Tito into comedic twilight


It’s a rare day when an artist’s genius is so profound that it changes an entire genre of creative endeavor, but that’s exactly what Harold Ramis’ beautiful silliness did.

Most will likely remember him as Dr. Egon Spengler in the two Ghostbusters movies. While his performances as the more subdued member of the paranormal pack earned him a place in cultural conscious, it is his work as a writer that really deserves the accolades.

He began his comedy career as a writer for Playboy magazine. Perhaps his contributions are an instance where one might have actually read it “for the articles.”

Prior to the Playboy gig, he worked as an orderly in a mental ward. One wonders if the transition was all that great.

Ramis also made his mark on the 1970s sketch comedy series SCTV and the National Lampoon Show. The latter is important because the National Lampoon gave him an introduction to another comedy genius, Doug Kenney. Together they wrote Animal House. This film likely changed college shenanigans for a generation of collegiate miscreants. This film became a blueprint for the audaciously excessive college experience that no one really had, but secretly wanted.

In Animal House, Ramis and Kenney gave the world a sardonically funny elegy about the rigid socioeconomic caste system that even now pervades college campuses. There are haves; and there are have-nots. Animal House shows the world what happens when the have-nots get enough.

Ramis spoke to this point when he told an interviewer: “It’s hard for winners to do comedy. Comedy is inherently subversive. We represent the underdog, as comedy usually speaks for the lower classes. We attack the winners.”

According to the Internet Movie Database, Ramis wrote four of the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Movies: Ghostbusters (1984) at number 28, Groundhog Day (1993) at number 34, Animal House (1978) at number 36 and Caddyshack (1980) at number 71. Three other Ramis jewels: Meatballs (1979); Stripes (1981); and Back to School (1986) were also nominated, but didn’t make the list.

All of these have special places in my film heart. Beyond Animal House, Groundhog Day has particular resonance in the Pate households. Ramis knew comedy could also be deeply philosophical. That’s exactly what Groundhog Day is. The overarching lesson is one of not wasting one’s life. The lesser included messages remind us to value the people in our lives; to not be ego-driven and to take heed of little things because they may be pregnant with unimaginable importance.

I love Stripes for many less philosophical reasons. Most of my affection is driven by an appreciation of sarcasm as high art. It also gave me one of my all-time favorite movie lines. Bill Murray as slacker cabbie, John Winger, vainly attempts to cajole his fed-up girlfriend into staying with him. She criticizes the fact that he “listens to those stupid Tito Puente albums ‘til two in morning.” Wingers’ retort: “Tito Puente’s gonna be dead, and you’re gonna say, ‘Oh, I’ve been listening to him for years, and I think he’s fabulous.’”

This one dumb line sent me to the Goodwill Store to paw used records. I came home with a stack of scratchy vinyl wonderments. I was lucky enough to see Tito twice before he really was dead. If you can hear his “Ran Kan Kan” without at least a foot tap, you’re also probably dead.

Of course it’s not like I had ever even met Ramis. I was just lucky enough to live in the world he made funnier. I’m sorry he left us too soon. I had plans to laugh at a lot more of his work. Rest in stitches, Harold.

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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com.