Film and TV

Harold Ramis' Slob Comedies Embodied the Best of His Generation (Only After Embodying the Worst)

In film after film from the late '70s into the mid-'80s, the slobs -- often led by writer-director-actor Harold Ramis, who died today at age 69 -- trounced the snobs in each of their face-offs: at Faber College, at Camp North Star, at Sergeant Hulka's Fort Arnold, against that ginger EPA guy who everyone agrees has no dick.

They even triumphed at the Caddyshack itself, the ultimate bastion of WASPy pretension, where, as always, they won thoroughly and hilariously, receiving as their spoils old-timey rock-and-soul boogie parties and the love of slob-converted beauties who weren't ever allowed to be funny themselves and, depending on the rating, just might make it through the movie without being spied upon while topless.

The early, proudly disreputable comedies of Ramis, Bill Murray, and Ivan Reitman may seem dated now in some respects. Are the true underdogs in Animal House (which Ramis co-wrote) the slob frat that suffers under the tony Greek system or the occasional African-Americans the movie exposes them to, young men who steal the slobs' women and couldn't even get into that college? And are we truly meant to root for guys who describe Otis Day & the Knights as an example of "primitive cultures"?

("It's a joke," the defenders of old racist/sexist/homophobic jokes tend to say when people get mad about them. "Lighten up!" they shout. Ask them to remember that next time they complain that white TV dads these days tend to be reactionary dopes.)

In the film -- attacked as racist by Andrew Sarris in the Voice upon original release -- the slobs demonstrate their moral superiority over the snobs by appreciating black culture like "Shout!", but if those slobs ever considered any cause greater than their own frat-house troubles, the filmmakers have kept it on the double-secret down low.

But something funny happened as the slobs victory-lapped through comedy after comedy. At some point, Ramis and Murray and whoever else seem to have figured out that the Bill Murray of Stripes and Ghostbusters (both co-written by and co-starring Ramis) is the asshole of his age, a self-entitled boomer horndog interested in no perspective other than his own, engaged with no aspect of culture he hasn't decided he already favors.

In the latter film, in which we're encouraged to believe Murray's Dr. Peter Venkman ever cared enough about anything to finish his dissertation, he's perfectly willing to piss away heaps of graduate funding in scam-artist ESP tests whose results he jacks to get himself laid.

Maybe that view of science explains why so many of Murray and Ramis's demographic group -- old white dudes -- believe climate-change research is some gimcrack conspiracy.

Enter Groundhog Day. Like Scrooged, it stars Murray as snob rather than slob, a prickish overdog who must redeem himself in order to win the love of a good woman whose top stays on. Tellingly, the boorishness that Murray's weatherman character exhibits in the opening reels is closer to his own blasé diffidence in Stripes than it is to Ted Knight's well-heeled arrogance in Caddyshack. His snob is pretty much his slob with a grown-up job -- and now, when he schlumps through the world insulting everyone, he is rightly seen as a privileged dickhead instead of some hypocrisy-exposing hero of the people.

The movie is brilliant even without this reading, probably the best mainstream, see-it-in-a-mall, catch-it-on-USA-Network comedy Hollywood has crafted in several generations. There's also, for me, something about it that helps redeem the earlier slob comedies: an acknowledgment that being brash and young and white and funny and totally full of yourself to the exclusion of all else isn't enough to make the Andie MacDowells and Sigourney Weavers of the world fall in love with you.

By the end of Groundhog Day, after much consummate time-bending hurly-burly, Ramis teaches Murray's weatherman a lesson that Hollywood itself still hasn't quite learned: Hey, white hero, this world is something you should share.

Now, how about letting some of those women and minorities star in their own underdog comedies?

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl