Comedy, sorrow vie for center stage at Ramis memorial

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HOLLYWOOD, Calif.

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. 

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