Harris Wittels: Prince of Podcasts
A fan’s guide to five of the late Parks and Recreation writer/producer’s standout podcast appearances.
Harris Wittels was an insanely talented comedian who died on February 19. He was a co-executive producer of Parks and Recreation, and the crew ran a black “We Love You, Harris” card at the end of the show’s seven-season run. People might want to know who he was.
In addition to being a stand-up comedian, writer, producer, coiner of the word “humblebrag,” and drummer, Wittels was also a prolific and hilarious podcast host and guest. Here’s a guide to some of his best shows.
For someone who’d never met him, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Harris Wittels talk. Like, dozens and dozens of hours. In this way, I’m no different from the thousands of other podcast nerds around the world. I was crushed when my girlfriend called me to tell me he’d died (also skeptical—“RIP Harris Wittels” was a macabre running gag in the Earwolf universe). By thirty, he had already written for three of my favorite sitcoms—The Sarah Silverman Program, Eastbound & Down, and Parks and Recreation—and was apparently going to start making movies, creating his own TV shows, and doing more stand-up (and on the east coast!).
Lots of fans have posted beautiful tributes on Twitter, the Earwolf forums, and Reddit. And that’s not to mention some really lovely pieces by journalists and some of Harris’ colleagues like Aziz Ansari and Nathan Rabin. (Aziz’s tribute manages to be nearly equal parts laugh-out-loud funny and tear-jerkingly touching.)
Because he was a member of a small, largely invisible community of comedy writers and didn’t make very many appearances in front of the camera, a lot of folks don’t know anything about this beautiful and troubled weirdo.
A lot of people complain that they don’t know where to start when it comes to podcasts that have hundreds of back episodes; I hope this helps. My goal in this piece is to provide some context and walk uninitiated listeners through a handful of Harris’ best appearances that they might not have heard (even non-fans might have heard his two WTF appearances, so I’m not going to talk about them).
I can assure you of two things: I’ve got a mostly good sense of humor, and Harris is worth your time.
Harris appeared on twenty episodes of Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! (two of which featured his weird-pop, sometimes-comedic-sometimes-serious three-piece band Don’t Stop or We’ll Die). He had his own Earwolf show, Analyze Phish, in which he did his damnedest to persuade co-host Scott Aukerman and a number of guests, like Parks and Rec’s Adam Scott, WFMU’s Tom Scharpling, and Islands’ Nick Thorburn, to like the Vermont jam band whose shows he frequented. (A crazy thing about listening to Wittels’ output is hearing his concert count climb from around sixty in 2009 to about a hundred in late 2014.)
He also showed up on two episodes (one live and one in-studio) of Marc Maron’s popular podcast WTF, and three episodes of You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes (one live, two in-studio). He was also featured on dozens of other lesser-known but equally solid ’casts. (Thanks to redditor jesuz for his list of Wittels’ podcast appearances, which was a huge help in writing this.)
I’m going to take these episodes chronologically, highlighting particularly funny and/or weird and/or emotional moments from Harris’ extensive recorded catalog.
Our introduction to Harris initially aired (virtually) on December 10, 2010, and also features legendary standup Eddie Pepitone (in character as a dock worker) and Aukerman’s CBB television show sidekick/bandleader Reggie Watts. This is a fine foray into Harris’ unique blend of observational humor, bizarre wordplay, and just really solid one-liners (“Just call half-and-half one”). I’ve chosen this episode because Reggie is so disarming and warm—totally palatable for non-listeners and difficult to dislike.
It’s early enough in the show’s run that everything still feels fresh and new, but it’s deep enough into the catalog that the Phone Corner thing has begun firing on all anti-comedy cylinders.
This was the first thing I listened to after I learned that Harris had died, if that does anything for you. Originally released on August 29, 2011, “Farts and Pro” has achieved legendary status among fans. Aukerman here hosts his bro Adam Scott, stand-up/writer/actor/podcaster/one of the greats Chelsea Peretti, and Harris, all of whom worked on Parks and Recreation at the time. It’s gleefully silly, and these performers feed off and heighten one another’s weirdness in such a charming way. An improv scene early in the episode — in which Adam Scott and Harris play Bryan Pieces and Jack Sjunior (employees of Carl’s Lumber) — is a model for the fiercely committed, dry-but-cracking-at-the-seams anti-comedy that Wittels helped to popularize on network television. (Aukerman has often said that he tries to facilitate a “no, but” style of improv on his show to throw performers off, rather than the popular “yes, and” style that depends upon teamwork and collaboration.)
