Harris Wittels: (Most) Everyone Loves Phish
Photo by Dean Budnick
To celebrate the birthday of the late Harris Wittels, we offer this piece which he contributed to our 40th Anniversary issue. Wittels drew on his experience as the creator of the Analyze Phish podcast to share the techniques that nearly converted Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott into Phish fans.
I’ve found myself having the following exchange many times throughout my life: Some person will see my Phish T-shirt and say, “You like Phish?” Then, I say that I do and then they—without being prompted—let me know they, in fact, do not like Phish. What’s weird is 98 percent of these people will even admit they “haven’t heard much Phish.” They just don’t like ‘em. They don’t like “45 minute guitar solos” and they like “songs.” “Hey, me too!” I’ll say.
Anyone can get into Phish. They blend enough styles together that there is something for everyone. So, how do you get someone past what they think Phish is to show them what Phish actually is? You sit them down and make them listen to Phish. I started a podcast with this exact purpose in mind. My friend, Scott Aukerman (Mr. Show, Comedy Bang! Bang!) was not a fan, so he allowed me to play a bunch of Phish tunes for him and later, he even attended a couple of shows with me (12/29/11 at Madison Square Garden and 8/5/13 at Hollywood Bowl). Naturally, he had a fantastic time at the shows and could even appreciate them musically. I wouldn’t say he was a true convert, but he’s one of the more critical people I know, so just to see him dancing in neon glasses at MSG was a huge feat.
Phish fans can be dicks. By that I just mean that many of them think there is a “right” way to like Phish. By the same token, I received copious amounts of criticism from Phish fans saying I wasn’t playing Scott the “right” stuff. Many people were upset I didn’t just play him a full 20-minute “You Enjoy Myself” or “Harry Hood” or whatever. The bottom line, though, is this was predominately a comedy podcast and two guys silently listening to “YEM” doesn’t make for the best comedy. So, instead, I had to play him clips of various songs, then we would stop and talk about the clips.
So, here are a few tips you can use for getting someone into Phish because we all have that friend or family member who doesn’t quiiite understand why we would drive all the way to Hampton, Va. for one Phish concert.
First, it’s important to keep in mind what bands the person loves. Do they love Talking Heads or The Velvet Underground or The Beatles? Then, maybe start off with something from a Halloween show. Ease them in with something familiar to them. It also shows that Phish’s influences are bands that they like.
Play the shorter “poppier” Phish songs that you used to like before you became a Phish snob. These would be your “Farmhouse”s, your “Sample in a Jar”s, your “Bouncing Around the Room”s or your “Wading in the Velvet Sea”s. You may use these songs as piss breaks now, but remember the time you loved these songs and would put them on mixtapes for your girlfriend. They can’t all be 45-minute “Tweezer”s, nor should they be. Once again, Phish’s variance in their catalog is what makes them the best band on the planet.
Play a great “Harry Hood” with a solid peak. This is the first time Scott—and also Adam Scott, who was a guest for an episode—said, “Hey, I like that!” The version I played was from 12/1/94 Salem, Ore. The “Hood” peak is one of the most beautiful pieces of music in their whole arsenal. I’ve seen grown men cry during this song, and by that I mean I have cried during this song. (Note: The “Slave to the Traffic Light” peak works just as well.) (Second Note: What I mean by “peak”, if you don’t know, is that moment in a Phish jam where everything comes to a climax. You don’t think there is a higher note that exists, and then suddenly—BOOM—they somehow find that higher note, making everyone go fucking apeshit.)
Switch gears a little and play a killer “Tweezer” with a thick, gooey funk jam (and if you don’t like “Tweezer,” you are a piece of human garbage). I would recommend perhaps 6/24/00. Fish maintains such a delicious funk beat in this song for the whole time that I am convinced he is a robot every time I hear it. But then, I see photos of that show where he got naked and ran around the stage and am reminded he is a man—either that or the engineers who created him make incredibly accurate human penises. Play an insane composed piece of theirs and explain how intricately they compose them.
Play “the chase” in “Reba” or the palindrome in “The Divided Sky.” I also love “Fluffhead” and think it is a great example of everything Phish can do, both with the written stuff and the peak right before the end. (If you were at Hampton in ‘09, you know what I’m talking about.)
TAKE THEM TO A LIVE SHOW. You can only “get” Phish so much through computer speakers. It really takes seeing Phish in their element, which is live. And it also takes seeing a giant mass of happy, fanatical people all enjoying the same thing before you go “Hey, what am I missing out on here? I want in.” My first show, I wanted to understand the “Wilson” chant so badly that I immediately went home and researched its origins.
There you go. Good luck in your endeavors. And if it doesn’t work, just remember: Who gives a shit? You like Phish and that’s all that matters. The fewer people you convert, the more tickets and dance space there will be for you.
Harris Wittels (1984-2015) was a writer/performer who wrote for Eastbound and Down and Parks and Recreation, on which he played “Harris,” the animal control worker. He also created and hosted the Analyze Phish podcast.