The comedy podcast universe is ever expanding, not unlike the universe universe. We’re here to make it a bit smaller, a bit more manageable. There are a lot of great shows and each has a lot of great episodes, so we want to highlight the exceptional, the noteworthy. Each week our crack team of podcast enthusiasts and specialists and especially enthusiastic people will pick their favorites. We hope to have your ears permanently plugged with the best in aural comedy.
Last week, the comedy world lost one of its own when standup and Parks and Recreation writer/co-executive producer Harris Wittels tragically died at the age of 30. To celebrate Wittels’ life and work, this week we’re dedicating our podcast roundup to some of our favorite Wittels podcast episodes over the years:
Kaitlynn: It is a big responsibility to encapsulate the Comedy Bang! Bang! “Farts and Procreation” themed episodes. Host Scott Aukerman declares the people you would want on the show (Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman) are definitely not there; instead it is actor Adam Scott and writers Harris Wittels and Chelsea Peretti. He also coins the show’s title when he explains that Farts and Procreation should be the title of the television show’s porn parody.
Earwolf’s audience poll results are in, and Harris is allowed to triumphantly return to do the much loved Foam Corner. The bit began as Harris’ Phone Corner, where he would read jokes he wrote in his phone that were not good enough for standup or Twitter. The highlight of this episode is Harris and Adam’s characters: Jack Sjunior and Bryan Pieces. A character’s elaborate origin story has never paid off as highly as it does this episode. Jack and Bryan are two lumbermen from Carl’s Lumber where Jack does the administrative duties/HR whereas Bryan is in charge of the wood/pinewood derby cars (making only 12 per year). The clever improvising is bizarre and indiscriminate but always hilarious. The solid chemistry between these two is most apparent when inventing unexpected details such as how they have another lumber store called Carl Sjunior Hamburgers. All characters enter and leave the room with the three greatest words in Comedy Bang! Bang! history (and which Harris coined): creak, slam, sit. The fascinating relationship unfolds to unexpected results and the whole episode is clearly four friends joking around. Everyone is individually comedic and when these four are in a room together, magic happens. It was voted by fans the best episode of the year (some people such as I, would argue it is the best of all time).
“F&P2” was released ten months later, and all precautions were taken in order to replicate the success of the last episode. Jack Sjunior and Bryan Pieces return when Adam and Harris brag about their work at the Third City theatre in Chicago and having won the EGOT: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Timmy. Many characters are created but mostly inane bits, everyone laughing with and at each other, and remarking how astounded they are that the last episode turned out so well.
Roughly two years after the first Parks and Recreation-themed episode aired, the “threequel” was released, which included brand new characs (characters) with more conversations than comedy bits. The foursome seems happy to just be hanging out and talking about some funny nonsense. Flash forward to this week; “NOT F&P4” was released after being recorded on February 11, only eight days before Harris Wittels passed away. The episode is prefaced by Scott speaking about his time with Harris, the decision to release this episode, and what losing a friend means. The episode is heartbreakingly emotional for fans of Harris and Comedy Bang! Bang! but delivers in pure potent fun. The episode took a year and a half to return and even the email chain is read to show how much hard work really went into the planning. Harris’ Foam Corner returns with some new classics. The jokes and references about death make this episode more poignant than intended, but in turn becomes an amazing last episode sendoff for Harris. He brought an incredible amount of joy and honesty to listeners, and the multi-talented man left all of us one last phrase to hold on to: “I just think motherfuckers wanna laugh.” Stand. Creak. Slam.
Rob: For three years, Harris Wittels and Scott Aukerman co-hosted one of the funniest, most innovative, and sporadic podcasts ever produced, Analyze Phish. For me, it was the rare kind of podcast where you eagerly hope for a new episode to appear every day you update your feeds – even though, realistically, there’d be about a one percent chance of that happening. That’s because over the course of just 10 episodes, Analyze Phish grew beyond its original premise to encompass a live call-in show, narrative gonzo-style live podcasting (at two Phish shows), and elements of a confessional (It was the first time I heard about Wittels’ drug use, and later would be the first venue where he would discuss it at length as a problem). The original premise, by the way, was that Wittels loved the jam band Phish, and would try to convince fellow music lover Aukerman to become a fan – or at least not hate it so much. From its outset, it quickly became clear that every element of the show was inadvertently set against Wittels: A very sharp wit, mentor, and founder of the podcast network mocks his favorite band while Harris has to not only defend it, but also reverse Aukerman’s taunting stance. Sharing your favorite music with a friend who thinks it’s stupid is already a vulnerable situation. Now imagine doing it in front of an audience, in a medium that doesn’t lend itself to playing long, drawn out clips of music (exactly what Phish does best). Additionally, many of the show’s phans had no sympathy for Wittels, since they thought they could do his job better. But from the opening line “This is Harris Wittels, and I’ll be your tour guide to the galaxy (…sorry),” it was clear Wittels thrived as the underdog; his preternatural, reflexive humor only becoming more brilliant the more indefensible his position seemed to be. Ultimately, the reason to listen to Analyze Phish has very little to do with music, though – it was the genuine chemistry Wittels and Aukerman had every time they got together. Like close brothers, the two always seemed to naturally be on the same wavelength, able to talk and play around at any moment, for minutes at a time, without saying anything real – and all while leaving you short of breath from laughing so much.
