had an abundance of toys. We tended to play in empty building lots. We lived in the city and Chicago was a grid of very square blocks and whenever there would be an apartment building that was missing, it [looked] like teeth missing.
These empty lots in the middle of a block would go back to being a prairie, but with lots of cool junk mixed in among the tall grass, and insects and garter snakes. We did a lot of playing outside and just making swords out of sticks and shields out of garbage can covers and banging away. You know, rock fights seemed like a good idea when I was a kid, as opposed to buying toys. I mean, there’s lots of rocks around, let’s just throw them at each other. That was a good thing. I’m also old enough to remember horses and wagons coming down the alley. Not many, but a few were left – you know, like a produce guy with a big wagon or a knife sharpener, or a ragman collecting old rags and iron.
Literally, I once saw guys throwing horse sh** at each other. Like, you know, you won’t find that at Toys-R-Us. But a good toy was, for a nickel, you could buy a big box of kitchen matches and just walk down the alley lighting them and flipping them into trash cans. That was, you know, cheap and fun.
But no, [I didn’t have] a lot of manufactured toys. I had one single shot cap gun where you had to tear a cap off and put it in and what not; so that was hardly worth it.
Did you eat a lot of junk food or candy then?
I remember the days of penny candy. The actual candy store and you would walk in and there was a lot of bulk candy. And now, it’s come back as nostalgia items, but button candy on a big paper ribbon? You’d just buy it by the yard or the foot. We used to get these little Coca-Cola bottles with some colored sugar liquid inside. You’d bite off the top and drink it, and then you could make a nice ball of wax out of that. I never liked licorice stuff. I never liked real gummy stuff like Ju-Ju-Bees, Good-and-Plenty.
I liked chocolate. I liked Hershey bars and the old Three Musketeers. Three Musketeers used to be much bigger. When it first came out it was actually in three sections, big enough to share with a friend.
It didn’t have sharp sections, but you could see places where you could break the bar into three pieces; and the nougat was much creamier. It was a little lighter than the new bar, which is kind of dense. I really liked Three Musketeers, but candy was not a huge thing with me. I craved protein. Steak was bigger.
You grew up during an interesting time for popular music. What do you remember about that time?
Well, I remember I’ve always been just the right age for certain things. I was 13 years old when rock and roll hit really big. I was an adolescent when Elvis Presley came on the scene. There was kind of a cultural war. It was like the war between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones; the clean cut versus the sort of raunchy, dangerous, edgy stuff. In those days it was Elvis versus Pat Boone.
Elvis was the greaser, and Pat Boone was the preppy clean guy.
I did a lot of singing. A friend taught me to play the four-string guitar when I was 12, and we started singing together. Then I learned the five-string banjo and then I learned six-string guitar. Folk music was happening.
I didn’t feel like I could quite identify with the greasers and the rockabilly of rhythm and blues although I went through the motions of listening to it. But my hair didn’t look good slicked back and my parents wouldn’t get me black engineer boots. I was stuck being kind of collegiate. The Pat Boone thing was kind of weird, but folk music was the great savior.
Folk music kind of led culturally to a whole other sub-culture. It was a political sub-culture. It was the American left. The labor movement, civil rights, was all intertwined with folk music. As was the early coffee house scene which had a big jazz element, but also the folk element. I kind of plugged into that pretty early by learning folk songs. I went to a place called the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, which was a Mecca for American folk music. That’s the stream I followed, and it sort of took me out of popular music.
I sang some popular music in college just for fun with friends that wanted to be in bands and we’d learn some Beatles songs and stuff. But I really liked singing ballads and folk music. For a Jewish guy from Chicago, I knew more Irish rebellion songs than just about anybody. People don’t want to hear those now, though. I still play them, but not too many people want to hear them.
Did you ever have a crush on a celebrity?
Well, there’s some outstanding iconographic female images. I think it was in the first James Bond movie, maybe it was in Dr. No, Ursula Andress comes walking out of the water in a bikini. That is one of the all-time like big imprinted female images. I’m working on remake of a movie called Bedazzled, which was originally made in 1967. And it was a big vehicle for Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Raquel Welch is in the movie for about three minutes. When I mention it to a lot of people, they say ‘Bedazzled? Raquel Welch?’ And I go, ‘yeah, that’s right.’ Because that’s all they remember. She’s in the movie in red lingerie. And it’s such a striking visual representation of everything we’re taught to lust after. Ursula Andress had that going. I was an adolescent when Brigitte Bardot was, like, a hot thing.
