Thousands of strangers came together on the Internet on Feb. 19 to mourn the passing of the brilliantly silly comedian, writer, TV producer and podcaster, Harris Wittels.
In addition to being a co-executive producer and writer on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” Wittels was a regular guest on many of the great alternative-comedy podcasts including “Comedy Bang Bang,” “Who Charted,” “You Made it Weird” and “U Talkin’ U2 To Me?” He also hosted “Analyze Phish,” a terrific music/comedy podcast with Earwolf network co-founder and “Comedy Bang Bang” host Scott Aukerman. Of all the figures in the comedy podcasting community, it’s possible that the one person who the audience felt closest to was Harris Wittels.
Wittels appeared twice on Pete Holmes’s “You Made it Weird” and discussed his struggles with addiction. These frank, honest conversations undoubtedly had much to do with his fans’ sense of being close to him. However, he began establishing this connection to his fans years before the public was aware of his addictions.
Since the show’s early days, Wittels had a beloved, somewhat revered feature on “Comedy Bang Bang” called “Harris’s Foam Corner.” Originally “Harris’s Phone Corner,” this was a segment where Harris would read jokes to the listeners he had written in his phone over the previous weeks. These were not what he considered great jokes – they were the jokes he had deemed unworthy even to tweet. Sometimes the jokes were hilariously dismal: “Where there’s a will, there’s a Wayans. That’s something.” Another clunker: “Wifi? Because Fi.”
Other times, they were magnificent gems like, “Did you guys hear about that new deal where if you go in on it with a cast member from ‘That ’70s Show,’ you get a discount on mustard and/or salad toppings? It’s a Laura Prepon Grey Poupon Crouton Groupon.” Another one of his classics was: “I want to open a Jamaican-Irish-Spanish-small-plate-breakfast-restaurant, and call it Tappas the Mornin’ to Jah.”
He told these jokes to the faux-chagrin of the other podcast guests, including Zach Galifianakis, Sarah Silverman and Annie Clark, a musician known as St. Vincent. Clark even let out multiple visceral groans at some of Wittels’s worse jokes.
Wittels was one third of a great musical comedy band called “Don’t Stop or We’ll Die.” “Don’t Stop” was on “Comedy Bang Bang” a few times over the years, and episodes were a real treat. In them, we got to hear Wittels laughing and palling around with his best friends and bandmates. The band has a few great music videos online, but their best video might just be their most recent, “Lisa,” which was released online days after Wittels passed away.
I was still devastated by the loss, in the days following his death, but watching him so joyful in the “Lisa” video was a happy five-minute respite.
He had an infectious personality, always seemed so happy to be alive. It’s painful to know that we won’t be hearing his voice ever again, outside of replaying his old podcast appearances.
After his death, virtually every important figure in the alt-comedy community shared their grief online. Over the subsequent week, many podcasts offered Harris Wittels tribute episodes, and mourning podcast fans cried with the podcast hosts over their shared loss of a great person and entertainer.
Scott Aukerman, the eternally silly host of “Comedy Bang Bang,” came very close to tears in his intro to that week’s show. Aukerman said that Wittels’s death had made him think about ending “Comedy Bang Bang” entirely, and that he had considered not releasing the last episode of “CBB” Harris had done.
Aukerman then recalled to the audience something that Wittels had once said to him. He told Wittels about a personal tragedy his family was going through and that his family had gathered together to watch a dumb sitcom. Soon they were all laughing, and the tragedy was forgotten for the length of the episode.
Wittels responded, “A lot of people want to do serious stuff with their comedy, but I just think, motherf***ers want to laugh.” Therefore, Aukerman said, he would continue to do his show and would release Wittels’s last episode, “because Harris would be furious if any of his friends were serious for even one second. And I can’t go that far, but I can play you this tape of us acting really, really stupid.”
So much more can be said about Wittels, his comedy should be searched online. Watch the three or four available “Don’t Stop or We’ll Die” videos. And I’ll leave you with one last joke from “Harris’s Foam Corner:” “I hate smoking sections, unless we’re talking about the movie “The Mask” with Jim Carrey – then the smoking section is my favorite part.”
Eli Fine can be reached at [email protected]