In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
Jonathan Katz is perhaps most familiar in his animated form on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, which found him delving into the psyches of his fellow comedians for six seasons on Comedy Central. Outside of the shaky, Squigglevision confines of that show, Katz has continued to work as a voice actor on such series as Home Movies and Bob’s Burgers (both of which feature much of the same creative team as Dr. Katz); appeared on Dr. Katz co-creator Tom Snyder’s web series, Explosion Bus; and can also be heard hosting the podcast Hey We’re Back. Most recently, Katz reunited with Jon Benjamin and Laura Silverman for Dr. Katz Live, a recorded stage performance of the show featuring Eugene Mirman, B.J. Novak, and Andy Kindler as his guest star patients. The performance is available for download from iTunes, Amazon, and other digital audio retailers.
Jonathan Katz: I worked at a pet store, and my job was to identify the gender of newborn hamsters. And you couldn’t do it visually. You had to actually come on to them. And some of them just didn’t find me attractive.
The A.V. Club: How do you go about seducing a hamster?
JK: The usual way. When my daughter—who now has kids of her own—was little, she had two hamsters: a boy hamster and a girl hamster. And then one day she had six hamsters. So I had to tell her that when a boy hamster and a girl hamster love each other, they can make babies. And then about a week later they had 30 hamsters. So I had to tell her about incest… That’s a joke they would not let me tell on Letterman because it has the word “incest” in it.
Another bad job I had was selling curtains at a place called Curtain World—which, I think businesses overstate their importance by calling themselves “Curtain World” or “Pizza City.” I worked there for six months, and one day the manager said to me, “It’s curtains for you, Jon Katz.” And I didn’t know if he was firing me or telling me I had found my true calling. I was selling shags and valences. Do you even know what those are?
AVC: I’ve heard of a valence. I don’t know what a shag is.
JK: Yeah, I didn’t know what either of them were. And I’m not sure I do now. But apparently, I wasn’t that good at it. I’m trying to think if there was something worse. Oh, I worked as a doorman in New York City. At nighttime, like from midnight to 6 a.m., on East 72nd Street. And I got fired because when somebody came home very late, I was probably sleeping. And they asked me to open the door, and I’d say, “Can’t you get it?”
JK: Well my mother, who died when I was very young, I think she wanted me to be happy. My dad also, who got to actually see me succeed as an adult. My dad, who lived until his late 80s, he was a ladies man, which I didn’t learn until he had died. And I did it by discovering the local chapter for Adult Children Of Sidney Katz.
I’m trying to think about the question again. What did my parents want me to be? I would say a Communist. Or some sort of labor leader. Something to do with unions. They were both activists and very politically involved.
AVC: Did you ever take any interest in politics?
JK: Not really. I’m becoming more interested now, oddly enough, because it’s very hard to live in the world and not be interested in politics. It’s so fucked up, what’s going on in the world, with the disease and violence. I never thought I would say that I feel like I’m competing with a disease for press. But you know, how’s anyone going to take an interest in Dr. Katz Live with ebola dominating the news?
AVC: There’s really only room for one of you.
JK: Yeah. I have this crazy theory—well, my wife thinks it’s crazy—that ebola someday will be used to save lives. I was watching something on TV last night about poisons and how they’d been converted into wonderful medicine over the years. So I don’t think it’s that crazy a theory. I just don’t think it’s something I’m gonna bring up that often.
JK: Heidi Klum.
AVC: Imaginary character Heidi Klum?
JK: Is it imaginary?
AVC: Well, she’s sort of imaginary. She can’t be like that in real life.
JK: Well, the reason I picked her is because she’s kind of like the reason why men go see a dominatrix. She’s so mean and so controlling—so everything you wouldn’t want in a friend. But she’s also quite sexy.
AVC: And sexiness is something you look for in a best friend?
JK: Oh, it’s a best friend. I’m sorry. I got mixed up. A best friend. I don’t know. Maybe… You know who David Paymer is?
AVC: He was in Mr. Saturday Night, Crazy People. But again, he’s a real person. You could just go be friends with him.
JK: Oh, we’re talking about fictitious. Who’s the star of The Good Wife?
AVC: Julianna Marguiles?
JK: She seems like a really good attorney. I think comedy and the law are very similar. Because good comedians and good lawyers both have an affection for language. And she’s beautiful. But again, that’s not what I’m looking for in a best friend.