It was still a time when girls were considered fast if they did anything below the belt. I mean, God, that would be like, you might as well be hookers, you know? “First base”, “second base”, “third base” were really well defined in those days and it was quite a major wrestling match to get anywhere with a girl when I was a teenager. I had really nice girlfriends and we had those kind of everything-but-sexual relationships, which led to years of prolonged frustration.
There was a lot of titillating stuff in the culture. Playboy started in the mid-50’s, but I never had the nerve to buy it. I still don’t have the nerve to buy it. I bought one recently because there was an article about me in it.
I worked at Playboy for about 18 months as an editor. So I read it for those 18 months. I read 18 issues of Playboy, literally, in my life. Those were the issues I was paid to work on. But it was out there in the culture. When Hugh Hefner started Playboy it was really representing something. It was this new post-war affluence. The young men who had rejected traditional marriage and family values who were out on their own, young working professionals. The original yuppie was probably really a product of the 50’s. Swinging young professional singles, you know, with different sexual attitudes. Hefner epitomized that and capitalized on it. That was something. My brother and I, we would buy into all these little cultural trends to the extent that, you know, Hugh Hefner smoked a pipe. So when I was 15, instead of starting to smoke cigarettes, I started smoking a pipe. Any 15 year-old looks ridiculous [smoking a pipe], but to me, you know I thought I was cool like Hugh Hefner. Then I started smoking cigarettes and couldn’t stop smoking cigarettes.
There was a TV show called Meet McGraw. McGraw was a private detective, kind of tough. There was a whole wave of what we thought at the time were really cool detective shows then. They all wore sort of long tweed overcoats and pork pie Fedora hats. So at 16 years old, I’m walking around in a long tweed overcoat with a pork pie hat. It was really ridiculous.
But women? Yeah, you know, you’d flip for a glimpse in anything. You look back on this stuff now and the culture seemed incredibly tame and extremely puritanical.
What was your most embarrassing fashion statement?
I went through so many fashion trends cause I could never quite accept who I was. When you grow up Jewish in an urban culture and you wear glasses and you’re kind of smart, who are your role-models? Well, there weren’t many, right? The only time you heard the word ‘Harold’ in media, it was someone in a commercial speaking to a guy who had glasses. Harold Lloyd was the only kind of funny person ever named Harold. So these were my role models until Woody Allen came along and kind of legitimized the conflicted, neurotic, Jewish nerdy guy who actually got laid.
But I didn’t feel like Woody Allen. Robin Hood didn’t wear glasses. Superman only wore glasses as a disguise, but when I took mine off I couldn’t see anything. I was always a guy groping for an image. My hair was too curly to wear in certain styles. So, I was always looking for a way to be. I graduated college and went to San Francisco with my brother and a good friend in ’66. We crammed into a Volkswagen and drove across country. We arrived in the Haight/Ashbury. Up to that point, we looked like every other college student. It was cool to wear blue jeans and a Gant or Oxford shirt and some sort of battered tweedy sport coat.
We got to San Francisco and within, like, 20 minutes, I was wearing striped bell-bottom pants and, you know, a second hand cut-away coat and a top hat. From ’66 to about ’72, I dressed like I was on an album cover, or about to perform in a rock band. By ’68, I had started performing pretty much full-time at the Second City in Chicago, so I actually had a place to wear shirts that were spangled with mirrors all over them. I had very long hair, and I kind of looked like, you know, a poor man’s Donovan or something. On a good day I’d look like John Lennon. But I definitely wore clothes where people would do double takes. Velvet jackets and leather and shirts with big sleeves and all that stuff. And I have a lot of pictures of that stuff.
Tell us about Second City…
I moved back to Chicago after college. I sort of stalled for around a year. I went to college in St. Louis and hung out for a year after college just kind of being a slacker. I had a job, but I was there to hang out with my friends. My job was interesting though. I worked in a locked psychiatric ward in a general hospital. I did about 7 months of that. Then I got married, moved back to Chicago in ’68, and I took workshops at Second City cause it really looked like fun just going there. It was very entertaining and seemed very accessible. I thought, ‘well, I could do that.’ I had been writing college shows and performing in college and writing shows with Michael Shamberg. We used to write together and I’d sometimes coax him into performing.
