Filmmaker Harold Ramis created an underground Buddhist classic with Groundhog Day. After a chance meeting, author Perry Garfinkel embarks on a mission to find out what makes him tick.
So there I am at a literary cocktail party on Martha’s Vineyard, and this man who looks like a Vineyarder I know comes up to our small circle of writers. Just as I’m about to say, “Hi Fred,” he extends his hand and says, “I’m Harold Ramis.” I know the name, but can’t quite remember from where. I say, “Wow, you look like someone who looks just like Harold Ramis.” A lame opener, but it gets a chuckle.
I do a double take when he rattles off the four noble truths and the eightfold path during a brief chat with our circle. “This guy knows his Buddhism,” I say to the group.
“Not really,” Ramis smiles sheepishly. The man who brought us such rollicking comedies as Animal House, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day, wants to make it clear that he is not a Buddhist.
Ramis seems so sincere, thoughtful and intelligent in this short encounter that I realize he is someone I would really like to know. Months later, we arrange to get together.
Groundhog Day, the 1993 film Ramis directed and co-wrote with Danny Rubin, became an underground Buddhist classic, despite the fact that the words “Buddhist” or “Buddha” never appear in the script, or that neither Ramis nor Rubin intended it to be Buddhist or Christian or Jewish or any of the other denominations that say it speaks to them and for them. And despite the fact that the film is, after all, a comedy. A comedic take on Buddhism? That alone could earn merit points these days when many Buddhist meditators and scholars seem to have forgotten the light touch of numerous teachers over the centuries.
“There seems to be some stigma lately against joking about Buddhism, as though the so-called three precious jewels are too precious to poke a little fun at,” said Wes Nisker, a longtime vipassana meditation teacher, Buddhist stand-up comedian and author of several books on Buddhism.
“But there are longstanding traditions and practices of doing exactly that,” Nisker said, offering a few prominent examples: Drukpa Kunley, a.k.a. the Divine Madman, the fifteenth century Tibetan rascal saint who blessed fornicators, beggars, and drunkards; Padmasambhava, the Indian teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet and was known for his trickster qualities; and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, widely acknowledged for introducing American Buddhist practitioners to “crazy wisdom.”
“Harold Ramis should be considered a revered lineage holder in the crazy wisdom tradition of the Tibetans,” Nisker said.
“The primary rule of Buddhist humor is that you never laugh at someone else’s expense. But, rather, laughter arises when we realize our futile attempts to escape the first noble truth. Pointing to our common bumbling deluded nature—with humor—apparently relieves some of the suffering. Ramis has done that in most of his films, but especially in Groundhog Day, where he seems to be saying, ‘This is what it’s like. Every day is the same thing; we make the same mistakes over and over.’ Ramis is always trying to shatter our ordinary take on reality, to reveal hidden dimensions. He is trying to create what Buddhists would call ‘beginner’s mind.’”
When I ask Ramis for his take on Buddhism, he recites, from memory, something he had written when he and his wife helped sponsor the Dalai Lama’s visit to Chicago in May, 2008: “The universe is in a constant state of becoming—an ongoing miraculous creation. Every day we awaken to that miracle with gratitude, respect, and compassion for all who share the gift of being.”
“To me,” he says, “that felt like a nice distillation. I thought it was good enough to remember.”
Harold Ramis was born in 1944 to a Jewish couple of modest means but rich in love. At age twelve, he started working in his father’s grocery and liquor store, in a largely African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s south side. He attributes his humor to his father, who would critique comedians on TV like Groucho Marx, Sid Caesar, Steve Allen, and Red Skelton. “Dad would point me to the good stuff,” he said. “Red—‘too cloying, too sentimental.’ Steve Allen—‘funny, intelligent.’ Sid Caesar—‘great stuff.’ I grew up going to movies: Abbot and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and of course the Marx Brothers.”
“When I was twelve, I read the line, ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’ I took it seriously to heart. And literally. Like it was a requirement in life, akin to the Buddha’s suggestion that we maintain ‘sufficiently inquiring minds.’ ”
By sixteen, they’d moved to Rogers Park, a middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s north side. He got his first peek into the world of journalism when he was hired by the Chicago Tribune as a messenger for its ad department. He was editor of his high school yearbook, and thought his logical career step would be ad copywriter. But the seeds of a growing interest in entertainment were planted when he took ukulele lessons from a friend, and found he could sing.
His life, as he puts it, has been a study in “coincidences that in retrospect were probably what you would call karma.”
And, as if to underscore that, we discover during an interview that his ukulele teacher was, years later, a friend of mine when I lived in San Francisco. Ramis hadn’t talked to him in twenty years, so I called him, and when Ramis got off the phone he patted his heart. “I feel warm,” he beamed.
