by John Constantine
Great comedy doesn’t necessitate a great plot. All it needs to have is a solid premise and interesting characters to succeed. Heck, sometimes it’s even funnier when things don’t make sense. "Year One" director and co-writer Harold Ramis’ storied career proves the rule. The man’s early films, made in the wake of his stint as head writer on Canada's “Second City TV” sketch comedy series, could barely sustain a narrative thread. They were nonetheless brilliant, their narratives fueled by manic energy, killer one-liners and a hearty nostalgic spirit. Picking the best is no easy task, so instead look at this list as a beginner's guide to some of the most well-written comedies of our time.
"Animal House" (1978)
Ramis wrote “Animal House” at the age of thirty-four, twelve years after graduating from Washington University. The movie is as much a love letter to his days in college as it is a vehicle for "Second City" co-star John Belushi. An almost hallucinatory trip across a single college semester, the movie begins with a couple of loser freshman trying to pledge a fraternity and climaxes with a full-blown street riot. How it comes to that is only loosely justified, but that's not really the point.
A year after “Animal House,” Ramis regressed further into his youth. Another star vehicle for another of his Second City brethren, “Meatballs” goes back beyond college to celebrate both the childhood rush of summer camp and, more importantly, the heady late-teenage life of working as a camp counselor. As in “Animal House,” “Meatballs” works less as a single story and more as a series of incidents. There’s a kid who can’t fit in, a camp rivalry, some counselor romance, etc. What holds it all together is Bill Murray’s Tripper Harrison. He's a vintage Murray character, a clever misanthrope with a heart of gold. Who can forget this classic line: "And all lobsters, GET OUT OF HERE! YOU'RE A MENACE!”
Sticking with teenage life, Ramis’ movie about the caddies at Bushwood Country Club is a little bit more coherent than “Animal House” and “Meatballs,” but only just. Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) is trying to win a caddy scholarship and he needs Judge Smails (Ted Knight) to recommend him for it. The rest is chaos, with a veritable line-up of Ramis’ favorite comedy cohorts causing the ruckus. Bill Murray's now-iconic groundskeeper plays second fiddle to Rodney Dangerfield’s Al Czervik and Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb. Ramis gave these guys comedy gold with characters that played to their individual strengths.
Ramis’ bizarre army comedy was the first time he started telling stories not rooted in his youth, though there are plenty of youthful hijinx perpetrated by the cast of man-children. “Stripes” is, by any standards, a weird movie. The first half makes perfect sense, with John Winger (Bill Murray) and Russell Ziskey (Ramis himself) playing down on their luck dudes who sign up for the army to make some cash. They're assigned to nightmare of a drill sergeant, hate their lives, find out their pretty good at being soldiers and fall in love with a couple of busty MPs. Then they get sent to Europe to protect a secret army RV, which they use to accidentally invade Czechoslovakia. Right. Who cares!
Without question, “Ghostbusters” is Harold Ramis’ greatest script. It eclipses his anarchic early work on nearly every level: the characters are complex, the dialogue is eminently quotable and the plot makes an absurd sort of sense. Not all the credit can go to Ramis, of course. He wrote it alongside Dan Aykroyd, who came up with “Ghostbusters” in the first place. It was Ramis however who took a grand and an unfocused story about time-travelling, dimension-hopping giant-ghost topplers in space and turned it into a beloved ensemble-driven fantasy.