Wittels established himself in shows such as Parks & Recreation and Master of None – before dying at just 30. Those who knew him best tell his story
Harris Wittels was always lucky. He was the boy who would lose his wallet in Boston, only for it to be returned by post, with cash and everything, to his parents’ place in Texas; the guy who would leave his mobile in a New York taxi, only for the driver to track him down to return it. So it felt inevitable to those who knew him that when he turned up in Los Angeles as a 21-year-old wanting to make it in comedy, he was, almost immediately, hired by some of the most beloved TV shows of the time.
“He just seemed to be one of those golden boys that everything went right for,” says comedian Scott Aukerman, who put Wittels on his influential LA-based podcast, Comedy Bang! Bang!, three months after he arrived in the city. Friends and colleagues put this luck down to two factors. The first was Wittels’ likability. Amy Poehler says: “He was a person who people were drawn to. He had a natural laid-back southern charisma, and when someone’s quick-witted there can be meanness underneath, but Harris was the opposite. He was smart in his comedy but so sweet and gentle as a person.”
But in terms of his career, the most important factor was talent: Wittels was so gifted at comedy writing that, by his late 20s, he had achieved the kind of success comedians twice his age would throw themselves into the ocean for.
“He was a star immediately,” says Sarah Silverman, who hired him to work on her eponymous show when he was 23. “He was just this kid, but so confident and hilarious, who won all the arguments in the writers’ room.” A typical Wittles sketch, which makes Silverman laugh as she retells it more than a decade after he wrote it, involves one character consoling a bereaved friend by saying: “He died doing what he loved best.” “He loved dying?” another friend asks incredulously. “He wrote so much stupid funny stuff for me it still kills me when I think of it, which I do all the time,” she says.
From there, he was hired as a staff writer on the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation, eventually becoming the show’s supervising producer. He was so beloved there that the producer, Michael Schur, and the other writers came up with a recurring role for him as Harris, the dopey stoner animal control guy, a loving spoof of Wittel’s actual personality. “It was obvious from the moment I met him that this guy was just phenomenally talented. He had a unique voice. There was no limit to how far he could have gone. He had no ceiling,” says Schur.
“I could always spot Harris’s jokes in a script, because they were the funniest and craziest ones, and that’s what I always push myself to achieve, to make jokes that are original like Harris’s always were,” adds Aziz Ansari, who was a close friend.
Wittels became a podcast star in an era when the comedy landscape was starting to shift from network TV and movies to the internet. Handsome in an appealingly nerdy way, he had a sideways sense of humour that worked perfectly online – on Vines and podcasts. He coined the term “humblebrag”, which became a Twitter feed retweeting egregious examples of people affecting self-deprecation but really just bragging (for instance: “Oh dear. Don’t know what to do at the airport. Huge crowd, but I’ll miss my plane if I stop and do photos … oh dear don’t want to disappoint” from Stephen Fry), and then a book. “And it got in the dictionary! How many 26-year-olds come up with words that get in the dictionary? That was so Harris,” laughs writer and producer Alan Yang, who worked with Wittels on Parks and Recreation. “I know people will say: ‘Oh, you’re just saying this because of what happened,’ but I swear this is the truth: Harris was basically the funniest person I ever met.”
Wittels also wrote for Eastbound & Down, opened for Louis CK and wrote jokes for President Obama when he appeared on Zack Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns. But despite his success as a writer, what Wittels really wanted to do was perform his own material as an actor. In early 2015, the opportunity arrived. He was working as a writer on Ansari and Yang’s upcoming Netflix show, Master of None, when he got the news: he would play Ansari’s best friend, a role created for him. This was going to be his big breakthrough, and had things gone to plan he would, without question, be the rising star that people would be talking about now, the cool new alternative comedian creeping into the mainstream.
But six days after he got his dream job, Wittels ran out of luck. On 19 February 2015, he overdosed on heroin and died alone at home. He was 30.
The relationship between comedy and heroin is long, and littered with early mortality: John Belushi, Lenny Bruce, Chris Farley, Mitch Hedberg. But Wittels doesn’t really fit into that group. There was nothing dark, angry or punk about him.
“Harris was someone it was joy to be around, a 5ft 6in, geeky Jewish guy with the self-confidence of Matthew McConaughey,” says Yang when we meet up in a bar in New York. “It wasn’t just that he was a high-functioning addict, which he absolutely was, but he never stopped being himself. Even when he was in rehab that final year he would send me jokes about people he had met there and I’d be like: ‘Dammit, dude, you’re not supposed to do that!’”
Wittels grew up in a close family in Houston, the son of Ellison, a doctor, and Maureen, a teacher who gave up her job to spend more time with her children, Stephanie and Harris. “I just loved being with my kids,” says Maureen. “Harris was such a loving little guy. I remember once when he was 12 or 13, I was walking down the hall with him at his school and he took my hand. He didn’t care about all his friends seeing him. I can feel his hand in mine now, as if he were with me.”
