"Horrible and wonderful and figuring it out": The Death and Mourning of Harris Wittels

Curator's Note

“It honestly feels like I lost a friend. Which is weird, because Harris Wittels was never aware of my existence. That’s podcasts for you, I guess.” After his death in February 2015, Harris Wittels was described by obituaries as being a writer and co-executive producer of “Parks and Recreation,” with even more acknowledging his creation of the term “humblebrag.” However, for many of Wittels’ admirers, the grief they felt at his passing stemmed from a conceived closeness to the comedian, thanks to his many appearances on comedy podcasts, as the above quote from the Earwolf Podcast Network message boards points out.

One can attribute these feelings to several specifics in Wittels’ situation -- first, the comedy podcast world is tighter-knit, with popular personalities trading appearances back and forth, particularly within a single network. Secondly, the most prolific comedy contributors are often improv performers capable of performing a different character each time. In contrast, Harris always turned up as himself, candidly discussing his dating life, his adoration for Phish, even reading the half-baked, often-terrible jokes he deemed unworthy of even Twitter. This openness eventually extended to his acknowledgement and description of his drug addiction, vividly discussed on Pete Holmes’ “You Made It Weird,” complete with tales both horrifying and darkly hilarious.

Traditional parasocial interactions between celebrity and fan were introduced as completely one-sided relationships on the part of the admirer. This definition has been tweaked with the rise of the Internet, with the prevalence of social media allowing the fan’s object of affection to sometimes directly respond to them. This was illustrated in Harris’ online life, where he gave out his e-mail address publicly and argued with critics and fans alike. Interestingly, numerous fans compared Harris’ passing those of Robin Williams (a fellow comedian) and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (a fellow victim of heroin overdose), pointing out that of the three tragic deaths, his was the one that hit hardest. As the commenter acknowledges, podcast personalities are still removed from their listeners, thus fitting the traditional parasocial model. However, the communal mourning for Harris was consistently framed through his relatability, indicating that the intimate nature of the podcasting medium has opened a newly liminal fandom space -- one that perhaps was not noteworthy until an untimely death brought it attention.

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