I did the Second City workshops for about three months, and then kind of drifted out of that when they didn’t give me a paying job. Then I was working as a journalist. I was an editor at Playboy and I was freelancing for a now defunct Chicago paper called the Chicago Daily News. My editor at the Daily News suggested that I call the director of Second City, who was a friend of his, and he gave me an audition and I got into the Second City late in ’68 I guess. In ’69 I was hired full time to work six nights a week there. I didn’t quit my day job. I worked at Playboy 40 hours a week as an associate editor and then did eight shows a week at Second City. Eventually it was just Second City. It was so much fun, and it was little tiring to do both jobs. So I quit journalism and just started performing.
I did about a thousand shows at Second City, but I’d keep leaving. I’d take these long sabbaticals, go off and write something, spend a lot of time in Europe between my Second City gigs. I kind of left Second City stage work for good in ’74 when John Belushi formed a performance company for the National Lampoon. He hired me and Bill Murray and Gilda Radner and Brian Murray and Joe Flaherty to go to New York and do a stage show there for the Lampoon. And we did the National Lampoon Radio Hour. So I was kind of done on the stage at Second City, but then I met all the Canadian Second City people and Second City Canadian producer Andrew Alexander. The Chicago producer Bernie Salaans decided to do a TV pilot.
They asked me to come back and be a head writer and performer on the pilot. So that’s where we formed the first SCTV company, which was John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and me. I was the head writer, and Joe and I were the associate producers. Dell Close helped us kind of conceptualize the show. We realized we couldn’t compete with Saturday Night Live. We had a budget of $10,000 to do our whole show, and we thought, ‘we’ll never get a sleek network look for this kind of budget.’ So we thought, ‘well, what can we do? Well, we could be a cheesy local station, a local independent station.’ So we created this idiotic small town, Melonville; and we were SCTV, a local station. We got to parody local programming but also do all kinds of bizarre conceptual stuff. It was great fun.
We did our first 26 shows spread out over a period of about 3 years. We did them up in Toronto. I moved up there on and off while we were doing that show, but at the same time, Ivan Reitman, who had produced the Lampoon show in New York, wanted to do the first Lampoon feature film. I started writing a treatment, which became Animal House. I was working on the script for Animal House in between writing and shooting on SCTV. That was a very productive time. I didn’t know what any of it would lead to, but I knew I was working with people I liked the best in the world. The SCTV cast was tremendous. After our first cycle and after the first year of Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels asked me to come down to New York and join their show, more as a writer. But I was really having a great time at SCTV so I turned that down. I think it was a pretty good decision.
I think they were working a kind of murderous schedule at Saturday Night Live. It was kind of a cutthroat, very competitive mentality; where we had a totally cooperative, very positive vibe around our show. I always thought I was just sort of killing time until my movie career took off. In my mind, that’s what I was thinking. Sure enough, Animal House not only got made, but was, you know, ridiculously successful. After that, I quit SCTV, but the producer Andrew Alexander said well, won’t you just help write the next season. I said ‘well, I can’t really leave LA. I’ve got some movie stuff.’ He said, ‘well, I’ll send the writers to you.’ So I said okay. I got a realtor and I found a five-bedroom house in Bel Air, (Roscoe-Mary Canyon. The poorer side of Bel Air.) All the writers came down, and it was the comedy house.
John Candy had one bedroom and Catherine O’Hara had another. Eugene lived out somewhere else. I’d come to the house every morning. We had a pool table, a swimming pool, and five of the six funniest people that I knew. We would just sit around a table and in seven weeks we wrote 16 half-hour episodes of SCTV. That was the last work I did. It was a great way to finish without having to go to Canada. [SCTV] went on and the show just got better and better and funnier and funnier.
I did a few things that I liked. I adopted a persona called Moe Green. John Candy had a character named Johnny Larue, who was sort of the big ego-maniac sort of personality of the station. I created Moe Green as his accountant, using the name Moe Green from The Godfather. He was the casino manager who gets shot in the eye by one of the Corleones. I can’t remember who, but we thought it was funny – Moe Green. I became this sniveling, cowardly, craven accountant named Moe Green who actually spent all of John Candy’s money. Then, I did a very cheesy Dialing for Dollars – kind of movie phone-in contest where the prize was like $24, and I was even reluctant to give that away. I had fun doing those.
