Comedian Harris Wittels is witty and thoughtful; his writing for NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation hinges on his subtle sensibilities. He's also a huge fan of Phish, a band with which those characteristics are not usually associated.
Having attended some 70 Phish shows over the years, he counts himself among the most devoted fans of the Vermont-based jam band. His friend Scott Aukerman — host of popular podcast Comedy Bang Bang — finds this perplexing, and not just because Wittels doesn't have dreadlocks.
“I can't believe that a college-educated man with a respectable job likes them so much that he follows them around,” Aukerman says. “Typical Phish fans are some of the most annoying people in the world.”
Wittels saw Aukerman's antipathy as a challenge; after all, Aukerman hadn't really heard all that much of the band's music. So in August the pair started a spinoff podcast called Analyze Phish, which consists of Wittels playing the group's music for Aukerman and trying to convince him of its merits.
From the start, Aukerman was skeptical about the experiment, and after the first three episodes — filled with deep cuts, cover tracks, live recordings and much pleading — he remained unconvinced. Though occasionally impressed by a riff or a solo, he found the lyrics particularly awful.
Scores of Phish fans tuned in (downloads surged into the six figures) and they questioned Wittels' methods. To truly understand Phish, they insisted, you must see them live. And take drugs.
Aukerman, who is tall and sinewy with a wispy beard, was game. Though the married 41-year-old, who lives in Toluca Lake, is not a recreational drug-taker, he agreed to the full experience at one of Phish's Madison Square Garden shows just before the new year.
Using his only week of vacation, he and his wife traveled to New York, though she declined to attend the concert and, in fact, begged Aukerman not to participate.
Some Phish fans claim one need not be high to get the group's music; most agree it helps. An altered mind state helps one appreciate the noodling solos, the synchronized trampoline routines and the trippy lighting. (Aukerman was told repeatedly that lighting designer Chris Kuroda is essentially the band's “fifth member.”)
And so he dove in, headfirst, downing beer, vodka and then, not long before the show was to start, ecstasy. It was his first time taking the drug, but it never kicked in. Folks at the Garden were friendly nonetheless; a girl handed him a fistful of glow sticks, while someone else offered him 3-D glasses.
“Everyone's really nice,” Aukerman narrated into a voice recorder he'd smuggled in, as Phish performed “Back on the Train.” “But this is awful.”
Refusing to be deterred, he next ate a chocolate laced with psychedelic mushrooms, and even took a mysterious substance called “moonrocks.” Then he smoked weed. Though he got a bit giddy — and even started dancing — euphoria remained elusive.
Which may be why, despite all of his efforts, expense and time among the great unwashed, Aukerman remains dubious of Phish's merits. But he's not giving up yet. “I still am not a fan, but I'm on my way to understanding it more,” he says. (You can hear his and Wittels' play-by-play of the Madison Square Garden experience on the new Analyze Phish episode.)
As for Wittels, while he appreciates Aukerman's open-mindedness, he's clearly frustrated by his inability to sell the group to another member of respectable society.
However, he remains devoted to the band. “You keep chasing the perfect Phish show,” Wittels notes.
While Aukerman and many of the rest of us can't relate, we all know experiences so great that you spend the rest of your days trying to re-create them. For many that involves our first time taking drugs, presuming, of course, that we actually got high.