RIP Harris Wittels. 1984-2015.
There are so few people that you meet in life that give you that feeling that you’ve found a real unique, original person. Harris Wittels was one of those and we lost him yesterday. He was 30 years old. I’ve been devastated.
I’m still waiting for the other phone call to let me know that Harris is okay and this was all a horrible misunderstanding. I don’t know when my brain is going to be able to process the terrible feeling that fills my heart with dread and my eyes with tears every 20 seconds when I realize this very special person is really gone.
So, I wanted to write something to share my stories about Harris and what he meant to me.
I first knew Harris as a standup. I’d have him open shows quite a bit, and he was always fantastic. As his career as a writer took off, he got busy. He’d say that he didn’t have time or wasn’t working on standup at the time. Sadly, he had just started back working his standup, which made me thrilled as a fan. His standup, like he his real life personality, was open, honest (way more honest than how most people refer to “honest” in their standup) and hilarious.
As a writer, we worked on two films that never saw the light of day. The first was Olympic Sized Asshole. The premise was Danny McBride and I were two best friends who lived in SC who’s girlfriends had a three way with a super handsome star Olympic athlete (think Channing Tatum). We did a rough outline of it together and then Harris went off to write the script.
Around this time in my career, I was very puzzled by film scripts. None of the ones I read ever made me laugh. I figured that I must not know how to read scripts properly. Maybe these things were funnier in person than on the page.
Then I got Harris’ first draft of Olympic.
Every page had a huge laugh. I couldn’t believe it. Jody Hill and I called each other and were just rolling about our favorite jokes.
I was DYING.
Here’s a little chunk I found looking through old notes. The script was just full of great jokes like this:
Another bit I loved was when Danny’s character and my character pitch a business idea in the beginning of the movie.
There was also a part that would be played by Paul Giamatti. I think this was something he just added as a last minute addition that wasn’t even in the outline.
Eventually the project faded away as many movie projects tend to do.
But, after that, any time I worked on anything, I insisted that Harris Wittels be one of the writers. He was the first name I asked for every time. When I worked on the MTV Movie Awards. Those Randy videos for Funny People. Anytime I did a dumb commercial. Any time I needed to get joke writers, I always asked for Harris to help because he was truly the best of the best. And I was so lucky that he always said yes.
Most jokes when read by “comedy people” don’t get a laugh per se. You just read it and go, “Oh that’s funny” and you understand it would get a laugh. You eventually just know how jokes are constructed and you aren’t as easily surprised. Harris was 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 — and laugh hard. This was why Harris was such a go-to for everyone. Anyone that was ever in a writers room with him knew he was probably the funniest comedy writer out there. He was just a machine.
Remember the Obama-Galifianakis Funny or Die video?
Galifianakis: So are you gonna run a third time?
Obama: I don’t think that’d be a very good idea. That’d be like making a third Hangover movie.
I thought that was by far the best joke in that thing and maybe any thing I watched last year. I found out today that it was a Wittels original. Of course.
Harris was also known as “the chuffah king.” Chuffah is the random nonsense characters in a scene talk about before getting to the meat of it that leads to story. Here’s one of the best chuffah moments from Parks from the “Hunting Season” episode:
Tom: Your favorite kind of cake can’t be birthday cake, that’s like saying your favorite kind of cereal is breakfast cereal.
Donna: I love breakfast cereal.
Harris excelled at coming up with hilarious, random nonsense like this. It was a tool that no one else seemed to have. I’m not a big podcast listener, but today I found out this was also kind of the fuel for Harris Foam Corner (or Phone Corner) from Comedy Bang Bang podcast, here’s a playlist that is filled with this kind of hilarious/awful nonsense from Harris: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLBB4729D88A16451A
Here’s some highlights I found on Tumblr today:
“One time I said to a guy that, ‘I loved learning new things. I’m a bit of an infomaniac.’ And he thought I said NYMPHOMANIAC….so he fucked me. And I said ‘No, no no…I said INFO. I’m an INFOmaniac’ And he said ‘Well, here’s some info…you just got fucked. Clean yourself up.’”
“I hate smoking sections. Unless it’s Jim Carrey’s The Mask. Then the smoking section is my favorite part!”
“I’m not getting married until gay people can get married. Because I’m gay.”
Imagine being around a guy who was this uniquely silly all the damn time. That’s what it was like being in a writers room with Harris. It was just bullshit like this non-stop. And it was the best.
After we failed to get Olympic off the ground, we had another idea called BIG TIME. This was about myself and another guy becoming super famous after a video of us saving a bunch of little black kids from a burning fire went viral. Again the plan was that Harris and I would draft a story (this time with our friend Jason Woliner) and then Harris would bang out the script.