AVC: I feel like you’re just sort of naming women you have a crush on.
JK: Wasn’t that the question?
AVC: It can be, if you want.
JK: Well… The guy George Clooney played in The Descendants. Or the guy Jason Segel played in I Love You, Man. Or the guy that Paul Rudd played in I Love You, Man.
AVC: So basically just sort of slovenly dudes.
JK: Yeah, who are both gross and funny. I was watching, just because it was on, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and I forgot how gross that movie is. It’s so full of fluids, like vomit and worse—or better. It’s funny and incredibly gross. My wife and I have seen I Love You, Man so many times it’s humiliating. The first time we watched it was with our two daughters in Philadelphia. And we don’t think it’s the kind of movie you watch with daughters. Which made it even better.
AVC: Paul Rudd has a big vomit scene in that one, too.
JK: Yeah, but at least it’s very short. As opposed to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, where she fills the car with vomit.
AVC: So you want to be friends with slovenly dudes who vomit on each other.
JK: [Laughs.] Boy, it sounds so unbecoming when you say it.
JK: It’s no longer on the air, but maybe you remember a game show called Password? I still play something called Audio Password. Because so many of my friends, and this one couple in particular from Montreal, are audiophiles. Do you know much about audio? About how they’re made and people who are superb in that field, in audio and audio engineering?
AVC: A little. I played music for a long while, and I’m friends with people who run recording studios.
JK: So Audio Password, I would say, “I’m going through a weird phase blank in my life.” And you have to fill in the blank. If you play guitar, you would get this. “I’m going through a really weird phase blank in my life.”
JK: Shifter. Or, “It’s not the telephone, but it starts like that.” The guitar that starts like “telephone,” made by Fender.
JK: Yes! You’re going to the lightning round!
AVC: Oh boy. That’s a lot of pressure.
JK: You know the troupe associated with Amy Poehler? A comedy troupe? The first word of the name of that troupe is associated with a musical instrument.
AVC: The upright bass?
JK: Yes! I can’t believe you win!
AVC: This is the first time I’ve ever won an interview.
JK: I’m sending you and your family on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Natick, Massachusetts.
AVC: I hear it’s lovely this time of year.
JK: It is. It’s the home of the Natick Americans. That’s such a local joke, I’m sorry.
JK: Self-involved. Bald. bad breath.
AVC: These don’t sound like very creative enemies.
JK: [Laughs.] Wait a second, let me try to narrow it down to people who don’t like me… “A fair weather friend.” Or, you know, one of the weird things about me that drives my wife nuts is I spend so much time in the past in my mind, and connecting with people who were friends years ago. And sometimes relationships are complicated by marriage. Are you married?
AVC: I am.
JK: So you know about that. Or you don’t. You can’t really invite all of your ex-girlfriends to your wedding, for instance.
AVC: Yeah, I would never do that.
JK: Well, you’re smarter than me. And so I guess my enemies would describe me as… narcissistic. But I think that all comedians are addicted to the same drug: adulation. Wait a second. I’m being helpful to my enemies. Let them figure it out.
I don’t think I have that many real enemies. I like to start rumors about people. I’m kind of a gossip, and I think people resent that, but I wouldn’t call them actual enemies. My politics sometimes gets me in trouble. But I don’t think I have many enemies. And if I do, they can make contact at jonathankatz.com.
AVC: Now you’re just trying to create new enemies.
JK: I’m trying to make myself available to my enemies. Yeah, I guess the world of self-promotion on the web, some people really don’t like. I understand it. I mean, I’m younger than most of my colleagues, but—did I say “younger”? I meant older. [Laughs.] That’s so weird. I’m older than most of my colleagues, but you know I’ve learned how to exploit myself using the Internet, and it feels both clever and a little cheap.
JK: It would be rare roast beef, Russian dressing, on rye bread, and it would be called the Jew McBurger. The Jew McMuffin.
AVC: Is this something you thought of before this interview?
JK: It just happens to be my favorite sandwich. Rare roast beef with Russian dressing. You know, there’s a place in New York called Katz’s Deli. And we once did a promotional event with Comedy Central where we tried to tie in the deli and the show. It was delicious.
JK: This is gonna sound so wrong, but I bought a young boy from Thailand.