He went on to sing with folk groups, covering songs from the likes of the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters. He sang in the high school chorus, was selected for all-city chorus, and performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“All of these experiences were peepholes into worlds that were heretofore alien to me,” he said. “But it helped demystify things. At that time, I was part beatnik folksinger, part choirboy, and part entertainer.”
At Washington University in St. Louis, he was still trying to decide between writing and showbiz when he became friends with fellow student Michael Shamberg, whom he described as an “extraordinarily confident, snide and brilliant guy who was a sort of spiritual brother and creative co-conspirator.” He and Shamberg wrote skits and performed them on campus.
“Michael and I made a pact and shook hands on it,” Ramis said. “We agreed to never take work that wasn’t fun, to do only what we wanted to, and never take a job that we had to dress up for.”
Shamberg went on to become a Hollywood producer of such films as Erin Brockovich, A Fish Called Wanda, and Pulp Fiction.
“Harold is my most enlightened friend,” Shamberg said. “I always thought he was funny, but the reason I was drawn to him was he was smart, honest, and had a generosity of spirit. As far as I understand Buddhism, it’s a system of seeing things with clarity and realism. It turns out, great filmmaking is a way of seeing things clearly. The essence of comedy is seeing things clearly when others do not, and playing with the disparity between what people perceive and reality. Harold does that so well because he, like director Oliver Stone, who describes himself as a practicing Buddhist, is willing to entertain diametrically opposite ideas at the same time to get to the truth.”
After college, Ramis said, he “drifted.” He spent some time in San Francisco, then went to graduate school, lasting only two weeks. He worked in a psychiatric ward for seven months, got married, moved back to Chicago, drove a cab and worked as a substitute teacher. Around the same time, he started freelance writing for the Chicago Daily News, and enrolled in acting workshops at Second City, the improvisational comedy troupe that launched the careers of stars such as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Martin Short, and Gilda Radner.
Meanwhile, on a lark, he grabbed the name of an editor off the masthead of Chicago-based Playboy magazine and talked his way into an interview, landing a job as a writer for the Party Jokes section. He became editor of the page, and later broadened his scope to include celebrity Q&As.
But then his acting career kicked in. As coincidence, or karma, would have it, his former editor at the Daily News knew the new director of Second City, and wrangled him an audition. Now he was working forty hours a week at Playboy and six nights a week at Second City. His wife noticed they didn’t have a life together, so Ramis quit it all and the couple traveled. It was 1970.
“When I look back on it,” he said, breaking into a grin, “every time I consider the incredible synchronicity of what happened, and how it happened, and who I met and when, I smile because it still amazes me. It’s about karma, isn’t it? I read karma as cause and effect, triggering a chain of causation.”
If the start of his film career could be traced to one person, place or thing, it would be the hefty manifestation of John Belushi. First, when Ramis chose not to return to Second City after his travels, Belushi was hired to replace him. Later, Belushi, by then a rising star, got the call to go to New York for National Lampoon’s first stage show, Lemmings. He was allowed to tap whomever he wanted to be part of the company. Ramis had become known as a consummate straight man, and was among those called. That led to him being asked to write a treatment for a possible Lampoon film, to be directed by John Landis and produced by Ivan Reitman. He asked to work on it with editors Doug Kenny and Chris Miller, and while he served as head writer for the TV version of Second City, the three toiled on the script.
The film became Animal House, considered the spearhead of the gross-out genre. Since its initial release in 1978, the film has garnered an estimated $140 million in ticket, video, and DVDs sales. In 2001, the Library of Congress deemed the film “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. It also introduced into our cultural zeitgeist such phrases as “food fight” and “toga, toga!”
“When we were writing Animal House, we thought we were writing the funniest movie in history—we were that arrogant,” Ramis recalled. Asked if that might sound a tad egotistical, he quipped, “Well, I always say false modesty is better than no modesty at all.”
Four Ramis films—Animal House, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day—are on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years, 100 Laughs” list. He proudly displays the plaque in the foyer of the small offices of his production company, Ocean Pictures, upstairs from his favorite Greek restaurant in Highland Park, north of Chicago.
Pointers to things spiritual abound even in the light comedy Caddyshack, starring Rodney Dangerfield as a loudmouth who abhors the protocols of a snooty country club, Chevy Chase as the unflappable playboy with no apparent source of income, and Bill Murray as the demented Vietnam vet turned golf course groundskeeper who takes out his hatred of the Vietcong on gophers.