Doodie Calls - Harris Wittels
Pablo: In the intro to “NOT Farts & Procreation 4,” Scott Aukerman spoke of the last conversation he had with Harris Wittels, where the topic turned to the concept of comic relief. Harris mentioned that while cerebral comedians like Louis C.K. use their comedy to try and find purpose in the violent, dark, messed-up world we live in, sometimes “I just think motherfuckers wanna laugh.” That was his style: goofy, lewd, affable. You see it in his list of favorite movies and in the tremendous amount of writing he produced in a short eight year professional career. While always a silly show, Eastbound and Down straddled the line between realism and the bizarre until Harris showed up in season 3. His first credit, an episode centered around Will Ferrell’s character inviting a group of Kia Motors businessmen to casually rape a grown man dressed as a geisha and gun down another with a cannon on his plantation lawn, was tantamount to Harris yelling “Fuck that line. Gimme that wheat!” He could get deep and serious on podcasts when needed, but the Harris I’ll remember is the one who would’ve made one hell of an Old Man With Inappropriately Hilarious stories had his life not ended so soon. During his guest appearance on Doodie Calls, Harris was free to run wild with tales that combined his disdain for authority and his lifelong anxiety of using public restrooms. Nobody with access to a private commode was safe. Not the faculty of Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Nor were the Parks and Recreation guest stars who were “lucky” enough to get their own dressing room. Even P. Diddy’s $700 million net worth couldn’t shield him from Harris secretly taking a dump in his toilet. That kind of bravado and confidence needs its own word, but unfortunately Harris isn’t here to coin it. Instead we’ll just have to remember Harris’ tenacious belief in himself, one that was masked with a grin and a sly Texas drawl. It was this self-assurance that led him to claim in rooms full of groggy writers attempting to break stories that he could hit a 95 mph fastball or score on one of the greatest basketball players to ever live. He never got to step into the batter’s box, but if he could get a good friend to admit he likes Phish after three years of blood, sweat, and ganja goo balls, who’s to say Harris Wittels, if given the chance, couldn’t have hit a screaming line drive into center field?
Who Charted? - A Tribute to Harris Wittels
Leigh: Even though she wanted to go dark this week, Kulap Vilaysack says at the beginning of this week’s Who Charted?, “I know that Harris would have liked to have a best-of clip package.” And so we were given the gift of a special “Tribute to Harris Wittels” episode made up of clips of all his Who Charted? appearances. It’s hard, and maybe even pointless, to try and call out specific clips that stand out, but the story of his parents’ reaction to a picture of his penis being published in Sarah Silverman’s book, The Bedwetter, is one that’s priceless.
Making It with Riki Lindhome - Harris Wittels
Leigh: Making It was a podcast where host Riki Lindhome talked to people in entertainment about how they got started and what they learned along the way. While we all familiar with all the success Harris Wittels had achieved at such a young age, this episode, which originally aired in 2011, is everything that led up to that success. He shares what got him started at open mics, being a nanny for a French family when he first moved to LA, and eventually meeting Sarah Silverman and how that lead to submitting to write on her show. When he tells the story of meeting her, you can hear how grateful he was for the opportunities Silverman gave him, calling her someone who “knows to send the elevator back down for people.” There are of course tons of funny stories throughout, but it’s also filled with great advice about being ready for opportunities and having life experiences to write about. But one of his greatest pieces of advice was just so simple and honest: “Just go fucking write.”
