Harris Wittels started out as a stand-up but has since branched out. He currently serves as staff writer and co-producer on Parks And Recreation, wrote for all three seasons of The Sarah Silverman Program, and contributed to the upcoming third season of Eastbound & Down. He made a name for himself as a frequent guest on Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang Bang podcast, where his fan-favorite feature “Harris’ Phone Corner” (or sometimes “Foam Corner”) has him reading out rejected jokes saved on his phone, usually to silence and derision from the other guests. Wittels and Aukerman have spun off another semi-recurring podcast called Analyze Phish, in which he tries (and repeatedly fails) to convince Aukerman to like his favorite band. He’s also the mind behind the Humblebrag feed on Twitter, which retweets underhanded or self-deprecating attempts at bragging, usually by celebrities. Its notoriety has become so widespread that before The A.V. Club even begin asking questions, Wittels had to make something clear.
Harris Wittels: First, just a disclaimer, because I feel like whenever I talk about Humblebrag, people try to call me out on the fact that that is in and of itself a humblebrag. So I’m putting it out there that this whole thing is a humblebrag. So now no one in the comments section can say that.
The A.V. Club: Is that the bane of your existence now, people calling you on humblebrags?
HW: It truly is. I can’t really say anything, I can’t speak anymore.
AVC: So how did you get into comedy? You went to Emerson College—
HW: Yeah, I went to Emerson, I graduated in 2006 with a degree in TV/Video. I don’t do so much video now. I don’t know what that whole thing was about, but technically that was what my degree was for. Then I came out here [to L.A.] and interned at Comedy Central for my last semester at Emerson. Then I ended up out here doing stand-up and doing weird jobs. I was a nanny for a while for a French family. I was just doing stand-up, and then Jarrett Grode—television’s Jarrett Grode from Undeclared, he was Perry The DJ—he was booking Largo at the time, and he got me a spot on the Sarah Silverman show there, and I opened for her. I had never met her, but she saw a set that I did and liked it, and we ended up hanging out a little that night, shooting the shit or whatever, and then I didn’t hear from her for a few months. I wasn’t expecting to—it was just a cool thing.
AVC: You weren’t sitting by the phone, furious?
HW: Yeah, I was like, “What the fuck, what was all that for!” No, I was still just doing my day jobs, and then she was like, “We have a spot on my Comedy Central show, and if you want to submit stuff, you can.” And I did, and I got that job. So that was early 2007. I was 22.
AVC: Was that intimidating? You were probably the youngest guy on staff.
HW: Yeah, I was the young guy. It’s very intimidating. I had never worked in a writers’ room before. I had never been a writer’s assistant or anything. I didn’t know what etiquette there was, I was just being thrown into it, and learning as I go, and making, for the first two months, the most embarrassing pitches. If I look back on them, they were just hackneyed, but that’s how you learn. Sarah’s show was kinda different, because they try to fuck with the format a little bit, and to have that be your first job, to have to skip over regular storylines and jokes and go into, not meta, but that next level… I was like, “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” But she stuck with me, and I stayed there ’til the end of the series. Then jumped over to Parks And Rec.
AVC: What was that transition like to this big-deal network thing?
HW: Sarah’s show was like a family. That was the first people I knew in Hollywood, the only writers’ room I really knew. I remember the first day I was at Parks, she sent over a big photo collage from the Sarah writers’ room that had pictures of every deviant act that ever happened there. It was just a lot of dicks out. So that was delivered to my new job on my first day, and I was mortified, because I’d never met these people before, and I knew they all went to Harvard. But you hear about Harvard sometimes, you know, how they’re like, smart rooms. But now I’ve gotten to know these people, and Mike Schur and Dan Goor and Alan Yang, they’re just as childish as any other group.
AVC: Were you on the show right from the beginning? Were you on that short first season as well?
HW: No. I came on in season two.
AVC: That transition from the first to the second season was where the show started to gain in popularity. Was there a dialogue in the writers’ room to the effect of “We have to make some sort of change?” People thought Amy Poehler’s character got more—
HW: She got more competent. It was definitely a conscious decision on everyone’s part, like, “Let’s tweak it a little bit.” But if you go back and watch the first season, it’s not that different. You just have to get to know these people, and then you like the show. Unfortunately, I think the ratings were the best in the first season. I think people maybe didn’t give us a shot again after. They put us after The Office again, and our ratings still weren’t doing great. I just wish a lot of people would start watching the show again.
AVC: But you guys seem to be doing okay, and you got the Emmy nomination this year for Comedy Series.
HW: I think that critically, we’re very happy with where we are, and we have our core audience who loves the show, so that’s great.
AVC: Do you have a character you like to write for the most?
HW: Um… Every character on that show fulfills a different part of what’s fun to write for comedy for. Writing for Tom gets to fulfill the douchier quotient, and writing for Andy, you get that dumb, big Labrador retriever, and Ron is the weird libertarian… I mean, he’s Ron. Oh, my favorite character to write for is Kyle at the shoeshine stand.
AVC: The guy who Andy is constantly kicking off the stand?
HW: Yeah. It’s funny, there’s like a hierarchy of bullying on that show. Everyone’s mean to Jerry, but really, Kyle is at the bottom of the ladder.
AVC: Parks has a lot of those side-characters you bring on every so often.
HW: Yeah, it’s cool, if we need something, we kinda have it in our toolbox. Like, “Oh, we need a news anchor, we can use Perd or Joan.”
AVC: You’re in a lot of comedy media. You do stand-up, you write for Parks, you’re frequently on Twitter and on podcasts. Did you choose that multi-pronged approach?
HW: I don’t really know what I’m doing, on the whole. You can’t really choose what path comedy takes you down, you just have to follow whatever’s working a little bit. I don’t really know what I am.
