Harold Ramis, the thread weaving through some of the funniest movies ever made, passed away this week. How long before his type of humor passes along with him?
“For one vital element of humor is inequality,” Paul Johnson reminded in his short book Humorists, “and striking visual, aural, and physical differences. Differences in sex, age, color, race, religion, physical ability, and strength lie at the source of probably the majority of jokes since the beginning of human self-consciousness. And all jokes are liable to provoke discomfort if not positive misery among those laughed at.”
The passing of Harold Ramis evoked Johnson’s observation. So much of the writer/director/actor’s oeuvre — a pretentious word rarely applied to comedians, at least the funny ones — laughs at our differences.
Ramis’s directorial debut Caddyshack, a movie whose comedy largely stems from highlighting class distinctions, illustrates Johnson’s point. The country club’s fifteen-minute weekly open-swim for caddies — “Caddies Welcome, 1:00-1:15” — wins a laugh over the upper class’s haughty velvet ropes. But when aquatic chaos ensues, and a rogue Baby Ruth mistaken for something more ominous sparks the pool’s evacuation and sterilization, the fifteen-minute edict appears more charity than snobbery.
Whether Rodney Dangerfield’s nouveau riche obnoxiousness (“Hey everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!”), Ted Knight’s old-money entitlement (“Well, the world needs ditch diggers too”), or striver Danny Noonan’s desire to escape his Irish Catholic home overflowing with siblings (“I gotta go to college”), the characters celebrate class archetypes and we laugh at and with them for that reason.
Stripes, co-written by Ramis, similarly comes out of that depressing period of malaise that marked the United States entering the 1980s. But its all-inclusive humor tackles race, gender, sexual orientation, and much else in addition to the dead-end jobs that bring lovable losers Bill Murray and Harold Ramis to the Army recruiter’s office.
Women — whether Murray’s hot, fed-up girlfriend who dumps him, the hag he strands in his taxi on a bridge, John Candy’s mud wrestling opponents, or the more competent military policewomen that become Ramis and Murray’s love interests — consistently play the joke’s straight men and butts. An Army recruiter who asks an obligatory question on whether either Ramis or Murray are homosexuals unwittingly invites the goofball duo to gaze longingly into one another’s eyes for an uncomfortable moment. Murray responds, “You mean like flaming?” Ramis enthusiastically informs, “No, we aren’t homosexual but we are willing to learn.” When the leaderless platoon attempts to drill for boot-camp graduation, they come apart along racial lines once Ramis instructs the rhythmically challenged recruits, “Black guys help the white guys.”
National Lampoon’s Vacation, in which Ramis directs and helped write, introduces viewers to a caricatured version of redneck folkways. “I’m going steady, and I French kiss,” young Cousin Vicki boasts. “So, everybody does that,” Audrey responds. “Yeah, but Daddy says I’m the best at it.” Rusty endures a similarly shocking encounter regarding pornography with Cousin Vicki’s brother, who informs that a relative recently showed him how to use a magazine. An incredulous Rusty wonders aloud on how one might use a magazine?
The number of off-limit targets for jokes — rednecks remain fair game — has grown exponentially since Ramis’s heyday. For a culture that prides itself on progress, America strangely resembles a primitive society in its many taboos.
The culture has grown uptight, rigid, and puritanical in its protection of impurity. Even our laughter seems forced. The audience chuckles at The Daily Show or Bill Maher as much out of ideological solidarity as they do out of amusement.
Johnson described political correctness as “fatal to humor” if pursued vigorously. But with new restrictions come new opportunities. Brits, as Johnson surely knows, have based their comedy less on inequality than on poking fun at authority. What would Monty Python be without holier-than-thou CofE vicars, stodgy bureaucrats in banker’s suits doing silly walks, and humorless policemen? The commissars of political correctness judging from on high appear to be begging to be knocked down by the jokers below. People who take themselves seriously can’t take others who don’t.
A country that polices humor remains a dreary place denied what it requires. Like the America escaping the seventies, we could use more funnymen like Harold Ramis. Comedians who make us laugh make the world better. Scolds who insist we stop laughing make it worse.