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Harold Ramis On Working At 'Playboy' And Writing 'Animal House'

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Harold Ramis On Working At 'Playboy' And Writing 'Animal House'

Remembrances

Harold Ramis On Working At 'Playboy' And Writing 'Animal House'

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We want to take a few minutes to remember writer, director and actor Harold Ramis, who died Monday after a four-year battle with an autoimmune disorder. He was 69. Ramis started performing comedy as a member of the Second City improv troupe, then joined "SCTV" as a writer and cast member. He's one of the reasons why several early cast members of "Saturday Night Live" made it big in the movies. He co-wrote "Animal House," which starred John Belushi, and "Meatballs," "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters," which each starred Bill Murray, and he directed Murray in "Groundhog Day."

Terry Gross spoke with Harold Ramis in 2005.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Early in your comedy career, you were joke editor for "Playboy" magazine.

HAROLD RAMIS: Yes, I was.

GROSS: I'm wondering if that was a really odd experience for you because by that point you were probably part of, you know, the counterculture. And I think there was a kind of almost generation gap in humor then between like the old school and the new school. And "Playboy," I think it's safe to say, represented the old school then, you know, kind of like titillating sex jokes at a time when a lot of people were being so kind of upfront about sex that the titillating sex jokes just seems so archaic.

RAMIS: Well, you know, it's funny. I came to "Playboy" not because I was a reader or a huge fan of the magazine. Growing up in Chicago, "Playboy" was one of the major publishing enterprises in the city, along with four daily newspapers. So I started out freelancing for one of the daily papers, writing entertainment features, and then I got hired at "Playboy." So it was just like a very good job for someone not long out of college. And I did the jokes for a few months and then became an assistant editor and an associate editor and I started doing other kinds of house copy. But yeah, I was, along with one or two other editors, we were the young long-hairs at "Playboy," and they kept asking us how the company could change and evolve to keep pace with this new generation that was not like the "Playboy" generation that Hugh Hefner had come from.

GROSS: Let's go to the set of "Animal House." Now, you were one of the writers of the film.

RAMIS: Yeah. I wrote it with Doug Kenney and Chris Miller.

GROSS: Can you choose a scene that you wrote were rewrote that we could then play a clip of?

RAMIS: Oh. Well, we all wrote together pretty much, but the way we did it was we sat down and debriefed ourselves totally on our college experiences. Each of us said everything we remembered and everyone we remembered from college that seemed funny to us, or outrageous, or just horrible and shocking. I think I worked hard on the - John Belushi has a rallying speech where the Deltas are really down. They've sort of been kicked out of school and there's a key line. He says was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? No. And so I worked on that speech and people sometimes quote that speech.

GROSS: Oh, often.

RAMIS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Why don't we play that, that rallying cry. Here it is.

RAMIS: Feel free.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANIMAL HOUSE")

JOHN BELUSHI: (As John Blutarsky) Hey. What's all this laying around (bleep)?

DOUGLAS KENNEDY: (As Stork) What the hell are we supposed to do, you moron?

BRUCE MCGILL: (As D-Day) War's over, man. Wormer dropped the big one.

BELUSHI: (As John Blutarsky) What? Over? Did you say over? Nothing is over until we decide it is. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no.

SUNNY JOHNSON: (As Otter) Germans?

PETER RIEGERT: (As Boone) Forget it, he's rolling.

BELUSHI: (As John Blutarsky) It ain't over now. 'Cause when the goin' gets tough - the tough get goin'. Who's with me? Let's go. Come on. Aahhh...

GROSS: There's a scene where several of the collegiate frat members go to a bar to hear a band and they realize when they get in they're the only white people there. Who's experience was that?

RAMIS: That was our real experience also. Both Chris tonight had that experience, and maybe every college student had that experience. But I went to school at Washington University in St. Louis. We used to go to a place called Leo's Blue Note Club in East St. Louis. And the guitarist with the house band was Bennie Sharp and the Sharpies and he was really a great guitar player - almost BB King kind of great, and we were often the only white people in the bar. And the actual line, can we dance with your dates, happened to me - not at that club but at another club.

GROSS: And what you say?

RAMIS: Of course. Sure. We abandoned our dates in a moment.

GROSS: How well did you know John Belushi?

