You’d expect a Harold Ramis memorial to be funny given that the guy basically invented modern American comedy in his work from Second City and “SCTV” in 1960s and ‘70s through “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day.”
You’d expect it to be sad because a) it is a memorial, and b) Ramis had a tough go of it over his last four years as he struggled with autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, a rare disease that involves swelling of the blood vessels and had taken a significant physical and mental toll by the time he died Feb. 24 at age 69 in his North Shore home. Plus, a lot of people really miss him.
You’d also expect it to have a strong spiritual aspect because Ramis, who was raised Jewish and practiced Zen Buddhism, was constantly searching for meaning and enlightenment, the type of quest dramatized in his later films such as “Groundhog Day,” “Stuart Saves His Family” and “Multiplicity.”
And you’d hope that all of these elements would somehow make sense together as they no doubt would have had he been in the director’s chair.
His own multiplicity of talents, interests and gifts certainly provided inspiration Tuesday night in Hollywood’s Montalban Theatre (named after, yes, Riccardo) as colleagues, friends and family paid tribute to the man who, repeatedly, was remembered for his warmth as much as his intelligence and comedy chops.
Second City presented the memorial in cooperation with Erica Mann Ramis, Harold’s widow, and other family members. Second City co-owner/CEO Andrew Alexander said about 600 people had RSVP'd yes, and the packed auditorium included Second City performers from Ramis’ era (among them Betty Thomas, Joe Flaherty, Eugenie Ross-Leming and Brian Doyle-Murray) as well as some in earlier (Fred Willard) and later (Mary Gross, John Kapelos, Jack McBrayer, Chris Witaske…) casts.
Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron, who played the kids in Ramis’ 1983 comedy “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” were there. So was Ted Danson. So was Chaz Ebert on the eve of her late husband Roger's birthday. So was Jonah Hill, fresh off the huge opening weekend of his new comedy “22 Jump Street,” as he grabbed a seat toward the back of the theater. Hill never acted in a Ramis film but said before the program that he did a table read for “Year One,” Ramis’ last film (2009), and Ramis thanked him by sending him a big box of frozen Chicago pizzas.
“I’ve never gotten anything as thoughtful as that from a director before or since,” Hill said, noting that his debt extends beyond pizza. “No one would be funny from my generation without Harold.”
Martin Short, who had been friends with Ramis for four decades, emceed the program with a keen feel for balancing wisecracks and sorrow. After milking the applause upon his introduction, the former “SCTV” cast member mock-deflected the attention, saying, “This is about Harold, and you know how competitive he could be. Sweet, funny, clever, lovely Harold. How is it possible for any of us this evening to put into words what we’ve been feeling these last few months?”
Later he put it this way: “I adored Harold. I don’t think anyone didn’t adore Harold. You couldn’t have a soul or an understanding of the human condition and not adore Harold.”
This is a common theme for Ramis testimonials. He was a notorious mensch, a nice guy in a field that produces its share of not-nice guys: comedy. He’d tell you if something wasn’t working — and you might be crushed, because you knew he was right — but he’d also help.
He wrote sketches spotlighting other people; “SCTV” castmate Andrea Martin performed snippets of two of them, including Dr. Cheryl Kinsey’s twitchy talk on fake orgasms. And, Second City/“SCTV” castmate Flaherty said, if you needed a good joke or two in your scene, Ramis, who cut his teeth writing Playboy Party Jokes, would give you one of his.
“He was so sweet, so smart, so brilliant and yet so kind,” Flaherty said. “Everybody fought to be in a scene with Harold. We all wanted to work with Harold. We loved him.”
Flaherty also painted this vivid picture of the young Ramis: “skinny as a rail, hair out to here, made Bob Dylan look like a G.I.”
“To say Harold Ramis was a smart guy is a gross understatement,” “SCTV” performer Dave Thomas said. “He was about as intelligent as anyone could be without being clinically insane.”
Steve Carell, whom Ramis directed in “The Office,” began his testimonial with a zinger: “When I heard that Harold Ramis was going to direct an episode of ‘The Office,’ my immediate thought was, wow, Harold Ramis. His career really must be in trouble.”
But Carell said he and the cast actually were grateful for and transformed by his work. “He was a man who loved to make people laugh and who loved to laugh himself, which isn’t always the same thing,” Carell said.
