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Though Jonathan Katz may always be best known for providing the inspiration and lead voice for the fondly remembered Comedy Central animated series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, he's actually been in comedy for three decades. As one of the pioneers of an "alternative" comedy style later made popular by the likes of Steven Wright and Emo Philips, Katz gained a reputation as a "comedian's comedian," making his colleagues laugh while often leaving audiences scratching their heads. Dr. Katz provided the perfect vehicle for his sense of humor and show-business savvy, letting him show warmth and sneaky sarcasm in the scenes between his character and his slacker son Ben (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), and letting him play straight man to the roster of comedian friends who lined up to lie on the doctor's couch. In conjunction with the DVD release of Dr. Katz's first season, Katz spoke with The A.V. Club about his show, his stand-up years, his recent struggles with multiple sclerosis, and his days hustling ping-pong alongside college chum David Mamet. Seriously.
The A.V. Club: Typing your name into a search engine reveals a lot of Jonathan Katzes, so just to make sure: You aren't the gay playwright, are you?
Jonathan Katz: No. But people used to congratulate my dad and say, "I hear your son wrote The Faggot." My father would say very sweetly, "That's another Jonathan Katz." That same Jonathan Katz also wrote a history of gay America.
AVC: Have you read it?
JK: Read it? I lived it! There's another Jonathan Katz who wrote a book called Black Woman. I have all the Jonathan Katz books in my home on a shelf. Books I did not write. When you Google Jonathan Katz, sadly enough, the first thing that comes up is a bad-breath clinic in L.A. People think that's me, and my bad breath.
AVC: What was it like for you, working the club circuit during the stand-up comedy boom of the '80s?
JK: I'll tell you what it was like for me. I felt like I was wearing a tutu and performing for a bunch of pirates. I felt like I was not what the audience had in mind. I think they wanted to be titillated. There were a lot of first dates at the show, or bunches of guys out with their friends. They wanted sex, drugs, and drinking. And I'd talk about those things, but in a very gentle way. They didn't want to hear about my marriage, that's for damn sure. I don't even like hearing about it.
AVC: Did you have pockets of places where you felt appreciated?
JK: Yeah, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco. San Francisco was a great place to work, but I headlined there too soon, and I wasn't ready to do it. I think I had a genuine anxiety attack knowing that I was the star of a show. I didn't feel like a star. I felt like an opening act. It's a very subtle difference, just because you can do five more minutes when you're the star. I felt a little like a phony as a headliner until the arrival of Dr. Katz, oddly enough. The popularity of Dr. Katz won me the audience I'd been coveting all those years.
AVC: Where did the idea for Dr. Katz come from, and how did it come to fruition?
JK: Ah, that story, it's so dull. Can I tell a joke instead?
JK: It's about the collapse of the Berlin Wall, so it might be a little too dated. You may not get this. "The Berlin Wall would not have collapsed if it had been constructed like the Iron Curtain." [Pause.] Maybe that's just not funny. Sometimes I tell jokes to somebody, and if they don't laugh, I say it louder. I'm wondering if that's not always the issue.
AVC: Maybe it's just because of your subdued style. People aren't sure when the joke is over.
JK: That's right.
AVC: They're waiting for you to say something else.
JK: "And that is all!"
AVC: You need some kind of stinger catchphrase.
JK: Yeah. When I come back, I'll be funnier.
So, the genesis of the show was me meeting Tom Snyder in the early '90s. I was working as a stand-up comedian and an actor, and he and his wife saw me in a movie called Things Change, where I played a comedian named Jackie Shore. He loved my style of comedy. He discovered we were neighbors, so we got together and started working on different things together. He, at the time, had been building a company called Tom Snyder Productions, which is a really extraordinary educational-software company. He had just created this new kind of technology called Squigglevision, cause he's wicked smaht, as they say in Boston. The first project we did together was a short called "The Biography Of Mr. Katz," which was him playing my straight man, essentially. We both realized that I'd eventually run out of material, so we moved the conceit to therapy. We did some interstitials with three comedians—Dom Irrera, Larry Miller, and Cathy Ladman—with just me playing shrink to those comedians.
AVC: Were those people you'd had friendships with from your stand-up days?
JK: Yeah, I knew them from my stand-up days. Some of them, as it turns out, don't really like me. That's neither here nor there. What was really fun was, we were doing the show in Tom's house. You should've seen the expressions on their faces when they realized they weren't going to a studio, they were just going to some guy's pantry. When Steven Wright left, he said, "Someday, everyone's gonna have pantries."
AVC: Do you think that made them more relaxed, to be in a domestic setting rather than in a professional setting?
JK: It certainly made me more relaxed. Tom and I really didn't have any clue that the show would connect with so many people. We were trying not to embarrass our families. We weren't trying to entertain America when we started out.
