I’m a Bill Murray guy. More specifically, I’m a Peter Venkman guy. As a kid, at the height of Ghostbusters-mania, I had all the toys except the fire house. I even had a proton pack, complete with plastic trap. In the summer, I’d march around my block, tossing the trap a few feet in front of me, stomp on the rubber depressor and imagine a ghost or a Conehead (I was really scared of Coneheads as a kid) getting sucked in there. According to my dad, I carried around a Peter Venkman toy and refused to let go, even when eating meals.
I have this memory of my grandmother walking with me to the pet store to get a fish, which I immediately named Peter Venkman. Peter Venkman the fish didn’t do much except swim in circles in his tiny tank and almost get eaten by our cat. The first time we had to change the water in his tank, my mom poured Peter Venkman the fish into a small glass. “Poor Peter Venkman,” she said.
Venkman the Ghostbuster was everything I loved, even if I didn’t know how to verbalize it then: he was sarcastic, witty, unimpressed by everything in an endearing but not annoying way. He refused to believe in ghosts, even when he was busting them. I couldn’t cope with Venkman the fish suffering through any more of this, so I changed his name to Egon, my second favorite Ghostbuster—second because he was really smart and seemed like the leader, even if he wasn’t as funny as Venkman—played by Harold Ramis.
Egon the fish lived for way too long. Long enough, in fact, that my parents would ask me when I thought he was going to die.
When he did finally die, I found a rock and wrote on it with a Sharpie:
HERE LIES EGON SPENGLER THE FISH
REST IN PEACE
And then we buried him in the garden, right near a massive tangle of ivy that I used to pee into just because it was there.
Now that I’m older, it’s pretty clear to me that even as I was relating to Bill Murray playing Peter Venkman—a role he has essentially added pathos to, expanded upon and reprised for his entire career—I was actually relating to Harold Ramis writing for Bill Murray. It’s why Groundhog Day is my favorite movie and it’s why Stripes works so well even though it’s not actually a very good story. Ramis was a comedian that had no problem being a straight man. Often, he shied away from the spotlight. Often, his movies failed conceptually, but worked so well on a character-level.
It never mattered much to me, because Ramis’ signature—the way his comedies were these sturdy things that weren’t afraid to get a little sappy or a little mean or to be about big ideas—Ramis’ signature always felt like it was more about trust. He had his own worldview down, and if we were willing, even for a couple hours, to accept it, then he’d really be able to make us feel things.
It never mattered much to me what role he played, though I suppose his gifts as a writer and director far exceed his on-screen roles. But as a kid? None of that made sense to me. What was on the screen was it. What was coming out of the mouths of the characters was no different than what was coming out of my mouth, and no one was writing for me. Harold Ramis was Egon Spengler, the scientist that believed in ghosts. He was also an action figure, a cartoon, and a dream character for any kid that had to wear glasses and didn’t know how to incorporate them into their Halloween costume, which is what my first ever best friend Matt wore to school on Halloween in kindergarten. It’s how we became friends in the first place, and our mutual love of Ghostbusters would probably go a long way in explaining all the comedic idiosyncrasies that we share to this day.
Growing up, Ramis’ films became part of me before I knew that he was involved in them, which says a lot about his ability to connect with his audience, so consistently, in so many ways, for such a long time.
Whenever someone I didn’t know, whose art I respect passes away, I feel weird writing about them. Usually I don’t do it at all. I didn’t know them personally, so what could I possibly add to the conversation? I’m always worried that I’ll tell a story in poor taste, but I didn’t feel that writing this.
Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II: The Novelization, Groundhog Day, Stripes, Multiplicity and all the rest were all huge moments in my young life in pop culture.
Now, I think a lot about this quote from an interview he did with The Believer:
“When you’re young and you first see the extent and depth of the world’s hypocrisy, it’s fun to go after it. But by the time you’re sixty, it’s so commonplace. What’s the point in ridiculing these people anymore? Their existence itself is a sort of sick joke. Which is different from joining it or being completely co-opted by it. Even though I live in the suburbs, I pride myself in being the guy who will refer to an unpleasant reality in polite, mixed company. I’m still the guy most likely to say ‘fuck’ at the dinner party. That’s kind of pathetic, I know. These are minor victories.”
I think about me, as a five-year-old, peeing in the backyard near the grave of my fish. My own way of saying “fuck” at a dinner party. My own minor victory.
THE BELIEVER: You had that great line in your New Yorker profile, “Sometimes what people perceive as my smile is a grimace of pain.”
HAROLD RAMIS: That about sums it up. But part of my smile is also about how absurd it all is. I think I got in touch with that absurdity quite young….
big sur folk festival photos / robert altman / 1969