Ramis’ early affinity for pot and other drugs was recalled by a few speakers. Ross-Leming said she still isn’t sure whether Ramis was joking when, after they each ingested “a popular pharmaceutical” before a Second City improv set, he whispered to her on stage, “Are we standing?” and, following her affirmative response, added, “But on the ceiling, right?”
Laurel Ward, who worked alongside Ramis in his production office for 16 years, testified that he maintained his sense of humor even amid his medical challenges; when a nurse inquired "Are you comfortable?" he responded, "I make a good living." Ward also read a heartrending essay in which Ramis, mid-illness, envisioned an idealized future that would not come to be.
Actor/friend Steve Kampmann discussed Ramis’ spiritual side and a trip to the Harris Theatre where the Dalai Lama whispered to Ramis, then in a wheelchair, “I will pray for you.” Judith Kahan Kampmann, Steve’s wife, paid special tribute to Erica Mann Ramis and her “tigress”-like work on her husband’s behalf after his illness began.
Family, all agreed, was most important to Harold Ramis, and his wife and children were at the heart of Tuesday’s program. Violet Stiel, Ramis’ adult daughter by his first marriage to Anne Plotkin, recalled that she and her father had discussed co-writing a parenting book with the working title “We’re All Going To Die, Now Go to Sleep.”
She affectionately related how she and her dad shared a mutual interest in talking about him and how he liked the idea of affecting other people. “My dad made the world a better place, and if we can’t keep him physically in this world, then we’d better do our best to fill up the space he left behind,” Stiel said.
Erica Mann Ramis took literal support from her two sons, Julian and Daniel, crowding them in behind her as she gave an emotional, sometimes halting account of how she “wasn’t ready to let go” of her late husband but now has “to learn to live in a world that is shaped entirely differently without him by my side, to learn to step into this new relationship with my invisible best friend.”
“He was my Google before Google existed,” she soon noted to appreciative laughter.
There was also Billy Crystal recalling how Ramis was “the conductor” of his “Analyze This” duet with Robert De Niro, “making sure we were hitting the high notes with perfect pitch.” “SCTV” co-stars Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara offered video testimonials, as did “Year One” star Jack Black, “Knocked Up” star Seth Rogen (Ramis played his dad, and Rogen recalled sharing a joint with him) and “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman.
Director Judd Apatow and actor Bill Hader, who are currently out of state shooting a new movie together, submitted a bit in which they riff on Ramis — and crack wise on Bill Murray, wondering whether he’s crashing a bachelor party instead of attending the program — while fruitlessly searching for Ramis’ memorial in a cemetery.
And Al Franken showed he’s still got it as he introduced himself as “U.S. senator from the state of Minnesota and the screenwriter and star of Harold’s least successful movie, ‘Stuart Saves His Family.’” He heralded his former director as “wise, calm, hilarious and a giant in the industry that I was once part of and that so many of you are still doing, and I think that’s great,” and he added with mock humility: “Do not think for a moment that what you do in comedy is less important than what I do in the United States senate.”
Short also read a letter from John Cusack, star of Ramis’ “The Ice Harvest,” in which the Evanston-raised actor wrote: “I always remember being acutely aware of feeling lucky to be at a table with him…All that talent and all that soul, always the smartest guy in the room, he was also the most decent and the most kind. No small feat.”
The program ended with Ramis’ friend Kate Taylor singing “Auld Lang Syne” followed by a performance of 11 members of the Road Kill Men’s Council drum circle, with whom Ramis was said to have performed and sought “sacred space” every Monday night for six years. The audience retreated to the lobby amid those complex beats.
“I think everyone’s so deeply confused with this ongoing emotion of trying to figure out a joyous celebration of Harold and hearts that are broken,” Short said afterward. “What would he like? What would he want? What do we feel? It’s a high-wire act….
“He was too enamored with comedy to want it to be too sincere, but it’s awfully raw for everyone who loved him so much. And you can see that no one didn’t love him.”
For Erica Mann Ramis, the event was kind of a blur. “I worked so hard to put it together, I put my heart and soul into it,” she said. “I know it happened, and I was very focused on the images of Harold, and I loved just being with him, and I don’t remember anything else. That’s the truth.”
But she did see the evening as a sort of milestone.
“I feel like I’m on a cliff and someone’s putting hang-glider equipment on me, and it’s time to jump and I don’t know where to jump,” she said. “And I’m taking Harold with me wherever I go.”