Reference is made to the Japanese haiku poet Basho, and Chase’s character encourages a golf protégé to “be the ball,” a nod to Golf in the Kingdom, a book by Esalen Institute founder Michael Murphy. Ramis takes particular glee in a zany rant by Murray about caddying for the Dalai Lama, which he says is perhaps the first time His Holiness is mentioned in an American film. And it’s from the mouth of Judge Smail, played by Ted Knight, that the quintessential Ramis question arises: “The most important decision you can make right now is what do you stand for, goodness…or badness?”
Rabbi Irwin Kula, a spiritual advisor to Ramis, said he found the shadow of what Buddhists call the “hungry ghost” in one of his darkest films, The Ice Harvest, a 2005 black comedy about larceny, lust, and lethal behavior in icebound Kansas on a Christmas Eve, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. He told Ramis the movie “demonstrates that you can never get enough of what you really don’t need.”
Rabbi Kula, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and author of Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life, recognizes the ethical thread interweaving Buddhism and Judaism. He took part in a three-day seminar with the Dalai Lama in Milan in December, 2007, and met Ramis at High Holy Days services in Chicago.
“I would call Harold an ethically responsible spiritual pluralist with Jewish roots and Buddhist tendencies,” he said. “Both traditions understand that we laugh so we don’t get too attached to our suffering, that we are not our suffering. Both are comfortable asking difficult questions in a light-hearted way. Harold is especially comfortable dancing with uncertainty.”
It was Groundhog Day that dramatically raised Ramis’s profile in the spiritual community. When the Museum of Modern Art put on a film series in 2003 called The Hidden God: Film and Faith—with work by icons such as Ingmar Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock, and Luis Buñuel—the opening-night feature was Groundhog Day. It was such a popular choice that a squabble erupted among thirty-five critics over who would get to write about it in the retrospective’s catalogue.
For anyone who is somehow unfamiliar with the movie, cynical and egotistic TV weatherman Phil Connors gets stuck in an inexplicable time warp that makes him relive the same day over and over. First it depresses him; then he realizes he can control it, perhaps even win the love of his field director, Rita. When that fails, he sinks further until he discovers that goodness may be just the ticket to win her love, as well as break the cycle. He delivers the line that so many of us relate to: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing really mattered?” To which his drinking buddy responds, “That about sums it up for me.”
Ramis said he was taken by surprise when the film hit a spiritual nerve for so many. He first got wind of what was to come when he heard Hasidic Jews were carrying placards in front of a theater where it was playing. He worried that they had found something objectionable—until he found out that the placards read: “Are you living the same day over and over again?” Then came letters and calls from Buddhists, Christian fundamentalists, and yoga practitioners.
“It always seemed ironic to me,” Ramis said, “that it didn’t lead people to recognize the commonality of all their points of view, but rather, ‘This must be about us and only us.’”
Even the psychoanalytic community found its angle on it. In 2006, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis published a scholarly paper entitled Revisiting Groundhog Day: Cinematic depiction of mutative process.” The film, it stated, “shows us a man trapped by his narcissistic defenses. The device of repetition becomes a representation of developmental arrest and closure from object relatedness. Repetition also becomes a means of escape from his characterological dilemma. The opportunity to redo and learn from experience—in particular, to love and learn through experience with a good object—symbolizes the redemptive, reparative possibilities in every life.”
Ramis said Danny Rubin, who wrote the original screenplay, based the weatherman’s evolution on the stages of death and dying, as outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
“I had high hopes for the film, but I had no idea the phrase would enter our lexicon and the idea would become part of our consciousness the way it did,” Ramis said. “Like when I heard it was entered in the Congressional Record” after a congressman likened a particularly long debate to Groundhog Day.
Angela Zito, co-director of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, screens the film for students in her Buddhism class. She says it perfectly illustrates the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth, a cinematic version of the teachings in Mahayana Buddhism. “In Mahayana,” she told the New York Times, “nobody ever imagines they are going to escape samsara until everybody else does. That is why you have bodhisattvas, who reach the brink of nirvana, and stop and come back and save the rest of us. Bill Murray is the bodhisattva. He is not going to abandon the world. On the contrary, he is released back into the world to save it.”
The film has been analyzed more times than weatherman Phil seems to live the same day, which Ramis said the original script suggested was 10,000 times, a number that carries some significance for Buddhists. Dean Sluyter, author of Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies, contends the film shows Phil repeat parts of the same day forty-two times, or six weeks, exactly the time we will wait for winter to end if the groundhog sees his shadow. “In other words,” he said, “we are the groundhog and we are afraid of our own shadow, a shadow created by light. That light is truth, reality. Ultimate truth, then, is not a bummer. It’s nothing.” He also suggested that Rita, the love interest, could be compared to a dakini, a female deity who can help practitioners.