One of my favorite Harris stories was before writing this script we’d pitch the story to studios. In one part of the pitch, we had a bit where the two leads became quasi-famous and started attending B-level celeb parties. In describing this scene in our practice session, Harris would say, “Guys like Chris Pontius would be there.” I’d say, “Alright Harris, none of these execs know who Chris Pontius from Jackass is, don’t say that.”
At that point, he knew he had me. Every pitch, and keep in mind these are important pitches with studio heads, etc. - I would lead and then as soon as I got to that scene, he would throw it in with glee, “you know, guys like Pontius would be there.” He even dropped the Chris and was just saying Pontius. Last name only. Jason and I were dying.
Then, in an even more absurd move, he added a second part to this bit. During the pitch, he started saying, "then the guys get famous and they do all the talk shows Letterman… Conan… Pontius Tonight…” To be clear, Pontius Tonight is a fictional show hosted by Chris Pontius that he made up just to make me laugh/fume. He said that execs would assume this was a real thing as to not seem out of touch. It was great. Harris would rather make all of us laugh than worry about jeopardizing these meetings.
He really seemed to relish getting laughs out of other comedians. Last night, the Parks writers staff and other friends shared Harris stories. One of my favorites was there was a serious email from NBC about a big sexual harassment seminar. Serious execs are CC’d along with Harris and the writers. Harris writes back, REPLY ALL, with this gem — now keep in mind EVERYONE is on this email, all the crew, so many higher level producers and execs, here we go:
As both our movies fizzled, Harris and I worked together on Parks and Rec. I was so thrilled when he got hired to be a writer and the episodes where he was on set were ones I looked forward to. A writer on set would pitch alternate jokes and help you if you didn’t feel a scene didn’t work, who better than Harris in that situation. Talking to other writers on the show today, it was clear Harris’ contribution to the world of Pawnee was immense. I’m sure he wrote many of the lines that made you laugh throughout the show.
Harris also eventually acted in the show as one of the animal control guys. Go on YouTube and watch this compilation, he is so hilarious in it:
I also want to say, besides being so unbelievably hilarious, Harris was truly a sweet guy. He was so lovable even when saying the most disgusting things. You just couldn’t help but love him. He had the most ridiculous opinions on everything from food to dating to music and he’d defend them to no end. He loved to make ridiculous boast that he insisted he could achieve. Here are a few that I compiled:
- Do as good a job as Trent Reznor scoring “The Social Network”
- Play against the Lakers and juke NBA point guard Steve Blake
- Hit an NBA 3-pointer
- Play right field in a Major League Baseball game, and catch a pop-up, and easily throw it back to the infield
- Act as well as any actor
- Every girl has, at minimum, a 20% crush on him
He was once adamant that he could taste the difference between all the major water bottle brands - and he did! He also once claimed he could beat anyone in the entire Parks offices at arm wrestling. Mike Schur gleefully egged him on: “Really, Harris? Anyone?” Harris said, “Yeah.” Then Mike beckoned John Valerio — a giant, muscular man with enormous arms – who worked in the editing department. Harris: “Shit! I forgot about Valerio. Come on, man!” Nevertheless, Harris went through with the match, put up a good fight, and was extremely gracious in defeat.
He was also kind of an odd ladies man in a way. Not blessed with a tall stature and traditional handsome guy stuff, he was able to transcend it all by being charming in an adorable/silly way. He was a romantic at heart. He once had a really big date. Someone way out of his league. His move - show up with a box of Russell Stovers chocolates. You know, the brand of chocolates of you get when you really want to impress a girl. He also once sent an e-vite to a girl’s heart. She declined. He once proposed to a woman on G-Chat. Genuinely.
Here’s some other random things I loved about him: He loved 311 and knew that the bassist’s name was P-Nut. He once had dinner with my parents and I in New York at a fancy restaurant and showed up in a suit that was 5 sizes too big. He looked like a kid dressing up in his dad’s clothes. Afterwards he turned to me and said, “Hey man, can you help me get a suit that fits?” His Tinder profile said, “I make money. I’ll buy you a couch.” We asked him why and he said, “Girls love couches.” He would always order the most unabashedly unhealthy, grossest thing at lunch. The most legendary being a burger he once ordered at Parks that had fried egg, bacon, avocado, onion rings (these are ON the burger FYI), BBQ sauce, and monterey jack cheese. He would take 4 things of mozzarella string cheese, line ‘em up, and melt it in the microwave. And then he’d eat this with a fork for a snack. I would always try to order healthy. Once I suggested a vegetarian place. After the email went out, I got a text from him “Guys this vegan place is an atrocity. Please reconsider.” He once left the writers office for lunch to eat at his house and texted my brother Aniz that he was “making Chili’s leftovers at home.” It really made me laugh that he chose the word “making” to describe heating up disgusting leftovers. He loved Chili’s but could never get anyone to join him. He would often go on solo missions. He once went to Chili’s by himself in Encino and Joe Mande asked him why Encino and not the closer one in Inglewood. He said, “The good one’s in Encino, you gotta go out to Encino.”
