We at Phish.net were greatly saddened to hear of the untimely death of phan Harris Wittels, host of the hilarious Analyze Phish podcast and writer for Parks and Recreation (among many other comedic endeavors). To remember him, we turned to Nathan Rabin, author of You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me, a memoir of his experiences following Phish and the Insane Clown Posse. Nathan appeared on Episode 7 of Analyze Phish to discuss his book and attempt to help Harris convince co-host Scott Auckerman of Phish's greatness. He is the former head writer for The A.V. Club and currently a staff writer at The Dissolve.
Remembering Harris Wittels
By Nathan Rabin (@nathanrabin)
At the age of 30, Harris Wittels had the kind of credits men twice his age would be proud to claim. He’d written for three of the best, most groundbreaking and beloved sitcoms of the past twenty years in The Sarah Silverman Program, Eastbound & Down and Parks & Recreation, where he was an Executive Producer and could be found in some episodes wearing a Phish tee shirt and playing a hapless guy named Harris.
Harris was an essential part of the Comedy Bang Bang podcast before fusing two of his great loves: podcasting and Phish, into his brilliant podcast Analyze Phish. As if all that weren’t impressive enough for one lifetime he was also a gifted stand-up comedian, talented drummer with Don’t Stop Or We’ll Die, a columnist at Grantland, the coiner of the term of Humblebrag and the author of the book spun off the column.
Yet Harris was so much more than the sum of his incredible credits that it felt maddening and reductive to see obituary headlines that referred to him as a Parks & Recreation producer or Humblebrag coiner because the whole of Wittels was so much greater than the sum of its remarkable parts.
You would think a man who had accomplished so much at such a young age would be confident to the point of cockiness but you would be hard-pressed to find a comedy professional more humble and unassuming than Harris. He was the boy next door as a subversive comic genius. I first encountered Harris as a guest on Comedy Bang Bang in 2009, shortly before I began a Phish journey chronicled in my book You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me and was immediately impressed.
Part of the joy of listening to Harris on Comedy Bang Bang lie in host Scott Aukerman’s palpable delight in Wittels' comedy. He was a true original, a Phish die-hard who delivered anti-comedy jokes in a deadpan monotone. Wittels’ jokes often inspired a strange sort of double laughter: you laughed at the absurd stupidity of the jokes he debuted in a Comedy Bang Bang feature alternately known as Harris’ phone corner or Harris’ foam corner, and then you laughed again at yourself for laughing at something so exquisitely, transcendently silly and stupid.
Harris made his debut on Comedy Bang Bang shortly before I began my Phish journey at the band’s New Year’s Eve run in Miami at the turn of the last decade and while the timeline with all things Phish tends to be a little fuzzy, I was encouraged that someone so smart and funny and plugged in to all the things I’m passionate about shared my enthusiasm for the band. Before I ever had the honor of meeting Harris I thought of him as a kindred spirit with an awful lot in common. We were both Jewish, Phish fans, comedy geeks and entered the big leagues of comedy at a ridiculously early age (I was 21 when I started writing for The A.V Club, he was around the same age when he started writing for The Sarah Silverman Program) and we’d both coined phrases we felt ambivalent about: Harris had humble brag, I coined the phrase Manic Pixie Dream Girl and lived to regret it.
Aukerman would tease Harris about his love of Phish during his appearances on Comedy Bang Bang; he had a hard time wrapping his mind around the idea that someone he clearly admired liked music whose appeal he could not understand. That was the impetus behind Analyze Phish where the roles were reversed and Harris was the host (or your “tour guide through the cosmos” to quote his opening spiel) and Aukerman was the perpetually underwhelmed guest Wittels was quixotically attempting to get into the band.
I was reluctant to listen to Analyze Phish because I strongly suspected that it would do what I was attempting to do with my book—provide an outsider’s look into Phish that was irreverent on the surface but sincere, earnest, emotional and sweet underneath—so brilliantly that I would feel even worse about the stumbling, halting progress I was making on my book.
