10 Questions with Jonathan Katz

Photo by Michael Fein

Photo by Michael Fein

by Ryan Meehan

In the mid to late nineties, one of my favorite television shows was Dr. Katz:  Professional Therapist. Comedy Central had a huge hit on their hands, and comedians from all over the country couldn’t wait to get a seat on Dr. K’s couch to test out new bits. A good friend of mine would videotape episodes of this show and watch it religiously for hours before binge-watching shows on Netflix was even an idea in the mind of television executives who hadn’t yet figured out how to integrate the power of the internet with their product. The man in the chair with the clipboard was a semi-autobiographical representation of comedian Jonathan Katz, who had great success on late-night shows as well as comedy clubs throughout the eighties and early nineties. Katz’ laid back persona and interaction with the two other main characters (played by H. Jon Benjamin and Laura Silverman) made the show a huge success and Jonathan became a household name. Even twenty-plus years later, the program still holds up as being very revolutionary regardless of being done on extremely limited budget. After winning a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Voice-Over performance of his role on the show, Katz continued to perform stand-up comedy and do various work in television. In 2011 he lent his voice to the web series “Explosion Bus” produced by Tom Snyder, and still brings the world laughter every day via his Twitter feed. It is an absolute honor to take Dr. Katz’ place in his chair and have him on the couch, as the roles are reversed in this very special edition of 10 Questions. 

First a disclaimer: Dr. Katz was a collaboration between me and Tom Snyder. I’m not that smart. That’s where he comes in. I do think I’m compulsively funny. – Jon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Snyder_(animator)

RM:  Your big break came because some of the producers of “Late Night with David Letterman” had come in to a comedy club in New York, and they told you if you could do five minutes without the guitar they would have you on the show…For a guy who seems to be very mild-mannered, how did you deal with the pressure of knowing you had to come up with a tight late-nightworthy five in such a short time?

JK:  At the time I lived in Manhattan, so with the help of a few cabs you could do as many as six sets a night which is exactly what I did​. Then I got home, listened to the cassette, see what worked and what didn’t. By the way, Bob Morton, the producer of Letterman at the time was there to see someone else who never showed.

RM:  In the about section of your official website, there’s a quote which reads “My comedy is not for everybody, it’s for everybody else. I learned the hard way. In the beginning I had a hard time finding an audience. But I did, and now it is a hard thing to shake. I need an audience more than anyone I know. I know it’s not becoming, it’s a flaw, but I am not without flaw…” Did you ever feel as if you had a much more difficult journey than your peers finding that audience because your delivery was so different?

JK:  I would qualify what I said above by saying ‘ I need an audience more than they need me.” One of the things I learned early on was to let the audience come to me…Steven Wright uses that approach.  Once I learned that trick things got a little easier.​ Most of the time I did standup I felt like I was trapped in a one man show. The audience looked like pirates staring at a guy in a tutu. I was not what they had in mind. I rarely smiled on stage, that was my demeanor and it wasn’t really fun. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I too could enjoy my show.

RM:  When did you first realize that Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist had become something so much bigger than the six episodes the network originally ordered after the pilot was developed?

JK:  I think it was when my wife started accepting my phone calls to her. Dr. Katz fans are incredibly devoted which is why I still do the show live. My original intent was just to do something local that didn’t embarrass my family.​

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RM:  How much of that show’s success can be attributed to simplicity of its character base? I know Todd Barry became the voice of a regular character in the later episodes – and obviously Julie and Stanley were integral characters in the bar scenes – but for the most part the show focused on the interactions between yourself, Laura, and Ben…Was there ever a time when the network or any of the other producers or writers had suggested bringing some of the comedians who had appeared on the show as characters that would be developed and worked into the storylines?

JK:  I attribute the show’s success to the talent of Laura Silverman, Jon Benjamin but mostly the vision of Tom Snyder;​ the realistic sound of the dialogue, it’s odd but plausible storylines and the brilliance of Annette Cate who created the original artwork. Then there was the hours and hours of hard work done by teams of audio editors and illustrators.

RM:  When you take a look at the long list of comics who appeared on Dr. Katz, it seems like just about all of them went on to have huge success after their appearance on that program…Who are some of the comedians you had on the couch that you still stay in touch with on a regular basis?

JK:  I’m in touch with many of my former patients. Some of them, Dom Irrera, Dana Gould, Janeane Garofalo, Emo Phillips, Andy Kindler, Jim Gaffigan, do Dr. Katz Live.

