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February 23, 2015

Hail & Farewell: Harris Wittels

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Harris Wittels in Parks and Recreation (via YouTube)

Harris Wittels in Parks and Recreation (via YouTube)

Last Thursday, the very talented and very young comedian Harris Wittels died of an alleged drug overdose. He was thirty years old.

Most recently, Wittels had been a writer on and co-executive producer of Parks and Recreation, but like many bright and energetic comedians who have more great ideas than places to accommodate them, he didn’t limit himself to one venue.

In addition to memorable appearances on Parks and Rec (as a stoned animal control guy), Wittels was, among many other things, a regular guest on Scott Aukerman’s podcast Comedy Bang Bang, where he hosted an amazing segment called Harris’s Foam Corner. Here is just one example of his brilliantly stupid—or stupidly brilliant—sense of humor:

Wittels collaborated with so many smart and successful comedians—Aziz Ansari (who wrote a moving tribute to Wittels on his Tumblr), Sarah Silverman, Danny McBride, and many others—that in retrospect, he seems to have been everywhere and beloved by everyone.

One particular collaboration stands out: according to a tweet from Aukerman, Wittels was responsible for the funniest moment in President Barack Obama’s interview with Zach Galifianakis on the latter’s parody talk show, Between Two Ferns:

I encountered Wittels’s work recently, which is to say, far too late. In a memorable appearance on Aukerman and Adam Scott’s podcast U Talkin’ U2 To Me (wherein the two hosts discuss every U2 album in glorious, ludicrous, wholly excessive detail), Wittels made a pretty obvious point: U2 are pretty lame, and the very least, their music sounds incredibly dated.

That these truths are self-evident should not distract from Wittels’s befuddled and borderline-annoyed delivery, which does the miraculous thing of puncturing the hosts’ (modest) pretensions while paying tribute to their absurd enterprise. It’s worth listening to the entire episode, even if you—like Wittels—really don’t like U2 that much.

(Wittels and Aukerman also co-hosted a podcast about Phish, called Analyze Phish, but I’m pretty sure my editor wouldn’t approve of any discussion of Phish in these digital pages, so here’s the link without additional commentary.)

Wittels was also an author. In a 2011 column for Grantland, Wittels wrote about perhaps the greatest neologism of the Twitter age, which he himself coined. I’m speaking, of course, of the humblebrag:

A Humblebrag is basically a specific type of bragging which masks the brag in a faux-humble guise. The false humility allows the offender to boast their “achievements” without any sense of shame or guilt. Unfortunately/fortunately, Humblebragging is very commonly used in our society, and for some reason Twitter seems to be the perfect forum for people to do it. So, about a year ago, instead of just silently griping about it to myself, I gave it a name and started an account on Twitter on which I retweet Twitter’s most flagrant Humblebraggers (www.twitter.com/humblebrag).

Wittels wrote up some of the more extreme offenders in his Grantland column and collected many more on the Twitter account and in a book—Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty—that was published in 2012 by Grand Central. Patton Oswalt’s blurb captured the spirit of the project pretty perfectly:

“So weird to be asked to write a blurb for this amazing book when they passed over Alec Baldwin, Bono and The Pope. Like I’m ANYWHERE near as important as those guys. I mean, I DO have more Twitter followers than Baldwin. Oh well.” —Patton Oswalt

There are many tributes to Wittels online from his friends and colleagues, but perhaps the most fitting came from the comedian Brett Gelman, who wrote the following on his Instagram account:

RIP buddy. Too soon. Too bright. Anyone sending you an RIP is humble bragging over the fact that they had the gift of knowing you. What a mark left. What a loss.

Indeed.

 

Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.

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