I admit I saw none of this when it came out, nor even after watching it again. And again. I was relieved to hear the same reaction from David Cohn, a college friend of Ramis’s who became a longtime member and ordained priest of the San Francisco Zen community, managing the Zen Center’s culinary spin-offs, and eventually opening his own restaurants. “I can see it now that it’s pointed out, but it didn’t strike me as great spiritual text,” Cohn said, adding, “Ramis is a wonderful warmhearted guy, a bodhisattva who makes everyone around him feel better, and he has always had that.”
Ramis pointed to several lines that do suggest a Buddhist subplot. When Phil discovers he can do anything he wants—like overindulging in food or punching nerdy high school chum Ned in the mouth—he says, “I’m not going to live by their rules anymore.” “Yes, no consequences, no cause and effect, so empowered,” Ramis said. “He doesn’t realize yet it’s a trap his ego has set for him. The power to do whatever you want is a common delightful fantasy.”
And when Phil drives his truck off a cliff in an effort to end the cycle, only to wake up at 6:00 a.m. on Groundhog Day once again, he tells TV viewers that “it’s going to be cold, and it’s going to be gray, and it’s going to last a long, long time.”
“This is the state of total nihilism,” Ramis said. ‘Even death is no escape from our demons. It usually takes hitting the bottom of the barrel for man to seek spiritual redemption.” Phil says, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.” “Now,” Ramis comments, “Phil is ready for change.”
And, typical of a Ramis film, change means Phil becomes the good guy, the bodhisattva who performs selfless acts of kindness, not manipulatively, but for their own sake. This, naturally, wins him the love of the whole town, and, naturally, of Rita. And not surprisingly, he comes to love himself.
“No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life,” Phil tells Rita, “I’m happy now because I love you.”
Sure, it’s a Hollywood ending. But Ramis would have it no other way. In his commentary on the fifteenth anniversary DVD, he confessed: “I’m such a sap. I actually believe in this stuff. The movie is quite sincere.”
Ramis said that, for him, the key to Groundhog Day is learning to have the insight, courage and energy to make changes when you come to those moments when “you are about to make that same-old, same-old mistake again. We face those changes every day, large and small, every single day. If you change one little thing, one little behavior, then everything might change.”
Little did I know that my mission to unmask the real Harold Ramis would take me, months after we met on Martha’s Vineyard, straight to Sodom, or at least to a set built to represent Sodom near Shreveport, Louisiana, for three days of interviews as he worked on his new film, The Year One. Ramis describes it as a “a biblical epic comedy.”
The movie is another one in which goodness wins. And in which, through the Hebrew Old Testament story, Ramis gets to offer his comedic take, yet again, on theological and moral questions, on fate versus destiny, and on who is running the show—“all embedded in The Year One,” he said, “because those enduring questions are all embedded in me.”
Before I left home for Shreveport, I received a surprise from Ramis—a laminated red page folded in three, with lists on it. “The idea was to present a simple Buddhist primer on something the size of a Chinese takeout menu,” he wrote in an accompanying note. Instead of a guide to putting together a dinner by choosing, say, the five spice tofu from column A and the egg drop soup from column B, this menu was called “The Five-Minute Buddhist.” It listed the five aggregates, the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the seven factors of enlightenment, the four sublime states, the five hindrances, and the five precepts, ending with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment, feeling fully alive.”
The last time I saw Ramis, in Chicago in late fall 2008, he was deep into editing The Year One, and had grown a beard of, well, biblical proportions. He said it was for movie publicity purposes.
He was wearing mala beads around one wrist. “I tell people they’re from Neiman Marcus if they ask their religious meaning.” Or, “I say I’m on the Buddha diet and they remind me not to eat too much, but they keep getting in the way of my steak, so I take them off when I eat.”
At his suburban home, I meet his wife, Erica, whose father was director Daniel Mann. The family lived in Kyoto during filming The Teahouse of the August Moon, and her mother became fascinated with Buddhism. Back in Los Angeles, after her parents split up, her mother moved into the International Buddhist Meditation Center, where the Vietnamese teacher Ven. Thich Thien-An was the spiritual leader.
When Erica sensed her mother was going through increasingly difficult times, she left Menlo College in Palo Alto, moved into the center, and lived there for four years. “It was a wonderful, bizarre time,” she said. “My mother ended up living there for more than thirty years, until the end of her life.” Erica went on to live and practice in a number of other Buddhist communities in New York, Rhode Island, and California.
And, by the way, she’s not a Buddhist either.