Harold Ramis (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago…)
Harold Ramis is the best writer and director from Chicago, period. That isn't a hyperbolic statement or a knee-jerk reaction to the news of his death Monday. Nobody else comes close—and let me remind you that acclaimed director John Hughes spent the first 12 years of his life in Grosse Pointe, Mich., before his family relocated to Northbrook.
Ramis, on the other hand, was the son of shopkeepers who owned a food and liquor store in Rogers Park. He attended Washington University in St. Louis. When he returned home after college, he freelanced for the Chicago Daily News.
This got him a job as a joke editor for Playboy and eventually got him to the Second City comedy troupe, where he worked with a man from Wheaton named John Belushi. Belushi brought Ramis with him to New York , along with a Wilmette native by the name of Bill Murray, and the rest is comedy history.
"National Lampoon," "SCTV," "Animal House," "Meatballs," "Caddyshack," "Stripes," "Ghostbusters" and the masterful "Groundhog Day" all have been cited as inspiration for today's most commended writers, directors and actors. These works of art didn't just inspire generations of comedians—they defined what comedy was and remains.
How can one watch "Happy Gilmore" and not see "Caddyshack's" influence? Or "50 First Dates" and not see "Groundhog Day"? (Maybe the bigger issue here is that Adam Sandler has been ripping off Ramis since 1996.)
Ramis' sketch-comedy background shone through in his direction and writing. Never before had audiences seen characters so hilariously sloppy. Ramis empowered his actors to tap into their improvisational roots—the most famous example being a story he relayed to The New Yorker. On the set of "Caddyshack," Ramis asked Murray, "When you're playing sports, do you ever just talk to yourself like you're the announcer?" Murray stopped him and said, "Say no more." Thus the timeless "Cinderella Story" monologue was born.
As a Chicago native and all-encompassing nerd when it comes to comedy, I will miss Ramis' presence in our city. He moved back to the North Side in 1996 and was a fixture at Cubs home games.
Most recently I saw him onstage at the Royal George Theatre in 2010. With a silver mane of hair that further confirmed his status as king of the jungle, Ramis towered over the audience as he read aloud from the autobiography of Motley Crue in a show called "Celebrity Autobiography."
As Ramis shook hands outside afterward, I remember the distinct feeling of how much he loved the attention he was receiving that night. Ten years ago he told The New Yorker, "Here, there's nobody better than me. There's a few Bulls around, and the Cusacks, but, basically, I'm it!"
When it comes to Chicago and comedy, Ramis was "it." And forever will be. May he rest in peace.
John Hickey is a RedEye special contributor.
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.