AVC: Do you think that’s the way comedy works now, because there are all these different avenues?
HW: Yeah. Like, the podcasting thing has probably exposed me to the most people. That was predominantly from doing the Comedy Bang Bang podcast.
AVC: On that show, you have that awkward chemistry with Scott Aukerman. How did you come to be a repeat guest there?
HW: Well, I’m buddies with Scott, and we don’t really have that dynamic in real life. We kind of are just like equals in real life. On the show, I did that “phone corner” thing where I read bad jokes out of my phone. Some of them, I don’t even think are bad. I think that Jimmy Pardo being on that first show also helped, like he was going to fly at me for anything.
AVC: How did Humblebrag come about? When you started up on Twitter, was the phenomenon immediately noticeable?
HW: It kind of grew and festered within me. I remember one day, these comedians, who will remain nameless, but if you go back and check the first retweets on Humblebrag, you’ll see them… I remember being like, “Hey guys, if you’re gonna brag, don’t be humble about it!” I was making really empty threats, and then I was talking to the Parks And Rec staff, and they were all like, “You should start doing it.” So I started doing it, and people started submitting, and it just grew from there.
AVC: What do you make of that success? Fans speak of it like a necessary check and balance on Twitter.
HW: It kind of started as a joke, and now people can almost be dicks about it, where if I retweet someone, they’ll attack them on Twitter. And it’s like, “I’m not really angry at these people.”
AVC: But you have this mob at your disposal now.
HW: Yeah. It’s completely dwarfed my actual Twitter account. I wish people liked my jokes as much as it, although that’s probably the biggest humblebrag I’ve ever said. “I wish people liked my jokes as much as this other thing that I do.” I’m writing a book now for it, so that’s been taking up most of my time, and I’ve been neglecting the site a little bit. The emails have been piling up. But we’ll see how far we can take this thing before people get sick of it. Which is really around the corner, because there’s a lot of Humblebrag knockoffs now, and I’m not going to name them, because I don’t want to give them publicity, but I hate them, and they’re bad at it.
AVC: But this is the price of success: horrible imitators.
HW: Yeah. I started getting in a feud with one of them, emailing him about how this is what ruins things, a bunch of shitty imitations to the point that the public is just sick of the whole thing. And then Mike Schur told me to stop engaging, and they will go away. So I’m doing that. I’m very reactive, I think. I’m down to throw down with people. Online, of course. Not in person. I did get in a fight at the last Phish show at the Hollywood Bowl, because I found a nice quiet corner to pee into a bottle in, because I didn’t want to miss a song. And a large Phish-fan meathead was like, “What the fuck are you doing, man?” And he physically accosted me and picked me up and carried me. It was insane, I was getting in a fight, and he was so much bigger than me. I’m not a big guy to begin with, and he was a big guy to begin with. And this is the most cowardly thing I’ve ever done, but my survival mode was to ask him, as he’s manhandling me, if he was a fan of Parks And Rec. I was going to try to relate to him on some level.
AVC: That was your, “Don’t you know who I am?”
HW: I was like, “I write on that!” But he’s on acid and having a bad time, and was like, “I don’t know what you’re saying.” And then I waited ’til after the show and publicly shamed him. But to get back to Humblebrag, I have a tendency to yell or freak out, and I just have to remember, if it’s shitty, it’ll just go away.
AVC: You started out doing it semi-anonymously. Was that intentional?
HW: It was only anonymous for the first few days, and then I was like, “I hate Internet anonymity more than anything right now,” and so I was like, “If people are going to confront me for retweeting them, they should get to do that.” So I tweeted that it was me, and people said that was a humblebrag. But I haven’t really been confronted by anybody—people have been cool about it.
AVC: You haven’t got in any public Twitter wars yet.
HW: Totes McGotes, who’s like the MVP of humblebragging, has been so nice about it. A couple of female models have been like [affects bitchy voice] “Fuck this,” and then that’s the extent of it.
AVC: Would you like to meet Totes McGotes? He’s your favorite humblebragger.
HW: We’ve talked in direct messages about doing an interview, going to his mansion in San Diego, and interviewing him for the book, or the next Grantland column. We’ll see what happens. He’s constantly in Vegas. I’ve never seen a human more in Vegas who does not live in Vegas.
AVC: So you think Internet anonymity is bad?
HW: It is, the fucking worst. I think all Internet comments should be disengaged. But I kind of live and die by it. It’s completely irresistible. It’s not like comedy. When I do a podcast or write an episode of TV, I have no feedback for that. That’s the only way you know what you’re doing is good or bad.
AVC: Is getting great comments a rush equivalent to getting laughs in stand-up, vs. that depressing feeling if they’re bad?
HW: Yeah. It’s bad, and it’s multiplied by a million. If you can get 10 good comments on the Internet, you get the one [bad one], that’s the one that ruins your night. In a comedy club, if one person’s not laughing, I don’t care about that guy.
AVC: You’re in a band, Don’t Stop Or We’ll Die. Is that for fun more than anything else?
HW: If I could quit comedy and just tour with them, I would do that in a second. It’s such a relief to be onstage and just play drums and not have to worry about making people laugh. Essentially, all of us have these other things that we do, and that’s just the fun thing we get to do on weekends. We’re trying to meet once a week now, but it’s falling apart rapidly. Hopefully we’ll record something soon.
AVC: You seem to have a million jobs.
HW: Parks And Rec is, like, my full-time job. I’m there from 9 to 9. Usually I’ll get home and decide to avoid all work altogether and go out, or I’ll just stay in and not want to fucking think about writing. It’s tough, doing comedy all day. You don’t feel compelled to work on a screenplay or a book. I’ve kind of just accepted at this point, I’ll just be a loser with no life and I’ll just work, and then I can relax and it’ll pay off later.