This episode also spawned three sequels, the last of which the crew recorded on February 11 of this year. Called “NOT Farts and Procreation 4,” this one turned out to be the last show Wittels recorded. It opens with a touching note from Aukerman eulogizing his friend and closes with a compilation of some of Harris’ best moments from his many Earwolf appearances.
Not only was Wittels tight with Aukerman, he was also very close with the Earwolf chief’s wife, Kulap Vilaysack (he often dogsat their Boston terrier Rocky). Kulap (aka Ku-Ku) is the co-host, along with comedian/rapper Howard Kremer, of Who Charted? This show — which uses music and movie charts and lists as a jumping-off point for conversations with guests — saw Harris sit in five times, with none better than “Bizarro.”
Released in February 2013, this was a long awaited episode for chartists (fans), in which Howard and Kulap swap places: Kremer becomes “chart keeper,” while Kulap takes on hosting duties. Harris is in fine form here. He talks about his slight obsession with One Direction, defends The Life Aquatic from detractors (while attacking The Royal Tenenbaums), shares his recipe for Chili’s-style nachos (the secret is apparently a combination of Sargento mild cheddar and Monterey Jack), and explains why saxophones don’t ruin songs that already had a cheesy vibe before their sax solos. The chemistry among these three is off-the-charts, which may be why this is one of the longer Whooch eps out there.
In March 2014, Harris was the first person not named Scott to appear on this show. In fact, this was his first Earwolf guest spot since May of the previous year. This concept for this show is admittedly a weird one: it claims to be a “comprehensive and encyclopedic compendium of all things U2,” but almost never is. In fact, over its twenty-episode run, Adam Scott and Scott Aukerman have spent more than a few hours talking about anything but U2. They even dedicated an entire episode to the 2000s alternative rock band Staind (featuring comic Todd Glass—obviously they called it “Staind Glass”).
“The Joshua Tree,” as with all UTU2TM? episodes, starts off earnest enough, but derails pretty early. Harris’ main U2 complaint is that they just sound dated to him (“It’s all very Breakfast Club soundtracky”), and at one point, he says in exasperation at the Edge’s guitar noodling, “This is ridiculous! And I like Phish!” Though Harris only hangs out with the Scotts for about an hour, he later returns for the UTU2TM? “Commentary Special,” in which three former guests—the other two being filmmaker Lance Bangs and comedian/dandy Paul F. Tompkins—return to provide audio commentary on the first episode of the podcast (I know, I know).
This brings us to a weird point in Harris’ podcasting career. In a final-act twist few listeners could have foreseen, Analyze Phish — whose premise seemed pretty light-hearted at first — ends up being a record of Wittels’ first experience with recovery.
As he tells it, he bails on work at Parks mid-day to join Aukerman, Vilaysack, Paul F. Tompkins, and others on an SUV-limo ride to the Hollywood Bowl to see Phish play a tour-leg-ending show. Chunks of the episode were recorded at that August 2013 concert, but as Wittels explains in a dark intro, he sat on the material for almost a year after a stint in rehab for an opiate addiction.
“This Phish show we went to is probably my rock bottom,” he explains. “I took a lot of drugs for a long time and then I went to this Phish show and then my boss got very mad.” He goes on to call himself “a shitty employee” and say that he should have been fired, adding in a deadpan aside, “Listen. If you’re funny, you can do whatever you want guys. That’s the lesson here.” Aukerman is quick to temper this sentiment, however, noting that they should not be “so cavalier about […] taking drugs and going to these shows.” After Wittels’ big reveal, Aukerman is quick to congratulate him on his sobriety, noting that many of his friends have seen a dramatic change in his focus and reliability at work.
The rest of the episode oscillates wildly between the goofiness of two guys unself-consciously gushing about Phish (about the extended jam on the song “Harry Hood”: “It’s good; it’s funky!”) and the memory that—oh, yeah—this night landed Harris in rehab.
All of this brings us to the episode that’s gotten a lot of attention since Wittels’ death. He’d already been on two episodes of YMIW, but this one — which Nerdist put out on November 19, 2014 — is heavy-duty. It’s also the only actual interview to make this list.
