Harris Wittels died a year ago today. The comedian and writer was only 30. He’s one of far too many victims of addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Last October, surviving family members of Wittels and the late Greg Giraldo — along with comedians and thousands more living in recovery or living with the painful memories of those who didn’t make it — convened in Washington D.C., to unite to face addiction. They met on a Sunday on the National Mall, between the White House and the Washington Monument. They laughed and shared memories the Saturday night beforehand at an all-star comedy benefit.
Mark Lundholm, sober 26 years, joked about having to follow a video about a dead guy, and played straight to the recovery audience. “You’re a great mix of high expectations and low self-esteem,” Lundholm said. The benefit, hosted by Jesse Joyce — who often toured with Giraldo and helped write Giraldo’s Comedy Central Roast jokes — included a mix of performers in recovery, as well as all-stars who lent their services for the effort. Some, like Bill Burr, delivered their standard sets. At one point, Burr cracked: “I can already tell that the shit that bugs me isn’t going to bug you, so this’ll be a weird 20 minutes.” Gary Owen, meanwhile, began his set with bits about his kids in school, versus his own childhood in Ohio — then shifted gears and began tearing up when he spoke about his brother, who died in May 2005 from heroin abuse. Owen specifically asked to join the comedy tribute and the Facing Addiction rally in D.C.
Maureen Wittels, Harris’s mother, read this letter to the crowd. She also graciously shared it with The Comic’s Comic. It’s as poignant today, on the anniversary of Harris’s death, as ever.
On February 19th of this year my son Harris died of a heroin overdose. He died at home in LA alone. He was 30.
I can never again hear his infectious laughter, text or talk with him, see his beautiful face, or feel his embrace or kiss. This is my world now. This is my grief.
When I was informed of his death, I felt as if I had died. Each breath became a struggle and I was not sure how I would survive burying my child. There are times when I am angry and know that anger comes from the knowledge that he will never reach the milestones that boys achieve when they become men. There will be no wife, children, or uncle for my daughter’s little girl. Harris will never cry at my grave as I did at his. I fear that as time passes, I will forget details of my child. That’s really scary!
He had so much to live for. He had become so successful in the comedy world so quickly and was so well respected. He was surrounded with deep love from his family and friends and had achieved so many of the dreams he had worked so hard for.
Heroin ravaged my son. It spiraled out of control. I could not have been more supportive or involved in his addiction. I could not have loved him one ounce more. It’s all about demons that consumed him. He entered rehab three times last year and wanted to be sober with every fiber of his being. The drugs won.
He would never have chosen to leave this kind of devastation behind. The pain his family feels is brutal. It’s never going away. It can’t be fixed.
Standing here tonight brings me comfort. I want to be a part of this solution to this terrible disease. I want other mothers to be spared this pain. I am here tonight to tell you that we must take a stand for our loved ones. No more secrets, lies, or shame. We must band together for strength. Harris was a drug addict. I do not hide from that. As family members and friends, we need to seek new solutions and abide by even tougher truths in order to save our loved ones.
Harris was not some comedy god; he was just a man/boy who loved all people and accepted them with all their flaws. His mission was to make the world laugh and he did it well. I miss that beautiful soul that was my baby boy with all my being.
I want to leave you with some Harris ism’s that seem to sum up his take on life quite nicely.
1. Stop future tripping. All we really have is today.
2. Don’t Humblebrag under any circumstances!
3. All mother fuckers really want to do is laugh.
4. Be kind to everyone on the way up. No one wants to work with an asshole.
5. If you want to be a writer, just go fucking write!
6. We are all wonderful and horrible and trying to figure it out.
A few months before he died, Harris was on a podcast pretending to be making a phone call from heaven and this is how it went:
“Hey, it’s Harris callin’ from heaven. It’s pretty great up here. It’s beautiful for starters. Hitler’s up here, however, for the vegetarianism thing, so callin’ bullshit on that. But other than that it’s pretty cloudy. You sit on them so that’s cool. Oops gotta’ go, ice cream buffet!”
How’s that ice cream son?