Some deaths remain fresh wounds that refuse to heal or dissipate with time. They remain eternally painful. The deaths of Johnny Cash and David Bowie and Philip Seymour Hoffman are like that for a lot of people. For many podcast and comedy fans, so was the death of Harris Wittels on February 19th, 2015. Harris might not have been a household name, but to comedy nerds he was something of a god as well as that rarest and most wonderful entity: a completely unique mind.
I had the honor of knowing Harris slightly when I appeared on his podcast Analyze Phish to promote my book about Phish. In that stead, he invited me to go to the Hollywood Bowl Phish show with the Analyze Phish gang. I did not want to turn down a Harris Wittels invitation to a Phish show but I had to choose between paying the mortgage or flying to Los Angeles to see Phish so I did the dreary adult thing and paid my mortgage and skipped the show. I’ve never stopped regretting that decision.
So I mostly knew and loved Harris as a fan of just about everything he did. Wittels casually squeezed a lifetime of achievement into his twenties. He began as a writer on The Sarah Silverman Program, graduated to Parks and Recreation, where he was a writer, producer and occasional bit actor (habitually clad in a Phish t-shirt of course), and wrote on the third season of Eastbound & Down. Not even premature death could keep Harris from continuing to rack up impressive television credits: he’s credited as an Executive Producer on his dear friend and Parks and Recreation co-worker Aziz Ansari’s Master of None.
Though Harris was a tremendously successful TV writer and cult standup comedian (and drummer – the man had many gifts) his true medium may have been Twitter and podcasting. Podcasting particularly suited Harris, first as a frequent guest on Comedy Bang Bang, where his deadpan, absurdist one-liners and brilliantly meta improvised “character work” became among the show’s most brilliant, distinctive and fondly remembered elements, and then as the host of Analyze Phish.
Analyze Phish proved an even more ideal vehicle for Harris not just as a singular comic mind and low-key comic genius but also as a human being, whose sincerity and passion and openness in the quixotic service of trying to get Comedy Bang Bang host Scott Aukerman to enjoy the music and world of the band Phish made him impossible not to love. Harris Wittels is the only person in recorded history to become widely beloved rather than universally despised for loudly and extensively evangelizing on behalf of Phish. Only in Harris was a passionate desire to talk about what makes Phish great a deeply ingratiating quality, and not something that makes people want to punch you in the face.
On a similar note, Twitter should remain in existence for eternity, if only so that it can serve as a permanent repository of Wittels’ 140 character wit and wisdom. I know that I am not alone in finding myself regularly remembering a Harris joke (for some reason “I wanna open a Jamaican-Irish-Spanish small plate breakfast restaurant and call it Tapas the Morning to Jah” stands out) and chuckling to myself in appreciation.
Tonight, Rec Room, a multi-discipline performance and communal space in Houston established by Harris’ sister Stephanie Wittels Wachs, will honor Harris’ extraordinary legacy and intense connection with his fans with the first annual Harris Phest, which will take place at the 8th Wonder Brewery from 6:00 to 10:00pm. The event is being held on what would have been Harris’ 33rd birthday, which doubles as the national stoner holiday.
Harris’ death has served as a catalyst for his family to honor his legacy of humor and heart. Harris’ mother Maureen started a Houston branch for GRASP (Grief Recovery After A Substance Passing) and has become an activist and advocate for families dealing with drug addiction. Harris’ sister, Stephanie Wittels Wachs, a voiceover artist, podcaster, and extremely talented writer in her own right, was motivated to start Rec Room (named after Parks and Recreation) with money he left her in his honor and has written some absolutely heartbreaking and candid essays about dealing with grief following his death.
Harris Phest is designed to celebrate Harris’ life, career, and passions and to raise money for worthy causes particularly close to the Wittels family. The event will benefit the Harris Wittels Scholarship Fund, which provides grants to worthy students from Harris’ alma mater, Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Segments from Parks and Recreation scripts will be performed, as will selected tweets from Harris’ overflowing archive of succinct comedic wisdom, and a Phish tribute band, A Live One, will perform along with standup comedians. There will also be live glass-blowing and a beer, Humblebraggot, named after the phrase Harris famously coined. In its own modest way, the first Harris Phest honors the broad scope of Harris’ enthusiasms and accomplishments.
So while it is obviously beyond tragic that Harris is not around to celebrate his 33rd birthday with people who love him and his transcendently silly art, his life and his comedy remain a cause for celebration. Though Harris may have ascended to a different place in the cosmos than the one where he served as listeners’ “tour guide to the cosmos” (to paraphrase his adorably tongue-in-cheek opening to Analyze Phish), Harris will most assuredly be at Harris Phest in spirit. He was, after all, a man who famously enjoyed a good show, particularly if Phish was involved.
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.