'Parks and Rec' Writer Harris Wittels' Death at 30: Humblebrags and the Specter of Heroin
The beloved, raunchy and much-hugged co-executive producer, who died Feb. 19, faced his addiction head-on but couldn't beat it: "He was so effortlessly hilarious, even about his own darkness."
This story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The loss of Parks and Recreation co-executive producer Harris Wittels — discovered dead at age 30 in his Los Feliz home Feb. 19 after a suspected heroin overdose — has sent shock waves through the Hollywood comedy world, where the rising star was considered one of the most gifted in the business. (Wittels' death is being classified as an accident by the Los Angeles County Department of Coroner, pending autopsy results and a toxicology report.) As tributes poured in on Twitter and beyond from such grief-stricken colleagues as Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman, a picture emerged of a deeply admired talent on the cusp of even bigger things — but one who fell powerless to his demons.
"[His was the] quickest rise to prominence of anyone I had seen in the industry. It was really annoying, actually, but he was really that good at what he did," noted comedian Scott Aukerman in an intro to the Feb. 23 episode of his Comedy Bang Bang podcast, which Wittels had taped just one week before his death. The compact, broad-smiled Houston native landed in L.A. in 2006 after graduating from Boston's Emerson College. The following year, Silverman spotted him at L.A.'s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre and hired him to write for Comedy Central's The Sarah Silverman Program; he later wrote for HBO's Eastbound & Down and, in 2009, joined Parks and Recreation, where he began as a second-season staff writer and swiftly shot up the ranks. (He sometimes played Harris, a spacey, Phish-loving animal-control officer on the NBC sitcom, a character based entirely on himself.)
Harris Wittels with Sarah Silverman at an Emmy party in 2008, when he was writing for her Comedy Central show.
Along the way, Wittels took note of a growing phenomenon on social media and invented a word to describe it: the "humblebrag," a term that instantly caught fire and led in 2012 to his first book, Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty. Wittels' jokes, meanwhile, were popping up everywhere — even Barack Obama cribbed one on an episode of Zach Galifianakis' online talk-show parody, Between Two Ferns. (When Galifianakis asked the president if he planned on running for "a third time," Obama responded, "That'd be like making a third Hangover movie.")
Even as he logged this impressive series of professional successes, Wittels' longtime heavy recreational drug use, well known among his friends, was becoming increasingly extreme. He was doing lethal amounts of dangerous drugs and made no secret of his addiction battles in stand-up comedy appearances and interviews. He detailed his downward slide in November on comedian Pete Holmes' You Made It Weird podcast, in which Wittels described how a prescription painkiller habit led to a stint at Promises Malibu. After the program, he relapsed immediately, and — when not even 15 OxyContin pills swallowed at once could get him high — he decided to move on to a cheaper and riskier drug: heroin.
In harrowing (and frequently amusing) detail, Wittels described being robbed by three different men in downtown's MacArthur Park before eventually scoring heroin on Skid Row, then paying a homeless man to teach him how to shoot up in his car. "I write on a f—ing network show, [but] I'm leaving work to go to Skid Row," recounted Wittels. "I go home, find a vein, shoot it — and it feels like there are 1,000 dicks in your body and they're all coming." (The dirty-minded Wittels was known as something of a ladies' man.) He wound up loving the feeling so much, he nearly fatally overdosed within days: "I took three back-to-back shots," he said. "My body seized up, sweating, ghost-white. I felt like I was not there in my brain. I woke with a gasp like I was dying. I had died."
Wittels was a passionate follower of Phish; he half-jokingly called the jam band his religion.
He hadn't, but he called in sick for the rest of the week, during which he missed the filming of a Parks and Recreation episode he had written. Finding that he'd reached a "spiritual bottom" and no longer could "compartmentalize" his professional life from his addiction, Wittels checked himself into Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Beaverton, Ore., the same chain of no-frills facilities where Robin Williams sought treatment. ("I guess that's not a glowing endorsement," quipped Wittels.) Podcast host Holmes looks back on that day with great sadness. "My heart was breaking for my friend," Holmes tells THR. "But he was fearless about sharing his truth. And he was so funny — just so quick and effortlessly hilarious, even about his own darkness and struggle."
Wittels was feeling upbeat about his sobriety during that interview ("I feel good, I feel hopeful, I feel optimistic," he had told Holmes in November) and, according to friends, had expressed a similar mind-set in recent months. With Parks and Recreation wrapping its seventh and final season in December (the show's Feb. 24 series finale was to conclude with a "We Love You, Harris" message from cast and crew), he had been busily planning a move to New York — he signed the lease on an apartment three days before his death — where he and Parks star Aziz Ansari were to collaborate on screenplays. After a break from the stage, Wittels had also begun to focus on stand-up again, trying out some new material at NerdMelt, the popular L.A. comedy venue, the night before his assistant discovered his body.
"He was excited. I was excited. It all seemed perfect," Ansari wrote on his Tumblr the day after Wittels' death. "Then, I got the most horrific phone call."