Appreciating Harris Wittels, Without Getting Too Much Into A #Humblebrag #RIP

The first time I met Harris Wittels, he was all of 21, and baring it all onstage at a naked comedy show. The next time I saw Wittels, he was a New Face at Montreal’s prestigious Just For Laughs festival. The third time? It could have been any number of places, and it doesn’t really matter which, because this isn’t about me, and even if I try to keep humblebragging about my associations with the young comedian, he never would have given me the satisfaction of bestowing me with a #humblebrag. By now, anyhow, he’d long moved past that hashtag project to bigger, bolder, funnier projects onstage, online and on TV. And now he’s dead.

His assistant found his body inside his home, victim of a suspected overdose. The Los Angeles Police Department confirmed the first part; withheld an official cause of death until the L.A. County coroner’s office completes an autopsy. But we all know the truth. Wittels had spoken openly about his drug addictions on popular podcasts such as WTF with Marc Maron and You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes.

And it won’t change how young he was and how much he still could have accomplished.

Wittels was only 30.

Born April 20, 1984, Wittels grew up in Houston and shipped up to Boston to attend Emerson College, where a choice to enter comedy and show business is such a popular one that the small college famously has no football team but does have a separate campus in Hollywood and a nickname it owns proudly as “The Emerson Mafia” for getting grads connected and made with Hollywood gigs. Wittels was confident enough he’d succeed in both to introduce all of himself to me at that naked comedy show I was reviewing for The Boston Herald that night at ImprovBoston in Cambridge in 2005.

That confidence continued as he made the exclusive New Faces in 2008, and was the only one of that club to call me out publicly in the Montreal airport for my review. There he was, lying down on the terminal floor with his own laptop, sitting next to Todd Glass, this 24-year-old telling me I was unduly harsher to him than to the others in his group. In that moment, I didn’t recall what words I’d used or chosen to exclude, but offered to take another look at it. What I wrote: “Harris Wittels suffered from an unfortunate microphone malfunction, but recovered well enough to deliver a ballsy routine that even the band used as a callback, to hilarious effect on an unsuspecting Giraldo later in the show.” And then, in a festival recap afterward, I included him with additional info and promoted the adjective, saying he “delivered the ballsiest set, ending a routine that included misnamed bands and masturbation issues with a joke about racism.” Still, all about the balls with this kid.

Regardless, Wittels’s star continued to rise.

The following summer, he showcased twice for cable TV, Showtime’s Live Nude Comedy and Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham, and won a writing job for NBC’s Parks and Recreation just in time for that sitcom to gloriously leap out of its first-season hole — literally. On Parks, Wittels began as a writer but — as the cast and creator joked in a second-season Paley Center panel — they’d try to get writers like him onscreen, and did. Harris played “Harris,” one of two employees of Pawnee’s Animal Control.

Wittels rose up the ranks behind the camera, too, from writer to producer to co-executive producer by the seventh and final season of Parks. The sitcom’s series finale airs next Tuesday.

Wittels could have, should have, would have enjoyed any opportunities he’d want to pursue in show business following the end of Parks.

The industry had taken full notice of him by 2011, when he landed on that year’s Comics to Watch list by Variety.

He’d served as a consulting producer on the third season of HBO’s Eastbound & Down, and wrote the Chapter 15 episode.

He’d turned making fun of false modesty into an art from, then a trending topic, a Grantland column and finally a book in 2012.

Meanwhile, he was a reliable contributor to Comedy Bang! Bang!, both the IFC series (appearing in a couple of episodes), and chipping in regularly to the podcast edition of CBB. His standing feature, initially called Harris’s Phone Corner but more wildly and widely popular as his Foam Corner, called for him to read joke ideas off of his phone for host Scott Aukerman and his assorted guests to judge them. This one from Episode XI, for example: “I want to open a Jamaican/Irish/Spanish small-plate breakfast restaurant, and call it Tapas The Morning To Ja.”

Hear the rest of Harris’s ideas from that episode:

Wittels enjoyed his own place on Aukerman’s Earwolf podcast network with “Analyze Phish,” wherein Wittels tried in each episode to convince Aukerman to love or learn to love Phish as much as he loved them. Wittels also took his case to others, including Adam Scott and Tom Scharpling.

He performed music, too. But as the drummer with Paul Rust and Michael Cassady in their self-described “piano-weirdo-pop” band, Don’t Stop or We’ll Die, which crafted songs such as “I Got A Perm For Our Camping Trip,” The trio was supposed to perform next weekend at the UCB Sunset venue. Who wouldn’t have enjoyed hearing them get the party jumping with “Once in Awhile,” right!

But his biggest break, perhaps, came before almost all of that, in 2007.

That’s when he had his first writing credit for The Sarah Silverman Program on Comedy Central. He’d be credited on multiple episodes more through 2010. And in 2012, Silverman chose Wittels to co-star in her NBC sitcom pilot, Susan 313.


The network passed on ordering Susan 313 to series, but later allowed Silverman to put the pilot online. At least for a while.

As news broke of Wittels’s death, comedians offered their outpourings of grief on social media in wave after wave of struggling to come to terms with what had just happened, despite many of them knowing and having heard him talk about going to rehab multiple times. Some looked through his Twitter feed for jokes they particularly loved and wanted to share once more their own legions of Twitter followers. Some urged their followers to love one another and say so. Others stepped up to offer encouragement for any of their followers who may be sick and suffering from addiction. Because addiction is a disease that wants you dead. If you ask for help, there are people who will jump in and love you when you think you’re unworthy of it, and they will show you that there is a solution. But you have to ask for it. You have to want it.

Parks star Amy Poehler happened to be speaking at a Variety industry event and chose to mention his death. “I’m sharing it with you because life and death live so close together, and we walk that fine line everyday,” she said, “When things happen in our lives, we turn to the people that we love…and we lean on people, in a hope that we will ease our pain.”

Eventually, Silverman offered a few words of her own on Twitter.

Only hours before Wittels died, he performed onstage at The Meltdown Show in Hollywood produced by Emily V. Gordon. “He was Emily’s favorite stand up to watch,” wrote Kumail Nanjiani, her husband, comedian/actor and co-host of Comedy Central’s The Meltdown stand-up series. “She got so excited whenever she booked him for meltdown. He did it last night.”

Steve Agee, one of Wittels’s friends who co-starred on The Sarah Silverman Program, was at this week’s Meltdown show. Agee noted on Twitter one of the observations from Wittels’s stand-up set: “We’re all trying to avoid thinking about death, that’s why we get excited about these stupid, human interactions.”

It was a running theme for Wittels in his onstage and online musings.

Casual Harris Wittels.

A photo posted by The Meltdown w/ Jonah & Kumail (@meltdown_show) on

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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3 thoughts on “Appreciating Harris Wittels, Without Getting Too Much Into A #Humblebrag #RIP

  1. This is upsetting. The last memory is of the eye-popping stories he shared on Pete Holmes YMIW. You’d like to think by purging stories on such a confessional show that would help. It’s not that easy. Hang in there people.

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