Harris Wittels: The Parks and Rec Writer Gets to “Analyze Phish” (Throwback)
Following Harris Wittels’ tragic passing last week, we revisit this conversation which originally ran in February 2013.
Harris Wittels is a man of many hats: television writer, comedian, published author and musician. He’s also a very vocal supporter of the rock band Phish. From his work on Parks and Recreation to his podcasts, Phish seems to infiltrate most aspects of his professional and personal life. Last year Harris attempted to convince his fellow comedian Scott Aukerman to like Phish. The podcast called “Analyze Phish” followed the story of one man’s extremely comical journey into Phish and ultimately to MSG for one night of the New Year’s run.
Harris was kind enough to take a break from his busy work schedule to talk about the development of “Analyze Phish,” the musical tastes of the Parks and Rec staff, closeted Phish fans in Hollywood and the inability of his own band, Don’t Stop or We’ll Die, to make it into SXSW.
“Analyze Phish” can be streamed and downloaded here.
I was listening to Analyze Phish and you said you were from Houston, I grew up there, did you ever make it out to The Last Concert Cafe?
Yeah I was in a jamband called Pralines and Dicks and we played at Last Concert every Wednesday on the jamband night. I Loved Last Concert, I still have a live recording of our last show that we ever played and it was at Last Concert.
We were pretty not great in hindsight. We just really liked Phish and String Cheese, and we were like, “Let’s start a band.” We were just a very shitty knock off. We would even do the same covers as Phish, “Good Times Bad Times,” “2001…” [chuckles] We had 17 minute jams and we weren’t awful but when I listen back to it I am like, “There is nothing fresh about this.”
I want to start with the how you first came to our attention here in the office, “Harris’ Foam Corner” on Comedy Bang Bang. Then “Analyze Phish.” Can you talk about “Analyze Phish” for the readers who are not familiar?
Well the basic premise is I have a friend [Scott Aukerman] who used to write for Mr. Show and he makes those “Between Two Ferns” videos with Zach Galifianakis. I met him when i moved out to Los Angeles just doing comedy. And he hates the Phish as a lot of people who have not listened to them do. That’s just the first opinion you have on them without hearing them, is a negative one.
Yeah we all have that one friend who pushed Phish on us. Some come back and some never make it back to give it a listen.
Exactly. I had my friend’s older brother push it on me, and I was like, “This sounds weird but there is something I like about it secretly.” So back to Scott, I would do his podcast Comedy Bang Bang and he would always make fun of me that I would follow Phish around and go see them. And we just thought it would be a funny idea for a show to have me convince him to like the band Phish. I said we’ll give him as many episodes as he needs to like them and if he likes them we stop doing the podcast, because I thought, “I know there is a way in. Everyone has a way into Phish.”
So I started the podcast and I asked for a list of his favorite bands and so he said Rolling Stones and Talking Heads and I found some covers. I think I played “Loving Cup,” “Crosseyed and Painless” and then that didn’t really take with him. He was like “This is just like listening to shitty versions of the songs”. I was like, “Ignore the first three minutes and listen to the ‘Crosseyed’ jam.” He actually kind of liked the jams and could get into them . By episode three I played him a “Hood” jam and “Slave” jam and he said, “Yeah I like this.”
Yeah it seemed like progress. But there is only so much you can do just listening to Phish, as you know. You have to go to a show and that’s when you can get the full experience. So he agreed to go see a show on the New Year’s run last year. At MSG he saw the 29th.
I thought those earlier nights were a bit better.
Yeah I thought the whole run was good but it seemed like Phish by numbers. There were no jams that stuck out. They didn’t do anything all that crazy
Not like that Dick’s Sporting Goods run at the end of the summer.
What sucks about that run is that I am always working at Parks the Friday before Labor Day. And so I always go to Dick’s the second two nights. Last year I missed the “S” set and this year I missed the “Fuck Your Face” set.
But the second two nights were amazing. That “Light” jam I still listen to.
Where were we? He came to the show with me. He’s not a drug user but he said, “I’ll take whatever you give me to like this music.” I should say I don’t always imbibe at shows.
He ultimately he said he likes them but doesn’t want to go to another show. So it wasn’t a black and white conclusion but we stopped doing the show after that. Where do you go from there?
So there are no plans for an episode 5?
Well I want to do another one but with another person who is as funny as Scott and who doesn’t like Phish as much as Scott. So I’m just trying to find that special someone. Scott was perfect because he was passionate about music and very opinionated about Phish. I asked Paul F. Tompkins, who is one of my favorite comedians, I thought he would be good on it. But he was like, “I just don’t hate Phish that much.” We need to have that to have a funny arc for the series. So I’m just waiting. It’s the most fun ever to pick jams for these people to listen to and watch them be forced to like it.
So overall how do you think you fared at your task of getting him into Phish, would you change your approach?
I would, because it was an hour long podcast you had to play excerpts but I think I would like to play whole “Antelope.” I wouldn’t start with covers because they would just compare covers to their favorite bands. So that was probably a bad entry point. I started it with studio recordings from Billy Breathes, which I don’t think I would do again since that’s not really who Phish is, even though I thought Billy Breathes was a good entry point because that was my first Phish CD, and that what I got into listening to them.
How long have you been a fan?
