Harold Ramis' 'Caddyshack' gave sports a shot of comedic genius
The summer of 1980 was a particularly weird time in the American psyche.
A presidential election was steadily reaching its end stages, with an ex-actor a few months out from the Oval Office. The energy crises of the previous decade were still fresh in everyone’s minds. John Lennon had but a few months to live, unbeknownst to anyone. And “the ’80s” really didn’t mean anything yet.
This was the America that poured into theaters in late July of that year to make "Caddyshack," the directorial debut of comedy writer Harold Ramis, the No. 2 movie in the country during its opening weekend. The top slot -- with more than twice the box office, though in its 10th week on screens -- went to "The Empire Strikes Back."
Whereas Irvin Kershner’s "Star Wars" epic depicted one kind of father-son dynamic, Ramis’s sharply funny golf tale delivered a rather different one and, in doing so, changed the idea of what the sports comedy genre can deliver.
Ramis died Monday at the age of 69, and he leaves behind an astounding comedic legacy, made even more remarkable in that it was near-equally divvied up among all aspects of movie creation.
The Chicago-born Ramis got his break in the mid-'70s as head writer and cast member of the wildly popular Canadian sketch comedy show "SCTV," where he would meet many of his future collaborators.
From 1978 to 1984, he cowrote, in succession, "Animal House," "Meatballs," "Caddyshack," "Stripes" and "Ghostbusters," one of the greatest sustained runs any comedy writer has ever produced. He directed box office hits like "National Lampoon’s Vacation" and "Groundhog Day." He made audiences laugh whether he was the reluctant straight man to John Candy’s goofball soldier in "Stripes" or as the nerdy Egon Spengler in "Ghostbusters." Ramis’s contributions to Hollywood over four decades are innumerable and permanent.
But let’s take a moment to appreciate "Caddyshack," which, while a decent and middling success, didn’t exactly set the world aflame some 34 years ago. The opening lines of The New York Times’ mostly positive review certainly don’t herald any kind of lasting legacy to be gleaned:
“‘Caddyshack,’ the newest ‘Animal House’ spinoff, is this summer's ‘Meatballs,’” it cautiously begins, “a movie that tears the lid off the apparently placid life at a WASPy country club to expose bigotry, ignorance, lust and a common tendency to cheat on the golf course.”
That really was, and is, "Caddyshack" at its essential core. And in the sense that the film never tried to be greater than that particular and specific batch of elements, this endlessly quotable work of cinema became a legend in time, consistently voted as one of the funniest and all-around best sports movies ever conceived.
As a sports movie unto itself, "Caddyshack" succeeds because it is the most perfect product of its own time. Because the 1980s had yet to coagulate into any set sort of singular mindset, these sensibilities had to be pilfered from another time.
This is where "Caddyshack" turns from genius to timeless, taking the defiant and anti-establishment sensibilities of the '70s and applying them to the world of country club golf, an environment ripe not just for ridicule but for examination. And when Ramis applies the inherent classist structure of the C.C. to the film’s central plot, he wrings the most he can out of comedy’s most tried and true tropes.
Rodney Dangerfield (the kooky protagonist and hero) allies himself with underachieving everyman Chevy Chase (in his absolute comedic prime) against the ruthless Ted Knight and, to a larger extent, the entire concept of the insular and exclusive country club culture. Throw in Michael O’Keefe as the wisecracking yet earnest caddie and a spaced-out Bill Murray battling a wily, animatronic gopher and you end up with some magic blend of laughs, lessons and long-quotable shenanigans. The collective cast, relative to most any sports movie ever made, is perfect as is.
As a genre, sports comedies were still a cagey proposition by 1980, more often prone to the over-Hollywoodized productions of the 1950s than the gritty realism of the post-Vietnam '70s. This trend, as it applies to sports films, really only started to be reflected in 1977, with George Roy Hill’s hockey classic "Slap Shot" being the de facto progenitor of this emerging trend. But if "Slap Shot" laid the table for the new subversive sports comedy, "Caddyshack" pulled the cloth out from under everything.
"Bull Durham," "Major League," "White Men Can’t Jump" — you could argue that every one of these films and others that followed ("Happy Gilmore," duh) owe a debt to Ramis, showing that there was indeed an audience to be gained from the sports movie that dared to repel the heartstrings being pulled by others. When "Raging Bull" premiered four months later, this new wave was officially underway, but "Caddyshack" got there first. When "Rudy," "Hoosiers," "The Natural" and "Field of Dreams," among others, all followed in due time, they now had fair competition. The idea of the “sports movie” was a fully formed identity rather than a mere caricature. "Caddyshack" and its spiritual successors became constant refreshers that sports are, and should be, fun.
None of this happens without Ramis, who kickstarted a monumental career in Hollywood by putting all his initial energies and creativity into "Caddyshack," a truly original film that has not seen its equal since. Ramis may now be gone, but he left his mark on an industry and countless millions of sports fans who will be quoting lines from his movies for as long as we even have movies.
So he’s got that going for him, which is nice.