The world is a little less funny now.
The saddest thing on a lot of people’s Facebook feeds today is “Oh no, the guy who played Egon died!” It’s sad not just because of the loss of a giant of American comedy, but because too many people remember him as “the guy who played Egon.”
It’s a cynical truism that the only way a great comedy writer gets known to the public is by stepping in front of the camera. It was certainly true for Mel Brooks, for example. George Meyer was probably the funniest TV writer of his generation, and I guarantee nobody reading this could pick the man out of a lineup, because he stayed behind the camera.
Harold Ramis did something very few comedy writers do: he stepped in front of the camera, succeeded there, and then stepped back.
He both cowrote and costarred in Stripes and Ghostbusters, two of the most influential comedies of their era. The only movies even competing with them would have to be Animal House and Caddyshack, the most quoted and ripped-off films of… oh, right, Ramis was a writer on those too. Never mind.
He became a familiar face to millions in the Ghostbusters movies especially… every nerdy little boy wanted to be him and every nerdy little girl wanted to date him. But he didn’t become an actor, didn’t snap at the bait of stardom. That’s extremely rare in show business.
It was after he’d had the chance to be a star that he wrote and directed what I believe will be remembered as his greatest work: Groundhog Day. This is a film that starts with what’s basically a horror premise: being trapped in the same day forever sounds like a particularly dark Twilight Zone episode. Then it turns this into a prolonged meditation on life and personal growth, and when was the last time you said “Hey, this movie’s supposed to be a prolonged meditation on life and personal growth! Honey, get the kids, we’re going to the theater!”?
Groundhog Day, by everything we know about movies, should be either creepy and depressing, or self-indulgent and dull. Instead, it’s two hours of solid laughs, an endlessly rewatchable classic that basically everyone loves. Because Harold Ramis did it, and nobody else could have.
That’s why it’s a shame that so many people just remember him as Egon Spengler. Because a lot of talented people can bring a role to life as an actor, but it takes a great comedy writer to pull off the impossible like that.
Harold Ramis is gone now, but in his time on this earth he, without question or equivocation, made it brighter. That’s the most any of us can hope for.