I follow a lot of comedians on Twitter. They’re usually the ones who tell me to pay attention to something or someone. Because I’m someone who gets has a hard time handling the darkness of the news, I depend on the Twitterverse to inform me of anything important, especially deaths. This may be a flawed way of engaging with the world, but I’m barely holding my head above water with my own life. So snarky jokes on Twitter it is!
Last Thursday, Twitter told me that Harris Wittels died.
Every day or two someone famous or marginally famous dies, and someone does a quick Twitter tribute. It takes literally seconds, and so I rarely take a second look. But this, this was an outpouring of grief from every corner of the comedian Twitter universe. For someone whose name I had never before.
I should have. Harris had been a producer on one of my favorite television programs, Parks and Recreation, as well as a writer, actor, and stand-up. He coined the term “humblebrag.” He performed stand-up at the comedy club the Meltdown in Los Angeles the night before he died.
On the day before Harris died, I went to an Ash Wednesday service. A somber affair, a number of octogenarians and I kneeled as we prayed for absolution from the sins we commit daily. Then, as the priest smudged a cross on my forehead, he said in his soft Texas drawl, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
A thought both frightening and freeing. Our time here means so little in the long run. It makes me wonder sometimes why we work so hard when all of our accomplishments will go to dust, just like our bones. We have a limited lease on this planet, 80 years give or take a decade. If you’re one of the lucky ones. Harris was 30.
He was only a few years older than I was. In his three decades, he had accomplished a lot, written a lot, made a lot of people laugh. He’d gone to rehab twice. By all accounts, he was trying. And then…he died. An overdose, they think.
As I thought about Harris, this person I didn’t know existed, I realized I follow the careers of comedians because I find their creative process interesting. I find it fascinating how a joke, something enjoyed by an audience and seemingly off the cuff, requires crafting. How a persona, which seems familiar and natural, is created. And how these performers have found ways out of self-loathing and self-consciousness into the world of comedy. They who were outsiders created an inside, just for themselves. Few people are funny because they had amazing childhoods and were part of the in-crowd all through high school. Most funny people are funny because they had to survive.
Harris wasn’t famous, but he was funny. He was known and adored by a small group of people, those who knew comedy and respected those who did it well. By all accounts, his star was about to rise, with the end of Parks and Recreation and new projects in the pipeline. He was seemed to be getting his life on track, talking about his struggles with addiction honestly in podcast conversations. Every day is a long one when you’re fighting the tide of addiction, so every day matters. He seemed to know that, his friends say now.
Tides are strongest when you’re swimming against them. At some point your body adjusts to the strain but the beginning can be the hardest, every breath a minor victory that must be followed by another victory, and another, and another.
By all accounts, Harris’s death was an accident, an overdose by someone who was fighting to get well and who just let the tide take him a little ways. His plan was probably to start swimming again the next day, after one more night of floating. Instead, he drowned.
Days later, the people who loved him are still re-tweeting his best lines on Twitter, a form of communal grieving that both eulogizes and memorializes. It says, “Look, here he was, and wasn’t he damn funny?” It’s a tribute using his own words; the gift that he gave to the world is now being given back in his honor.
I worry about these comedians that I do not know, the ones who always seem one instant away from self-harm (see: those years I worried about Dan Harmon, who seems to be doing fine). I worry for all those who swim against the always-pulling tide of addiction. I think of Robin Williams. I can’t help wondering what would have enticed him to stay here a little longer, to try once again, to make us laugh one more time. That sounds selfish, but I can’t believe that life here is better because he’s gone. Same for Harris.
That’s the only truth I can come to in times like these. I know life is hard and dark and dismal sometimes, especially for those who need applause to feel like their lives have meaning. But I cannot imagine how life is better now that these voices are gone. I don’t think life is improved without any voices who are considering quieting themselves—maybe just for a night, maybe forever. Those voices matter. All voices matter. I have to believe that; otherwise, I think we’re all wasting our time here.
So, if it’s you, if you’re Harris or Robin, needing a fix of substances or adoration in order to get through the day, you have value beyond that which controls you. Your voice has worth. And don’t ever believe the lie this world would be better off without you. It most assuredly would not be.
It’s a selfish thing to ask, me asking you to stay here, but I’m asking because I think you are capable of the impossible (with help): you can swim against the tide and you can make a difference while doing it.
And for those of us who have never had to swim against the tide of addiction and hatred, those of us skimming the surface with our Jet-skis and motorboats, how dare we judge those who, because of brain chemistry or history, are stuck in the water? Instead of making it harder for them to swim, we should try to pull them along. We cannot remove the tide; we can only work to ease the way for them.
Tonight is the finale of Parks and Recreation, a television sitcom that has given so much joy to so many people. To me. Its boundless joy and optimism about friendship, love, and local government has lightened world of television in a time when optimism is hard to find and jokes can cut to bleed. Leslie Knope is no-nonsense, strong, and infinitely full of hope. Harris helped to give us that hope.
So Harris, thank you for Parks and Rec. Thanks for being a man who was loved by so many. Thank you for making us laugh. And I’m sorry you are gone and that we will never know how life could be better because of you. But maybe, just maybe, someone will swim a little harder in your honor, knowing that you couldn’t.
Maybe that will make this end, so heavy, a tiny bit more buoyant.