#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.


Broad City: A Toast to Elaine Stritch

We lost a good one yesterday, folks. Elaine Stritch – actress, singer, and the ultimate performer – passed away at the young age of 89. Or at least that’s what she made it seem like, anyways.

Elaine was known for her brutal honesty. Her salty candor. Her tart tongue. Her brassiness (is that even a word?). Her refusal to wear pants. Her unwavering ability to tell it like it is and not apologize for it. She was the absolute definition of a broad (in the best way possible). Elaine was what a lot of women, and men too, I imagine, wished they had the courage to be. She was fearless and she was truthful, classy yet not, and admirable all at the same time. A true legend and icon that will never be matched in our lifetimes.

And then there’s her talent. Ooh did she have it. A lot of people from our generation or younger are most familiar with Elaine as the wise-cracking equally as opinionated and verbal Colleen Donaghy, mother to Alec Baldwin’s Jack. I think this clip properly summarizes her character on the show – behind the caustic exterior is a woman who is caring and loving, despite the fact she doesn’t show it. Like, ever.

But Colleen Donaghy was just a role towards the end of her impressive career. She made her Broadway debut in 1946, and went in to appear in Wonderful Town and a number Noel Coward plays. However it was Stephen Sondheim (Steve, she called him) that helped her become the iconic Broadway actress she is/was today. In 1970, she was cast as the vodka-stinger drinking Joanne in his show Company, a role she was born to play. Or rather, was born to play her.

The character of Joanne was not only written for Elaine Stritch, it was based on her, or at least on her acerbic delivery of self-assessment, as exemplified by a moment George Furth had shared with her: they had entered a bar at two in the morning and Elaine, well-oiled, had murmured to the bartender in passing, ‘Just give me a bottle of vodka and a floor plan.’”
— Stephen Sondheim in Finishing the Hat on the late, great Elaine Stritch (1925-2014)

Shortly after the show opened on Broadway, a documentary of the cast recording the soundtrack was released, and in a memorable scene, Elaine is shown recording her classic song Ladies Who Lunch to less than perfect recordings. She eventually got the hang of it, and  what resulted was an act of genius, both on Sondheim’s behalf and Elaine’s on point delivery.

Fast forward to 2002 when she opens her one woman show on Broadway, Elaine Stritch At Liberty (which you can view in its entirety here). She talks about everything throughout both her professional and personal life, like the time she had a horrible date with Marlon Brando or describing the pain she felt after her husband’s death with the only way she knew how – a song from Sondheim’s Follies. She won her first and only Tony Award for the show, and the same guy who made the Company documentary turned At Liberty to a documentary as well in 2002, earning her an Emmy for Best Performance in a Variety Special in 2004, providing one of the most entertaining acceptance speeches in Emmys history.

Elaine took on Broadway one more time in the revival of Steve’s A Little Night Music, and appeared in a number of cabaret shows, which she performed in a cabaret below her apartment. And by that I mean she lived at NYC’s Hotel Carlyle and performed in the cafe downstairs. Woman was still energetic even into her 80s (I mean, I’m obsessed with this interview from last year. Doesn’t miss a beat). In 2013, after being a New Yorker for years, Elaine decided to move back to her homestate of Michigan in a subrub outside of Detroit.

“She doesn’t miss New York? “You say that like it’s not true!” she says. “I feel good about being here. When the hospital sends for me, when the ambulance comes and I ease my way out of the world, I’d rather be in Detroit, Michigan, than Lenox Hill. Pfft.” She actually spits. – Interview with Vulture in 2013 {x}

With Elaine gone, there’s an Elaine-shaped hole in the world of Broadway, in the world, really. It’ll be hard to ever find someone like her on the stage again. But here’s a toast to what Elaine left behind. A legacy that will be cherished for years. The tears, the laughter, etc. etc. etc. She probably wouldn’t want too much hullaballoo and ass kissing during her time of mourning anyways. So, let’s just drink to that.

 “I pray that I may live expectantly. To live expectantly – what’s going to happen on Sunday, and on Sunday what’s going to happen on monday? In the meantime, stay where you fucking are and enjoy it the best way you know how.” – New York Times Interview, 2008 {x}