At the end of Parks and Recreation’s final episode, a message appeared onscreen: “We love you, Harris. – The Parks Crew.”
Not five days before the series concluded, 30-year-old Parks producer and writer Harris Wittels was found dead in his Los Angeles home. Wittels, adored by those around him as a comedy writer of singular caliber and for his sly, relentless cheer, spoke openly in stand-up sessions and other appearances about his problems with drugs. Not long before his death, he recounted publicly how his recent heroin sobriety, post-rehab, was yet alien to him.
Aziz Ansari, Parks actor and collaborator with Wittels, memorialized his late friend in a heartfelt essay on his Tumblr, describing Wittels as “part of that rare breed where you wouldn’t see his shit coming. His jokes were so weird, unexpected, often brilliantly dumb that they were in that ultra-exclusive club of ones that made comedy people laugh.”
Ansari, who first knew Wittels though stand-up, had worked numerous times with Wittels and considered him as his “go-to” suggestion whenever a comedy writer was needed.
The two had pitched several projects together (including a movie called Olympic Sized Asshole which Ansari cited as a favorite). “After that, any time I worked on anything, I insisted that Harris Wittels be one of the writers”
Wittels appeared himself on Parks every so often essentially as a caricature of himself, portraying one of the two very stoned, very out-of-it Pawnee animal control employees and a local hero responsible for promoting a topless park in Pawnee.
But more importantly, he wrote some of the funniest parts of the show, including Ron Swanson’s secret Duke Silver persona, among other things, and numerous fan-favorite episodes of the series (the episode where Ron is suddenly faced with 93 meetings scheduled on the same day, for instance, and when Leslie and April perform garbage day to combat sexism in the industry).
Outside of Parks and Recreation, Wittels worked mainly on small projects or inserted his comedy here and there. He wrote the joke for Zach Galifianakis’ “Between Two Ferns” interview with Barack Obama, where Obama compares a third term in office to the third Hangover movie.
Wittels ran a podcast called “Analyze Phish,” which revolved simply around convincing fellow comedian Scott Aukerman of the merits of the band Phish.
According to The Atlantic, Wittels was always frank and honest about his drug use: “Wittels’ boundless enthusiasm for illegal substances felt like a core part of his cheery persona in early episodes; in later ones, he frankly discussed how it had snowballed into a serious dependency that affected his career and his relationships with his friends.”
Despite this, everyone around him seemed to recognize and appreciate Wittels’ goofy, cheery air and his unending quirks.
Ansari recalls on his blog the many ways Wittels wasn’t just a funny comic writer, but a funny and unique human being. Wittels would, by Ansari’s account, microwave string cheese in a bowl and eat the melt with a fork, and had put on his Tinder profile: “I make money. I’ll buy you a couch,” his rationale being that “girls love couches.”
“I was so excited for what was ahead for Harris,” wrote Ansari. “I knew he was going to really explode after this new project.
“The little bit of Wittels’ comedy out there was just the tip of the tip of the iceberg. He had so much more to give and I was so excited for him. He seemed to be turning things around. He asked me for help finding a nutritionist. He said he knew nothing about nutrition.
“I wish I got to know you even more. I hope people reading this realize what a[n] incredibly unique man you were, and what brutal a loss it is for those who knew you and also for those who never had the pleasure.”