I would sort of improvise those, those filler pieces you know, between other pieces. The greatest pleasure for me was working with John Candy and working with Joe Flaherty. I would do certain scenes with John. He did a series of Johnny Larue restaurant reviews. One was John Candy in a health food restaurant, and I played the bouncer as an Indian swami wrapped in robes with a turban. Very feeble bouncer, like, the weakest bouncer, trying to throw John Candy out. Every time he’d touch me I’d just hit the deck, like just fall like a washrag. That was fun. Once we did an Italian restaurant review where John doesn’t realize it, but he’s in the restaurant that’s actually in The Godfather when Al Pacino shoots Sterling Hayden.
So John doesn’t realize that. Three people walk in to the restaurant and everyone runs, all the other patrons run out of the restaurant. John doesn’t realize that there’s a Mafia murder about to occur. And he says ‘Oh, it must be the crowd going to the early matinee.’ He’s trying to figure out why everyone left. I’m playing the waiter who won’t stand up. I keep crawling out to his table to see if he needs anything, and he doesn’t get it. That was fun. Just working with John was great, like in Stripes and it was a lot of fun. We had a nice timing thing.
We did one bizarre thing. He used to do a kids show character called Doctor Tongue, which was just John speaking in a funny voice. I visited him on the show once as this Indian swami character to show him my collection of live snakes. Every time I reached in to this basket to get out a snake I’d get bitten and I’d pass out and fall down on the ground again. It was just something that I enjoyed doing; but only with John. It was pretty funny with John. Those are my favorite moments.
You talked about Animal House briefly. Tell us about Animal House…
I co-wrote Animal House with Doug Kenny and Chris Miller. Chris was the Lampoon’s resident college archivist. He wrote a series of stories about his college fraternity at Dartmouth. His series was called “Tales from the Adelphia Lodge”. They were thinly disguised versions of the reality of his fraternity, which was a true animal house. You could only describe it as a vomiting cult. They were real interested in drinking a lot of beer and then regurgitating it for everyone else’s entertainment. The stories were so disgusting. You know, they were fine in The National Lampoon. When we put some of the stuff in our original Animal House screenplay, Universal just went ‘You got to be crazy.
These guys are the heroes? You can’t make this movie.’ Fortunately, there was junior management at Universal. Sean Daniel and a guy named Tom Mount had both been kind of campus activists and they assured the senior management at Universal that this will be popular, this will work. The budget was under $3 million, so they let us push the envelope in taste and psychological cruelty in the movie; and even that seems tame now. It did kind of open a door in the future of film comedy.
It was another great collaboration. You could not find two better guys than Doug Kenny and Chris Miller. Doug and I wrote Caddyshack together with Brian Murray. Doug produced it and I directed it. And Doug and I wrote another screenplay, which didn’t get made. I loved hanging out with him. You’re writing together on films, you spend 8 hours with somebody and we never had a conflict, never had an angry word. I thought he was brilliant. He liked my stuff. It felt very, very good.
We had the pleasure of watching Animal House get made. I guess it was the most successful film comedy ever made at the time. Certainly, given the budget, probably one of the most profitable movies ever made. We were really riding high off the success of that. What was nice is that it really was a pretty good picture of our psychological state in college. We really wanted to do something that people would recognize as really being accurate. We really did a major de-briefing of all our college experiences when we sat down together. It was a great way to exploit what we’d all lived through in the early 60’s. We always used the assassination of John Kennedy as the cut-off for that time. You know Animal House literally ends in November of ’63. That parade, that homecoming parade, you can assume in your mind that Kennedy’s assassinated the day after that happiness in the movie. And all that anarchy, social energy gets, you know, translated into political unrest in the campuses after that.
What about Caddyshack?
I’d never had a country club experience. I was the poor kid kind of looking over the wall feeling like I’d never fit it. Doug Kenny and Brian got together and started reminiscing about their country club experiences both as lower middle class kids. Brian was a greens keeper and a caddy, and Doug worked in the pro shop and played tennis. At least they had observed that world. We all had the same kind of underdog point of view; which kind of translated in Caddyshack into the kind of the catch phrase of the movie, ‘some people just don’t belong.’ So the heroes, of course, in the movie were the rebels and the outcasts. There were two kinds of comedy heroes. One was the Woody Allen hero, who is the schlemiel kind of loser who kind of wins through just dumb luck. But our heroes were not schlemiels and losers. They were kind sort of alienated anti-heroes.
