Screenwriter, comedian, producer, actor, and author Harris Wittels passed away yesterday at the age of 30.
Even if you don't recognize Wittels, you know of his work. He was the co-executive producer on Parks and Recreation, a show on which he also wrote and occasionally made cameo appearances. Wittels also wrote for Eastbound and Down and The Sarah Silverman Program, and he notoriously coined the term "humblebrag."
I knew Wittels from his guest appearances on Comedy Bang Bang, the surreal interview podcast by Scott Aukerman that's doubled as an incubator for young comedians and improvists for the past half decade. Wittels had a recurring bit called "Harris' Phone Corner" where he'd perform the worst jokes he had tapped into his phone, the leftovers unworthy of Twitter or stand-up routines. He bombed every time, and it was hilarious. Listening to one episode on the way to work, I had to hide in a Duane Reade because I couldn't stop laughing. It was cold, and with one big snort, I let loose mucus all over my beard.
I never met Wittels. In fact, for the first couple of years of fandom I only knew him as a voice. But it feels like we were close. The podcast is an intimate medium, more so than we give it credit for. Listening to shows like Comedy Bang Bang is akin to hanging with a group of friends who want nothing more than to brighten your day. If you close your eyes, they're right there with you.
I have this small, but personal experience that keeps coming to mind. Every now and then listeners of a podcast that I used to record introduce themselves at press events and trade shows. There's one introduction I'll never forget. A few months back a young man stopped me on the street near Penn Station and gave me a long hug. I introduced myself and he said, "You're my friend, even though you haven't met me yet."
If you're like me, podcasts get you through the boring, repetitive, and grueling parts of the day, when your body is busy, but your mind is free. I believe that function — humans on call for whenever we need them — endears us to people we don't actually know. Podcasts are different than movies or television or even music, where it feels like we're an audience for characters. On podcasts, hosts and guests are like friends who've stopped by the living room in our mind to inform us, educate us, entertain us, or just keep us company.
And man, Harris Wittels did all of those things. I looked forward to hearing his voice. I feel so terrible for the people close to him and send my condolences. And selfishly, I'm sad I'll never get to see Wittels on the street and let him know that even though we'd never met, he's been a great friend.