Harris made the rest of us look bad. He was the funniest. He was the coolest. He had the most creative, inventive, limitless mind that was perpetually working. He was never fully present in any single moment but always functioning on multiple levels — always thinking and revising, always surveying the room for new material, always typing a new joke on his iPhone or finger pecking furiously away on his laptop. He was a true and tremendous talent who accomplished more in 30 years than most people accomplish in a lifetime. If there’s anything positive that has come out of this horrific week, it’s that my family and I have been able to witness the enormous impact that Harris made on the world. We have always been proud of him. We have always shamelessly bragged about him to whomever would listen, but because he was so humble and casual about his career, we didn’t have any idea that he was so revered. The internet is bustling with tweets, blogs, articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos that paint a stunningly beautiful portrait of Harris, the public figure. So, I want to focus on who Harris was to our family: a son, an uncle, and a brother. It’s hard for me to get up here and do this today, but according to Wittels folklore, I spoke for Harris for the first 5 years of his life — my parents actually thought he was mute — so I think it’s only appropriate for me to speak for him today as we gather together to say goodbye.
Harris was the cutest baby in the whole wide world. He really could have won a contest. When I look at old photos, I can totally see his face in the face of my baby. They have the exact same expressive eyebrows. Even though I tortured him to no end when we were kids and constantly forced him to dress up in women’s clothing and wear makeup, he always remained my sweet and loyal sidekick. He used to suck his third and fourth fingers relentlessly and drag around this little white blanket everywhere he went like Linus. The only time it wasn’t in his possession is when he had it in the freezer. He liked it best when it was really cold.
Harris always said we had the perfect childhood, and we really did. We went to summer camp and Disneyworld; cruised the Carribean and did cowboy stuff at the Mayan Dude Ranch. Once, in an attempt to make us civilized, my mom sent Harris and me to charm school. At one point during the culminating recital, we confidently picked up the water bowls meant for hand-washing and drank out of them like animals — Harris loved that story.
One of the most beloved traditions in our Jewish family was to celebrate Christmas morning. Every Christmas Eve, we would make s’mores in the fireplace, leave cookies and milk out for Santa, and wake up super early the next morning to a living room full of loot and an epic letter from the man himself celebrating all of our accomplishments from the previous year. Santa (AKA Ellison Wittels) was always mildly illiterate and sexually explicit about his relationship with Mrs. Claus. We always looked forward to hearing what deranged Santa had to say in his letters, and Harris never missed a Christmas because of them.
From an early age, Harris was a fearless, thrill-seeking crazy person. He really seemed to lack that part of the brain that causes a normal person to hesitate or embarrass. And, he never knew when to stop. There are hundreds of stories that exemplify his utter disregard for boundaries, rules, limits, or social conventions — any one of his friends sitting in this room have at least ten in their back pockets — but one of my favorites is when he was in the 10th grade and he was arrested in Lake Jackson for being an idiot and instead of being scared like a normal teenager would be, he handcuffed himself to the space heater in the police station and drove the constables completely insane. They literally called my parents and begged them to come pick him up as soon as possible. Harris was a force even too powerful for the Lake Jackson police.
Harris believed that he was right about all sort of things — most of them trivial — but he debated his positions tirelessly and with a ridiculous amount of fervor. He was an epic and infamous arguer and he could get deep, deep under your skin. I once heard him engage in a four hour screaming match with a roommate over whether a movie we’d just seen was good or bad. It started in the lobby of the theatre, followed us into the car and, ultimately, moved into the house where it continued all night. The roommate literally threatened to move out as a result of this ordeal — over an opinion. “Analyze Phish” was just the most Harris podcast of all time because he was always obsessively determined to make you see things his way. I obviously never liked the band Phish either because why would I, but for literally decades, Harris refused to accept this as a possibility. One year when I was living in New York, he finally wore me down enough to get me to a show at Coney Island that he swore would change my life. It didn’t. He wouldn’t give up. A couple of years later, he swore that the String Cheese Incident was totally my jam and dragged me to a show at Radio City Music Hall. It still didn’t work. To Harris, this meant that there must be something wrong with me. I can hear him say “Steph” in that way that only he says that word with so much disappointment and aggravation.
Harris went to over a hundred Phish shows in his lifetime because that’s the way he did things. He didn’t just kind of do them; he did them passionately and excessively. When he was a toddler, he would watch Pee Wee Herman’s Big Adventure all day everyday. The movie would end and he would demand that my mom rewind it to the beginning. It was on a never-ending loop. When he was in elementary school, my mom would give him his own shopping cart in the grocery store and turn him loose — he would fill it to the brim with the worst, most disgusting foods. He maintained these culinary tastes into adulthood. The greasier and more horrible for you, the better. McDonalds, Chili’s, and movie theatre snack bars were his true loves, and he always ordered enough food for everyone in the building. Anyone who’s ever dined with Harris has witnessed this strange behavior. He doesn’t just order one item like a normal person. He orders the entire menu minus a couple of items that he convinces whomever he’s with to order because it’s the best thing there. Then, he ultimately eats three bites and takes the rest home in doggie bags to finish up in the middle of the night. Even as a kid, he loved to eat food in the middle of the night. I will always picture Harris in front of the TV at 2 in the morning, wearing flannel pajama pants, a Phish t-shirt and hoodie, watching The Real World or something equally inane, and eating out of to-go containers with his fingers. He was so passionate about leftovers. I can remember this one time at our Dumfries house — he’d just gotten the Freaks and Geeks box set, and I came home around 4:00 in the afternoon. I sat down for a minute and was still sitting there watching this amazing little show with him at 4:00 in the morning. It’s filed away as one of my favorite memories — just sitting with my brother, watching TV for twelve hours straight.
