Today would have been Harris Wittels’ 33rd birthday. Wittels was a hilarious and beloved comedian, serving as a brilliant writer, executive producer, and actor (as an animal control guy named Harris) on the show Parks & Recreation. For many Live For Live Music followers, he was our favorite tour guide through the cosmos (sorry), cohosting Analyze Phish with Scott Aukerman, a hilarious podcast with noted-phan Harris trying to convince Aukerman throughout the duration of its run to like the band Phish, or at least hate it slightly less. As those unfamiliar begin to dig into his body of work, there’s a sense of familiarity coursing throughout his comedy, with his objectively funny one-liners, casual tone, and ability to bask in the bizarre having won him many fans throughout the course of his short career.
In a recent Guardian article that came out earlier this week, well-known comedians and friends like Aziz Anzari, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Alan Yang, and Louis C. K. as well as family all speak about their experiences with Harris Wittels, recalling both joyful memories of the late comedian as well as his descent into addiction as a high-functioning opiate addict, which eventually killed him in 2015. Silverman says in the interview, “The smartest thing I ever did was hire Harris, and the second smartest thing I did was realize how much I had to learn from him, even though he was 14 years younger than me. . . . He taught me to just write the stuff you love and appeal to the people who love that, and not worry about the rest.”
That carefree and hilarious spirit was a hallmark of his work, with his charming, breezy nature carrying him far, even through the toughest conversation. In 2014, on the heels of a stint in rehab, Harris Wittels appeared on Pete Holmes’ podcast You Made It Weird for the second time. In it, Harris and Holmes earnestly talk about huge existential topics, including a long surreal segment where Harris details how he got started on heroin, simultaneously acknowledging the ridiculous and tragic nature of his experiences while somehow keeping lighthearted tone throughout. The powerful episode has continued to stick with me, even years after I first heard it, and I know that many folks who also never met Harris Wittels feel the same way. A friend of mine told me that listening to that episode during a drive across the country with a sibling is what opened up the conversation about their own drug addiction, more or less starting their process to seek treatment.
There’s a sincerity to Harris’ work that resonates with listeners, and by all accounts from those who were close to him, that was a true extension of who he was. Even after his death, his life continues to impact people for the better, whether it be revisiting his ridiculous “Foam Corner” on Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang Bang, segments in which Harris workshops “pre-Twitter” one-liners he’s written offhandedly (“Wheat Thins? Call me when they’re Wheat THICKS! … Gimme that wheat!”), or opening the door for harder conversations, ones that his death ultimately highlight the necessity for. Anyway, this post is on his birthday and not meant to be a downer; as he once said to Aukerman as to his comedic philosophy, “I just think motherfuckers wanna laugh.”
Today, he is being honored at Harris Phest, a celebratory birthday tribute thrown by his sister that brings together a bunch of the things he loves, including the band Phish. Many of us found Harris Wittels through his love of Phish, and perhaps that’s why we’re particularly endeared to him, relating to his shameless defense of a love of a jamband that a good chunk of the population might not “get.” Steven Hyden also released today a previously unpublished email from Harris Wittels answering two questions: 1) Why do you think Phish is so despised by “outsiders”? and 2) What makes Phish a great band? Harris’s responses are below. Rest in peace, Harris. We love you.
here are my thoughts on your questions:
1) I think we live in a culture in which group mind rules all. We also live in a very stubborn culture and once the group decides its opinion about certain things, it’s hard to reverse course. Britney Spears will always be crazy. Dane Cook will always be a hacky jock comedian. The short-lived show Outsourced will always be racist. But if you look at those things closely, Britney is kinda good again. Dane Cook has some very funny jokes and Outsourced wasn’t as bad as people wanted it to be.
“Phish is a dirty hippy band.” It’s an easy sentence to say to someone at a party to establish common ground. People want to fit in. And to fit in to the cool hipster community, that is the opinion you must have on Phish. But those same people would like Phish if they let their guard down. Those same cool hipsters like Velvet Underground and The Talking Heads and the Beatles. Phish not only pulls its influences from those very bands, but literally plays those bands’ songs on a nightly basis. Personally, I don’t give a shit if Phish gets mainstream acceptance. In fact, I hope it never happens; it’s hard enough to get tickets to shows as is. I would hate to see what would happen if a million more people tried to get in to shows. Luckily it will never happen. People are too stubborn, too cool, too blah. It’s their loss. Phish is a great band to go see with your friends and get fucked up (or stay sober) and dance like an idiot and have the time of your life without judgement.
Also, The Dead had the privilege of living in a time before music blogs, before ravenous internet group-think.
2) Why is Phish the greatest band? For me, Phish is the most fun band on the planet to be obsessed with. They fill that part of the brain that most people reserve for sports stats or Star Wars knowledge. They have a never-ending mythology that you can spend your whole life learning about. They have played a different setlist every show for 30 years, which you can study like a mathematician or methodical serial killer.
Musically, they are four virtuosos who came together against all probability. It’s so insane that these particular four men found each other in 1982 (Page a couple years later). All with their own skillset and taste in music. They combined to form a band that has something for everyone. You like funk? Listen to “Ghost” (I suggest 11-17-97). You want rock? Listen to Carini (I suggest 6-14-00). You want a catchy pop song? listen to “Bouncin around the Room.” Or do you want all of those genres combined? Listen to pretty much any “Fluffhead” or “Harry Hood.”
Phish is a band that anyone can and should be into. They have mastered their instruments and mastered every genre you can possibly play with those instruments.
There is no greater feeling on earth than the lights going down at a Phish show. Because you have no idea what the fuck you are in for. Maybe they’ll play an 8 hour set until sunrise like 12-31-99. Or maybe they’ll play Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon like they did on 11-2-98. Or maybe they’ll fly over the crowd in a giant hot dog like they have done on two occasions.
Once the lights go down, you’re hoping that this will be “the perfect show.” But truth is, they’re all perfect, because they are all a piece in the gigantic, ever-expanding puzzle that is… Phish