Bill Murray, Chevy Chase? These guys were above it all. They were not victims, they were kind of willing exiles from the society they lived in. Something about my mentality and Doug- we really liked writing for those kinds of characters. Caddyshack had a slew of them. We started out as kind of a coming of age story about the caddies, but once we cast the adult roles, it really became about those four adult characters. There was Chevy, Bill Murray, Rodney Dangerfield, and Ted Knight. What it really came down to was these four adult role models for the caddy (played by Michael O’Keefe). You know, ‘how do you want to fit into society as a kid on the verge of beginning adult life’, and ‘who do you want to be out of these four guys?’ Each one represented a different kind of path. It was real interesting to get those four guys together and watch how they blended or didn’t blend in that environment.
Stripes was another big hit for you. Tell us about Stripes…
Stripes. I had dodged the draft in 1967. I had done everything I could think of to stay out of the Army because people were going to Vietnam and getting killed, or going to Vietnam and committing atrocities. I didn’t think either one was going to be very good for me, nor did I want to spend two years working in an office in the Pentagon or somewhere. So I hedged all my bets for the military. I applied to the Peace Corps and got in. I actually had a ticket in my hand from the University of Texas to go learn Kurdish, to go teach English to the Kurds in Turkey. That was okay, I could do that. I applied for officer candidate school, so if I have to go on the military, I’ll go as an officer. Got in. Then I went to take my physical and on the first form you fill out for the physical had all these boxes. ‘Check if you have or have ever had any of the following’ – you know diabetes blah, blah, blah.
Then there’s a series of psychological questions, ‘have you ever had night sweats?’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, alright, night sweat.’ ‘Alcoholism?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Homosexuality?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Drug addiction?’ ‘Yeah.’ I checked every psychological box. The clerk, who’s collecting these things from five hundred guys standing in their underwear, looks at my form and he looks at me, and he says ‘Wow!’ He says, ‘It looks like you’ll be fighting this one on the home front.’ So I figure, ‘well, if the clerk who took the application thinks I’m out…’ ‘I’m probably out if he’s never seen a form this bad.’ Then I had to see a military psychiatrist, and he asked me, ‘Do you think you’d be happy in the Army, son?’ I said ‘I don’t think so.’
I’d taken, man, I’d taken about 250 milligrams of methadrine before I went in for my physical. So I was literally grinding my teeth into dust while I’m talking to him. My eyes were like pinholes, and I had long hair. So he thought I was not Army material. I say this by way of introduction, because a part of me that grew up on war films always wanted to be in the Army. There’s a part of every young boy where it’s like, ‘I wish I’d been born in the 14th Century so I could have been an armored knight,’ you know. But I wasn’t. So then I wish I could have been in World War II, storming those islands in the Pacific or landing on D-Day. Until I saw Saving Private Ryan. Part of me had that fantasy. Every kid wants to play solider.
Along comes Stripes, which was the perfect opportunity. ‘Alright! Yeah! I can dress up like a solider. I can fire these blank rounds out of a M-16, and I can go to my motorhome when I’m tired or sleepy or I need some cappuccino.’ So that’s what we did. There was already a script by Dan Goldberg and Lynn Bloom, but I re-wrote the script trying to process my own ambivalent feelings about the military. What if a guy like me actually went in the Army given my political orientation, given my kind of social slacker mentality, with a good buddy like Bill Murray. Stripes became the vehicle, from my point of view, to do that: to put these two misfits, but not loser misfits, in there, and see what will they learn, what will they do. We had a lot of fun. We shot it at Fort Knox with another great cast. Warren Oates was terrific as our Sergeant.
We had John Candy. John Laroquette was really funny in the movie. And we brought Joe Flaherty in to play a Russian guard. It was really fun. I moved my wife and kid to Louisville while we did that. So that was great and, again, with a good result. Every experience is colored by the outcome to some extent when you look back on it. All those early movies I worked on were hits, so I thought it was like living in a dream world. Having these great production experiences and then actually see people turn out and really enjoy the picture.
Which brings us, naturally, to the Vacation picture.