AVC: You should just stop right there.
JK: Okay. [Laughs.] Wait. Let me try again. It was a 1964 Corvair.
AVC: For the boy from Thailand?
JK: No. The boy from Thailand was just when I was looking for a best friend. But the ’64 Corvair was one of the most unsafe cars on record, and I sold it to a friend of mine, and she died in it. How’s that for an answer?
AVC: Yeah, I’d say that just brought down the whole interview.
JK: She just lost control of the car. This was in Vermont, and the roads were very dangerous and snowy. I was in three head-on collisions in Vermont, and I was responsible for all of them. I had no respect for the snow. I thought it was just this white fluffy thing that made everything soft, until I drove into someone’s barn at about 80 miles an hour.
AVC: Even without the snow, you shouldn’t be going 80 miles per hour.
JK: Yeah, but that’s when I was young and wild, and driving from New York City to Vermont was a long ride. And a woman named Amy Berliner went through my windshield, and all she did was apologize for the mess she made. And then years later she sued me. Or my insurance company.
AVC: And you continued to drive, even after all this?
JK: Yeah, I became a pretty good driver. But now I don’t drive because my eyes are fucked up, so I can drive legally, but I can’t drive safely. So if you see me on the road, don’t wave.
JK: I don’t remember the name of it, but I’m going to sing a little bit of it. [Sings] “I rode my bicycle past your window last night / I roller-skated past your door at daylight.” It was made famous by this woman who performed in a nightgown in the ’60s. [Sings.] “I’ve got a brand new pair of roller skates.” Melanie. Melanie?
AVC: Right. If you’d sung the chorus, I would have gotten it. So you sing that at karaoke, even with the falsetto?
JK: Yeah, much to the embarrassment of my family. I forget what key it’s in, but if it starts low enough, I don’t have to but, I don’t mind doing the falsetto. I do a pretty good falsetto.
JK: On MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village in New York. It was during the folk music era, which lasted, I would say, only a few minutes longer than that movie made by the Coen Brothers about it. That movie lasted forever. But I lived in this walk-up apartment with my cousin Paul, up five flights of stairs. It was a railroad apartment, where you couldn’t make a left or right turn. There was a bathtub in the kitchen. But it was really exciting to be there. It was my first apartment. I’ve lived on every even-numbered street on the west side of Manhattan between 72nd Street and 96th Street. And they were all different degrees of flop houses. Do people still use that expression: “flop houses”?
JK: Well, they were dumps. They had bugs… I’m hoping that someday they’ll return to the world of one comedian on the bill and one folk singer. I miss those days.
AVC: Didn’t you try to have it both ways?
JK: By doing music and comedy? I did, and I was trying to create an act that didn’t require me to show up. There was so much prerecorded material in the act, I sometimes felt like my being there was unnecessary.
AVC: Very postmodern of you.
JK: Yeah, I was a hip, smoke-a-reefer guy… And now I’m quoting Lenny Bruce, which is not postmodern.
JK: This is true, and I’m not making this up. I can beat anybody—regardless of their age, their gender, their strength—in arm-wrestling, provided we play by the rules I dictate.
AVC: Okay, tell us the rules.
JK: I can’t. Because then no one will arm-wrestle me. But I challenge anybody. I would challenge any late-night talk show host to arm-wrestle, and I would challenge any professional wrestler to arm-wrestle. I’m saying, I would take them in less than 10 seconds.
AVC: And that’s only under secret rules that you won’t divulge until the contest.
JK: Right. Yep. That’s right. Because otherwise I can’t win.
AVC: To not lay out the terms beforehand seems a bit dishonest.
JK: Well, the nature of the game—the way it’s played by me—is a little bit dishonest. So, I’m certainly not going to apologize for that.
AVC: You don’t have to apologize.
JK: Look, I’m not gonna do it!
AVC: Fair enough. Has anybody ever taken you up on it?
JK: Oh yeah. Many people. Our cleaning woman. Who happens to be remarkably strong. She has amazing upper body strength. David Mamet, who’s a powerful guy both physically and creatively. You just can’t win. You can’t beat me. It’s just not possible.
AVC: We literally have to take your word for it.
