“Doesn’t it seem like a lot of celebrities are dying right now?” Harris Wittels asked Pete Holmes on a sadly prophetic podcast last November. “But every single human being has died and will die. So it’s not that weird to me when it happens. But everyone really makes quite a big deal out of it.”
There’s a reason people make a big deal out of it when celebrities die. The argument against doing so is that so many people die every day and each one of their deaths is of equal import in the grand, cosmic scheme of things. But each of us doesn’t know, or feel they know, all the others, nor do each of us bring laughter bordering on joy to strangers the way certain famous people do, nor are the circumstances always so seemingly tragic.
Harris Wittels was 30 years old before he passed away from an apparent overdose this past Thursday. He was a writer and co-executive producer on Parks and Recreation, where he had worked for years. He also wrote on Danny McBride’s Eastbound and Down for a season, meaning he had a hand in two of the comedic TV shows most beloved by aficionados and critics alike in the 2010s. He also gained notoriety for coining the hashtag-friendly false-modesty phrase “humblebrag,” although he disowned the accompanying phenomenon after writing a book about it.
Wittels was also a gifted stand-up comic who got his big break when he caught Sarah Silverman’s attention, and ended up writing for The Sarah Silverman Program. (He would go on to co-star in the pilot Silverman would eventually make for NBC, although the network ultimately chose to not pick it up for a series run.) Wittels may not have been widely visible as a stand-up–he has no hour specials to his credit–but his joke-writing was solid enough that Scott Aukerman asked him to contribute material to the President Obama episode of Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis, and as you can see from this tweet, his jokes made the cut.
Aukerman had previously featured Wittels on his podcast many times, as did several others, because that decision was a no-brainer. Wittels was a consistent bright spot on podcasts, whether alone or with his only half-joking band Don’t Stop Or We’ll Die. Perhaps it was his comfort with the podcast format that lead him to visit Pete Holmes’s You Made It Weird last November and tell the harrowing story of his addiction to heroin. This revelation was a surprise to many, even though Wittels had carved an identity as a drug-friendly character in his comedy. His love of the band Phish, for instance, seemed to be inextricable from a love of an outrageous cocktail of impairments. When he found heroin, however, he found that he had taken drugs far beyond the level of enjoyment.
Old and new fans of Harris Wittels alike should listen to this episode of Holmes’s show. In addition to painting a stark, cinematic picture of the comedian’s descent into addiction hell, it’s also a showcase for Wittels’s storytelling talents. Over the course of this recounting, Wittels mentions wanting to write a movie about the experience some day. It would be difficult to listen to him tell it and not agree to the following: that he could indeed have written such a movie, that it would have been totally compelling, and that it’s a tragedy he never will get the opportunity to work on that project or any others.
It’s true that every single human being has died and will die, but not every one of us passes away with so many untold ideas and the ability to affect other people’s lives in a positive way. RIP Harris Wittels.