One year ago today Harris Wittels, a co-executive producer of NBC’s Parks and Recreation and standup, was found dead from a heroin overdose at the age of 30. While lauded for his network television writing, he was also a ubiquitous performer in the world of comedy podcasts. He made multiple appearances on Comedy Bang-Bang, co-hosted the show Analyze Phish, and appeared as a guest on many others.
Of all his podcast interviews, however, he was never quite as candid as he was during his second one-on-one appearance on Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird just three months before Wittels’ passing (which we highlighted the week it was released). The interview was arranged after Wittels’ second stint in drug rehabilitation for heroin use. Holmes created a safe space for his friend to discuss negotiations with drug dealers, the gory details of shooting heroin, and the challenges of remaining sober. As a young adult psychiatrist, I was struck by how Holmes’ conversation with Wittels resembled a good psychiatric interview in terms of discussing life-and-death topics while remaining empathic and present. I spoke with Holmes by telephone about his time with Wittels, his interview style, and the intimacy of podcasting.
How much did you know about what was happening for Harris before the interview?
Harris was being very public about heroin onstage. I didn’t know this at the time but some of the things he said on the podcast like when you shoot heroin “you feel like there are a thousand dicks all over your body and they’re all coming” - I thought he just said that on the podcast but apparently that was a bit he was doing. So I knew my friend had been using heroin and he’d been through rehab. But my attitude wasn’t, “Oh what a scoop,” like when say someone comes out of the closet or something. I was just like, “It’s a good opportunity for us to connect and have an uninterrupted chat.”
Before new patients come to see me I review their records and sometimes I find material that’s so emotionally intense that my heart sinks and I get butterflies in my stomach. How did you feel knowing that the conversation was going to involve something as heavy as heroin use?
When you’re having a conversation like that with a friend you think, “People are going to judge or at least evaluate how I respond.” I didn’t deliberately stop and think about it but I know it was on my mind subconsciously. For some interviews that kind of thing will show up in my dreams leading up to it. I thought, “Pete, I know you want to be funny but this is something that kills people.” And to be completely honest, there’s a selfish element where you want to protect yourself and not say anything. We almost edited out the part where he says how to get heroin. I was so shocked when he said there were YouTube videos on how to safely inject. I must have asked fifteen people if they thought it was okay. I got a unanimous, “You should leave it in because everybody knows you can go on the internet for anything.” But I was definitely conflicted about that. I thought, “Am I going to look like a tool? Am I going to hurt the world?”
Since all my patient conversations are confidential I rarely have to worry about what a third party might think…but for you it’s so different. Even after the edits were you concerned about what might happen?
I sat on it for almost two months. If we have a really big personal reveal on the show I’ll usually wait for an email or phone call for an edit but he didn’t do that. Like I said, I was the one who was said, “Maybe we should take this part out.” I texted him before we dropped it and said “Hey, it’s coming out tomorrow, are you all good with it, you still want to release it?” He never had any doubts. His way of coping with it was by being very open about it.
After hearing that episode I thought, “Wow, his story sounds so typical of young people struggling with substances.” How did you feel while listening to his story?
I remember when Harris was talking to me it was an exercise in empathy. It’s funny - when people say “don’t judge people” you don’t think of that as something that takes effort but I think it does. You have to remind yourself to listen compassionately and dispassionately while at the same time peppering in a healthy amount of love and concern for your friend. Thich Nhat Hanh talks about compassionate listening and that’s something that resonated after the fact. We’re all kind of looking for unconditional love. Even from my therapist - a lot of that is running my demons by him and seeing if he’ll love me. I know he’s on the payroll but I really do think that he cares deeply for me.
That episode makes me laugh as much as it makes me cry for what happened to Harris. With all the heavy duty material of dealing with drug dealers and nearly overdosing, how did you handle the split of wanting to be funny versus being serious?
