#RIP: The Oddity of Celebrity Deaths

As I write this, it’s moments after the Parks and Recreation series finale. The episode left me, like many of you fans out there too, laughing and crying and alternating between the two. It’s a bittersweet moment as we say one final bye bye to one of the best TV shows ever to exist. I’m so, so glad with the way it ended, but in a weird place knowing it’s never coming back again.

It became even more bittersweet with the end card that read “We love you, Harris. – The Parks Crew”, a note I had been anticipating yet was just as teary-eyed upon seeing it. For those that might not know, this was a dedication to Harris Wittels, a co-executive producer, writer, and guest actor (Harris the animal control guy) on the show, who died last Thursday from a suspected drug overdose. He was 30 years old.

*This post gets deep. You’ve been warned.

I work in entertainment news. It is lit’rally my job to be on the “pulse” of what’s happening in the industry, so when my boss sent me the email of a news alert from TMZ with the headline “Parks and Rec Exec Harris Wittels Found Dead Signs of Overdose” and asked me to write it up, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I felt my heart drop a little. I remember having to read it multiple times to make sure I was comprehending correctly, and was kind of sick to my stomach after realizing it was real life. I checked online to see if anyone was talking about it yet, and slowly, then at all once, I saw “#RIP” and “so sad ::emoji sad face with tear::” sprinkled throughout my social media timelines. While social media condolences often seem contrite and insincere at times, I was especially moved to see his name trending worldwide, only because, forgive me, I just didn’t realize that many people were familiar with his work.

I didn’t know Harris personally. Of course, I was a fan of his through Parks, and I was a fan of his through his Comedy Bang Bang episodes, particularly of the ever ridiculous Farts and Procreation series. One thing we did have in common is that we went to the same college. He graduated two years before me, and while I didn’t know him then, Facebook tells me that we have mutual friends, that my former RA was his close pal, and that we both went to the same beloved study abroad program. Something to know about the school we went to is that it’s fairly small, with around 3,500 undergrads. There’s a joke that we’re part of a “mafia”, especially in places like LA and New York, because most kids who graduate go on to work in film, TV, theater, industries of that nature. Because there are so many alums in the entertainment industry, it’s one of those things where you’ll no doubt meet a fellow mafioso at a job you’re applying for or at a random party, and they’re most likely willing to help fellow grads out with a job or interview. When Harris died, I wasn’t just seeing randoms pay tribute to him online, I was seeing people I knew in real life. I got an email from the school career services center (because they send out job listings and LA events and stuff), with a note from one of the professors who counted Harris as one of his students, and who I knew from working with on an event back in the day.

In the email, he recalls how kind Harris was to the students in his classes, how he skyped in several times to answer questions about comedy or writing, and willingly gave out his email address for kids to contact them if they needed advice or help with a script. Mafia. Harris’ death hit a little closer to home for me than some, but I still didn’t know him, I’ve never met him, I didn’t know what he was like as a person.

But in the age where we listen to Comedy Bang Bang podcasts and watch TV shows like Parks and easily connect to people on Twitter and receive instant responses via Humblebrag, we feel like we do know them. We treat their death like they were our friend, our family, because they have been inside our homes, our cars, our headphones for years.

I don’t think I’ve ever been truly upset about a celebrity death until Cory Monteith. I was kind of a Gleek circa season 1 and 2, but, like many other fans, that petered off towards the end. I even went to one of their CD signings for the first soundtrack and got to meet Cory. It was brief. He had a huge smile. Had kind eyes. Very nice. But, again, I didn’t know him. He wasn’t my friend. But for some reason, when my friend told me the news of his sudden death – I can remember it so vividly – I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I couldn’t believe it. Watching the episode of The Quarterback where they say goodbye to him – forget it. I ugly cried through 98% of that. But what kept circling back in my mind is that Cory was a teen idol. There were tweens and teens out there who had posters of him up on their wall, and suddenly they find out he died from a drug overdose? The only thing I could compare it to would be if a member of BSB passed away from alcohol poisoning back in 1999. I would have been completely devastated and unable to properly cope with my feelings.

In addition, we live in a world where we not only feel like we spend so much time with celebrities in the privacy of our own homes, we now have the ability to reach out to them in a form that’s not a fan letter sent to some random Post Office Box on Santa Monica Boulevard. Kids these days have Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat. The chances of Harry Styles or Ariana Grande or Cory Monteith replying to your declaration of love or fan art is 10 times higher than me getting a signed autographed headshot of Leo DiCaprio in 1997. Celebrities just connect with people in such a different way now that we actually have evidence to prove that the delusional friendship might actually be… real.

And similarly, there are a handful of really important and powerful celebrities whose star status is enough for us to come together and agree that their body of work is worth praising. We had it with Robin Williams, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson in recent years. In the wake of their sudden deaths, we saw an outpouring of condolences and #RIPs for these people that most of us had never even come face to face with. But they were a part of our lives – their work marked important milestones for us, provided bonding moments with friends and family, and that’s why we mourn them. Not because we’re friends with them. But because their contribution to society made an impact on a single life.

All this TL;DR isn’t to say we shouldn’t grieve people in the public eye, especially when their passing is sudden and tragic. It’s that we should. And one step further, it’s to learn from it and let friends and family know you’re there for them and resources are always available if they think they’re going down the wrong path. I feel like I knew Harris through the Mafia. I encountered Cory’s kindness for a few seconds. But my sadness, like many others, shouldn’t be dismissed because it’s for celebrities we’ve never met. It’s because their lives still mattered to those who did know them. Their lives matter. Our lives matter. All lives matter.