National Lampoon’s Vacation was based on a very funny John Hughes Lampoon story. Chevy and I had a very good relationship from Caddyshack. He really trusted me. And my first child was born in ’77. I think we made it in ’82, so, I owned a station wagon. One of the first new cars I bought was a huge red Buick station wagon- a nine-passenger wagon. I would load my family in that car, and we actually drove my Buick wagon through the Four Corners area, through Durango, Colorado, Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon. John Hughes had written the original Vacation story as heading through the Southern loop.
I had driven many times from Chicago to LA. The Southern route is dry, flat, and uninteresting. It takes you through Amarillo, Texas and through New Mexico and Arizona. Nothing interesting until you get to LA. It’s faster, but there’s nothing there. I had just made this trip with my family, so one of the first things I did was reconfigure the route that the Griswalds take. It had a magical effect on the production because, of course, we had to go to all these places.
The production was essentially a caravan that moved every week, over a period of eight weeks. We went through the most beautiful, scenic parts of the West. Chevy and I had a great time. Did a lot of improvising, a lot of laughs. We knew things were going pretty well all along the way, and I kept having these very, very pleasant production experiences, both as a director and as an actor. This was yet another one.
Put the movie together. Our ending fell disastrously flat in our preview, so I proposed a new ending. In the original movie, he doesn’t get [to Wally World]. The park is closed and he goes to Roy Wally’s house in Pasadena, holds him at gunpoint and makes Roy Wally and his executive perform for him. It was very flat and not very funny seeing these executives sort of performing. I thought, ‘Well, the audience has waited an hour and a half to get to Wally World, and we’re not letting them get there. So, let’s hijack the park.’
I got John Candy to play the security guard and we went to Magic Mountain. There are a lot of fantasies fulfilled when you make films. One of them was to go into Magic Mountain on a day it was closed and have a guy say, ‘Well, what would you like to do?’ And I said ‘let’s ride the Revolution.’ So you film. Just three or four other people get on and we ride the Revolution. We got to ride it again, I think. We ride it again. ‘Can we ride Colossus. Better turn on Colossus for us.’
That was great and we shot it and it worked out fine. The movie was a nice hit and people remember it fondly.
With Ghostbusters, you became a true movie icon. Tell us about it…
Ghostbusters came to me as [Dan] Aykroyd’s original script that he had conceived for him and John Belushi. He had a series of movies that he wanted to do with John, and then John died and Ghostbusters seemed his most viable. [Aykroyd] brought it to Ivan Reitman. They had lunch at Art’s Deli in the Valley, and Ivan said, ‘okay I think we should go see Ramis right now.’ They came from that lunch, I had an office at Warner Bros. then. I’d finished working on Vacation, but it wasn’t out yet. They said ‘Why don’t you play one of the Ghostbusters. You rewrite the script with Aykroyd, and we’ll go get Murray to be the third Ghostbuster.’
I said okay. It was really like The Wizard of Oz, this team being assembled. Danny was the heart and I was the brain and Bill was going to be the mouth.
Ivan and I had the same concept for the rewrite, which was to introduce the whole academic background that put us in a University setting and show how the company formed. Aykroyd’s original script had Ghostbusters out there and already franchised. Ghostbusters all over the place, kind of like the Orkin men, you know, exterminators. We thought that letting the audience in on the evolution would be really important. Aykroyd had a house on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, and he said ‘come to the Vineyard and we’ll work there.’ He got houses for me and my family, and the Reitman family. I arrived on the Vineyard, there was a rented car in the driveway, there was food in the fridge, and we’d go up and work at Danny’s house every day.
It was the summer of ’83 and while I was working on [Ghostbusters], Vacation premiered. We had a great opening weekend. I was riding high, and I was loving what Danny and I were writing, as was Ivan. As we were writing it, Aykroyd was just rubbing his hands and saying ‘this is going to be great. This is going to be really great.’ And he said, ‘you know how when I was doing Blues Brothers, I didn’t want my face on every lunchbox in America? Now I do’. He was already designing merchandising tie-ins and action figures. He really thought we had a shot at the big bonanza with this one. It didn’t seem like such a fantasy, ’cause I had already been there. For me it was now feasible. In fact, the movies I had done in between that weren’t the most successful comedies ever, it was kind of disappointing. ‘Hey! How come this one didn’t make a hundred-fifty million dollars or three hundred million, or whatever?’
