(Excerpt from Harold Ramis interview)
You have very political roots: you’re the only writer I’m interviewing for this book who was president of his Hebrew school.
Oh, I’ll bet others were, too. They’re just afraid to admit it.
What platform did you run on?
I don’t remember any kind of an election or anything. I was just a very responsible young fellow, and I felt that being good was the direct path to Heaven.
You’ve said that irony is more available in Chicago than anywhere else. Why do you think that’s the case?
I kind of equate it with this experience of always feeling that you’re slightly on the outside of the mainstream. Growing up in what was called “the Second City,” you always felt like you were on the outside looking in. New York and L.A. were the real centers of culture in America, and we were kind of a sideshow. There’s always more comedy in being alienated than in fitting in. It’s the alternative comedy posture. It’s what Rodney Dangerfield created with his “I get no respect” routine. The other end of the spectrum isn’t so funny: “I get so much respect.” No one will laugh at how great things are for somebody.
I once analyzed all this. Woody Allen was the great comic genius of my early career, and there was a tendency to measure everything against that standard, that kind of posture. He was always writing about losers and schlemiels and schlubs… did I just use two Yiddish words in one sentence?
You were the president of Hebrew school.
Good point. Anyway, I was never interested in losers. I was more intrigued by the alternative comedy posture. The characters I enjoyed creating were the dropouts and the rebels. They voluntarily opted out of the mainstream. It wasn’t because they couldn’t join it. It was because it wasn’t worth doing. Or there was some serious hypocrisy going on. Or it wasn’t cool.
There’s a story about Ned Tanen, the president of Universal, which put out Animal House. When he was first shown the film, he was upset with the alternative-comedy stance you took with the Delta House characters.
Right. He was confused, because he thought the main characters should be the good guys, and why would the good guys act like that? He thought they were losers. But anyone who grew up when I did and was in college when I was in college had kind of embraced the rebel. It was a 1960s idea. Counterculture was the new mainstream, and it took the studios a while to catch on to that, I think.
From what I’ve read, you had an interesting job after you graduated from Washington University, in St. Louis, in 1966.
I worked in a mental institution in St. Louis, which prepared me well for when I went out to Hollywood to work with actors. People laugh when I say that, but it was actually very good training. And not just with actors; it was good training for just living in the world. It’s knowing how to deal with people who might be reacting in a way that’s connected to anxiety or grief or fear or rage. As a director, you’re dealing with that constantly with actors. But if I were a businessman, I’d probably be applying those same principles to that line of work.
How long did you work at the mental institution?
I worked in the psych ward for about seven months, and then I moved back to Chicago and I began to substitute-teach at a public elementary school—kindergarten through sixth grade. While I was teaching, I did some freelance writing for the Chicago Daily News, and I took a few of these pieces to show to Playboy. They happened to be looking to fill an entry-level editorial staff job, which was joke editor, and they hired me.
You must have had quite a peek into this country’s sexual underbelly with some of those unsolicited joke submissions. What were they like?
I had a wall of postcards behind my desk that I was going to one day collate, analyze, and categorize, and then do the definitive treatise on the American Joke. It was amazing how many of these jokes were written in pencil on three-ring notebook paper, or came from people who were incarcerated. It was also amazing how many of them dealt with farmers and farm animals.
At the time—it was the late 1960s—the Playboy editors wanted to modernize the jokes a bit, to make them more counterculture. A big part of my job was changing “the farmer” into “a swinging advertising executive.”…
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