My first show was September 25, ‘99 in at the Woodlands in Houston. I was literally a fan since that night. It was the most amazing concert experience of my life. It wasn’t even that great of a show but even a regular Phish show especially pre-hiatus is gonna be better than anything else you see.
Do you ever go back and listen to that show?
I revisit it pretty frequently, less frequently now especially since Live Phish is available, now so I just listen to shows from the current tour, when I have time to listen to whole shows. But it was great, I remember the moment “Bowie” reshaped my opinion on what music could be.
I’m curious because I have tried to get some of the uninitiated friends as you call them into Phish. Do you think it was harder to get Scott Auckerman into Phish or dealing with the criticisms that the various message boards threw at you?
There nothing more annoying than Phish fans, and that’s coming from one. Just that everyone has their favorite show, everyone has their favorite jam of a particular song, and if you disagree you are just wrong and it’s very annoying. When it’s all being aimed at you, you are like, “What do you people want from me?” There is no right answer to this, I promise if i went with danknugs27’s opinion you would have reacted the same way. “You should have shown him Denver 91 not Denver 93 you idiot.” Well it’s all the same to a guy who doesn’t know Phish. I would get these really long essays from people, and I appreciated it but what they also need to realize is we are trying to make an entertaining podcast.
Were you kind of surprised at how many Phish fans and Earwolf fans latched onto the podcast? Where you expecting it to be as successful as it was?
No I had no idea who would like it or who would listen to it. You never know when you start something. And I was so happy when people got into it. People who did like Phish and people who didn’t. It was a fun debate by two people who love music. It was one of the most fun things I have ever done and I hope I get to do it again.
The cool thing is I have met [Lighting director Chris] Kuroda’s sister a couple times and she showed him a snippet from it- the part where everyone keeps talking about how Kuroda is the 5th member of the band. She showed him that and he laughed at it. I don’t know if it has gotten to the band yet but it has gotten to him.
One step closer…
Yeah, but I kind of don’t want them to hear it, there is a lot of shitting on the band.
Scott’s reaction to “Fluffhead” was pretty spectacular though.
They are used to it. If you watch Bittersweet [Motel] they laugh at all the bad reviews.
So you have been writing for Parks and Recreation for about 3 years?
I came in on season two and we are writing season five now.
Are you constantly playing crunchy Phish jams in the writers room?
I am not allowed to, I am allowed to play them in my private office and turn it up as loud as I want. Greg Daniels, who is one of the funniest comedy writers out there, he wrote on Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live and created the American Office, I was like, “I am going to introduce him to Phish and that will be his gift.” So I gave him a show and he was like, “Yeah I kind of like it” but he didn’t get into it.
Have you taken any of the other Parks and Rec staff to a Phish show?
No, I dragged my girlfriend to her first one which was Long Beach.
How did she respond?
She had a good time. We were dancing and stuff but by the time they go to the 25 minute “Rock and Roll” > “Ghost” segment she was like, “This is pretty boring” and went to get nachos. And even I was like, “I hope they do something with this jam.” People were like, “They jammed for 25 minutes!” But it doesn’t matter if you jam for 25 minutes if it doesn’t go anywhere. It was a lot of atmospheric stuff and for a first time fan it’s not gonna cut it. [Justin] Bieber was close to us, though. He was about ten feet over.
What do you think of the Dan Kanter’s Phish teases at Bieber shows?
I love that it’s just an inside joke between him and Kuroda. It seems like the biggest scale inside joke in the history of anything.
People seem to either hate it or love it.
It’s only great. Everyone else is wrong.
You are pretty vocal Phish fan. I am starting to think there are more Phish fans out there that aren’t all that vocal about it. Can you out some closet Phish fans?
Ha, it’s a lot like being gay at this point. I’m trying to think who I have seen at shows. Fred Savage, I am not sure if he is a closet Phish fan but I remember I interned at Comedy Central when I first moved to Los Angeles and I heard “Tweeprise” playing from my boss’s office. I went in there and it was his directing reel, the compilation you make to get directing jobs. You pick your own music and he chose “Tweezer Reprise.” That’s awesome.
Then Matt Besser who started Upright Citizens Brigade.
I didn’t know he was a Phish fan
Yeah, he’s a huge Phish fan and also a huge punk fan. When I first saw him he was wearing a Phish shirt and I was like, “Was that a joke?” And he said, “No I love Phish.” He’s a Phish fan so it comes from a good place with him. He went to college at Amherst and saw some pretty early crazy shows.
They are few and far between man. I think Conan likes them a little bit, Danny Devito…
What about your own your band Don’t Stop or We’ll Die, are we going to see any dates popping up in the future?
Our schedules are so crazy right now between the three of us, Paul [Rust] is writing on Arrested Development and I’m at Parks and [Michael] Cassady is doing a lot of acting stuff so it’s hard for us to actually tour. We always try to submit ourselves to SXSW each year but the questionnaire is always like, “How many shows have you played?” Ten, none outside of LA so they are like, “Alright you are not a real band.”
Well I put some on in the office and didn’t tell them anything before it started. We listened to “Once in Awhile,” “Getaway Grandmothers Club” and “Central Park.”
Did they dig it?
Yeah there was a moment when they realized that it wasn’t what they expected and it was great to watch them all perk up and get into it.
I appreciate that. The most fun ever is getting to play music with your friends. It’s much less pressure than doing stand-up, where you are onstage and have to talk non-stop and make people laugh. It’s fun to fucking sit back and hit some drums.