As a practitioner of journalism, and as an appreciator and something of a student of comedy, the recent deaths of David Carr and Harris Wittels have hit me pretty hard.
If you’re unfamiliar with these names, as I suspect many are: David Carr was an extraordinary journalist who wrote and covered culture and media for The New York Times. He was also an author, a columnist, an editor, an ex-drug abuser and a survivor of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Less than three weeks ago, he passed away at the age of 58. Shortly after moderating a discussion about the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour, Carr collapsed in The Times’ office and was pronounced dead at the hospital. An autopsy revealed that his passing was the result of complications from lung cancer and heart disease.
Harris Wittels was a man with a brilliant comedic mind. He’s perhaps best known for coining the phrase “Humblebrag,” but he was also a standup comedian, a podcaster, an actor, a producer and an extremely gifted writer. Parks and Recreation, Eastbound and Down, and The Sarah Silverman Program are among the list of shows that Harris contributed to in his far too brief of a career. Like Carr, Wittels had also struggled with drug addiction, but unlike him, he never kicked the habit. Two weeks ago, he died at his home from an apparent drug overdose. He was 30.
Neither Carr nor Wittels were quite well known enough to be considered celebrities, but they were both masters of their craft who were revered in their respective circles. I didn’t know these men personally, nor did I have as much of a connection to them as I did with other artists/professionals/personalities’ whose deaths have affected me in my lifetime, such as, say, Red Auerbach, Michael Crichton or Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But be that as it may, their deaths have made me feel things both expected and unexpected, both general and specific.
I couldn’t say when, exactly, I became familiar with the work of David Carr, but I know that once I read one of his pieces, his name became one that I wouldn’t forget. While he wasn’t necessarily one of my go-to writers, he was one that I always appreciated whenever I stumbled across his articles. He was eloquent, thoughtful and brutally honest about whatever the subject matter may be. To me, his voice and his mindset stood for everything that I loved and admired about journalism. To countless others, he meant much more than that but, unfortunately, I didn’t know his full story or the impact that he had on everyone with whom he had come in contact until after he passed.
With Harris Wittels, on the other hand, I’m acutely aware of when and where I first saw his byline. Almost four years ago, Wittels took his clever “Humblebrag” Twitter joke and turned it into a monthly column. It was published by Grantland.com, at the time, a brand new, ESPN-backed, Bill Simmons-founded website that was attempting the very difficult task of combining sports, pop culture, long form journalism and witty, short form blog posts. The Humblebrag column was one of their experiments with the latter category. Now, if you’re still unaware of what a Humblebrag is, I’ll let Wittels explain.
“A Humblebrag is basically a specific type of bragging which masks the brag in a faux-humble guise. The false humility allows the offender to boast their “achievements” without any sense of shame or guilt,” he wrote in his first column, which listed his all-time favorite Humblebraggers. The setup of the article was that he would list a set of a Humblebragger’s tweets, and then he would do a comedic riff that pointed out the absurd contradiction contained in each one.
The term deals with an idea that is certainly ripe for ridicule, but it’s also a keen observation about how people communicate. The greatest compliment that a person can give to a writer or an artist of any kind is by saying that their work made them think about something in a different way. Nearly four years and countless laughs later, I can confidently say that the insights of Harris Wittels’ work have dramatically impacted the way that I examine and listen to people around me, and that his comic sensibility has played an integral part in shaping the sense of humor that I have today.
Together, Carr and Wittels make for a bit of an unlikely pair, which strikes me as somewhat fitting, considering that the conceit of Carr’s last published article was the juxtaposition of an unlikely pair (Jon Stewart, riding into the sunset, and Brian Williams, driven into exile). Each passing has served as a reminder of general truths of life and death: that what people say about the deceased is what people should have said when they were alive, that we should all fully appreciate the people that we’re fortunate enough to have in our lives, because they could go away at any time.
But beyond that, the connections that I keep making between the two were their decency and their desires to think differently and try new things. Since Carr’s passing, there have been a plethora of remembrances and tributes published, all of which tell tales of his immense kindness and generosity. He was the kind of man who was in touch with his feelings and wasn’t afraid to tell his friend “I miss you, and I love you”. He was the kind of man who consoled his mentees when other editors treated them poorly. He was the kind of man who was fiercely loyal and who would go through a brick wall for you if he believed that you were giving him his best.
Of all of the terrific tribute pieces, none is more touching or comprehensive than that of The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. In his emotional piece, he vividly explains how Carr pushed Coates from being an inexperienced, undisciplined kid into becoming the award-winning journalist and widely-respected thought leader that he is today. He tells plenty of stories about times when Carr would come down hard on him when he screwed something up, but he was his champion, always encouraging him to do better and think different, and always letting him know when he had done so. On one occasion, not long after getting chewed out, Coates walked in on him talking to another editor, and Carr looked up and said, “We were just here talking about your incredible fucking story.”
The stories of how Carr acted in the newsroom — how, as editor of a small alt-weekly, he wanted to compete with the biggest outlets in the country, how he never stopped tinkering with form, how he was the master of the medium, but he wasn’t afraid to embrace technology, and how he insisted on veracity above all other things – motivate me to a better journalist. But the stories of how he treated the people around him motivate me to be a better person.
Less time has passed since Wittels’ passing, but there has been a similar outpouring of grief and of memories by those with whom he worked. It’s been said over and over again that, while Wittels was an incredible comic talent whose humor could lead to very bizarre and dark places, he was also a very kind and likable person. It should also be pointed out that, even though his Humblebrags poked fun at people, they weren’t mean-spirited. More than once, he pointed out that it was all in good fun, and in one article, he discussed Humblebragging as a mild annoyance, but one that is a necessity of human interaction.
It’s overwhelming to consider how much he accomplished and how many lives he touched when he lived for such a short period of time. But his unique worldview and his curious outlook made him stand out. And, like Carr, the empathy that he displayed in his professional and personal life has significantly impacted the way that his peers have commemorated him.
RIP, David Carr and Harris Wittels. Two kind and inventive souls: both gone too soon.
Blake Baxter is the Sports Editor of Vinton Newspapers. Previously, he covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. Additionally, he’s written about sports, pop culture, politics and travel for Yahoo Sports, Yahoo Voices, The College Fix, Voice of TV and Continental Driftings, among other places. He is an Iowa resident, an Illinois native and a 2013 Eureka College graduate.