Harris Wittels died this week. He was a writer and co-producer on NBC's (hit show and best comedy on television) Parks and Recreation. He was also a musician, podcaster and stand-up comedian. And, he was very, very funny. Memories and other touching sentiments about Harris' life and work have been beautifully poured out onto the very platforms Harris mocked (and probably hated) by his fellow comedians, friends and fans in the past few days. For instance, comedian Doug Benson tweeted out telling his followers to retweet something from Harris' feed that made them laugh -- promising that it wouldn't take long. Here are some of the dark, sharply hilarious tweets I chose.
What struck me about that last one and many of Harris' other tweets and thoughts, aside from being sharply funny as was his humor in general, was his fearlessness. It seems to me that Harris was never scared of death; he was scared of living in fear.
Comedians live to make people laugh. So, when a comedian dies, it's scary to laugh. When something so sad and not funny and tremendously scary happens to someone so funny -- and they can't be anymore -- laughing seems unfathomable. The past eight months alone have taken the comedic brains of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. And now, Harris Wittels. No, Harris didn't share the Oscar-level or millionaire-dollar accolades that Williams or Rivers did. But, for some reason, since hearing of all of these deaths and especially this week -- when I heard about Harris Wittels' death -- I can't shake a gaping feeling of sadness. And, of fear.
Harris' death makes me really scared. Sure, death is, for most people, inherently scary. Same goes for substance addiction, from which he reportedly died. But what really makes me scared is that we might feel unable to laugh about Harris' death -- someone, who always urged and seemingly really needed us to laugh with him. And, although I didn't know him personally, what I've surmised from this and other personal connections I've fostered with comedians through their work alone, Harris upheld that anything could be funny. Whether in stand-up sets, jokes, bits, scripts and tweets Harris addressed matters of pain, sadness, anger and, even, death directly. For some reason, Harris wasn't afraid of laughing.
In his episode of Pete Holmes' podcast, You Made It Weird, Harris spoke candidly about his struggle with addiction. He rationalized his use of drugs by trying to understand the value of his life, which, he points out, was void of children or a wife. In his existential musings and banter with Pete, he hauntingly notes:
Death is a beautiful part of life. [...] It's sad when anyone dies, even though every single human dies. So, it's really not that sad.
In the podcast, Harris shares an anecdote about making a joke "too soon" at a co-worker's expense, the same day she underwent a traumatic experience. And, although his co-worker did not appreciate it immediately, he committed himself to making the same joke until she did laugh. In turn, Pete shares about having seen a small dog get hit by a car. For some reason, the dark absurdity of the incident somehow really made his weird, comedian brain laugh. Despite his best efforts, he could not stop laughing. As crazy and mildly offensive as those circumstances were, their reactions make sense to me. Laughing doesn't quite seem to be the middle, but somewhere far from either end of the emotional spectrum. Laughing is neither inherently happy nor sad. It's intangible, and when it happens it's instinctive and (sometimes inappropriately) immediate. When something terrible happens, applauding seems sociopathic, crying seems self-righteous, but laughing simply makes you feel better than before you did it.
Comedy and comedians who do comedy have, I think, saved my life many times. In the past month, I've dealt with a circumstance that any normal human would and the humans with whom I have shared about it do consider to be very sad. And, in some instances of telling my friends, I met their very sympathetic gestures with inexplicable and uncontrollable laughter. I know that's crazy. The way in which things in life are random, sad, and scary is crazy, though. And, that, at least to me and to Harris, is kind of funny. My situation amalgamated all of those feelings and all I could do was audibly label the absurdity of it with comedy. Laughing made me feel better than I did before.
I'm not a famous comedian. Aziz Ansari, a famous comedian and real friend of Harris' wrote a beautiful obituary about Harris' work ethic and talent. I'm not writing this to dwell on or compare my relatively insignificant life problems to the loss of minds as brilliant as Harris' or Robin's or Joan's. I'm writing this because we need to be able to laugh. Things happen all the time that we can't control. People let us down. Things don't turn out the way we want them to. Little dogs get run over by big, murderous cars. Our friends and heroes die of drug overdoses and loneliness. And, sometimes -- almost always -- all you can do is laugh, and feel better than you did before. Thank you Harris Wittels, not only for laughing, but for not being scared to. I hope it's okay if we laugh too.