Weirdly, besides Parks, a lot of the stuff we worked on together never made it out into the world.
Another harsh part of this tragedy is that was all about to change. Around the time Parks was ending, I started developing a new project with my friend Alan Yang, another writer on Parks. Immediately, we knew we wanted Harris to help us write it. We were lucky to get him on board and for the past 5 months or so, he’s been an integral part of this new project. He worked tirelessly and was a leader on our staff and we were all thrilled to be doing this thing that was actually going forward.
We knew Harris had issues with addiction but things were pointing in the right direction. He was getting treatment and focused on his career and the opportunities ahead. It all seemed to point in the right direction. We were all about to move to New York together in March to have great fun and make great work. He was excited. I was excited. It all seemed perfect. He just found an apartment on Monday.
Then, I got the most horrific phone call yesterday. I couldn’t comprehend it.
This week I spent a lot of time with Harris. On Monday he drove me to a dinner we were having. His iPod was on shuffle and every fucking song was a different Phish bootleg. I kept forcing him to skip until it was Phish maybe covering another more tolerable band’s song. Then we hit a band called Pralines and Dick. I told him this was particularly bad. He let me know it was his high school jam band and warned me about the upcoming 5 minute funk breakdown. I couldn’t help but enjoy it.
I was so excited for what was ahead for Harris. 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 me asked for help finding a nutritionist. He said he knew nothing about nutrition. I informed him that I could confirm Chili’s is pretty bad for you. He even reluctantly ordered the “vegan bowl” for lunch the day before he passed when we were all writing together.
My last memory of him was from that day.
We were punching up a script. In punch up, you’re just trying to beat jokes that maybe aren’t landing. Everyone contributes and tries to beat the joke and you leave the best one in. But for us, what would happen is basically, all the writers would pitch something, then Harris would chime in with something so bizarre and hilarious, it would either make it in, or make us laugh and we’d agree it was the most hilarious, but probably too crazy. That last day, I remember I hit a line and we needed a better joke, I was exhausted. I turned to Harris and just wanted him to fix it so we could move on. I yelled “Harris! I need you, get off your phone. Make this joke better, fix it please.” And, of course, he did.
Bye Harris. I miss you and I’m glad I got to enjoy your genuinely amazing and original presence. I wish I got to you know even more. I hope people reading this realize what a 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. This has been so hard to write because I just keep wanting to add more and more stories and more jokes and more everything, but I’d never be able to finish it. You are far too special to sum up in any kind of piece like this. You were one of the best and we all will miss you.
Aziz Ansari likes to incorporate his family into his projects.
His parents have been featured in his Netflix show “Master of None,” and the comedian hilariously ripped on his Cinnabon-loving “chubby cousin Harris” for years in his early stand-up.
Well, it seems that the mall’s favorite pastry did a body good, because Harris, whose full name is Harris Gani, is now piping hot.
We know this because Gani was cast as Navid, the Muslim cousin of Ansari’s character Dev, in the episode “Religion,” who is featured in the second season of “Master of None.”
“That’s a little Easter egg for people who’ve followed Aziz’s stand-up for a while,” the show’s co-creator Alan Yang told Vulture. “Harris is looking very different these days!”
Indeed he is.
In the episode, Dev introduces his buff cousin Navid to pork, a food Muslims abstain from. Navid soon becomes obsessed with the tasty meat, leading Dev and Navid to ditch prayers during Ramadan to pig out on pork at a Brooklyn barbecue festival.
Gani, who describes himself as shy in an Instagram post, said the role was “great for my personal growth.”
Wow. Being on Master of None was quite an experience. It was something I thought I'd always say no to given the chance since I'm such a shy person and really hate putting myself out there, but now I'm very glad I went for it. Not only was it pretty awesome (and very funny) working with @azizansari and my Aunt and Uncle, but it was also great for my personal growth. To be honest, I was insanely nervous these past few days to see how people would react so thank you so much to everyone sending me all these super kind comments. You have no idea how much it means! Tremendous thanks to @azizansari , @alanmyang , @thecarolinagentleman , @ericwareheim , @lenawaithe , and everyone else for all the help and direction when filming. Also, shoutout to @samvellum for convincing me to audition and try this thing out in the first place.
A post shared by Harris Gani (@harrisrules13) on
And although cousin Harris is now shredded, don’t worry, he still seems to really dig food. Some of his favs are sprinkled in photos throughout his Instagram account.
Never change, Harris!