Saturday 02/21/2015 by phishnet

IN MEMORIAM: HARRIS WITTELS

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 Phishexplore 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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Comments

, comment by nichobert
nichobert it's been however many days and i'm almost certain i've never been this sad about a stranger dying
, comment by nichobert
nichobert @nichobert said:
it's been however many days and i'm certain i've never been this sad about a stranger dying
, comment by brainstemblast
brainstemblast This is such sad news. Thank you for paying respect to a brilliant person who will be missed.
, comment by Teaser
Teaser I find that so often I'm on the defensive when people are dismissive or negative about Phish...As if it were a family member they were insulting I get exasperated and can't make much of an argument until after the fact when I can clear my head...I always admired Harris' ability to take a breath and try to relate to people who will likely never change their minds despite their willful ignorance. I admired him for that, and his comic prowess. So sad. Don't want to dwell on the negative but it is a big drag on our scene. Please be careful everyone.
, comment by Pauggroove
Pauggroove @nichobert said:
it's been however many days and i'm almost certain i've never been this sad about a stranger dying
I feel the same way. It's a strange and upsetting feeling. I can't seem to pinpoint why I feel this way. I think it speaks not only to his relatability, but to the intimacy a listener finds in the medium of podcasts.

Also, thanks Nathan. This was beautiful.
, comment by n00b100
n00b100 This was great, Nathan, and thank you .net for giving him the space to write about Harris. It's been 3 days and I'm still broken up about it. There's no real way to express how much podcasts mean to me, specifically Comedy Bang Bang, and every time I saw a CBB episode with Harris I got downright giddy. My fandom with Phish more or less dovetailed with finding out someone that hilarious loved the band. He will be missed.
, comment by QuinnTheEskimo
QuinnTheEskimo This is so sad. Really felt like I knew him. He said all the things we think but don't say. What he did in his short life was so incredible, and I'm deeply saddened there won't be more of it.

Harris: you were the man, and I'm going to miss you a lot.
, comment by buckd61
buckd61 Stunned.
I'm in the UK so everything Phish-related is multi steps removed from what I'm used to reading on Phish.net and blogs but this one has touched me unexpectedly.
I don't generally listen to podcasts, I've never seen Parks & Recs or any other of the shows Harris worked on, but somehow (I'll download anything to do with Phish) I ended up with 2 episodes of Analyze Phish as literally the only podcasts on my iPhone.
Last December I was on a long drive (relatively speaking, this is the UK after all) and listened to both AP episodes. Didn't know what to make of it at first but ended up loving Harris's character, his love of the Phish, his humour, and his talk about rehab.
Fast forward to last Thursday, with nothing in between, and something made me put an AP episode on my iPhone, through headphones, in my drive home from work. I smiled that knowing Phish smile all the way home and wanted to sit outside my house until the episode ended, but I had hot food to take indoors.
What a shock to find out today that Thursday was Harris's last. Unbelievable. I never met Harris but he made an impact on me. RIP. 2015 Summer Tour's for you brother.
, comment by menoareno
menoareno Don't do heroin kids
, comment by yaktaur
yaktaur I listened to almost anything I could get my hands on with Wittels on it and I'm still sad about this, I almost felt like he was a personal friend, in some weird 2015 podcast-in-your-ear way.

RIP to a dude, and I hope he is somewhere out there.
, comment by DiscoEyedUch
DiscoEyedUch I got the awesome chance to hang out with him and his friends before 11/1 in vegas. He was staying on our floor at the MGM and I was walking into my room when I heard a very recognizable voice, I looked over and noticed it was Harris and instantly got excited/nervous as if I should go up and introduce myself. So I built up the courage to go say hello, I shouldn't have been nervous at all. I told him I loved his podcast's and his scenes in Parks and Rec. I told him my name and asked where I was from and I told him Indiana and he goes "Tom From Indiana, wanna come in and have a beer?" I immediately said yes and got really excited. Went in to the room with his friends and other people who were there and talked to him briefly about the night before and how insane it was. I thanked him for the beer and I was on my way. Met back up with my crew (who liked him as well) and we got into the elevator and he was in there with his friends and he goes "holy shit it's tom from Indiana!!" Needless to say my friends were jealous of me (humblebrag). He was the most down to earth "celebrity" I've ever met. Long Live Harris.
, comment by PHISH_I_VIEW
PHISH_I_VIEW Great Piece, Nathan. I just discovered Harris a few months ago and share others sentiment of being unexplainably sad for someone I didn't know. Sad for his friends and family and for the comedy he would have continued to make , but happy for the gift he gave.
, comment by RandolphIII
RandolphIII Thanks, Nathan, for the thoughtful tribute. Count me as one of the many who never knew him but is still heartbroken by his passing, almost a week later. He was so young and talented and beloved, and it's always the stories where the person was on the verge of redemption that hurt most. Not to mention he leaves behind his parents, a sister who's birthday was the next day, and a baby niece. It's easy to feel anger at someone who was so fortunate to be so reckless, and I think we all feel that to a degree, but anyone who has struggled with darkness and addiction knows who irrational it can make one behave.

I've been listening to more Phish, thinking about this joy he'll never get to experience again. And I've been listening to his podcasts, laughing and meditating on this cautionary tale. I'm close to same age as Harris, and it's a reminder to fully appreciate everything I have. No one knows what happens when you die, but fortunately Harris knows his way through the cosmos, sorry.
, comment by PauperCaspian
PauperCaspian Great piece, inspired me to register after some time visiting and waffling on whether to join or not. I first listened to Analyze Phish on a drive to New York after the Atlantic City Halloween run last year. My friend who was driving put it on and said "you have to listen to this," and we listened to the first one and some parts she liked in subsequent episodes. Thought it perfectly illustrated the rift between being a part of the Phish fandom and the skeptical crowd and admired Harris for eloquently capturing how awesome Phish is without even going into a series of superlatives, which is still really the only way I can describe why I love this one band so much, or getting super frustrated with Aukerman, which made me not want to finish listening to the series. Now I will. Can't wait till tour, and will think of Harris when the sun goes down and it's time to flick a lighter.
, comment by Piper72
Piper72 Thank you, Nathan, for this great piece on Harris. I didn't know who he was, sadly, until the memoriams. Now, thanks to you and all who had wonderful things to say about him, and knowing about his work, I will certainly seek out his podcasts and Comedy Bang Bang. Rest in Peace.

(Also as a short p.s. - Nathan, thank you for writing the only book about Phish that I feel "Got it", even if it was more about ICP. :) )
, comment by Icculus
Icculus Thank you so much, Nathan!

Fyi, Harris's sister wrote a very moving eulogy, here.
, comment by KIDZRAGE
KIDZRAGE RIP love you kid
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