It's impossible to quantify the impact that writer/ director/ actor Harold Ramis had on American pop culture and comedy over the course of his 30-plus years making films. From genre classics like Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day to comedy fare like Caddyshack and National Lampoon's Vacation, Ramis as both screenwriter and director defined funny for a whole generation of American kids, teenagers, and kids and teenagers trapped in adult bodies.
As an actor, from the very first moment many of us met Ramis onscreen in the main branch of the New York Public Library, one didn't need ESP to know there could be no Ghostbusters without the dry wit, masterful deadpan, and straight-man gravitas Ramis brought to the film. Ramis, as Egon Spengler, was even the first to know print media was in trouble, 20 years before it really was:
The world lost Ramis much too soon in 2014 at the age of 69. But a new book by his daughter, Violet Ramis Stiel, released by Penguin Random House today and titled, appropriately, Ghostbuster's Daughter, brings the personal wit and wisdom of the beloved comedy icon right to fans' hands, through the eyes and experience of his firstborn kid.
Stiel was on set for Ghostbusters, she hung out at the Caddyshack, and the book is chock full of fun and touching life-of-the-artist anecdotes from her kid's eye view. But, also, she was the A1 receptacle of her dad's advice, much of it informed by two of the greatest loves of Ramis' life: improv comedy and Buddhism. "That was a huge part of why I wanted to write [the book]. Because he was so wise, and after he died I didn't want to lose any of those lessons. I didn't want to forget anything," says Stiel, "and I wanted to be able to have all of that in one place."
Stiel spoke with SYFY WIRE in advance of the book's release to explain to anyone who's ever wished they could "Groundhog Day" their life into a better version, How to Live Like Harold Ramis.
1. Work from the top of your intelligence and focus on making the other guy look good.
You talk about so much of your Dad's life advice to you in the book, and some it even comes from the world of comedy.
These particular lessons he really took from improv and from working at Second City. "Work from the top of your intelligence" was a thing that he said often, because within improv there's a potential to just sort of devolve into the lowest common denominator, and he wanted to keep it as sort of intelligent as possible. And they were all such smart people, so there was a lot for them to work with.
And "making the other guy look good" is an improv thing too, because if you're just thinking about yourself, the show as a whole fails, so you have to be working together. He used those lessons in life. They really can apply to anything.
2. Ambiguity = Adulthood
One of the things I loved in the book was when you asked your dad, "When does one become an adult?" and he said, "When you can embrace ambiguity."
He was someone who really was not judgmental. He maintained an openness and a positive outlook on things. Certainly he had his dark places in himself, but he just took everything as it came. Even when things were rough or didn't go the way he wanted, he was able to think that it was okay, he'd survive, and that something else was coming around the corner... [Also,] you can do the right thing and it still gets screwed up, you can make a bad choice and it all can still end up okay. And his life was a good example of that. I think that being intentional about embracing that as a philosophy allowed him to not get caught up in norms and expectations.
3. If you don't know, ask.
You tell a story from Caddyshack where an AD asked him which direction he wanted the camera to face, and Ramis chose one at random. Then the AD smirked and said the catering tent would be in the shot. So your Dad basically said, "OK, where do you think we should put the camera?"
Even when he was the person in charge, he didn't know everything. He knew a lot, but he wasn't the expert in lighting or any of those things. And I think this also carried over from improv; you surround yourself with the best people. He also always said, "Go stand next to the most talented person in the room."
4. Create your own meaning of life!
Your dad quoted Viktor Frankl in one of his commencement speeches.
He loved [Viktor Frankl's book] Man's Search for Meaning. That was one of his foundational Bible books. There's a great interview with him and Rainn Wilson on YouTube about the meaning of life, and Viktor Frankl's methods really resonated with him. Viktor Frankl coined the term "logotherapy," which is about helping people find their own meaning in life. It's not about any of those external things that define you or make you happy. Each person has to find their own meaning. He [Ramis] was very good at synthesizing many schools of thought and making them into his own philosophy.
5. "The Five Minute Buddhist"
You mention in the book that your dad made a laminated handout he carried around with him called "The Five Minute Buddhist."
As he started to get deeper into Buddhism he found himself explaining it in a nutshell over and over again. So he thought he would just sum it up, and print it out, sort of like a take-out menu, so that he would be able to just give it to people. You can find it on the internet now. He printed it on all different colored paper and had them laminated. It was very cute, he was so proud of it. I'm not so familiar with it, but The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, you know, these sort of core tenets of Buddhism. He was a teacher at heart, so he was so happy to share his knowledge, and he wanted to share it with everyone.
6. Embracing new work and feeling honored.
I'm curious about what you think about things that have been done with your dad's work after he passed away, like the female Ghostbusters reboot or the Groundhog Day musical.
That's interesting. The Ghostbusters I wrote about it myself. At first when I heard that it was happening, I was very protective, like, "How can they do it without him?" And then as time went on, as I thought about it more, I thought about what he would say. And it's a great film, but it wasn't sacred, it's not untouchable, there's room for any kind of interpretation you want. I do think that people have reboot fatigue and people are very protective of their childhood memories, but he would have totally embraced it and been honored, that his work could have spawned all this other creative work. Why discourage anyone from being inspired by something?
Violet Ramis Stiel's book Ghostbuster's Daughter is available from Penguin Random House.