This is a post I tried to write all day Friday and couldn’t. But now, after a few days, I think I can put together some coherent thoughts. (We will see … no promises.)
On Thursday I learned of the passing of comedian and television writer Harris Wittles. I’m just going to get this out of the way early on and then not bring it up again: it appears the cause was an overdose. I didn’t realize he had a problem with drugs but apparently he was not quiet about it, having recently opened up on a podcast in November. He had been to rehab twice. He had been sober for a few weeks. But the pull was too strong. He was about to relocate to New York to start working on a new TV project. He was 30 years old.
I knew Harris casually. We ran in the same circles. Years before I started my blogs, I was very involved with the stand-up comedy scene here in Los Angeles. Mostly as an audience member, but later I co-produced a bi-monthly stand up show with my friend Tom. I was never ever interested in performing stand up, but I loved to watch it. I made several friends, many who have gone on to varying levels of success. I also met my husband, thanks to the LA comedy scene. For the last 10 or so years, Harris has just always been around. He became really successful, and his name started popping up everywhere – on stand up shows, sketch shows, the credits of TV shows I enjoyed, on the comedy podcasts I listened to, and even on-screen on Parks and Recreation. He was also a frequent poster to a comedy message board, aspecialthing.com. He seemed to love chatting and trading quips with other comedy fans. I know it’s an overused word, but this guy hustled. He had a goal, and he had a focus, and he made it happen. He was everywhere.
Back when I was training for my half marathons, I would listen to a ton of comedy podcasts. I would go out for two or three hour runwalks and load up with the newest podcast episodes. If I saw Harris’s name pop up in the episode description, I would listen to it first. I knew it would always be something crazy and entertaining. I knew I would always have to slow down or stop because I was laughing too hard. I knew I looked like a crazy person, wearing running clothes but doubled over with laughter along Ventura Blvd. One of the bits Harris would do on Comedy Bang Bang was called Harris’ Phone Corner (aka Harris’ Foam Corner), where Harris would simply read jokes he thought up and saved on his phone. He explained jokes would just pop into his head and he would type them into his phone. He had an endless supply. He was on so often, he eventually got his own little theme song. You could tell the guy’s mind was always on; it was just a talent he had. But here’s why the bit was so funny – most of the jokes were awful. Either real groaners, or so unfunny that everyone would laugh at how not funny it was. But every now and then, he’d hit with a really good one.
What’s my point? He tried, and occasionally he would fail. Okay, the jokes would fail a lot. But he tried and he never gave up. He would keep coming back to try out new jokes. He put so much effort into honing his skill. You have to do that as a comedian and a writer. You have to try, a lot, and you will fail, and then you have to keep trying. Over and over, constantly, for the rest of your career.
And he was always unapologetically himself. He had a unique voice, an enviable talent, and he didn’t censor it. Thank goodness.
When I heard Harris had passed, I was shocked. When the news started to trickle through my Facebook feed, I found I was not alone. Many of my friends expressed surprise, sadness, anger, but mostly disbelief. What I found strange, and strangely comforting, was when I realized most of the people who were posting were not actually friends with Harris. Like me, they simply knew him from being, well, everywhere. From TV, from stand up shows, from podcasts, from message boards. And no one had a bad thing to say. My friends who knew him well, and also my friends who knew him the way I knew him (which is to say, not personally), everyone remembered him as the nicest guy. Lots of people shared a memory, or a snippet of an exchange they had with him, or a screenshot of an email, or a tweet of his, or a joke they loved. All nice things. All surrounded by sentiments of sadness and shock.
During all this, because I’m human and subconsciously relate all things back to myself, I couldn’t help but think about what would happen if I were to be gone suddenly. I really don’t mean to go down a morbid path or put the attention on myself, but for the sake of true honesty, this is what I thought about at one point. What would people say about me? Would people remember me in such a fond way? I’m sure Harris had his enemies, but either they stayed quiet or I didn’t see them. Would people I don’t even know be so affected by my loss?
Am I living the fullest life I can? Am I being nice to everyone I encounter? Am I patient enough? Am I humble? Am I working hard enough? Am I leaving my mark on the world? As a writer, like Harris, I have the ability to connect with people I might not even be aware of. As a writer, I can reach the people who speak my same unique language in ways people couldn’t do 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, before the age of Twitter and Facebook and all the other magical ways we bring perfect strangers into our lives. Am I using this platform to share my best self? Am I doing enough? Am I FAILING enough?
During the 2015 Oscars last night, Graham Moore have a powerful and inspiring speech during his acceptance for Best Screenplay for The Imitation Game (a fantastic movie). During the speech he said, “I tried to commit suicide at 16 and now I’m standing here. I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere. You do. Stay weird. Stay different, and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage please pass the same message along.”
Stay weird, stay different. It reminded me of Harris. And it reminded me of everyone who is just trying to be themselves and leave their mark on the world. And how we all matter.
So for now, I leave you with:
Be nice to everyone.
Love what you do.