Late Parks and Rec writer Harris Wittels remembered in sister's touching memoir
See the cover and an excerpt from Stephanie Wittels Wachs' 'Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful,' featuring a foreward by Aziz Ansari
Wachs’ upcoming book Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful, due March 6, 2018, is a shattering memoir that explores themes of grief and addiction. Her brother, who also wrote for such series as The Sarah Silverman Program and Eastbound & Down, died of a heroin overdose in 2015. Before she could even share the news with her mother, TMZ had leaked the story and thousands were discussing it on social media.
Now Wachs is telling her story — her memories of her brother, her reflections on his death, and her thoughts on the many elements, such as drugs and celebrity, surrounding it. In an exclusive excerpt shared with EW, she discusses Wittels’ rise in the comedy world, how he came to work with some of the biggest and most respected names in the business, and how he managed to invent a word that’s become one of the signatures in social media discourse: Humblebrag.
EW can also exclusively reveal the Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful cover, which teases the foreword written by Aziz Ansari. The Parks and Recreation actor, whose Netflix comedy Master of None also included Wittels as a producer, decided to reprint the tribute to Wittels he wrote just days after his death, which you can read here.
See the exclusive cover and excerpt below.
Excerpt from “Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful,” by Stephanie Wittels Wachs
My brother, three years and three months my junior, was the success story every Jewish mother ached to brag about at her weekly Mahjong game: a Hollywood wonder-kid who landed his first professional TV writing job on The Sarah Silverman Program at twenty-two years old, only six months out of college after she saw him doing stand-up in L.A. Although unusual — the stuff that myths are made of really — it wasn’t all that shocking. If anyone could fit into this dream scenario, it was Harris.
His career trajectory seemed pre-ordained. He told his first joke at three years old. It was the summer of 1988. We were snacking in the kitchen of my mom’s best friend’s house. She mentioned “Harris County,” where we grew up in Houston, Texas. Reflexively, as if he was put on this earth for this moment and thousands more like it, he shouted, “I not Harris County, I Harris Wittels!” The whole room died laughing. He killed at the age of three.
And his whole life, he just kept chasing that high. As a seven year old, he would draw smiley faces on his butt, stick a toothbrush in it, and do entire monologues — out of his butt — for the family. He was part of a sketch comedy troupe in high school called Will Act for Food, W.A.F.F for short. They rented out a small theatre for their first live sketch show, and midway through, Harris meandered across the stage totally naked, wearing nothing but a cowboy hat over his loins. Our grandmother was in the audience. I remember, years later, she wore the same befuddled face watching his first Showtime comedy special where he did this bit about jerking off when you have a roommate, and how you have to keep checking to make sure the roommate isn’t awake, so it really amounts to jerking off to your roommate.
His grades weren’t great in school, but not for a lack of intrinsic motivation. A staunch academic, our dad was always pushing him to do better, but Harris refused to do things that didn’t make him happy. Rather, he played drums in his high school band, Pralines and Dik, and spent countless hours consuming every comedy special or sitcom he could find on TV or at Blockbuster, his spiritual home. He idolized Louis C.K. and Mitch Hedberg, who died of a drug overdose in 2005. He was only thirty-seven years old.
When we were teenagers, our parents took us to see them on two separate occasions at the Laff Stop, this infamous, little comedy club in Houston that no longer exists. After Louis’s set, Harris approached him at the bar and, in all seriousness, told Louis he could give him some notes on how to be funnier. He was always fearless. Mostly fearless. I remember he used to throw up before going on stage. He threw up constantly as a child. When we were kids, stomach cramps were his go-to excuse to leave anywhere he no longer wanted to be. In high school, he’d chug Kaopectate for breakfast nearly every morning. One time in college, I saw him hang up the phone after a moderately tense conversation with a girlfriend and immediately vomit.
