Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
I’ve already written a fair amount about Harris Wittels in this column and I am going to write about him a whole lot more. Part of this is personal: I only met Harris once, when I had the surreal pleasure of being a guest on Analyze Phish. The experience was like nervously shaking a tambourine off-beat with sweaty, fumbling hands onstage with your favorite band while they perform a rousing version of your favorite song. It was an incredible honor, and I felt like an eye-witness to history, but I also couldn’t have been more out of my league.
I was supposed to go to the big Hollywood Bowl Phish show with the Analyze Phish crew but as the concert date loomed I had to make a choice between going to see one of my favorite bands with some of my favorite podcasters or paying my mortgage. In my single days, I probably would have chosen to see Phish but I was a married man with a mortgage and a job and responsibilities, so I reluctantly begged off traveling to the coast to experience jam band nirvana with a group of folks I suspected I would have been too intimidated to be able to have a coherent conversation with. Now that Harris is gone and nobody will ever have an opportunity to see a Phish show with him again, I feel I chose unwisely, but Shelby Fero ended up going in my place, an upgrade any which way you look at it, even if I suspect I would have enjoyed the show several million bazillion times more than she did.
I’m also writing about Harris as a way of keeping him alive, of denying, to the point of madness, the awful finality of death. Harris is gone but every time someone presses play on an episode of Analyze Phish or one of his episodes of Comedy Bang Bang he roars back to life and life is as it should be again. The tragedy is reversed and we get our friend back, if only for a little while.
Art is a powerful rebuke to the arctic chill of the grave. Harris was far too humble and modest to assume the lofty mantle of the artist, but that’s what he was. He was a gentle giant of the podcasting form, one of its true masters, if only because he made being funny look so easy and effortless, as effortless as breathing.
Harris was an artist adept at any number of forms. He was a talented drummer, a standup comedian whose absurdist one-liners retain their power to delight and amuse no matter how often you heard them, a producer, writer, a bit player on some of the best TV shows of the past twenty-five years, and a wordsmith who coined a phrase “Humblebrag” that infected our culture and our language with its pithy usefulness. But more than anything, Harris’ art-form was being Harris, a Phish-loving, hoodie-wearing tour guide through the cosmos who was wry and funny and beloved, who gave the world so much in such a small amount of time and left so early.
But before he departed this earthly realm for something hopefully a whole lot groovier he embarked upon an exquisitely Quixotic quest to convince good friend, frequent collaborator, and fellow music obsessive Scott Aukerman to like Phish. Having traveled an unlikely arc from being a Aukerman-style extreme skeptic about Phish to a Wittels-like true believer while writing my book You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me (a book whose sole blurb came courtesy of one Harris Wittels), I knew damn well what a formidable challenge Harris faced, especially as trying to elucidate the appeal of Phish in a non-live concert setting is like trying to convey the scope and majesty of Apocalypse Now by showing excerpts on a four-inch iPhone screen.
In words that would become imprinted indelibly on the minds of the members of the ever-growing Cult Of Harris (of which I am a member), Harris begins this long, strange but altogether too-short trip with a gentle, “How’s it going everybody? This is Harris Wittels. I’ll be your tour guide through the cosmos.”
He then apologizes, semi-jokingly and semi-sincerely. Funny people who love Phish often feel like they have to make a self-deprecating joke of their intense fandom (or, alternately, apologize for it), and play the crunchy hippie vibe of Phish phandom up to to the point of self-parody because otherwise they open themselves up to the good-hearted mockery of folks like Aukerman, whom Harris says has a long history of lambasting him for his Phish fandom on his various appearances on Comedy Bang Bang.
Yet Aukerman is open-minded enough to entertain the notion that with the right songs and the right cosmic tour guide, something that has always struck Aukerman as a “A curious part of (Harris’) personality” could become understandable. Aukerman wants to understands the enigma of Harris’ Phish fandom, that he could be, in Aukerman’s words, a “smart guy”, a “go-getter” yet nevertheless feel compelled to follow this strange band around the country “like a goddamn lunatic.”
