Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
When I was a guest on Harris Wittels and Scott Aukerman’s Analyze Phish podcast Harris invited me to be part of the gang when they saw Phish perform at the Hollywood Bowl. I wasn’t able to go due to poverty and geography and I never listened to the episode that was recorded during, and about, that show out of a deeply petty, immature fear that I would listen to what an amazing time some of my favorite comic minds had watching one of my favorite bands and would be overcome with jealousy.
We all sometimes suspect that everybody else is having an amazing time when we’re not there, but in the case of the Analyze Phish Hollywood Bowl show, there’s actually an audio document of the event chronicling in extensive detail just how much fun people are or are not having. I didn’t know what to expect from the Hollywood Bowl episode in part because I did not realize until very recently that when it was released in 2014, Harris had graduated from rehab and was unsteadily but very sincerely and very publicly pursuing a life of sobriety.
This can’t help but give the episode a dark tint. The “Hollywood Bowl” episode of Analyze Phish is consequently a strange beast: it is a sober man’s fuzzy, tragicomic, but mostly tragic account of being in a drug haze and making the kinds of bad decisions that lead Harris to refer to the Phish show, only half-jokingly, if that, as his bottom. The tone for this episode of Analyze Phish is much different and much darker, because in this episode they’re not analyzing the music of Phish so much as they’re analyzing a night that went awry for reasons that are a little fuzzy and a little hard to explain, and not just because of the way drugs warp memory. There’s a certain forensic quality to this podcast, as Scott and Harris go diligently through audio of the event, and their own experiences, to try to recollect what happened.
The bad juju begins with Harris bailing on his plum job at Parks and Recreation so he can take a limousine to see a Phish show that, professionally at least, he’s not supposed to be at, as he’s supposed to be working. The dramatic lengths people go to in order to see Phish is a beloved component of Phish mythology. Every hardcore Phish fan has an anecdote about risking a job or a relationship so that they can groove with their favorite band alongside a sea of fellow devotees. There’s often a phony glamour to these stories, but there’s no romance in addiction, and this episode has the curious distinction of highlighting both the clean and sober Harris Wittels who is looking back on the show from a distance and the Harris Wittels of a year before, who was still in the depths of his addiction. Aukerman has a particularly odd angle on Harris’ drug use as both a fundamentally sober person who is more or less forcing himself to use fairly intense, tricky, and variable drug like LSD as a way of embracing the grand gestalt of a Phish show while remaining as always, an outsider and an observer.
The episode haltingly but compellingly captures the weird anxiety and uncertainty that accompanies pharmaceutically pre-gaming for a Phish show. This is particularly fraught for Aukerman, who doesn’t really know anything about drugs, and consequently is ill-equipped when trying to discern how to ingest the appropriate amount of substances to get you into a good place where you can enjoy the music and jams of the band Phish without losing control of your senses or your faculties.
Ideally, using drugs at a Phish show helps you lose your self-consciousness but it can just as easily have the opposite effect. That seems to be the case here, as the substances Harris and Scott (but not, it should be noted, Paul F. Tompkins, whose nattily attired presence at the show is surreal and entertaining but also feels like a bit of a distraction from the core of the episode, which is the very different experiences of Harris and Scott) take only seem to create a sense distance between each other and themselves .
Aukerman’s well-known aversion to Phish (despite being a total road dog who has seen them multiple times at this point), Comedy Bang Bang has a lot in common with a touring jam band. When Harris and Scott are in unison comedically they have an improvisational chemistry unlike any other, a bond that’s funny and powerful and weird and unexpected and tender and loving. They have chemistry like Phish has chemistry when everyone is locked into the same groove and the spirit is moving through them.
What’s fascinating and melancholy and strange about this episode is that Harris and Scott aren’t really in sync for a lot of it. There are moments that are as funny and goofy and unforced and wonderfully childlike as anything in the Comedy Bang Bang “Farts and Procreation” series, but other moments are palpably strained and uncomfortable for understandable reasons. How could they not be? There’s just no getting around the awkwardness of trying to put out a fun comedy podcast about music and drugs and comedy and friendship that has people saying things like “drugs just destroyed my personal life,” which Harris throws out at one point. Harris and Scott give it their all but this was, in many ways, a bum trip, and in revisiting it and trying to contextualize it within the framework of their friendship and music fandom and Harris’ addiction, they’re not able to alchemize the weirdness of the night into cathartic, liberating laughter. That’s surprising given how brilliant and hilarious both men are, but perhaps not surprising when you consider Harris’ fragile emotional state.
Harris didn’t just need to learn how to enjoy Phish shows with a completely sober mind after he got out of rehab. He had to learn how to do everything, and that included podcasting and riffing and goofing around with his friends, sober. Harris can be heartbreakingly earnest and sincere here, like when he describes how Phish shows are his temple, his synagogue and his church, and the place he goes to heal when everything else in his life is going to shit. He desperately wanted that night, and that show, to be a place of healing and connection and transcendence with people he loves and who are important to him. But the magic is just not happening. That’s true of all the greats, and it’s true of Harris and Scott here as well. But if the episode does not have the ease and the light and hilarity that characterized Harris and Scott’s work together, it’s riveting as a portrayal of a brilliant, troubled man in a state of transition and a singularly deep and fascinating friendship that led to a quietly masterful body of collaborative work that was, on some level, an exploration of the nature of friendship.
Part of what makes this episode so compelling is that a strong case could be made for never releasing it, and Harris and Scott clearly seem to have carefully considered that option. Harris is funny and warm and engaging as always but also incredibly raw, almost like a newborn deer. In the end, I’m glad that the episode was released because it’s good just to have a hundred more minutes or so of Harris talking and joking out there in the cosmos, even it’s about an experience freighted with expected and unexpected darkness.
Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.