Despite the naturally nervous stomach, Harris started doing open mics as soon as he turned 18 and could legally enter the clubs without our parents. The whole summer before leaving for college, he got up every Monday night at the Laff Stop where he’d seen his idols years before. I remember sitting in the audience for these mostly terrible shows, nervously waiting for his name to be called. During his set, I would laugh uncomfortably hard at all of his jokes and look around to make sure everyone else was doing the same. He used to tell this one joke about potato shoes that I can still hear in my head in his exact intonation: “Do you think a homeless guy ever went up to another homeless guy and accidentally asked him for some change? Excuse me, can you spare some change? Um, can you spare some change?! Oh, hey Terry didn’t see ya there! You like my new shoes? They’re old. You like my new shoes? They’re potatoes!”
When he got to Emerson College in Boston, he majored in TV/Video but continued to focus on comedy. He did regular open mics at the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square and started a bizarro sketch comedy group called Fancy Pants with college friends Noah Garfinkel, Jim Hanft, Joe Mande, Gabe Rothschild, and Armen Weitzman.
During Harris’s last semester at Emerson, he opted for an internship at Comedy Central in L.A. It didn’t take long for all the executives to start stopping by the intern’s desk to get advice on what was and wasn’t funny. Harris was a living comedy encyclopedia, the Little Man Tate of the comedy world. After the internship ended, he remained in L.A., and got a day job being a nanny to two little French boys. But at night, it was all comedy. He signed up for classes at Upright Citizens Brigade and continued going to every open mic he could find.
In May 2006, fresh out of college, he got a spot on UCB’s Comedy Death-Rey hosted by Scott Aukerman of Comedy Bang Bang. Scott would go on to become one of Harris’s dearest friends and closest collaborators, but at the time, he’d never met Harris nor seen his act and was skeptical because Harris was essentially a newborn baby. However, a mutual friend convinced Scott to put him on the show with Doug Benson, Sarah Silverman, Paul F Tompkins, Tig Notaro and Blain Capatch. According to Scott, Harris killed. At twenty-two, on a line-up like that, he made his mark.
Harris was that rare person whose childhood dreams turned into adult realities. He always knew what he wanted to do and actually did it. Being whip-smart, funny, hardworking, and endlessly charming contributed to his success, but it’s also worth noting that he’d always been lucky. He was the asshole who left his cell phone in a New York City cab only to have the cabbie drive it back to my Queens apartment hours later just to return it to him. When he was in college, he lost his wallet in the Boston bus terminal and someone mailed it to our permanent address in Texas with all the cash still in it.
Six months after doing the Comedy Death Ray show, Harris got an email from Sarah Silverman asking if he’d be interested in writing for her new Comedy Central show.
“Okay, so we have a slot open to write on the next season of my show. Do you have anything we can read? My producer will contact you about it, but I wanted to give you a heads up. Flanny loves you and I thought you were great when I saw you. Don’t know what you are looking to do, but if this potentially interests you, submit something — anything — if you think it represents how you write or come up with ideas.
“If this isn’t what you are looking to do please don’t think twice. It was just a thought. Always good to have a young smart silly greenie in the room is all. But if you’re not looking to write on a show, it’s not like it would be awkward next time we bump into each other or something.”
According to Harris, she escorted him to a big fancy business lunch a few weeks later to meet the studio executives. Knowing that he was twenty-two and totally out of his element, she literally grabbed him by the arm and mentored him through each new handshake. “Harris, this is so and so, shake his hand. Harris, this is so and so, shake his hand.” And it worked. He booked the job as the “young smart silly greenie in the room.”
From there, Harris’s career trajectory was swift and steep. After two seasons on The Sarah Silverman Program, he got hired as a staff writer on Season 2 of Parks and Recreation, where he remained for the next six years, eventually working his way up to the title of co-executive producer. In his spare time, he wrote for Eastbound and Down and became a notorious podcaster with popular shows like Analyze Phish, Comedy Bang! Bang! and Farts and Procreation. He did stand-up on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and opened for Sarah, Aziz Ansari, and Louis C.K.
At the time Harris died, he was a thirty-year-old co-executive producer on a beloved, major network television show. He had invented the word humblebrag, which earned him a book deal and a spot in the English dictionary. He had written jokes for President Obama that the president delivered in Zach Galifianakis’s Between Two Ferns, which has been viewed on YouTube more than 20 million times.
How many people can say that?