Saturday, March 8, 2014

Remembering Harold Ramis

Second City Television, or SCTV, as it came to be known, was, from the very beginning, a program that  demanded a certain level of dedication from its viewers.  It was a show that you had to really want to watch.  That was due mainly to the fact that watching SCTV, and this was back in the days before VCRs or other so-called "time-shifting" technology were in common usage, meant staying up until the wee hours of the morning.  This was especially true during the show's early years  when it was a syndicated half hour, before  it got picked up by NBC and expanded to ninety minutes. Back then, the show usually didn't even start until after two a.m. in the morning, at least that was the case with the station on which I initially encountered it.  (That station was Cleveland's WEWS [Channel 5], for those who care.  I grew up in Linesville, Pennsylvania, a small town in the northwestern corner of the Keystone State, right on the border with Ohio where we could pick up over the air TV stations from Erie, PA, as well as Ohio cities Youngstown and Cleveland.  If weather conditions were right we could also get a Channel 10 from across another border in Canada.  But, of course, this has little to do with the topic of today's post, so let's out of these parentheses and back to business, shall we?)
There were, of course, more than ample rewards to be had by SCTV's loyal followers for the herculean effort required merely to see the show.  SCTV was off-beat and quirky, intelligent, experimental, often hilarious, and utterly unlike anything on television at the time.  Produced  on an extremely limited budget, the show actually looked like the type of cheap local programming that might be produced by the kind of small, struggling independent station that SCTV pretended to be.  To me, this sort of gives the show a weird brand of authenticity which further served to endear the program to me.
The real key to SCTV's success, however, lie in its talented  ensemble of writer/performers that included John Candy, Andrea Martin, Dave Thomas, Catherine O'Hara, Eugene Levy and Joe Flaherty.  Even among such a powerhouse assemblage of comedic talent, for me one person stood out.  I'm not just saying this because he died early last week and this is my somewhat delayed tribute, rather I'm pretty sure that I'm remembering events of almost four decades ago fairly accurately when I say that my favorite member of the original SCTV cast was none other than Harold Ramis.  I honestly can't quite pin down why that is, but something about him; his appearance, his personality, his unique comic delivery; made the man stand out.  Furthermore, although I really wasn't paying attention to such things at the time, as head writer Ramis was in a very large part responsible for imbuing SCTV with it unique comic voice.  I really did miss Ramis' presence on the show when he retreated from performing after the initial season, and although it would remain the best late night comedy show on TV, SCTV lost just a little of its magic when he left to pursue his destiny in the movies.
Most of the talk of Ramis since his death has focused on his achievements as a writer and director, and while those are indeed worthy of praise, I have, as you can see, chosen to focus on his much more limited role as a performer, which I feel is equally worthy of recognition yet has recieved little attention.  While Groundhog Day has been singled out as his greatest achievement in the former fields, and despite how good he was in his SCTV days, Harold Ramis' greatest achievement as an actor came in 1984, as Ghosterbusters' Egon Spengler.  This highly intelligent, somewhat nerdy, socially awkward character was perfectly suited to Ramis' personality and comic style.  No surprise there, of course, as Ramis co-wrote the screenplay.  Still, its hard to imagine any other performer who could have delivered a line like "I collect spores, molds and fungus" in such a way that it stands out as one of the film's funniest moments.  
While Harold Ramis' work behind the camera may indeed have overshadowed, and perhaps rightly so, his work on screen, now we are to be denied any more of either side of Ramis.  Still, we are left with our memories and a mostly excellent body of work, on camera and off.  (...and Meatballs, which despite Bill Murray's best efforts is barely watchable, but in light of the rest of his career, he can be forgiven for that one stinker.)

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