WTF with Marc Maron - Remembering Harris Wittels
Marc: Marc Maron had the late Harris Wittels as a guest in “the garage” for episode 424 of WTF less than two years ago back in September of 2013. The day after Wittels was found dead, Maron reposted the interview. “This is what we do here on WTF, in respect for people who have passed away,” Maron says by way of introduction. We’re not used to someone as young as Wittels, who was just 30 years old, as having demons, and even in retrospect it’s hard to say that we can even glimpse them here. Starting out as a Jewish kid from Oklahoma, he talked to Maron about recreational drug use starting in his early teens. At one point in the conversation, he says that he had done so many hallucinogens like acid and ecstasy at concerts that, by the age of 25, he’d stopped using them because he didn’t find the effects all that interesting. Apart from bouncing between being clean and using, the main picture that emerges is more about a young man who discovered comedy, and his facility for it, beginning around the age of 18 and how that changed his life. Seeing acts such as Doug Stanhope and opening for the likes of Bobby Slayton at The Improv in Houston were formative experiences, Wittels shared with Maron. In pursuit of standup, he found himself drawn to Hollywood, doing sets and working as a grunt at Comedy Central, where “I’d answer phones and watch South Park episodes in the vault,” said Wittels. Nine years ago, at 21, Sarah Silverman saw his standup set and invited him to submit writing samples for The Sarah Silverman Program. He got the gig and was a staff writer through 2010. From there he got on staff in the second season of Parks and Recreation, working his way to an executive producer title while also appearing on the show. He revealed to Maron that he considers himself a bit of “a fraud” given his rapid rise once he got to Los Angeles. “I didn’t even have to eat that much shit when I got out here,” he laughingly said. As Wittels talked about his life, still in high gear as this interview was laid down that, there’s really no hint that, just two years later, it would come to such a tragic end.
Go Bayside! - Student Teach Week with Harris Wittels
Leigh: Harris Wittels was a guest on Go Bayside! after a bunch of fans begged host April Richardson to have him on the show, which makes perfect sense. Who better to breakdown one of the most perfectly ridiculous TV shows of all time than someone who could write TV shows so perfectly. They talked about the episode “Student Teacher Week,” which was the one where everyone switches places and Zack was principal, Kelly was a teacher, and Belding was a student. As with every episode of Go Bayside!, they point out everything that’s so absurd with Saved By the Bell but Wittels raises some hilarious, interesting points that only he could. Like why Zack put so much energy into flirting with girls? Why did Belding always have so many pencils on his desk? Which of the characters were banging? And why was nobody talking about it? It ends with Wittels sharing the story of writing Tiffani Amber Thiessen a love letter and getting a postcard back.
You Made It Weird - Harris Wittels
Kaitlynn: The show begins like most others do; a conversation about existence and our molecule-based bodies. Pete mentions Harris was there to speak about his drug addiction and when he abruptly mentions it at the 25 minute mark, the episode finds its grounding with a confession that shocks Pete into questioning whether the conversation and podcast should continue. As a fan of Harris Wittels and his podcast appearances, his addiction was previously mentioned on the long-awaited Analyze Phish concert episode and as far as podcast appearances go, he has been off the radar for a few months. Without ruining the climaxes of Harris’ story, I will remark that while listening to Harris recant how good he became at lying to others and covering his habit, Pete blurts out the amazingly timed, “Drug addicts are good at improv!” The laughter is definitely not lost in this episode, and does not become uncomfortable as these two navigate the comedic balance between personal lows and light at the end of the tunnel. As a comedy writer Harris knows how to speak without alienation to an audience, and in his retelling of personal experiences, he speaks about his troubles and life decisions in the most honest way a young person can. I dare say this is my favorite episode of You Made It Weird yet, a thoroughly engaging must-listen as Harris and Pete both remark: “This is a good story.”
Alison Rosen is Your New Best Friend - Harris Wittels
Elizabeth: I downloaded a lot of podcasts featuring Harris Wittels this week including a reposted episode of Alison Rosen is Your New Best Friend from January 23, 2013. While I had a hard time bringing myself to listen to it, I’m glad I did. Before launching into the interview, Alison shares a story of how Harris e-mailed her over a year after the episode came out (after he had gotten out of rehab), saying that he had relistened to it and wanted to tell her that she was right to call him out on his attitude towards recreational drug use. He’s incredibly open and honest throughout the entire interview, particularly about his drug use, which at the time was mainly a weekend and evening pill habit. They also talk about relationships including his unnamed SNL-star ex who drove him to threaten suicide and go to therapy. It gets deep for a while, but later the mood is lifted when the topic switches to (of course) Phish. While it was sad to listen to the episode and I’m sure it will be hard to hear all the others mentioned here, I’m grateful that because of these podcasts, I can keep learning from someone that I looked up to and admired even though he’s gone.
Leigh Cesiro is a writer living in Brooklyn who only needs 10 minutes to solve any Law & Order: SVU episode.
Elizabeth Stamp is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York.
Pablo Goldstein is a writer from Los Angeles, CA.
Rob Schoon lives in Brooklyn and writes about tech, media, comedy and culture.