Passionate fandom is not a cold, logical thing; it’s intensely emotional and wrapped up in memory and history and youth and sex and frustration and desire. Accordingly, Aukerman, already being way more open and confessional here than he is on Comedy Bang Bang, traces his dislike of Phish back to a stoner guy in college who had sex with his girlfriend and to add insult to injury, subjected him to an epic Phish jam when they rode in a car together.
Harris then confesses that he too once hated Phish. Like Aukerman, he once heard only childish noise in their jamming until, like so many people who made a dramatic transformation from Phish skeptic to true believer, he went to a show, took some ecstasy, took off his shirt, told a chill hippie girl she was really pretty and experienced a weird moment of connection with a bully he went to school with. By the end of the show Harris had experienced a damn near religious epiphany about Phish that would change the course of his life forever. He wasn’t just a fan: he was a Phish guy, and loving this curious band from Vermont became a huge part of his identity.
From the beginning, Analyze Phish is about stories and memories and connection as much as it is about music. The journey begins with “Theme From The Bottom”, a studio recording that to Aukerman sounds like Schoolhouse Rock. “Are all their songs stupid and silly?” Aukerman asks. Harris gets to the core of Phish’s intense but often intensely esoteric appeal when he responds “A lot of there songs, I think, are supposed to just get you viscerally, and, not, like, don’t think about it.”
This is true but it also highlights the gleeful absurdity of Harris trying to get across an innately visceral, non-intellectual experience by dissecting it into tiny little chunks and then analyzing it in a way that’s sometimes goofy and joking but also at times earnest and sincere.
Harris’ next stunningly unsuccessful gambit is to try to tap into Aukeman’s love of the Talking Heads by playing a pair of covers that Aukerman understandably is underwhelmed by. This leads Aukerman to inquire, “This is like the Talking Heads song if it was done worse?” (which is fair, but is also true of about 95 percent of all covers).
You can all but hear Aukerman’s already wavering interest fading as the band goes into the kind of kinetic jam that drives fans wild and strikes non-fans as insufferable, atonal noise.
Aukerman later concedes that going to a Phish show might be fun, but he still wouldn’t like Phish, which seems like a contradiction but actually accidentally gets to the heart of the Phish experience. Because a Phish show is just that: it’s an experience, an adventure whose appeal goes far beyond the music that is played. The grand gestalt of a Phish is so much more than just a band performing music for fans.
The best parts of Analyze Phish are not the parts where they, you know, Analyze Phish. No, the best parts are when they take fascinating detours that stray from the topic at hand, like when Aukerman talks about a college band he was in with one of his teachers who named the band (Phase 2) after the home of one of the students he was in love with, and recounts how the band flailed about for a sound until The Commitments came out and they figured they’d be Commitments cover band, which is to say, a cover band of a cover band, a decision that lasted but a single rehearsal.
Of course, it’s damn near impossible to talk about Phish without talking about drugs, but it’s Aukerman, a non-drug guy by his own admission, who has the most memorable and elaborate drug anecdote, one featuring Patton Oswalt’s bachelor party, a party bus to Lawry’s Steakhouse, Aukerman fearing David Cross’ judgment and Eddie Pepitone presenting a sword to Oswalt while dressed like a king. If that sounds surreal, imagine experiencing it while stoned out of your mind.
If possible, Aukerman seems to end the episode even less excited about the music of Phish than before it began. “This is a show where you’re supposed to get me to like them!” Aukerman insists incredulously before concluding, “Harris, you have failed at this task!”
Harris may have failed to infect Aukerman with his love of Phish the first episode of Analyze Phish but that almost seems to be the point. There is glory in that failure, in that heroic striving. After all, it’s not the end result that matters, but the journey there, and Harris and Aukerman’s journey deep into the heart of Phish is one of the most entertaining, funny and oddly poignant adventures in all of podcasting.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.