JK: Yeah. Hey, this is probably a stupid thing to plug—or maybe it’s not so stupid: I’m going to be appearing live with Tom Snyder, who is a co-creator of Dr. Katz, and Tom Leopold, who is just the funniest man alive. And I can’t say that about too many people. He’s really, in terms of improvisational actors, in the Jon Benjamin category. I’ll give you an example of the speed of his comedy. He can turn anything you say into a gay innuendo. So tell me anything and I’ll be Tom Leopold.
AVC: I just returned from my grandfather’s funeral.
AVC: That was it?
JK: Yeah. He goes, “Hmmmm.” It’s just his expression, and the tone of his response. And then he also has this great catchphrase, which works for anything. If you pay me a compliment, I’ll do it. Pay me a compliment and I’ll show you what he does.
AVC: You’re a very adequate interview subject.
JK: “Well, I’ll tell you what’s not adequate is my respect for your talent!” It’s like an all-purpose comeback. He’s one of these guys who’s too talented. He wrote on Seinfeld, he also wrote on Cheers, he was a child actor like Harry Shearer. He was also part of this group called the Credibility Gap. Michael McKean was part of that troupe. Harry Shearer and Tom Leopold have collaborated many times, and Tom Leopold is Harry Shearer’s secret weapon. If he needs something extra funny, he’ll call Tom Leopold. And Tom Leopold can portray, with equal skill, Aretha Franklin and Barry White. He just doesn’t adjust his voice at all. And you can hear him on my podcast, called Hey We’re Back!
JK: I had Jackie Robinson’s autograph. He came to our home for dinner one night, and he signed a baseball for me. But I went out and played baseball with it the next day and I lost it. I also lost my shoes. I came home with no shoes and no baseball from Central Park.
AVC: How did Jackie Robinson wind up at your house for dinner?
JK: Because my father was part of an interdenominational, interfaith group. After he gave up being a communist and a labor leader, he went into the Jewish business, and he was a synagogue administrator, and it was in that role that he invited Jackie Robinson to attend an event, and he came over for dinner.
AVC: What was Jackie Robinson like as a dinner guest?
JK: A total slob. I would ask him to pass the coleslaw, and he would say, “Blow me.”
AVC: That is… unexpected. You never get a sense of that from documentaries.
JK: He was such a great athlete, I just don’t understand his anger at the dinner table. I just don’t get it.
12. Bonus question from Scott Aukerman: I’m having trouble turning my pilot light of my water heater back on. I’ve looked it up online. Supposedly, you’re supposed to push a button while putting a flame in there, but there’s no actual button. It looks to be an electronic switch, and it says in the instructions to turn and depress the “on/off” button. There’s no “on/off” button. There’s just an “up” and a “down” button. I’m just clueless. I don’t know if I should call the gas company and pay $100. I’d rather save the $100 by not calling the gas company and just handling it myself, but I’m clueless, so would they mind coming by to show me how to turn the pilot light of my water heater back on?
AVC: No, you wouldn’t mind, or no, he shouldn’t call the gas company?
JK: No, I wouldn’t mind.
AVC: So you’ll be by shortly to help Scott Aukerman with his water heater.
JK: Yeah, I’m happy to do it. He lives in Natick, Massachusetts, I’m hoping.
AVC: Maybe he could just bring his water heater there.
JK: It’s such a dangerous situation. Just the term “pilot light” has become kind of obsolete in the world of microwaves and convection ovens. Or maybe I’m just confusing my kitchen with the world.
AVC: Both are big and frightening.
AVC: And what question do you have for the next person?
JK: Have you ever had sex with an animal? I posed that question to Tom Leopold as Dr. Katz, and he said, “Yes, but that’s not why I’m here.”
AVC: Is that really a question you want an answer to? You want the answer to be “no,” right?
JK: It depends on who I’m asking. I think more people have than would be willing to admit. And that doesn’t mean that it’s always consensual. But there’s a law on the books in Vermont—I think it was introduced around 1920, and it’s still on the law books—that men in Vermont are not allowed to wear boots that go above the knees. Because doctors believed that syphilis was introduced to this country by men having sex with sheep. Which we now know is not the case.
AVC: Do we know that?
JK: Well, I think the jury’s still out. But the law is still on the books in Vermont. I’m not making that up. That’s one of the problems with comedians is that they confuse truth with funny.
AVC: Just to clarify, you never had sex with those hamsters, right?
JK: No. But they were cute. Just not for me.