Just over two years ago, the late, great writer and comedian Harris Wittels died at the tragically young age of 30. (If you’ve never heard of Wittels, this recent Guardian story is a good primer.) Today, Wittels would’ve turned 33 — to mark the occasion, his sister Stephanie has organized Harris Phest, a comedy and music festival in their hometown of Houston.
The occasion also seems like a good excuse to a share a story about my brief but memorable encounter with Wittels.
In 2013, I was a writer for Grantland working on a story about the polarizing jam band Phish. Wittels was among Phish’s most famous fans — sorry, I mean “phans.” He was the co-host of the very funny and insightful podcast Analyze Phish, in which Wittels would try (with little success) to convert his skeptical friend, the comedian Scott Aukerman, into a Phish follower. While Wittels was self-deprecating about his devotion to his favorite band — he even played a dopey stoner in a Phish T-shirt on Parks and Recreation, a thinly disguised version of himself — he was also earnest and unapologetic when it came to one of the great loves of his life. When I somehow found myself becoming a Phish fan after years of blithely dismissing them, I found Wittels’ unironic sincerity in the face of widespread derision endearing, even inspiring.
I thought it would be great to get a quote from Wittels for my story, so I fired off a quick email that posed two questions: 1) Why do you think Phish is so despised by “outsiders”?; 2) What makes Phish a great band?
I assumed Wittels would fire off a pithy response, if he responded at all, and that would be it. Honestly, all I needed was one witty quote. But Wittels had other ideas — he instead wrote an achingly heartfelt defense of his favorite band that went on for 600 words. I loved it, but it was way more than I needed. Wittels had essentially written his own Phish article. Ultimately, the only quote I used came from a follow-up email in which I asked if he’d ever had any success with turning non-believers into Phish fans.
“Only with girlfriends,” Wittels replied. “Semi-successful, but I don’t think any of them are listening to Phish in the car or anything.”
For Wittels’ birthday, I thought it might be nice to finally share that 600-word email about Phish. The man is gone, but maybe Wittels’ words can finally turn somebody around on his favorite band.