AVC: Tom Snyder this isn't the talk-show host?
JK: No, everybody makes that mistake. Luckily it's not, no. It's a totally different Tom Snyder. He's an award-winning software developer. He won an award that only Mr. Rogers before has won, for excellence in educational broadcasting or something. He did a lot of other shows after Dr. Katz. One called Science Court, for ABC, also a Squigglevision Theatre production. And another wonderful show called The Dick & Paula Celebrity Special for FX. He and I produced some things: one which aired, called Julia's Point Of View, for NBC, and then some things which didn't air.
AVC: Some of the guests on Dr. Katz must've been people you didn't know, because they would've come along after you. Ray Romano, for example.
JK: Well, Ray Romano, I actually did know from stand-up. He and I used to work in Las Vegas and Atlantic City together, so he was a friend from stand-up.
AVC: Do you think his appearances on Dr. Katz had anything to do with him getting his own show?
JK: I'd like to think I discovered him, but no. One of the things you'll hear on the DVD is a bonus track where I'm talking to Ray, and I ask him point blank, "Ray, what has meant more to you ultimately, Dr. Katz or Everybody Loves Raymond?" And I wish I could imitate his voice, because he said, "That's not fair!" Because he's still in mourning for Raymond. I guess he's over Dr. Katz already, as opposed to me. I never got over it.
Now, somebody like Garry Shandling, I had never met. I'm a fan of his, and just the idea that he was interested in doing the show was exciting.
AVC: How did that work? Did people contact you, or did you contact them?
JK: Both. Garry Shandling was hosting a show, I think in Aspen, a young comedians' show for HBO. He was about to go on and I introduced myself in the dressing room. He was talking to his writer, this guy Jeff Cesario. They needed a joke, and I had just made up a joke a few minutes ago. They used it and it got an applause break. So after the show, he said, "I owe you one." Very mafioso. So he owed me one, and he did the show.
Here's the joke: Mike Tyson had just been released from jail that day. The joke was: "I'd like to say, on behalf of all my colleagues in the comedy business, and myself, to Mike Tyson: We were just kidding." So that was the joke. Cute joke.
So Shandling did the show. Later, we had Winona Ryder and What's the expression? "Jumped the shark?" I was too taken with my own success when I heard that she was a big fan. I pursued her, shamelessly. In retrospect, not a good idea.
AVC: You think moving away from having just comedians on was a mistake?
JK: Yeah, or maybe just having people who are not funny. Because Jeff Goldblum is a really funny guy.
AVC: When Dr. Katz debuted, Comedy Central was airing large blocks of stand-up comedy shows all afternoon. Then there was your show, with more stand-up comedians doing their material, but because they were just stating it instead of delivering it to an audience, it seemed funnier.
JK: Yeah. And also, the show itself, regardless of what anybody says, was really about a father and a son, and a shrink and his receptionist. The comedians were really wonderful, but the show was really about Dr. Katz and his son Ben. It's weird that so many live-action TV shows feel cartoonish, and this cartoon felt so real.
AVC: Were you bothered by the fact that Comedy Central re-ran Dr. Katz so much early on?
JK: I was flattered. Until I discovered there were no residuals involved. I couldn't get enough of it. I couldn't get enough of myself. The fact that friends of mine could hear my voice in hotel rooms. It was airing internationally, not just in this country. [Pause.] Here I am explaining the word "internationally." I mean not just in mainland America. My sister who lives in Puerto Rico could see it.
AVC: Did you think of the show as an ideal format for your style, maybe even more than stand-up?
JK: I don't know about the format, but the character. Playing a guy with my name, and my voice, and my likeness. And in animation, you don't have to shave, you don't have to worry about how you look. It's kind of a wonderful world, animation.
AVC: Do you think of yourself first and foremost as a stand-up comedian, or as a writer?
JK: I think I'm a comedian trapped in the body of an accountant. When I got onstage in Boston, I really felt like an accountant after following guys like Lenny Clark, Steve Sweeney, Kevin Meaney. Really wild guys. I would get up and people just sort of filed out slowly.
AVC: You should've packaged yourself with other low-key, slow-talking comedians. You and Steven Wright could tour together.
JK: I always wanted to do The Odd Couple with Steven Wright in summer stock. Spread the word.
I said to my manager once that Steven Wright is the only guy that made me feel dynamic. There's one other guy like us, but I don't think he does comedy any more, so I'm not going to mention him. Margaret Smith was really a low-energy comedian, and wonderful. She's half of one of my favorite episodes of Dr. Katz. It's her and Andy Kindler, in an episode called "Mourning Person," about a death in the family.
AVC: Why did Dr. Katz eventually wind down? Why isn't it on the air right now?
JK: I honestly can't answer that. It's a Comedy Central question. It's got something to do with money.
AVC: So it wasn't that you felt you'd done enough?
