Harris Wittels had the kind of ubiquity, at the age of only 30, that most stand-up comedians can only fantasize about. His unique presence on stage—avuncular and easygoing, while engaging with the darkest topics in the strangest ways—got him noticed quickly and hired as a staff writer for The Sarah Silverman Show, and later Eastbound and Down and Parks and Recreation (he worked on every season but the first). As a stand-up, Wittels toured with Louis C.K.; he was a drummer in Don’t Stop Or We’ll Die, a rollicking band comprised of fellow comics; he coined the term (and Twitter account) “humblebrag,” which was later turned into a book. From the early days of podcasting, he was a star, one of the most memorable voices in the still-expanding scene that's become such a vital part of the comedy landscape.
Wittels died Thursday at his home from what's reported to be an apparent overdose. A huge part of his appeal as a comic was his naked honesty, and Wittels openly discussed his problems with drugs and his efforts to get sober on-stage and off. Last November, he appeared on the comedian Pete Holmes’ show You Made It Weird and frankly essayed the addiction to oxycodone he developed following a tough breakup, how that morphed into heroin use, and his trips to two rehabilitation clinics. By all accounts, he continued to battle with addiction, asking for help from fellow comics for an upcoming stint in New York.
The circumstances of Wittels’ death might make him sound like the kind of tortured comedian of legend, like a Sam Kinison or a Lenny Bruce. But he wasn’t like that at all. Even discussing the darkest moments of his life with Holmes, the pair constantly burst into peals of agreeable laughter, like they couldn't believe the absurd sadness that he was describing. On Parks & Recreation, Wittels would occasionally appear as a cheerfully stoned animal control worker with a passion for the band Phish, a loving parody of his actual persona.
On Comedy Bang Bang, the podcast he frequently appeared on alongside host Scott Aukerman, he had a recurring segment called “Harris’ Phone Corner,” where he'd read joke drafts from his phone, typically to sighs and mockery from the host and other guests. Wittels attempted this bit with some sincerity the first time around before realizing its anti-comic potential; it sparked years of comedy collaboration with Aukerman that helped make him a beloved part of the online comedy scene.
The apex was the sporadic podcast series Analyze Phish, in which Wittels tried to talk the derisive Aukerman into becoming a fan of the Vermont jam band. Strange as it sounds, their work together transcended that cute premise and became one of the more pivotal works of comedy in this Internet generation. An episode where Aukerman and Wittels attend a Phish show together is about much more than just their feelings for the band—it’s about the nostalgia that comes with age, how people hold on to the things they loved as teenagers, and the fading appeal of recreational drug use. Wittels’ boundless enthusiasm for illegal substances felt like a core part of his cheery persona in early episodes; in later ones, he frankly discussed how it had snowballed into a serious dependency that affected his career and his relationships with his friends.
The outpouring of grief online from the stand-up community was reflective not only of Wittels’ standing there but also, of course, the incredible sense of lost potential. His work on Parks, one of the decade’s cornerstone sitcoms, cannot be overstated—he helped create the Ron Swanson's “Duke Silver” persona, wrote “94 Meetings,” among many more, and rose to the position of co-executive producer by its final year. His “Chapter 15” of Eastbound and Down needs to be seen to be believed—it’s one of the most brilliant half-hours of comedy TV in the HBO era. Every one of Wittels' “Harris’ Phone Corner” segments is searchable on YouTube and will be passed around by comedy fans for decades to come. This all came by the age of 30, in a life hampered in its final years by addiction. Any fan of comedy should desperately wish the world had gotten more time with Harris.