Harold Ramis -- the third "Ghostbuster," straight man for some of the nation's most flamboyant funny men, and million-dollar scriptwriter -- has a problem. He's funny.
Bill Murray calls him simply "the best." Sigourney Weaver says "the language of his jokes is eloquent." And director Ivan Reitman says "there may be better comedy writers out there, but I don't know them."
Everyone's clamoring for him to rewrite their scripts.
His writing fee is now $1 million.
He's dealing with his problem.
"I go to a Gestalt therapist, and I have sort of been working on this problem," he says. "You know, I got so adult so quickly as a kid, and my shrink worked this out. She said to me, 'Maybe this is good for you. Maybe this is a way to work off all of this childhood behavior you didn't work off.'
"I mean, I don't consciously adopt the mind set of a 13-year-old," he says, letting out a cackle, deep and throaty.
After lurking around in the shadows of his shining contemporaries -- Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, the late John Belushi -- Ramis has finally awakened Hollywood to one undeniable fact: He hasn't had a box-office flop yet. Ramis has crafted or re-crafted some of the phenomenal hits of the past few years: "Animal House," "Stripes," "National Lampoon's Vacation," "Meatballs" and "Ghostbusters," which he not only cowrote but in which he costars.
Ramis, 39, is the latest of the baby boom's unique stable of comedians, the hip, idiosyncratic purveyors of Yuppie humor. "I will always have this huge peer group," says Ramis, "and when I'm 60, other people who are 60 are bound to think I'm funny. I mean, the 20-year-olds will treat me like Bob Hope and Don Rickles -- old . . . humor."
Most of these once offbeat stars came up together in Chicago's improvisational Second City troupe, then went on to Broadway's "National Lampoon Show," graduated to television's "Saturday Night Live" and finally established their own financial bases -- movies that have become wildly successful and have elevated them to cult figures.
Ramis, the least known among them, is now emerging as the genius behind the geniuses. "Well, followers of comedy knew who I was," he says.
This day, Ramis is nestled in the gray velvet couch of his contemporary California home. It's not elaborate by Los Angeles standards ("$1 million puts you in the middle class out here," he says), but there is a pool and all-new Art Deco-style furniture. It is a large white corner house in a neighborhood where BMWs are second cars, the grass is emerald and crunchy, and lithe joggers don't even seem to sweat. His wife, Anne, is out riding her bike, and their 6-year-old daughter is out swimming in the back yard.
Ramis' mild manner and reputation as the "Clark Kent of Comedy" belie that same comically warped sensibility that has catapulted his contempories into fame. For instance, what kind of a guy would voluntarily take, and pass, an officers' candidacy school exam for the Army, and then purposely fail the physical on psychiatric grounds by posing as a drug-crazed hippie? The same kind of guy who would write to the CIA for a job application form, or, after filming "Vacation," give three production crew members one-way tickets to Beirut, Warsaw and Moscow.
"You don't know what's objectively funny," he says. "You can only know what you think is funny. So you put it down on paper and maybe the director or studio tells you it's not funny. So you go back and try it again. You still think it's funny, but you'll never convince someone who doesn't think something is laughable and they're not laughing."
Ramis on who's funny:
Johnny Carson: "I don't really think so, because somehow -- I like him and respect him -- but I think what he does is very derivative of others. He's doing Jonathan Winters or Jackie Gleason. He's clever, he's charming and he's in the perfect setting for what he does. But he seems self-conscious. He's in a generational crease, much younger than the real old stuff but much older than the generations which followed. He always seems uncomfortable when he deals with people like Chevy or Richard Pryor or Bill."
Joan Rivers: "I never watched her. I understand she's very popular though."
Don Rickles. "I haven't seen him for years, but he's made me laugh."
Chevy Chase: "Hysterical."
Bill Murray: "Devastatingly funny."
Albert Brooks: "I'm told by very funny people that in real life he's one of funniest people ever."
Woody Allen: "Great. He's a hero of mine, although his films have not all worked for me. But even when they don't work as comedies, there's real film-making going on."
Ramis acknowledges, too, that he has had greater success at the box office than has Allen.
"With Woody Allen you get a sense of strong intelligence always operating," he says. " A film critic pointed out that both Neil Simon and Woody Allen wrote about schlemiels, people who were hopelessly neurotic in a society gone mad, where there was no hope for the individual. His is a comedy of frustration and loss . . .
"Our characters are rebels, but not losers. Other characters may accuse them of being neurotic, but our characters are radical heroes. And the audience thrives on heroism. Woody Allen's movies are too much about what really troubles people."
So how does a funny man get to be funny? Ramis maintains it just happens when things aren't so fun growing up. The second son of a middle-class Chicago family, Ramis says he was thrust into adulthood at age 6.
"I think growing up I was like two people," he says, "one very respectable, and one borderline insane. The responsible one runs for office and gets elected -- the other never shows up for work."
Ramis slides back into his Gestalt theories. "According to Psychology Today," he explains, "comedy writers' families were mothers and fathers seriously overworked, and a lot of comedians had a lot of responsibility forced on them. They felt like children and were expected to act like adults. It made life very absurd to them.
"Also," he says, "there's a strong desire with a lot of these guys to amuse their mothers, to lighten their load. They are overworked and under strain. I remember doing that a lot." These days, he says, the reaches of his salty wit are beginning to send his parents "around the bend" -- "They were retail grocers; now they read Variety and talk about grosses," he says.
Ramis' acting career took a back seat when he left the "National Lampoon Show" for California at the precise moment Lorne Michaels started casting for "Saturday Night Live."
"Not that he would have hired me, but . . ." he says wistfully. Soon after he was brought in to cowrite "Animal House."
"So I got even more tracked into writing," he says, "and when it broke, the pressure to continue writing was really strong. Since I had not been discovered as an actor, lifted out of my obscurity, I couldn't see the point of banging my head aginst the wall, going out and being humiliated, auditioning for things that I really didn't feel were worthy anyway."
But listen to Ramis and you'll hear that he does want to be an actor, a star in front of the camera instead of behind.
"When you're really young," he says, "you're desperate to be discovered -- you feel like you're in your prime, your ingenue age. But really, most of the young leading men are closer to 30 than they are to 20 by the time they start getting the real roles. I used to comfort myself with the thought that people like Jason Robards didn't really make it until they were 45 years old, Rodney Dangerfield didn't really make it until he was over the age of 50.
"There's no timetable on this," he adds. "Ten years from now, I may be a serious actor. I think I'm sort of lightweight in my effect anyway. I mean, there's still something adolescent about me, and I'm 40."