RAMIS: I knew John very well. When I made my first - took my first sabbatical and went to the island of Hydra in Greece, this was in like 1970, while I was there I got a letter from Joe Flaherty saying that they had replaced me onstage with a little Albanian guy and he's really funny. And when I got back to Second City there was John kind of taking my place. Not literally doing the scenes that I used to do, but also standing in the place on stage that I used to like to stand. And I had been the long-haired zany guy and now he was the long-haired zany. But together we kind of forged a really good working relationship.

GROSS: So did you want to come back and retake your spot?

RAMIS: Yeah. But it was already there and he was so funny. The audience responded to him so quickly and easily that I realized at that moment I might never be the actor I want to be because I don't have his courage or his magnetism. You know, I had skill and I had technique and I had wit, you know, but I didn't have that kind of instant connection to the audience that he had. He would get laughs before he even said a word. He'd walk out on stage and people would start laughing. And it's not because they knew him or expected anything, it was just the look on his face, the shape of his body, the way he moved. So we went to...

GROSS: He always had that look, isn't this ridiculous.

RAMIS: Yeah. Well, he had - any practiced looks. John would go home and practice. John could raise each eyebrow independently, and not just, he could raise either corner of each eyebrow and he would practice looking like Brando or looking like Napoleon or looking like Toshiro Mifune. So we worked together all through the early '70s and then he got at the Lampoon in New York in a show called "Lemmings" and then he brought us to New York and we worked through the Lampoon period, and then we kind of drifted apart when he started doing "Saturday Night." And I, he asked me to come work on that show but I was already doing "SCTV" and I didn't want to jump ship.

GROSS: I want to ask you about "Groundhog Day," which you wrote and directed and of course starred Bill Murray. How did you come up with the idea of somebody, you know, of a weatherman who goes to see Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day to see if you're going to come out of, you know, see a shadow or not when he comes out of his hole and he keeps reliving the same day over and over and over again. What made you think about this?

RAMIS: Well, it was easy. I came up with it when I read Danny Rubin's original script.

GROSS: Oh. Well, you're a genius.

RAMIS: And that's what it was.

(LAUGHTER)

RAMIS: Yeah.

GROSS: So is there a scene that you could describe that you wrote for "Groundhog Day" that you particularly like?

RAMIS: I don't think I'd take full credit for anything I can think of offhand. I love the montage of where you really see the repetition working when Bill's trying to seduce Andie MacDowell and it starts in a bar where he figures out what her favorite drink is and then next time he orders her favorite drink which surprises her. And then he finds out what her favorite toast is. So he keeps repeating till he gets it right, basically, and ends up almost seducing her until her own natural goodness stops him.

But that whole run of him repeating over and over is so nicely done. And I think Danny and I share that one nicely.

GROSS: Well, Harold Ramis, it's really been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

RAMIS: Oh, my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GROUNDHOG DAY")

BILL MURRAY: (as Phil) So what are the chances of getting out today?

ANDIE MACDOWELL: (as Rita) The van still won't start. Larry's working on it.

MURRAY: (as Phil) Wouldn't you know it? Can I buy you a drink?

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) OK.

MURRAY: (as Phil) Jim Beam, ice, water.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as waiter) For you, miss?

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) Sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist, please.

MURRAY: (as Phil) What are the chances of getting out of town today?

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) The van still won't start. Larry's working on it.

MURRAY: (as Phil) Oh, wouldn't you know it? Can I buy you a drink?

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) OK.

MURRAY: (as Phil) Sweet vermouth, rocks with a twist, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as waiter) For you, miss?

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) The same. That's my favorite drink.

MURRAY: (as Phil) Mine too. It always makes me think of Rome, the way the sun hits the buildings in the afternoon.

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) Ah. What should we drink to?

MURRAY: (as Phil) To the groundhog.

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) I always drink to world peace.

MURRAY: (as Phil) Can I buy you a drink?

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) OK.

MURRAY: (as Phil) Sweet vermouth, rocks, with a twist, please.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as waiter) For you, miss?

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) The same. That's my favorite drink.

MURRAY: (as Phil) Mine too.

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) Hmm.

MURRAY: (as Phil) It always makes me think of Rome, the way the sun hits the buildings in the afternoon.

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) Well, what should we drink to?

MURRAY: (as Phil) I like to say a prayer and drink to world peace.

MACDOWELL: (as Rita) To world peace.

MURRAY: (as Phil) World peace.

DAVIES: Harold Ramis spoke with Terry Gross in 2005. Ramis died Monday. He was 69. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has an appreciation of Eric Dolphy's masterpiece album "Out to Lunch!" recorded 50 years ago today. This is FRESH AIR.

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