Speaking to the high-spirited Holmes (who manages to stay mostly quiet, itself a rarity), Wittels reveals that he’d broken up with a long-term girlfriend. She and her father, both Scientologists, staged an intervention, which led to Harris being snuck into a Scientology Celebrity Center for treatment. He put down a $700 deposit to go towards Narconon (the Church of Scientology’s substance abuse treatment program), signed a contract, and promptly bounced and never went back. He then did his first stay at a Malibu rehab facility and “almost immediately” relapsed — ramping up his pill intake to around fifteen a day once his thirty days in treatment elapsed.
That’s when he starts injecting heroin. His story about scoring in MacArthur Park (via a needle exchange) is scary, but he manages to turn these traumatizing experiences into serious, cathartic belly laughs. From the way he speaks about his sobriety at the end of this episode (after talking about his second stay in rehab, this time in Oregon), he sounds self-aware:
“I’m just taking it a lot more seriously now, because I felt like I can’t—if I go out again—now that it’s shooting heroin, I could die. That’s it. It’s not fun anymore. It’s like life and death now. And I don’t want to do that to my parents, I don’t want to do it to myself. So I’m taking it more seriously now and I’m in a good place.”
“I feel good, I feel hopeful, I feel optimistic, I feel clearheaded. And I also feel sometimes like I wanna use drugs still. And that’ll just be there forever and I can’t use them because I have to ‘play the tape out.’ Play the tape out in [my] head of where it got me the last time. I go, ‘Yeah, it would feel really good to get high. But then it takes me back to Skid Row.”
Weird odds and ends:
In November 2010, Wittels spoke with Elizabeth Laime and Andy Rosen on their podcast Totally Laime. The vibe of this interview is super relaxed; Harris talks about Phish, the prevalence of the phrase “Asian chicks” (as opposed to “Asian women”), and all is right in the world.
In April 2013, Wittels talked about excrement (almost exclusively) on Doodie Calls. Highlights include stories of his school- and office-induced irritable bowel syndrome. Also, sadly, he details how terrible it is to move one’s bowels after a week or so on painkillers (“It feels like a cactus” — gross).
One of Harris’ darkest interviews comes on a June 2013 episode of the DVDASA podcast, hosted by artist David Choe and adult performer Asa Akira. I can’t recommend listening to this episode in full, because there’s a lot of coarseness and grossness. But Choe met Harris while Choe was in rehab for a gambling problem, and the two worked on making a TV show about his life. Choe explains that when they’d met, about a year before this taping, Harris was taking about an OxyContin a day, but by the time of this release he was up to around three. Harris admitted — with some prompting — that he had a problem, but he seemed really confident that he could wean himself off drugs over time. Choe told him, point blank, that getting clean would be nearly impossible without professional help, but Akira (herself a former OxyContin abuser) told Wittels he’d be able to handle it on his own. Knowing what we know now, that Harris was only months away from rehab, makes this two-hours-plus interview pretty brutal listening.
In October 2013, Wittels guested on Weird Adults with Little Esther. He makes a joke about his drug use (“I haven’t done drugs. Since last night.” — this was probably recorded after his first rehab stint and relapse) but declares that his speaking about controlled substances — or Phish — on a podcast has become hacky. The rest of the interview is pretty funny, including two mortifying music-related stories (one of which includes getting upstaged at an Alkaline Trio concert by a fifteen-year-old drummer).
(At risk of glorifying drug usage, which I’m trying not to do,) Harris also performed on a live episode of the video podcast Getting Doug with High, alongside host Doug Benson and fellow guests Eric André, Rory Scovel, Jonah Ray, and Steve Agee. While Wittels and Scovel are hilarious on this ep (and so is André in that weird non-sequitur way of his), the show kind of falls apart as a whole. André shows up late (with a friend’s dog in tow?) and Agee and Ray get so high they lose the ability to speak. However, it’s worth watching for Harris’ one-liners (“Is this where we do our weed bits?”) and for his weird Dorf impression.
And last, but certainly not least: the YouTube user whatsuphotdog has compiled a playlist of all of the Harris’ Phone Corner bits he performed on Comedy Bang! Bang! Check those out. I promise that you’ll laugh.
And if there’s anything to be learned from Harris’ final podcast appearance: “mot*******ers wanna laugh.”
While I’m at it, here are some of Harris’ recent tweets that I think are real funny.
(Here are all of Harris’ tweets, if you’ve got a few minutes. Thanks to redditor fireworksordie.)
Lastly: over the past few days, some of the Parks crew have been tweeting about the Harris Wittels Fund, which will go to benefit students at his alma mater, the High School of the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, Texas. If you’re feeling it, make a contribution. If not, that’s fine, too.