I’m not supposed to be writing about the death of 30-year-old comedian and Parks and Recreation writer-producer Harris Wittels. I’m supposed to be working on another story, something fun and light and geeky and interesting in that frothy pop culture way. And yet here we are.
I don’t know how exactly to talk about his death. I can’t share personal memories, other than a few social media interactions and a few hellos in person where I blushed and geeked out because he was that guy, the one who wrote some of the funniest jokes I’d seen onstage, online, or onscreen. I can’t pretend I was a dear friend. We shared many friends in common, but he was on another level. So young, so precocious, so successful. I looked up to him. I had a major talent crush on him. A lot of us did. In the end, I wasn’t his friend, but his fan.
But I also can’t write a straight obituary, well-researched and well-documented. I can’t reach out to the people who knew him best and ask them for pithy quotes on what Harris Wittels meant to them, and who he was, and what he would say if he could see the mourning taking place online and in real life (increasingly, that line is blurred). I can’t wrap it up in a neat little bow and then set it aside and return to that other story I mentioned before, the happy one.
I can’t do that because this doesn’t feel like some kind of distant, unfortunate celebrity loss. It feels like addiction took someone from my extended family, a distant and famous cousin in this giant, amorphous, strange, undefinable clan known as the comedy world. Maybe that sounds strange, or presumptuous, but I think comedians – and, perhaps, comedy fans – will know exactly what I mean.
We who choose to undertake the alternately exhilarating and humiliating career of a comedian have some kind of weird bond. When I travel to perform, and I meet a comedian, I always know we’ll be able to talk shop. We’ll have some kind of lingua franca related to whatever it is we do – stand-up, sketch, improv, writing, whatever. We’ll have friends in common, or friends of friends. We’ll have some goals in common. We’ll share some dreams. We might have nothing else to talk about, but we can talk about comedy. Because every comedian is also a comedy fan, and what else would we want to discuss, anyway?
Comedy is the best worst thing in the world. Sometimes when you’re trying hard to sell a script or nail an audition or publish a book or polish a set, comedy feels like the only thing in the world. Sometimes, when you’ve given up a regular social life and skipped out on special family moments in order to sit by yourself and get the wording in a joke exactly right, it feels like the only thing that matters.
It’s not, of course. But it does matter. It’s how we laugh into the void, beat back the darkness, if only for a moment. And there is a lot of darkness, isn’t there? It’s all around us. It’s there all the time, if you look for it. Right now it hangs heavy.
I can’t speak to how things were going for Harris Wittels personally or professionally (the latter seems pretty fucking great – only 30 years old and a wonderful list of credits that anyone in any industry could rightly envy). I have no claim on him, except as an admirer. But it feels like we lost another one. It fucking feels like we lost another one, and it hurts. I’m sorry it had to be anyone. I’m so sorry it was him.