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Analyzing the humor of Harold Ramis
SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Harold Ramis is like the kid in school who provokes antics out of the class clown while slyly avoiding the teacher's attention.
Known for playing egghead scientist Egon Spengler in "Ghostbusters," Ramis has worked behind the camera as a writer or director while John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray did the joking in "Animal House," "Vacation" and "Groundhog Day."
His direction of Robert De Niro in 1999's "Analyze This" and the new sequel, "Analyze That," proves Ramis can coax misbehavior out of the serious kids, too.
"I was always drawn to the people who had the least impulse control," Ramis said during a breakfast interview at a hotel overlooking Santa Monica beach. "What could be more fun than having your friend be the guy who would do ... anything?"
"Analyze This" began a series of whimsical career moves for De Niro, renowned for playing emotionally withdrawn, violent characters in films such as "Taxi Driver" and "Goodfellas."
With Billy Crystal playing a nervous therapist, De Niro's role as a mob boss suffering a nervous breakdown led the dramatic actor to other lighthearted fare such as "Meet the Parents" and "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle."
Instead of getting De Niro to surrender his tough-guy persona, Ramis said he played off the actor's natural fearsomeness. "I knew from the beginning that what was funny about Bob was just taking his character really seriously," Ramis said. "I don't want Bob doing schtick and I don't want Billy suddenly being a method actor."
He confessed he was reluctant to do a sequel, saying he was disappointed in "Ghostbusters II" for focusing more on slime than story and felt his co-writing gig on "Caddyshack II" was "a disaster that I wish I'd never said yes to."
De Niro was eager for a sequel to the film that made him a comedy star, and Ramis eventually devised a story he liked about redeeming the gangster. "The central concept is 'Can people change?"' Ramis said.
The 58-year-old Ramis, a Chicago native, was a journalist when he began acting with the famed Second City improvisational troupe. In 1976, he became head writer of the group's spin-off "SCTV" television show, making occasional appearances alongside stars John Candy, Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin.
That's when he began co-writing a screenplay that would become the ribald frat-house classic "Animal House."
Ramis said he saw the story as more than food fights, pratfalls and sex. To him, it was a look at the social psychology of the early 1960s before the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam overtook the youth culture.
"I wanted to look at what all the anarchic youthful energy was like before there were real issues," he said.
His efforts to explore serious themes in comedies has added an edge to his work that may help the films endure.
In his directorial debut, 1980's "Caddyshack," the slobs vs. snobs motif masks a subtext about growing up. Amid the class struggle among a careless millionaire, a stodgy judge and a doofus groundskeeper, a young caddy looks to each for a role model.
"Broad comedy is not necessarily stupid comedy," Ramis said. "I heard someone come out of a theater once and say, 'When I go to the movies, I don't want to think.' To me that's outrageous. Who doesn't want to think?"
Many of Ramis' directorial efforts focus on parenthood, from the hapless fathers trying to do right by their families in "Vacation" (1983) and "Multiplicity" (1996), to the father-son relationships haunting the characters of "Analyze This" and "Analyze That."
Sometimes those elements get somber, but Ramis prefers contrast in his comedy.
"I like to leave a strange note in people's evenings where they say, 'Gee, I just saw a comedy, but there's something a little sad in there,"' said Ramis, a married father of a grown daughter and two young sons.
Since acting is a hobby to Ramis -- who had a small role in "Groundhog Day" as a neurologist analyzing Murray's condition -- he rarely casts himself in his own films.
He'd rather take "small, juicy parts" in other director's films, such as the college dean dosed with drugs in "Orange County" or the doctor ordered to do a house call by Jack Nicholson in "As Good As It Gets."
And he'd rather write and direct for the class showoffs.
"I decided a very long time ago that if I depended on acting for a career, I might not only be very poor, but I'd be very frustrated," he said.