Harris was always introducing me to the coolest things. He has been my entertainment tour guide for decades, which is ironic as it was my mission when we were kids to make him cool. Well, mission accomplished and then he totally left me in the dust. Every time I have ever asked him if he’d seen this or heard that, he had and had a definitive opinion about it.
A few weeks ago, my husband and I put the baby to bed and needed something to watch, so naturally, I texted Harris for instructions. The exchange went like this:
Me: What should Mike and I watch?
Harris: That is such a crazy question. What genre?
Me: I dunno. Something entertaining.
Harris: Watch The Interview. It’s funny.
Me: What about Black Mirror? Have you see it?
Harris: Ooooo that’s the best show ever. Yea do that. You’ll watch them all tonight. Best writer in the game.
He was right. Obviously.
Harris and I had so many of these little exchanges all day long about all sorts of things, both trivial and significant. Because I’ll never get to have one of these exchanges again, I keep doing Gmail searches through old emails and chats, reading text messages, listening to voicemails — I just don’t want to let him go and I know I’m not alone in this. Just a quick scroll through Facebook brings up old podcasts, stand up sets, and TV episodes that feature Harris doing what he did best — making people laugh.
He was loved for his comedic genius, yes, but people also admired who he was as a person. He was as raw, honest, and genuine as they come. And, even though he could be exasperatingly stubborn, he didn’t have a malicious bone in his body. He had an innate charm that drew people in and was able to make everyone in the room feel like his best friend. He was kind and forgiving, generous and compassionate. He really seemed to give people the benefit of the doubt. He understood that on a basic level, we’re all the same. We’re all human and we’re all just doing the best we can. In his own words: “Lets stop finding a new witch of the week and burning them at the stake. We are all horrible and wonderful and figuring it out.”
Harris was exactly that — wonderful and horrible and everything in between all at the same time. He was as complicated and contradictory as they come. He enjoyed expensive multi-course meals and Hungry Man frozen dinners. He appreciated cinematic masterpieces and DVR’ed every season of The Bachelor. He had a beautifully decorated home but often had a pink bottle of Mr. Bubble Bath perched on side of the tub. He was always surrounded by friends and loved ones but often felt lonely. He made fun and funny a guiding priority in his life, yet he struggled with sadness.
It pains me that our daughter won’t ever get to know her amazing Uncle Harris who loved her more than anything. He just worshipped her. Every day, he requested new photos and videos and consumed them voraciously. He would watch them hundreds of times and always wanted more. With every new video, he would say “Omg best one yet.” The last video I sent him was her walking for the first time. He praised her efforts and commented on her ghetto booty. Harris would have been the most amazing and loving father — in a way, my family mourns not only for him, but for the loss of his future family to be. He wanted a family so badly. He talked about it all the time — his dream to someday be a husband and father.
He seemed to innately possess the kind of patient wisdom that parenthood demands. Last year, when Iris was diagnosed with hearing loss, and I went totally off the rails depressed, Harris was the only one who was able to put it all in perspective for me — he calmly explained that she is a baby, which seems obvious, but at the time, I really needed that reminder. She was not at all bummed out. She was cute and happy. I was sad because I was seeing the situation from my perspective, but this would always be normal to her, and she was totally chill with it. Like usual, he broke things down in the simplest way that managed to cut through all the bullshit and get right to the heart of the matter. Whenever I would start to freak out about test results or if she would be picked on in middle school, he would remind me to take it one day at a time. He’d tell me to stop future-tripping; to focus on today — that today was all we had for sure.
I want to say that we will never get over this loss, that it has ruined our family, torn us apart, and left us all bloody and begging for mercy — that our hearts have left our bodies and will be buried in the ground today right along with him. That there will always be a gaping, painful hole in our family and a feeling that something isn’t right, that no holiday, vacation, meal, or conversation will ever be the same. Harris was my parents’ second child and their only son — my mom’s favorite horror movie watch partner and my dad’s own personal studio executive to whom he would pitch a bottomless pit of show ideas. He was my only brother, my original best friend, and my most trusted confidant. With each other, we always had the freedom to just come as we were when no one was watching — neurotic, obsessive, messy, anxious, sad. There was never any judgment on either side — just unbridled honesty, even when it was hard to stomach.
So, I want to say that I don’t know how I will continue to exist in the world in the same way ever again. But, I know if Harris were listening — and I have to pray that he is out there listening, continuing to be our tour guide through the cosmos — that he would tell me to stop future tripping; to just be in this moment today.
So, I will say that today, I miss my brother more than I can possibly explain. Today, I am devastated and sad and angry and empty. Today, I long to bring him back and fix things and try to understand. Today, I would pay a million dollars to hear him laugh or say “hi, sister;” to see that one self-conscious smile that he always wore. Today, I love my brother with all of my being.
And, I always will.