If I May: A Tribute to Harris Wittels
Issue   |   Tue, 02/20/2018 - 20:17

On Feb. 19, 2015, Harris Wittels, a comedy writer best known for his work on “Parks & Recreation,” passed away from a heroin overdose. He was only 30 years old. In his short life, he managed to become one of the most sought-after joke writers in Hollywood. In addition to “Parks & Rec,” Wittels was a writer for HBO’s “Eastbound and Down” as well as for the popular Funnyordie.com series “Between Two Ferns.”

Harris Wittels is, even after his death, one of my biggest influences not only in comedic writing, but in creativity in general. He was a unique voice; after his death, many of his peers (including Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman) discussed stories about how they could always tell when a joke was written by Harris because his style was so recognizable. This uniqueness is very admirable and something that all writers – comedic or not – should strive for.

However, Wittels’ voice was not only unique, but profoundly weird, in the absolute best way possible. He didn’t write jokes with traditional set-ups and punchlines, nor did he tell long personal stories with big payoffs. Instead, he created his own structures for jokes. For example, here is a joke he told on stage during a live performance of the “Comedy Bang! Bang!” podcast, on which he was a frequent guest: “I’ve said ‘I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again’ before, but I’ll say ‘I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again’ again.” Honestly, as I write it out, I realize I don’t know if I can even call it a joke. It’s just a funny idea. That is the kind of mind Harris Wittels was. He didn’t operate with the same preconceived notions of what is funny and what is not. But by trusting his own voice, he convinced the rest of us to see the hilarity in the silliness and absurdity he created. When he read the joke above, the audience responded with a huge laugh. Here’s another example of a Harris Wittels original: “If someone is being egregious – call them eg-Regis Philbin.” Personally, I giggled even typing that out.

As I mentioned above, Wittels was a beloved guest on the podcast “Comedy Bang! Bang!” which is an improvised comedy podcast hosted by Scott Aukerman. Harris would often go on the show to read drafts of his jokes or just funny ideas that he had. Fortunately for his fans, these recordings act as a reservoir of purely Harris material. Obviously, as a writer on a network sitcom, we had access to something he helped create, but the sitcom is really more of a collaborative creation, with the writers’ collective voice coming through rather than those of individuals. However, in Harris’ “Comedy Bang! Bang!” appearances, we get to experience a comedic mind at work, one that was never able to reach its full potential. If you have never listened to any of these appearances before (which I assume you have not), please consider doing so. There is a great compilation video on YouTube. Simply search “Harris Wittels Tribute.” It’s just some of the most delightful, carefree, fun comedy that exists. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but rest in peace, Harris.