Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
There is nothing that is not heartbreaking about Harris Wittels’ final visit to You Made It Weird, recorded only a few months before Wittels broke the comedy world’s heart by dying of a possible overdose at thirty. What’s most heartbreaking about the episode is that Wittels appears to be in such a good place emotionally. Listening to the podcast, it’s easy to get the impression that Wittels had pulled himself back from oblivion, that he had contemplated the ultimate void and come perilously close to not existing before taking the steps necessary to save himself.
In a sense, Wittels did pull himself back from the void. He’d gone to rehab and achieved stints of sobriety and was apparently comfortable enough with his story and his progress to specifically want to share it with Holmes and his listeners, and by extension, the world at large. But we now know that that sobriety did not last. Sobriety can be a terribly fragile and delicate thing. All it takes is one bad night when the demons are winning to extinguish flames as bright and brilliant as Wittels or Philip Seymour Hoffman forever.
In true You Made It Weird form, Wittels and host Pete Holmes alternate between the profoundly silly, even child-like, as in an extensive and inspired riff on a Keanu Reeves/piano hybrid known as “Pianu Keys” and the powerful and profound. You Made It Weird is on one level about funny people goofing on each other and the world at large. On another level it’s about mankind’s search for meaning and purpose in a universe that can often seem random and cruel, and Wittels is eminently overqualified to participate in both sides of the show’s silly/serious divide.
Even before Holmes and Wittels discuss drug addiction and suicidal depression, the topic of death is already on their minds. But the podcast really takes a turn for the somber when Wittels, discussing his dark recent journey, matter of factly tells Holmes, “And then I started shooting heroin” to which Holmes can only reply, “I don’t know what words to say.” It is a moment of profound and true connection, the kind of intense, if fleeting bond that podcasts are capable of at their best. Holmes’ feelings are eminently understandable. How the hell do you respond to hearing that someone you like and respect is experimenting with something rightly and understandably synonymous with death and destroyed lives? How can you wrap your mind around something like that?
Wittels then walks Holmes through the steps by which he went from being a successful comedy writer with everything in the world to live for to a guy who goes down to skid row to score heroin from an AIDS-afflicted homeless man with a giant rash. The catalyst for Wittels’ downward spiral seemed to be a doomed love affair with a girl who he thought was his soulmate, but whose Scientology faith kept her from wanting to be with an addict.
Wittels is relentlessly honest with Holmes. He talks about being unable to ejaculate at the depths of his addiction, of having to fake orgasms because of the drugs he was on. He talks about not wanting to live anymore and looking for something to believe in, some belief system that will tell him how to live and free him from the dangers of endless choices.
The comedian and writer’s account of trying, and repeatedly failing, to score heroin would be unbearably grim and sad if it weren’t also so bleakly funny and filled with humanizing details, from the families grilling obliviously in MacArthur Park during the day while Wittels is trying to score H not too far away, to Wittels going on YouTube to find out how to shoot heroin properly (for better or worse, such videos exist). The episode makes it apparent that all sorts of horrible things can happen when you try to score heroin, up to, and including, actually scoring heroin.
Heroin is a special kind of darkness, the kind users oftentimes don’t come back from. Yet as overwhelmingly sad as this episode can be, it’s always human and it’s always gentle and it’s always unmistakably Harris and blessed with the special grace and magnetism he exuded effortlessly, and that attracted people to him even as he writhed in self-hatred.
Wittels’ final appearance on You Made It Weird represents a small but essential component of his legacy. It provided him an opportunity to tell his story in a medium where he was a master and a medium uniquely well-suited to this manner of brutally candid self-reflection.
This harrowing and poignant exploration of the brutal, deadly underside of addiction means so much more coming from someone who has enjoyed drugs throughout his young life and even during the episode is just about the last person in the world you’d expect to deliver a powerful and convincing anti-drug message. It’s strange yet somehow fitting that a man famous in part for his love of taking drugs and going to Phish shows will, God willing, keep other people from following down the dark path that ultimately took his life so prematurely. This episode’s tremendous value stems in part from the potency and conviction of its anti-heroin message.
Wittels never got to write a memoir, but this single podcast appearance, one of many, afforded him a priceless chance to bare his soul in the most personal, powerful and profoundly moving manner imaginable.
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.
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