The Legacy of Harris Wittels: Comedian, Writer, Friend

Have you ever heard of Harris Wittels?

As I was reading through my open browser tabs this morning (my lazy way of bookmarking sources around the internet I want to return to), I rediscovered an episode of You Made It Weird, a podcast series hosted by Pete Holmes that Wittels was featured in last November. I didn’t recognize Wittels’ name until I read the description and remembered that one of the writers of the popular NBC sitcom, Parks and Recreation, had passed away earlier this year. That writer was Harris Wittels.

From onset, the conversation between Holmes and Wittels is unapologetically dark and honest. The podcast feels like an invitation into their conversation as friends, one of familiar ease peppered with inside jokes and personal details. They’re both engaging as they discuss their attempts to grapple with the reality of death, finding purpose in life, and the tyranny of addiction while skillfully using humor to break the tension time and time again as the discussion progresses.

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Wittels shares his engrossing journey as an addict at length and brings depth to the retelling of his experience with addiction as a son, artist, boyfriend, and friend. You get the sense that Wittels is speaking about his experiences from the safety of his distance to them but learn that he’s a month into the infancy of his sobriety at the time of production. Yet he explains how he became a part of drug culture and progressed from recreationally using prescription painkillers to shooting up heroin with ease.

I’ve never been a witness to addiction in another person’s life.

I recommend listening to this episode if only to hear a first-hand account of the complexities surrounding addiction and the journey to sobriety. However, if you already understand this from personal experience or in witnessing someone you know live in that reality, you don’t need a podcast to associate you with addiction’s capacity for destruction.

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Throughout the episode, Wittels remains disarmingly candid in the way he shares the decisions he made under the impetus of drugs; a will born out of the resistance to experience withdrawal or the emotional fatigue of life. He also shares the financial, relational, and emotional tolls that the fight for sobriety would cost him. Wittels would continue this fight until his overdose earlier this year.

Wittels’ laughter, as it bursts throughout his conversation with Holmes, reminded me of a friend I used to spend many of my high school days with; someone I used to share jokes with while exchanging adolescent loneliness for the comfort of friendship.

They both have the same easy giggle.

I didn’t personally know Wittels and I’m not entitled to any memory of him.

Still, I am saddened by his loss and the thought of the people he brought energy, laughter, and the comfort of friendship to. Professionally, Wittels was an integral contributor to crafting the familiarity that so many audiences felt towards the Parks and Recreation cast, the same magic that made my friends and I fans of this clever and often heart-warming show. He engineered many of the jokes we retell to one another to make each other laugh or remind ourselves of the outrageous enthusiasm with which Leslie Knope would live her life. The impact that Wittels’ instinct for humor and creativity had reaches further than he could have possibly imagined.

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The loss of any person to the tyranny of drugs is terrible. Listening to Wittels’ experiences as shared in his own voice, however, is not a legacy to the way in which his life ended. Instead, it is an intimate reflection of the value the people in our life hold and our endless responsibility to reclaim our purpose, as well as that of others, from the damages or discouragement we’re subject to as members of this world.

Before closing the show, Holmes extends a genuine word of comfort to Wittels, one that is almost awkward in how authentic of an attempt it is to reach across the divide and say to someone who has just shared their experience of extraordinary struggle, “please feel included, and welcomed, and loved in this reality… you’re not alone.” He explains how he’s observed that his efforts to create, do stand-up, and tell stories are collective attempts at communicating this same eternal message to another person, and reminding himself of this message, too.

Wittels’ embraces the moment and adds in his own reach across the divide by reminding Holmes of that time they played music at his party, “one of the most fun memories ever”, when Holmes was on bass.

As you listen to his story, and even read these words now, may you be reminded you’re not alone.

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