Of all comedy superpowers, the greatest, especially in ensemble comedies, is the Funny Straight Man. You need a big, loud, charismatic star, and you need some dummies, and you need weirdos and scene-stealing joke assassins and maybe lotharios (male or female) and any number of other archetypes. But you also need a straight man, because without a straight man, it’s just dummies and weirdos running amok, and the audience has no floor to stand on, for balance, for orientation. Straight men — let’s call them Normal People to avoid the gender-pronoun trap — are the North Star of an ensemble comedy. They’re the ones that sigh at the others’ antics and look back at the audience and nod, It’s OK, everyone, you’re right, these people are nuts.
It’s a thankless job. Normal People never get any credit, ever, because Normal People are not flashy; by definition, they have to be normal while everyone else gets to run around and have fun. Normal People don’t get nominated for Emmys, or have BuzzFeed lists made of their funniest quotes. The joints are not the part of that beautiful antique dining room table you admire, even though without them, the table is a big pile of wood scraps.
But now imagine those joints are, themselves, beautiful. Imagine that if you look at that table over and over again, you start to realize, Those are the most beautiful joints I have ever seen — maybe even more beautiful, in certain ways, than the rest of the table. Or imagine you had a middle linebacker who also led the league in punting average. Or imagine you went on a date with Liam Hemsworth and he also did your taxes and got you a massive rebate. Imagine you have the world’s greatest Normal Person to hold your movies together, to ground everything and let all the freaks and weirdos and scene-stealers do their thing and blow audiences’ doors off. And then imagine that that person was somehow also incredibly funny.
Harold Ramis is the best part of Ghostbusters, and he’s the best part of Stripes, and he’s the best part of Knocked Up even though he’s in the movie for about three minutes. (I’m not saying he was the funniest. I’m saying he was the best, and there’s a difference.) He laid out exposition and moved the plot along — the comedy movie equivalent of passing out hors d’oeuvres at a kick-ass college party — in a way that was itself wonderful and funny and lovable. Watch Ghostbusters, that ridiculous work of genius, and marvel at Ramis acting like a real person, a scientist, a guy who believed in his work and felt print was dead (in 1984! Ahead of his time, that one) and collects spores, molds, and fungus. Bill Murray is anarchic and pyrotechnically funny. Dan Aykroyd is goofy and dopey and endearing. Rick Moranis turns into a demonic dog. Ramis just moves steadily along, snaps all the joints into place, click click click, somehow makes the whole thing work, and has a half-dozen of the best lines. He plays middle linebacker, kicks all his punts inside the 10, and gets everyone water when they’re dehydrated.
You see it in his writing and directing, too, of course. Groundhog Day is a perfect movie, and in every fractal and crazy looping folding scene you sense his steady hand at the wheel, ushering you along, keeping everything in focus. All of his movies had that calm, the assurance that what he had written, or directed, or both, was good and interesting and built well. That there was no need to strain and mug and beg for laughs like Daffy Duck, heaving at the end of a furious tap dance routine, arms splayed, begging for audience approval. Ramis never tap-danced. He presented his case, joyfully, confidently, a world-class funny Normal Person director and actor and writer: Here, everyone, I made this, I think it’s funny, hope you like it.
Michael Schur (@KenTremendous) is a writer in Los Angeles.