How Harold Ramis Invented Baby Boom Comedy With ‘Animal House’
America has gotten funnier since the Baby Boom. This used to be a serious country with fearsome Communist Bloc enemies, fall-out shelters, people who’d been 5-star generals, and PT-109 WWII heroes as presidents. There was the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and assassinations of our greatest public figures, deadly race riots, and the draft.
Then the Baby Boom came of age. The only sober moment we’ve had in the past four decades was 9/11, and we spoiled that by invading a place where the attack didn’t come from, full of people who didn’t cause it, for reasons we pulled out of our butt.
Almost everything else has been comedy. Maybe it’s dark comedy, sick comedy or gross-out comedy like princess Diana’s teddy-bear-parade funeral. But we’re a generation that makes fun of everything—on Saturday Night Live, Real Time, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Simpsons, South Park, The Onion and YouTube videos of cats, small children and the mentally deficient gravely injuring themselves.
An exact date can be named for the Baby Boom’s ascent to the power of relentless mockery: July 28, 1978. That was when Animal House was released. I prove my thesis with two words that appear at the end of the movie, “Senator Blutarsky.”
If you aren’t convinced, go to Washington. Look at the Senate, not to mention the House, not to mention the Oval Office where there’s a guy who calls himself Barack Obama when everybody knows he’s an Ivy League stiff named Barry. Consider all the presidents we’ve had since 1978: Billy Carter’s no-account brother Jimmy, Ronald “Bedtime for Bonzo” Reagan, George “born-on-third-base-and-thought-he-hit-a-triple” Bush, Bill Clinton (I refer you to the Toga Party scene in Animal House where Pinto makes it with Clorette, who turns out to be the mayor’s 13-year-old daughter), George W. “Shrub” Bush, and the Dean Wormer we’ve got now.
An exact person can be named who made Animal House happen: Harold Ramis. He was one of the three people who wrote the script, and the most important of the three.
Technically, Ramis was not a Baby Boomer, having been born in 1944. And, technically, Ramis was not the mastermind of Animal House. The movie’s genius loci came from brilliant raconteur Chris Miller, with his short stories about fraternity life at Dartmouth, and Chris’s collaborator Doug Kenny, one of the founders of the National Lampoon and the grand wizard of subverting American middle-class conventions.
But I knew Chris and Doug. I was editor of the National Lampoon while Animal House was in gestation, and although I had nothing to do with the baby, I did have a good view of the business end of things in the delivery room.
For a while it looked like it was going to be a, shall we say, “drug-induced” miscarriage. Chris and Doug had a lot of fun being funny. Left to their own devices, with bong smoke rolling out from under their office door, the script for Animal House was going to be either non-existent or 7,000 pages long.
Enter Ramis, who was as funny as Chris or Doug. Caddy Shack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day and Analyze This affirm it. None of those films, of course, had been released yet. In fact, Ramis was brought in to work on Animal House because he’d been an associate editor at Playboy, a member of the Second City touring company, a writer-performer in National Lampoon stage shows and on the “National Lampoon Radio Hour,” and a writer for SCTV. Harold Ramis knew how to schlep.
I can’t tell you which of the laughs in Animal House are owed to Chris or to Doug or to Harold, but I suspect that none of the jokes would have gotten to the punch line if it hadn’t been for Ramis.
I never knew Harold as well as I knew Doug and Chris. In person, he was a looser, more affable, less obsessive-compulsive Dr. Egon Spengler without the paranormal experiments, but with the intellect. He brought that intellect to bear on the chaotic bits and pieces (and people) of Animal House.
And now we’re a ridiculous nation. It’s amazing what hard work can do.