Stephanie Wittels Wachs is seven months pregnant. She has a four-year-old with a fever and a hearing impairment. Her kid brother is dead. And she doesn’t have time anymore for your crap—or even her own.
“You know, Harris’ death changed everything,” says Wachs, who also runs the Rec Room, a local arts venue. “Now, I just don’t obsess over things. I don’t worry as much. I don’t have control over anything. Nobody does. And we’re not here on this planet for very long. Just live your life, right?”
This newfound philosophy came in the wake of her brother’s 2015 death. Harris Wittels, just 30 at the time, was a bona fide Hollywood wunderkind, with writing credits for the Sarah Silverman Program, Parks and Rec (where he also occasionally played Animal Control Officer Harris), and was slated to work on Aziz Ansari’s new series, Master of None. He wrote jokes for President Barack Obama. He did standup. And, because he was an addict, he died of a heroin overdose.
Wachs explores Harris' life and her own grief in a new memoir, Everything Is Horrible and Wonderful: A Tragicomic Memoir of Genius, Heroin, Love and Loss. It’s a book that veers from the funny to the heartbreaking, often in the same sentence. Wachs’ writing is raw, laced with anger and humor. And, given her brother’s antics, comedy isn’t hard to come by.
Case in point: One time, the NBC brass emailed the entire company regarding mandatory sexual harassment training, which included a note that the session would take place in a multi-purpose room where “there will be bagels. And coffee.” Harris hit reply all and shot off a one-line response: “Will the bagels be shaped like p*ssy holes?”
Inappropriate? Yes. Irreverent? Also yes.
“He told jokes,” Wachs says. “We told jokes as a family. It’s part of who we are. No matter what the situation, we deal with it with humor.”
But humor didn’t solve the problem of grief, and Wachs found herself emotionally shattered after his death. That's when she started jotting down random thoughts in the Notes app of her iPhone late at night.
“I’d spend hours writing about things that had happened that day,” she says. “Writing was the only thing I could do. I couldn’t function.” Then her husband, Mike, suggested she organize her thoughts, which she published on Medium with the title “The New Normal.”
“The response was amazing,” Wachs says, still sounding surprised. “People would write, ‘I know how you feel,’ or even, ‘I don’t know how you feel, but I can relate.’ There was just this outpouring of support. You don’t always find that on the internet.”
When a literary agent approached Wachs, she decided to write the book. Aziz Ansari wrote its foreword. On February 26, she’ll appear on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Shortly after, she’ll be in Los Angeles, where members of Upright Citizens Brigade are doing a comedy tribute to Wittels.
“I emailed Sarah Silverman and I said, ‘Do you think we might do something for Harris to maybe help promote this, and she was like, ‘Done, on it.’ People would do just anything for him, he was so loved.” (Proceeds will go to the Harris Wittels Fund, which gives money to graduating seniors from his alma mater, Houston’s High School for the Visual and Performing Arts.)
Today, Wachs has no interest in self-pity, and she doesn’t sugarcoat her brother’s addiction. She now knows that grief, much like life, is messy and terrible and funny, and the only thing to do is to keep going—which is exactly what she says her brother would’ve wanted.
“Harris was the funniest, the smartest, the most creative. Nobody else had a brain that worked like his,” she says. “And he had this tremendous compassion for people and an understanding we’re all damaged somehow. The title comes from a tweet he sent: We’re all horrible and wonderful and figuring it out.”
That sentiment is on a needlepoint portrait of Harris Wittels that hangs above the bar at the Rec Room.
“There’s this tendency to vilify people today,” says Wachs. “But what we really need is to tap into that kind of compassion Harris had. Nobody’s all good. Nobody’s evil. There’s not one right way.”
As for Wachs herself, she is still finding her own right way. She fears failure less now, realizing that she’s gone through something worse. She’s raising what she calls “the most talkative daughter.” And in two months, that daughter will have a younger brother—who will be named, in some way, after his uncle.