My fears were not unfounded: Analyze Phish was just as great as I had feared/hoped but when the sneering cynics over at Vice ran one of those awful, predictably loathsome “Phish is the worst band ever and their fans are all drug-addled losers” pieces we were invited at The A.V. Club (where I worked at the time) to write a response. My essay focused on how what Wittels and Aukerman were doing on Analyze Phish—explore the value of Phish in a way that was honest and informed and rooted in friendship and open-mindedness rather than cynical contempt—was of infinitely more worth than Vice’s asshole cynicism (the internet being the internet, my defense of Phish got about a one hundredth of the response the Vice piece did).
Wittels was, in my mind, the best kind of Phish fan: passionate, smart, engaged and eager to spread the gospel of his favorite band but not in an oppressive or overbearing way. So I was probably more excited than I should have been when he began following me on Twitter. I sent him a copy of my book and was overjoyed that he liked it so much that he volunteered to write a blurb for it, though Harris being Harris, it was as much a blurb for Phish and the Phish experience as it was for my strange little tome.
Harris' blurb made me feel like I was doing something right, that despite the many wrong turns I’d made in the project, it resonated with people who were smart and funny and loved Phish. So when I was preparing to do press for You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me I was overjoyed when Aukerman and Wittels invited me to appear on Analyze Phish.
I was such a huge podcasting dork that I showed up for my Analyze Phish appearance wearing a Comedy Bang Bang tee-shirt. The analogy I keep coming back to when I think about having done a podcast with Wittels and Aukerman is a fan being invited onstage to jam with Phish: I wasn’t arrogant enough to imagine that I could actually add anything to the mix, I just didn’t want to be an embarrassing distraction.
So even though I was ostensibly on the show as a guest and an expert going on a parallel journey with Aukerman, I was really just there as a fan: a fan of Phish but also a fan of Wittels and Aukerman. Though I am almost a decade older than Wittels and he was as unassuming as comic geniuses come, I was intimidated by him. So it was honestly just a joy being around people who were so good at what they did and enjoyed each other’s company so much. It was a pleasure just to be around Wittels as he experienced a surge of childlike joy at being able to talk about Phish with people who shared his love for them.
I was invited to go to the Hollywood Bowl show with Harris and Aukerman and Paul F. Tompkins and for months I tried to convince myself that I would be able to afford to fly to Los Angeles and put myself up in a hotel solely to see a Phish show with my favorite podcasters but ultimately I realized that I would have to choose between going to the Hollywood Bowl show or paying my mortgage for the month, and having engaged in flagrant irresponsibility and borderline craziness while writing You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, I could no longer afford to be irresponsible, literally and figuratively.
So I reluctantly begged off and Shelby Fero ended up going in my place. I would love to call Harris a friend; I thought it would be amazing to go to Phish shows and talk Phish with him and just generally bask in the reflected glow of his genius and accomplishments. But there was a big part of me that thought I was not worthy of being friends with somebody so cool, funny, talented and accomplished. I thought it was safer to be a fan than a friend because with friendship comes reciprocity and work and I have never been good at making or sustaining friendships.
So I continued to admire Harris from afar and was as gob-smacked as everyone else when he went on You Made It Weird not too long ago to talk about his struggles with drug addiction and his experimentation with heroin. As with Owen Wilson, I was shocked that someone so seemingly goofy and silly, someone who had everything in the world to live for, could experience such profound and debilitating depression. I write that as someone who has written two memoirs partially about my own battles with depression. I wanted Harris to derive the same joy from his work and his personality as his fans and friends and colleagues did.
So I was devastated to discover that at age 30, and with his career barely started, Harris was dead. And I wish I’d made more of an effort to be a friend to him instead of just an admirer because you never know when your chance to form a real relationship with someone you care about will end permanently.
So when you think about Harris Wittels in the years and decades ahead, whether it’s when you’re at a Phish show or listening to a bootleg or watching Parks & Recreation, remember the incredible light that drew people to Harris and the obsessions he advocated for so passionately rather than the darkness that eventually consumed him.
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