With Ghostbusters, I thought we could really do this again. I thought we’d be very strong as a cast. The toys and gimmicks in the movies just seemed like so much fun. And I loved the subject matter. My first wife was really deeply interested in the paranormal. She used to drag me to all kinds of psychics and readers and metaphysicians of all kinds. And I read books like Psychic Discoveries, Behind the Iron Curtain. We went to Bulgaria once to find a guy that we had read about in Psychic Discoveries. All kinds of stuff. Aykroyd had a big family history. They had family ghosts and he subscribed to the “Journal of American Psychics”. Danny and I love talking about this stuff. I was totally skeptical. Dan kind of believes everything.
We actually got some research from Cal-Tech. We posed a question to them: ‘If you really were going to detect ghosts, what would the technologies be?’
And they helped us, you know, kind of conceptualize certain things, which were very consistent of what we were already thinking. But Dan and I loved making up the pseudo-science of Ghostbusters.
It was yet another great production experience. Touring around New York in the Ectomobile and those ridiculous outfits. People in New York, I mean, they recognize Danny and Bill and me to some extent because of Stripes, but for the most part they’d see this ambulance come by with the ghost logo and the sirens going and they’d see guys run out in jumpsuits with proton packs and ‘Wow! What is that?’ We sort of thought ‘yeah, it’s police, fire, and Ghostbusters. These are the public safety organizations in Manhattan.’
We only shot in New York for three weeks, but we really felt like we owned the city. It literally shut down traffic. 90% of Manhattan grid-locked when we were shooting some of the big stuff up on Central Park West when the Marshmallow Man is coming down the street. It was a brilliant use of, what was then, state of the art optical effects, which look really primitive now. Some of the miniature stuff is great. Marshmallow Man coming down the street is terrific. I don’t think it could be done better than that; and that’s with actual practical miniatures- remote control cars, a guy in a big marshmallow suit, all that stuff. Richard Edlund did the effects. I’ve worked with him twice since on movies of mine; Multiplicity and he did the effects of Bedazzled.
Tell us about the characters in Ghostbusters.
Egon Spengler. The name Egon came from a Hungarian refugee I went to grammar school with, Egon Donsbeck; and Spengler from Oswald Spengler. The look of the character came from a futurist architectural journal called “Ideas and Integrities”, or something like that, I couldn’t even understand what the articles were about; but it was about the future of urban planning. There was a guy name Leon Kier on the cover who looked exactly the way I wanted Spengler to look. He had hair short on the sides, but really tall, wire-rimmed glasses, kind of retro three-piece suit; and I thought ‘yeah, that’s exactly the look.’
You know what’s funny, is now people are actually writing about wearable technologies like computers you can wear or cell phones you can wear. For Spengler, I actually remember pinning a calculator to my jacket when I was putting on my wardrobe. I had this retro gabardine top-coat and I thought ‘oh, I’m going to actually pin a calculator to it so I can actually just go like this.’ I was laughing the other day because now people are talking about wearable small technology.
I thought this would be a guy who is so literal and intellectual that although things might amuse him, it would be so abstractly and intellectually that he would never actually smile. I kind of committed myself to not smiling once in the whole movie, which I think I managed to do. We talked about this mild flirtation with Annie Potts’ character, Janine.
We always imagined playing Bill’s character as the guy who never studied. That we were the ones who always did his homework for him.. But he was great at the PR stuff and he had the confidence. There’s a scene in the jail, he says ‘Pretend for a moment that I don’t know anything about physics or metallurgy, okay? What’s going on?’ And then we get to do the exposition of course. And you get to laugh with it. It was a chance for me to use a lot of what I knew about the paranormal and to invest it in these characters.
Dan used to say ‘hey, five writers, four directors, no waiting.’ It’s like someone would know what to do at any given moment. We were able to make big changes in the script whenever we needed to or wanted to. It just kept constantly evolving and getting better. Sigourney Weaver really classed up the whole thing, you know. It felt like it was going great. When I saw the first rough cut, I thought, ‘well, this is really going to be popular.’ It was very entertaining. My favorite review of Ghostbusters said that this movie plays like a well-told joke. To me, that means that, you know, it had no extra words, that everything was in the right place, and it built perfectly to a satisfying punch line.
I really liked that one…