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Local Column

Akst: This one’s just for laughs

I had a bad cold Monday (and Tuesday, Wednesday, …) and there was some downtime before I needed to pick up my kid from school. So I set my cellphone alarm and snoozed.

Next thing I know, our landline is ringing. It’s my wife, asking me if I was picking up our son. I slept through the alarm and had blown pickup time by about half an hour.

I rushed to school, and everything was cool. Staff people had him smiling, and I was grateful.

Humor saved a bad situation, but I had already been preoccupied about humor because Monday was also the day America lost one of its brightest comedy lights.

Harold Ramis, the brilliant writer, actor and director who created some of the best comedies of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, died after an illness.

He created such wonderful comedy (“Ghostbusters,” “Stripes,” “Analyze This,” “Caddyshack,” “Groundhog Day,” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House”). And from the tributes to him, it seems he was that rare celebrity who remained a warm, friendly, helpful guy in spite of fame.

He was one of the most talented humor writers and humorists in American history, and the world needs more humor. Some of his contemporaries called him THE best; his talent and achievements merited condolences from the president.

“When we watched his movies – from ‘Animal House’ and ‘Caddyshack’ to ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Groundhog Day’ – we didn’t just laugh until it hurt,” President Obama said. “We questioned authority. We identified with the outsider. We rooted for the underdog. And through it all, we never lost our faith in happy endings.”

Amen. As an actor, Ramis had a gift for understatement. Who else could say, “Print is dead,” or “I collect spores, molds and fungus” and have it be hilarious?

As a writer, he operated in rarefied air. He made us laugh with intelligence. He didn’t do vulgar or tawdry. As one story put it, “Ramis’ comedies were often wild, silly and tilting toward anarchy, but they also were cerebral and iconoclastic, with the filmmaker heeding the Second City edict to work at the top of one’s intelligence.”

I’ve been fascinated with humor most of my life. I try to write humorously (often failing) and once, I did a two-minute monologue at open mic night at a comedy club.

It was a nerve wracking experience, but it taught me that it’s relatively easy to be funny around friends, family or small groups of people. Being funny for mass audiences is a whole ‘nuther subject.

My interest in humor is partly inherited: my grandfather was a vaudevillian comedian and musician.

It’s partly pedagogical: teachers know tasteful humor helps. “Students who have teachers with a strong orientation to humor tend to learn more,” according to “Best Teaching Practices: Humor in the Classroom,” published by the State University of New York/Plattsburgh. “A little bit of laughter in a classroom can go a long way in decreasing anxiety, lowering defenses, fostering a positive student-instructor relationship, defusing tensions, provoking imagination, triggering interest and motivation to learn, and opening the mind.”

It’s partly professional: There are plenty of college classes covering just about every other type of writing (technical, novels, short stories, news, poems, speeches, etc.) but hardly anybody offers classes in humor.

And mostly, I’m fascinated by humor because of its magic. Numerous medical studies prove that patients heal faster if they can laugh and smile, and who doesn’t remember a good laugh?

Thank you, God bless you, and rest in peace, Mr. Ramis.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. He also serves as a board member for the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association, You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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