Harold Ramis wrote and/or directed the greatest American movies of my generation, a generation that was smarter than it should've been and doomed to professional mediocrity. The only sane solution was to try to have a little fun in the process of being disappointed by everything.
Remembering the great Ramis comedies—Stripes, Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Animal House—is easy, because I've never stopped using lines from those wise-but-juvenile movies in my daily life. As pure writing, nothing from my suburban garbage generation comes close. And as an instruction manual for living with joy in the face of constant crushing bullshit, Harold Ramis movies at least saved me from the drudgery of a good career.
Here are seven (7) actual pranks I will admit to, all influenced in whole or in part by the funniest movies I've ever seen (again and again and again). Are these the greatest practical jokes in the history of our great nation? I won't lie: They're not. Did each of these minor outrages come directly from the influence of a specific Harold Ramis comedy? Honesty compels me to say "probably not." But each one of these and a hundred other little pranks I committed were in the vein of American comedy he created. You can sit there and judge what I did, but I won't have some smug entitled jerk crap all over an American institution like Harold Ramis. Onward:
1. The Handyman: We all had terrible jobs, because lower-middle-class teenagers were expected to work after school and in the summer. One friend, "Mike," worked at a miserable local do-it-yourself store called Handyman, an early version of the vile Home Depots that now cover the American landscape. He was ready to quit, over many offenses committed by the manager, but the quitting had to be done in style.
I had a cheap Casio keyboard and some microphones. The huge store had an upstairs office with a regular old cassette-tape deck to play the Muzak. So we drank a case of whatever was cheap one night and recorded a parody of the Willa Wonka classic "The Candyman," now corrupted to the local Handyman and its 24 aisles of substandard merchandise and sneering teenaged employees. Mike gave his notice, and I waited in the parking lot in the getaway car. With the volume at maximum, Mike walked slowly through the store as his own grossly amplified drunken voice sang the lyrics: "Who can frame a screen door? And size it just to fit? When you take it home you'll find it doesn't fit a bit. The Handyman ... The Handyman can."
The office door, of course, had been locked from the inside, where the manager's keys hung safely on the wall.
2. Ronald Reagan's Attorney General and the One Thousand Ashtrays: Ed Meese, who served as a crooked lawyer for Ronald Reagan over many decades, was attorney general of the United States when a group of unnamed teenagers viciously attacked his front yard in La Mesa, California. The weapons? A box of 1,000 disposable foil ashtrays liberated from the supply room of a nearby Jack in the Box hamburger restaurant. (In the 1980s, you could sit inside a fast-food restaurant and enjoy a couple of cigarettes with your horsemeat sandwich.)
Like many dubious treasures, nobody had any idea what to do with the ashtrays. That's when I glanced up from my San Diego Evening Tribune and said, "Ed Meese is apparently home for the holidays." As a festive holiday treat intended to put the Christ back in Christmas, the rumor is that all 1,000 golden foil ashtrays were secured to his front lawn that night, using two boxes of nails from the local Handyman.
If apprehended, the pranksters apparently planned to say that it was an "anti-smoking statement to alert teenagers to the dangers of tobacco." But in the quiet days after the 3 a.m. political protest, it was determined that Meese wasn't home from Washington after all, and also that he had apparently sold the house in question a few years earlier.
3. Clean Orifice, Clean Mind: A vice principal at one of the many sprawling Southern California high schools I attended had the curious habit of just slightly mispronouncing the word "office" so it sounded more like "orifice." Worse, he enjoyed repeating his made-up mantra—"clean office, clean mind"—whenever students called to his office would comment on his mysteriously empty desk. A couple of my high-school newspaper buddies and I decided to subtly "correct" his pronunciation by making it even worse.
Whenever the vice principal said "office," which was constantly, one of us would politely reply with, "You mean, orifice." By the end of the semester, this dimwitted disciplinarian with a PhD was reduced to a hapless fool wandering the campus all day talking about his orifice in front of snickering teenagers. We then had no choice but to ask which orifice he was talking about, the mouth or the anus or what? And then we'd get hauled back to the orifice—office, I mean—because then he was furious about kids saying "anus."
4. The Golf Course: Caddyshack illuminated the local suburban golf course as a theater of class warfare. The same country club that counted Ed Meese as a member was so poorly protected from its own local teenagers that I talked my way into an all-day "video shoot for a church group." Management foolishly provided me with several golf carts and full use of the course, on a Sunday when it was most crowded with cretins in plaid slacks and white shoes. Equipped with our own ice chests full of beer, my group of supposed filmmakers terrorized the golfers for three hours with pointlessly choreographed high speed golf-cart chases, stunt fights and small explosions made from Tijuana fireworks. The fourth hour of shooting was canceled due to several club members threatening to call the police.
5. The Local Newspaper: In my imagined world that is always better than the one I'm forced to live in, a newsroom is a place of nonstop excitement and rapid-fire wordplay. Because the real world can't "keep up," I've found that certain would-be comic characters just need a little push into situational greatness. My friend "Terry Wells" was intelligent, kind and dedicated to his job exposing crooks at City Hall. But he could also erupt in such explosions of absurd rage that the rest of the newsroom was always hungry for more. To help Terry achieve his potential, I would do terrible little things like staple all his meticulously organized file folders together, so that when he'd pull out a specific folder in a deadline frenzy, another dozen and all their contents would fly out and land on the floor.
A piece of tape on the bottom of his computer mouse, a missing wheel from his office chair, his telephone handset unaccountably secured to the base—just a little bit of planning led to so much fun. To his great credit, Terry refused to murder me and even officiated at one of my weddings, 10 years later!
6. Dance Wax: Harold Ramis was not afraid of sweetness in his humor, and the love in his comedy steered the jokes away from pointless cruelty. I was working on the air conditioning system at an old hotel—a summer job for my mom and dad's business—when I found a weird old 1950s can of dried-up hardwood-floor treatment called "Dance Wax," complete with little clip-art graphics of a couple doing the Charleston or whatever.
My mom was at her desk in the industrial-park office when I returned, and I briefly showed her the can, gave her a conspiratorial "Shhh," and sprinkled some wax flakes on the floor. Before she could ask what the hell I was doing, I ran out through the back door. Another employee walked in right on cue, looked dazzled as he stepped on the spot, and broke into a Fred Astaire dance routine that made my mom laugh to the point of tears. Or maybe the tears were about how I wasted my life.
7. The Clown Moose: Media pranks are a lesser form of the good old teenaged delinquency witnessed by a handful of friends and enemies. Still, when you waste your adult life working in the media, you have to use the tools at hand. Some years back, I was editor of a computer magazine in Southern California. My good friend "Steve" edited a community newspaper in a nearby beach town. I had quit the easy magazine job—there's really nothing worse than having a job—and to celebrate I covertly wrote Steve's weekly column and he wrote mine. His was a kind of Philip K. Dick nightmare web-hole version of what I usually did, while I turned a private joke about a "Clown Moose" into a detailed historical tale from the days of Western Swing bands performing for the troops on the Hermosa Beach pier in the World War II era.
The Clown Moose was described, in the historical literature that I made up, as a tall man in a real-fur moose costume with a clown costume over it, including a honking red rubber nose over the moose head's nose. Before the swapped columns were published, I was already gone on a one-way ticket to Budapest. But Steve was around to get the many letters and phone calls from bewildered readers, some of whom claimed to have seen the Clown Moose doing his customary "sweeping up" of drunken sailors with his oversized janitor's broom.
Never believe anything you read.
Ken Layne will probably watch Stripes first tonight, and then maybe Ghostbusters.