JK: No, I think it had to do with the network identity. It was sort of shifting demographically from middle-aged Jewish guys to young men.
AVC: Do people still call you "Doctor"?
AVC: Never happens?
JK: Well, it happened when the show was on the air, and people thought for years that I was an actual shrink. I stopped denying it at one point. I just started billing them.
AVC: You've had a fairly long-term friendship with David Mamet, correct?
JK: Still do.
AVC: When did you meet?
JK: We met in college in 1965, when men were men.
AVC: Which college?
JK: Goddard College. Goddard was like a hippie school. A druggie, hippie school, in the turbulent '60s and even for that time, it was considered bizarre. David was a total misfit there. And I became a total fit, sadly.
AVC: What were you guys studying?
JK: He was writing plays and reading stuff and writing stuff. I was exploring the differences between men and women all day and all night. Also, I made my debut as an actor at Goddard. I played the boy in The Fantasticks. I had to wear a rug. [Pause.] Sorry, old joke.
And then David wrote a revue called Camel, and we discovered that if you perform, it might be fun for you, but it should also be fun for the audience. He charged the students 50 cents to get into this play, which was unheard of. He did it because he wanted to pay the actors. He was on a real mission.
AVC: After you guys got out of school, you obviously stayed in touch to the extent where you could appear in his work later on.
JK: Yeah, I went to Chicago at his suggestion to work at the Niles Children Theater, and I auditioned for Alice In Wonderland and I didn't get the part. So I stopped acting for 20 years until he cast me in Things Change. I was so devastated, because nobody had ever said no to me as an actor.
AVC: Did you immediately go from being a failed actor to being a comedian?
JK: No, I went to being a failed musician. I had a band called Katz And Jammers for a couple of years, and a cabaret act, before I made the transition to stand-up. I eased into it.
AVC: You did songs and jokes?
JK: Yeah, then I phased out the music and phased in the comedy.
AVC: Somewhere during that period you worked with Robin Williams, correct?
JK: Thank you for reminding me. Yeah, in 1978 he was on tour with his first album, called Reality What A Concept, and I was one-fourth of his band. I was his musical director, and that was my main credit for years, until someone pointed out that Robin didn't sing. But I had a great time. It was really fun.
He actually did two of my songs in his act. One I had written with David Mamet, called "This Heart Is Closed For Alterations." Which Robin later did on Mork & Mindy. And another called "Born To Be Punished." We still get checks from Belgium for like $13. It's not really a lucrative thing.
AVC: How is your health these days? Has your multiple sclerosis subsided to a point where you can work regularly?
JK: Yeah. I'm working right now. What, you think this is fun?
If you were somebody I'd known for many years, you'd notice that I'm moving very differently. I don't walk as well as I used to. I cry like a girl. But it's mainly my mobility that's been affected.
I'm writing a book with a friend of mine named Bill Braudis, called Finding The Disease That's Right For You. He calls me up once in a while, saying, "Jon, there's got to be something bad about MS. Because not only do you not complain, you make jokes about it!" Which is either an incredibly great characteristic, or I'm in denial. So I write, though I don't read.
AVC: You don't read?
JK: I read my press to the blind once a week.
AVC: Have you been able to maintain a steady work schedule through all this?
JK: That was a damn good joke. I read my press to the blind every week. See, if I say it louder—not that funny.
Yeah, I've slowed down a little bit, but not significantly. I was never that fast to begin with. Although I am the former New York State ping-pong champion. I don't know if you read that anywhere. I was one of the best players in the country for many years. Nobody believes it.
AVC: People will read this and check to see if you're lying.
JK: Some people dispute it, but it's true. I was.
AVC: What's it take to be a top-flight ping-pong player?
JK: It took complete devotion and ignoring everything else in life. I pawned my violin to buy better ping-pong rackets. I used to steal from my mother so I had enough money to go across town and play with the best players. Americans thought they were the best in the world.
AVC: But it was the Chinese, right?
JK: The Chinese, and the Swedish, oddly enough. And the Japanese and the Koreans.
AVC: Did you get to play on the international level? "International" meaning "not just in this country"?
JK: Only in Canada. I would have gone to China, but instead I went to Goddard. I would have been on the team.
AVC: You were a ping-pong champion until you went to college, and that was that?
JK: It's a great place to meet chicks, by the way.
AVC: College, or ping-pong?
JK: Both. David Mamet and I used to travel around hustling people. We'd go from college to college, and I'd let him beat me. We'd pretend we were playing for money, and then David would say, "If you want to play me, you have to beat my friend first."
I'm not proud of this lifestyle. My favorite hustle was, I would spot somebody 15 points, and during every point, I had to recall some really painful experience from my adolescence.
AVC: You were saying them out loud as you were playing?
JK: No. It was the honor system.