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Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Harold Ramis's 'SCTV' Legacy

In his obituary, published yesterday by his hometown paper The Chicago Tribune, Harold Ramis was described as leaving behind "a reputation as a mensch and all-around good guy." There's really not much more one could ask for when your life is being summed up. But as it turns out, Ramis was a lot more than that. He was a comedy pioneer, a trailblazer, and a visionary. Without Ramis, Ghostbusters would have been about "ghost smashers" that travel through time with magic wands. Without Ramis, we might not have the "serious" phase of Bill Murray's career that we're all enjoying now. The man co-wrote Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and Groundhog Day, for goodness' sake. I'm probably understating it when I say we lost a legend.

We could spend time looking at any one of those movies in depth and analyzing what made it so special, but you could get that anywhere. Today we're going back to his roots. After performing at the Second City in Chicago, after working on the National Lampoon radio show, but before he conquered Hollywood. Today we're looking at SCTV.

Unless you're in Canada, SCTV has basically disappeared from the airwaves, but it marks the start of many big names in the world of comedy like John Candy, Catherine O'Hara, Rick Moranis, Martin Short, and Eugene Levy to name just a small sampling. Often dismissed as a Saturday Night Live rip-off, that couldn't be further from the truth. Whereas SNL in the early days was a variety show comprised of cast members and writers thrust together, SCTV was made of people who had worked together for years trying to entertain each other first and foremost, as they created an entire universe for their sketches to live in. Without the inspiration of this show, Conan O'Brien, Matt Groening, the brains behind Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the Kids and the Hall, all self-avowed fans, might have all been a little less inspired by the world of comedy. Beginning in 1976, the show was made in Canada for very little money, and featured many of the actors and actresses who were starring on the stages of the Second City Toronto. The only one to come from performing in America was also their head writer, Chicago's Harold Ramis.

The premise of the show was simple: for half an hour, the small television channel SCTV, broadcasting out of the fictional town of Melonville, would take over with their own programming. This would vary from traditional interview shows, morning programs, parodies of popular movies or TV shows, and announcements from the seemingly insane people who were running the network. In just the three short years Ramis was on the program he not only managed to steer the show towards it's strange, specific sense of humor, he also managed to carve out some classic characters of his own.

Moe Green

Moe Green is probably Ramis' most well remembered SCTV character. Maurice "Moe" Green was the fictional station manager of SCTV, and also hosted a number of programs for the network, including Dialing for Dollars, in which he would call and give away money to people that he swore he wasn't related to (despite the same last name), The $129,000 Question, in which he scares the contestant out of winning the money, and a commercial for sex, in which he confesses he prefers sex to mashed potatoes. Below, we see Moe's first appearance on SCTV, and actually, the first appearance of any character on the show, with an ad for his class on bookkeeping with a very specific political bent.

Officer Friendly

The first thing you'll need to know about this character is that outside of SCTV, Officer Friendly was an actual community relations campaign in the vein of McGruff the Crime Dog, meant to reach out to children and let them know about law enforcement. Ramis' version of Officer Friendly follows that same model, walking the boys and girls who are watching through the legal process in his singsong voice, but his actions are that of a hard-nosed beat cop who wants to cut through all the red tape and just start cracking heads. I dare you to not start smiling as Office Friendly attempts to get his alleged car thief to confess as he wears a giant grin and holds a lead pipe, saying, "Sylvester, you can save us all a lot of time and trouble by telling us the truth right now, or you can keep lying and let me work you over for a few hours!"

Swami Bananananada

This being the early seventies and all, America was just starting to experience the joy of public-access exercise programs, and with it, the wonderful world of a guy doing yoga in front of the camera. In the clip below you'll see Ramis' Swami Bananananada. This is the character's second segment in the episode (the first starts at the beginning of the video if you want to go back), and while you might be able to see the "fake leg that you bend over your head" gag coming a mile away, you probably didn't see the disturbing second level the Swami takes it to.

A number of celebrities also dropped by in Melonville as performed by the show's talented cast, including Leonard Nimoy, played by Ramis. And while video of that impression isn't online, I don't think it's unreasonable for me to say that you can probably imagine what that impression sounded like. As an actor, Ramis didn't have the broadest range. Russell Ziskey from Stripes sounds like Egon Spengler from Ghostbusters who sounds like Swami Bananananda, minus the weird accent. But it didn't matter. Harold was a writer with experience performing on stage, which means two things: he knew how to write a joke, and he knew how to tell it to make an audience respond to it. If every character he played sounded the same, who would care? As long as he committed as he always did, the material would speak for itself.

Here's Harold as just a regular commercial pitchman. This clip is great because you gradually start to realize this was all done in one take (I don't care if he's reading cue cards or if it's memorized, it's truly a feat in itself!), and you might notice how sparse the set is. It's a door and a bench. But all that falls away as you become transfixed by Ramis as his lines get more and more intense.

As you already know, SCTV was just a stepping-stone for Harold Ramis as he moved on to Hollywood to co-write the script for Animal House, which would star his former Second City performer, John Belushi. The rest, as they say, is history, and in this case, it will be part of history. Ramis leaves behind so much great work that is going to be enjoyed for generations to come. While he may be gone, he certainly won't be forgotten.

But that's not the way to end an article about one of the greatest comedians of our time. I think Ramis would prefer this as a sign-off: a public service announcement from Moe Green, giving viewers the seven warning signs that you may be dead.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His new webseries "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" has a very self-explanatory title.

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