The comedy of it was interesting. When you’re dealing with a situation that is so grave and serious you start to see the human value of laughing and breaking the tension. Those laughs are certainly for the audience but they’re also a way of communicating that “It’s ok, we’re not going to let this get too unbearable for any of us. We’ll make some jokes.” Jokes in those situations are a way to align your consciousness with another perspective. You’re stepping outside of the narrative and commenting on it from a neutral place that everyone can hopefully enjoy. You’re looking at the events of someone’s life as not exactly who they are. It’s accepting the whole of the person. Harris had an addiction but it isn’t who he was at his purest essence. He was this wonderful complex person and the great thing is this: first and foremost he was a comedian. With a comedian you’re still going to make jokes. It would almost be insulting if you treated him differently. You can look at the circumstances differently but the respectful thing to do is to not confuse the person with their circumstances.
I was reminded of interviews Kurt Cobain did towards the end of his life where he referred to his troubles in the past tense. When you guys wrapped things up Harris sounded optimistic in the same way.
It did sound like he was doing great. I’m young and haven’t had too many friends die so maybe I was naive in thinking, “He’s fine.” I was thinking about how he was getting good treatment and had good sponsors and had good friends.
How did you feel in the months between releasing it and his passing? Were you worried for him or were you convinced that things were going well?
It might have been one of those topics so overwhelming that you couldn’t let it all in. It was certainly on my mind. I think that’s what haunting about it - he was the same Harris, the guy making “Wheat Thicks” jokes. One of the really isolating things about being a human is that you can have this normal appearance in your life but have a really big problem. It must have been really lonely and sad and I wonder how he was. He did Meltdown the night he died which is just really something. I think about that all the time - the fact that he was there that night and did a set and saw friends.
How did you find out he had passed? What was it like for you given your history with him?
I wasn’t expecting it. That being said, when my friend just texted me “Harris” you knew what that meant which is an illustration of how it was in the back of your mind. I remember thinking about re-releasing it. When Patrice [O’Neal] died [Marc] Maron re-released his episode and I thought that was really nice…but it just felt too big to touch. We were people who had a bond - I still cherish a photo someone took of us hugging in front of UCB one day.
The few times I’ve had patients pass away I have felt tremendously guilty even though I knew I did my best. Do you wish you had done something differently?
Of course there’s a normal flare up of guilt but then you realize it’s not really about you. Harris had his addictions which manifested in this very dangerous way. I think his story is ultimately strangely relatable and human. To me it was a story of isolation…and that’s what really disturbed me about it. It’s difficult because I did compassionately listen to Harris and he still passed. But that doesn’t mean that’s not the effective thing to do.
As you can imagine, for fans of Harris Wittels, his death came as a huge shock. After listening to so much of his work I found myself referring to him as just “Harris.” It feels strange to use the first name for a person you’ve never met.
It makes perfect sense that people call Harris Wittels “Harris” because even though I hung out with him a bunch more times than we recorded, the two most important conversations we ever had were recorded. You’re getting all the information that I have. I remember one time Harris and I went to see the band Frightened Rabbit and we didn’t talk. At a show like that you might say what you liked and maybe make a couple jokes but that’s it.
I would venture to say that Harris is the first comedy podcast star to pass away suddenly. Even now I’ll sometimes stumble upon a podcast episode where Harris was a guest and it feels like I’m listening to a ghost.
I think there’s something wonderful about capturing somebody as talented and as insightful and even ultimately struggling as Harris. That’s one of the human things that makes technology not just Candy Crush while you’re waiting for your coffee. It’s different than reading an interview because you’re not feeling the pauses. People listen to podcasts in their bed or their car or at work - it’s very intimate to have earbuds in and have this voice running through your head. There’s something that can be human and even soulful about it - we start to get a very intimate and complete picture of a person. Memory can’t really be trusted and autobiographies have glaring omissions. It’s nice to be like, “No, this is the person” and you can really kind of savor them. My hope is people will hear Harris’ episode and have some solidarity in their struggle and also know to get help.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Arjune Rama, MD is a staff psychiatrist and Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he treats undergraduate, graduate, and professional school students. You can follow him on Twitter @arjunerama.