RM:  Do you own the rights to the technology that we came to know as Squigglevision? How is Sketchyvision different; and why was it essential to come up with a new way for you to present your art when developing “Explosion Bus”?

JK:  I own the right to my own face, not my likeness and that’s it. Explosion Bus is the creation of Tom Snyder.​

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RM:  Who were some of the talented people you worked with when “Explosion Bus” was rolling along; and now that we’re a few years removed from the last installment is there any way we’ll see any more episodes of that web series?

JK: This is a question you should pose to Tom.

Editor’s Note: Jonathan’s PR representative provided us with Tom’s email so we could acquire more insight on this matter. His response is below: 

TS:  Hi. Jonathan told me he mentioned a lot of the people who were on the staff of my company that  produced the show. He probably mentioned Loren Bouchard and Annette Cate.

I don’t know if he mentioned some of the early comedians who helped us shape the show. One of the first was Bill Braudis who showed us the value of very strong jokes that we could retro script into narrative after his session.

Shortly thereafter, Ray Romano came and demonstrated his commitment to traditional acting while he was in the booth. I believe he told me at the time that he had started taking acting lessons in preparation for a show to be called everyone loves Raymond.

Before these guys, I am just remembering, Larry Miller came on to an early instantiation of the show where we were just doing one minute interstitials for Comedy Central. He reminded us that no matter how short one of our shows was, It had to be “About” something.

Emo Phillips showed us how important it was to let a comedian get into character, to be left alone, to find his voice before we even started recording.

In the end I was grateful to every comedian who came. They were very generous with their material and their souls. We had one comedian pair who came in to do couples therapy. They were gay and very funny and very brave and one of them was dying of AIDS. I remember them describing to the good doctor that they had just been out shopping for an urn, and one of them was concerned it might make him look a bit big in the hips. We never showed that episode because of a disagreement we had between me and one of my young producers who thought it wasn’t funny. I could not have disagreed more because so much of Dr. Katz to me was about relationships as revealed through comedy, but I gave this young producer his lead.

Jon Benjamin taught us that all of the rules of improvisation are only sometimes true. One so often hears that during good improv a participant must never negate. Jon Benjamin negated everyone and everything right out of the negate, and hugely enriched the improvisation that took place.

Finally, Jonathan Katz himself was a miracle. He was very kind and gentlemanly and played fair with every comedian. Not to mention that he was and still is the greatest comedian I have ever met.

Let me know if this helps,

Tom

P.S. I dictated this to Siri so if occasionally some expression like “For example” is transcribed as “go fuck yourself”, blame her. I would never talk that way, Especially out loud.

Returning to the interview with Jonathan…

RM:  I have this bizarre theory that your calm demeanor and delivery could have had some kind of influence on the YouTube subculture that is ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response. When you first started out in comedy clubs did you speak as softly as you have since then; and if so how did you go about dealing with club owners, critics, audience members, and other comedians when they suggested that your style was either low energy or maybe didn’t possess the aggressive stage presence that was so popular in the comedy community during the late seventies and early eighties?

JK:  I felt like the accountant on the bill because of my appearance and demeanor. I had many truly bad shows to get to doing good shows.

RM:  You’ve stressed the importance of knowing when to retire a joke, and have said when doing so one has to “wait six months or fifteen years and try it again”…But when you started out, there were no web series, podcasts, or social media by which a joke that might not work on stage may still do very well if placed in one of those formats…How has your approach to the way you dispose of jokes changed in the internet epoch?

JK:  I recycle jokes, I never really retire a joke.​

RM:  What is the most common misunderstanding the general public has about individuals living with Multiple Sclerosis? In what ways have you helped raise awareness regarding your condition and others living with MS?

JK:  That you can have MS, live a productive life, and be happy.  ​

RM:  In December you’ll turn 70…When you look back on your career and all that you accomplished, how would you best describe the impact that your work had on the comedy community in three sentences or less?

JK:  That’s something you can answer better than me.​

RM:  What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2016 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?

JK:  Many projects in the pipeline.​ Thanks for your interest.

Official Website:  http://www.jonathankatz.com/

Jonathan on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/JonathanKatzComic

Jonathan on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/@jonathan_katz

Once again thanks for visiting First Order Historians and enjoying more of the internet’s finest in user generated content.

Meehan

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