When he was 15, he begged his parents to get him tickets to see Louis CK in Houston. The three Wittels went together and, afterwards, they spotted CK in the bar. “Harris went up to him and said: ‘Hey man, you were terrific, but I need to give you some notes.’ Louis CK just looked at him – all five foot nothing of him – and cracked up. But Harris was dead serious. I don’t think Harris ever told Louis that story, even after they became friends as adults,” Maureen smiles.
These days, Ellison and Maureen live in a high-rise apartment in Houston, having moved out of the family home seven years ago. Inside, is a long hallway which Maureen divided in two when they moved in: one half is for family photos, and pictures of Wittels catch him in 10-year gaps. Here he is as an elfin big-eyed boy leaning against his mother and hugging his sister. Ten years later, he is photographed being dropped off at college by his proud parents. Ten years after that he is a goofy twentysomething man in a Chinese restaurant, embraced by his family.
Maureen set aside the other half of the wall for photos of her children’s future families. But in what was supposed to be the spot for Wittels’ adult years are photos of Maureen at the 2015 and 2016 Emmys, when she went in her son’s stead when he was posthumously nominated for Parks and Recreation and Master of None. “How sad is that,” Maureen asks, her tone combining heartbreak with astonishment at the absurdity.
Maureen has spent a lot of time trying to understand what happened. She was shocked when Stephanie told her that she and Harris experimented with drugs as teenagers – pot, mushrooms, acid – but, as Stephanie said to her, “It was just normal teenage stuff, Mom. And I’m fine, right?”
“But of course, you look back and think, what was I not seeing? What was wrong with that picture?” says Maureen.
When Wittels arrived in LA in 2005, the trend in comedy clubs was for clever one-liners, perfected by performers such as BJ Novak, and newcomers tended to copy that. “But Harris would do these weird long set-ups and was so good at telling jokes that were simultaneously dumb and smart. He already had his own voice, so he made a splash,” Aukerman tells me when we meet in the Comedy Bang! Bang! office, in Hollywood. Almost every big name in comedy has appeared on the podcast, from Seth Rogen to Bob Odenkirk, and most have autographed the wooden table at which we are sitting. Written right in front of me, in fat marker pen, is “Harris”.
Silverman says: “The smartest thing I ever did was hire Harris, and the second smartest thing I did was realise 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.” One of the last things Wittels and Silverman wrote together was a skit they originally wrote for Drake called Cops Cum Dicks and Flying, which is even more bizarre than its title suggests.
“But Drake never wrote back, which I thought was weird, as he’s a sweetheart. But Harris said: ‘Maybe it’s because we spray him with loads of dog sperm in the script, and I don’t think rappers are cool with being covered in sperm,’” Silverman laughs. “But Harris was like, ‘Forget it, let’s not change it, let’s get someone who gets it.” They then sent it to Seth Rogen, who “couldn’t say yes fast enough.”
Wittels joined Parks and Recreation at the beginning of season two, bringing his quirky sensibility to what was then an almost blandly traditional sitcom. He became known among the other writers as “the king of chuffa”– “chuffa” being the random lines of dialogue characters say at the beginning of a scene before getting into the storyline. Most of the time, these are forgettable pleasantries, but Wittels’ distinctively clever and dopey jokes (“Your favourite kind of cake can’t be birthday cake, that’s like saying your favourite kind of cereal is breakfast cereal.” “I love breakfast cereal!”) helped to give the show its sweet weirdness.
“Harris brought an interesting combination of sensitivity and judgment to the show, and his voice came out a lot in Chris Pratt and Aziz Ansari’s characters,” says Poehler. “Not just because he was a young man and they’re young male characters, but he was so good at capturing his generation’s obsessions with, among other things, pop culture.”
As he became more successful, he bought a house in Los Feliz, Los Angeles. It looked, his friends noted, a lot like his childhood home in Houston. “Which was hilarious,” says Yang, “because he was in this very grownup house, but still living like a teenager, playing in his band, throwing parties. Harris was also kinda gross – he’d only eat fast food, and he was obsessive about going to every single Phish concert. But everyone, especially women, loved him. Dude was too charismatic for his own good.”
“Harris could coast because he was so talented,” adds Schur. “He basically got away with murder for a long time because he could produce great work on 50% effort.”
Wittels had long been into drugs – that was no secret. He joked about being stoned at work and he later said he was high the whole time he wrote the Humblebrag book (“Which is in itself a humblebrag,” he added.)
“What changed was when he hurt his back, when he was 26,” his sister Stephanie says. “He’d collapsed on the floor with his back in spasms and went to hospital. They prescribed OxyContin and that’s how everything started.”
The current opioid addiction epidemic is the worst drug crisis in American history. In 2015, the year Wittels died, more than 33,000 people in the US died from opioid overdoses.
Stephanie says: “I remember going to LA to visit Harris when he was about 25, and he needed Vicodin just to relax. He just couldn’t turn off his brain otherwise: he always had a screen in front of his face so he could put down his ideas, and he had a million of them. So when he found OxyContin it must have felt like the perfect way for him to calm himself down.”
Wittels relied on OxyContin to numb personal frustrations: the relationships that didn’t work, the movie scripts that didn’t get optioned, the periods of boredom – all relatively minor hurdles, but ones this golden boy just didn’t have the emotional toolkit to deal with. Quickly, to his shock, he was addicted, and not even he could combine working for a network show with an addiction to OxyContin.
“In late 2014 he handed in a script that was just straight up bad, and he never gave in bad work,” says Schur. “So I said to him: ‘Look, I feel like you’re taking advantage of me now – it’s crossed over to unprofessional.’ To my surprise, he didn’t push back. He apologised, and then he broke down and cried and said he was addicted to drugs. The pills he joked about had become an actual problem.”
Earlier that year, shortly after his niece was born, he had told his parents that he was going to rehab. “And we were worried, of course, but he made it sound like he had just been working too hard and it was all in hand now. We knew nothing,” says Maureen.
He relapsed soon after leaving rehab, and what happened next is a story all too common among opiate addicts:
“I was like, I just want to get high one more time, just to say goodbye to it,” Wittels explained that year on Pete Holmes’s podcast, You Made It Weird. “I decided to make the jump to heroin – I’m not going to shoot it, I’ll just snort it. It’s basically the same thing, and it’s much cheaper. So I was like, ‘Where do I get heroin?’”
This podcast makes for astonishing listening, not just because of Wittels’ brutal honesty, but because he never loses his sense of humour, even as he describes his attempts to buy heroin from homeless people. There is no blackness, and certainly no Pete Doherty-like revelling in his own hedonism. He sounds simply amazed that his life has come to this.
Soon after, he texted Stephanie to say he was going back into rehab because he was addicted to heroin. “I knew it was game over then, because everything Harris did, he did it to extremes, whether it was eating fast food for every meal, or going to see every Phish concert. There was no way this story would end well,” Stephanie tells me.
Some addicts take drugs because they want to die, others take them because they’re trying to find a way to live. Wittels was firmly in the latter camp. Stephanie says: “When I’d talk to him about a friend we’d had who died from an overdose, he’d say: ‘That’s not going to be my story.’ He always had that kinda teenage attitude, sort of like that guy from Jackass, that nothing could hurt him.”
He also never stopped talking about future, such as planning his move to New York to work on Master of None.
Ansari says: “We knew, of course, he’d been in rehab, so I guess it was a risk making him our writer, and then casting him. But as soon as Netflix commissioned the show we knew we wanted him.” Wittels contributed to most of the first series and he wrote many of the jokes most cherished by the show’s fans, including the dating advice to get a woman to text back: send her a photo of a turtle climbing out of a suitcase (“It’s mysterious and girls love mystery, brah”), and an extended riff on the meanings of Eminen’s Lose Yourself.
Yang says: “Harris brought the pure comedy, and it was really valuable to have Harris in the room because you don’t want the show to become to preachy or issue-y or serious, especially in season one, and that was his attitude.”
Wittels went into rehab for the third time in January 2015, and lived in a sober-living facility afterwards. He left the facility on a Tuesday and late on Wednesday night, from his home, he sent Maureen an email: “I found a cool place to live in Manhattan. I feel good!! I am feeling very fortunate. Love you.”
Soon after pressing send, Wittels shot some heroin, overdosed and died. When he was found, his computer was open on Airbnb. He had been looking at New York apartments.
Wittels had barely started his career, but the sense of loss in the comedy world was and remains immense. Louis CK, Wittels’ comedy hero, named the lead character in his new show, Horace and Pete, after him (“Horace Wittels”).
“I just miss him, I was very sad when he died – sorry,” CK said last year on the podcast Bullseye, breaking off, a lump in his throat.
Similarly, my interview with Ansari was originally scheduled to be an hour, but he ends it after 10 minutes: “Oh God, this is too hard. There are too many sad memories. I can’t, I’m sorry,” he says, suddenly choking up.
“He felt like a son to me, he really did,” says Silverman. “I still email him from time to time. I know it’s denial, but I just had to decide that he’s super busy for the rest of my life. But you can only kid yourself for so long.”
“If he were still around he would be a very important person in the world of comedy,” says Schur. “He had a specific comedic voice and the country was so primed for him. And on top of everything, he was just a great guy.”
Wittels would have been 33 on Thursday 20 April – “Same birthday as Hitler,” he loved to point out. To mark it, Stephanie is putting on Harris Phest in Houston, which will include many of Wittels’ favourite things, specifically, Phish songs and comedy. The proceeds will go the Harris Wittels Fund, which his parents set up after his death and which provides scholarships at his old school.
“We have a text chain, the actors from Parks, and his name pops up a lot, memories and things he’d say, just talking about him,” says Poehler. “The fucking bummer about death is that it ends the conversation and Harris loved conversation – arguing about things, coming up with lists, making dumb jokes. But the conversation is just one way now.”
Since Wittels’ death, the trend has continued for blacker, bleaker comedy, not laugh out loud. This was already happening in the last years of his life, and he talked about it with Aukerman the week before he died.
“Harris thought even comedians could be kind of embarrassed about comedy, and they had to make it serious or dark or whatever. He said to me: ‘I just think motherfuckers wanna laugh.’ And he was right. Motherfuckers wanna laugh.”