Getting Personal with Jonathan Katz

jonathankatzInterviewing Jonathan Katz is an interesting experience, especially when doing so over the phone. After all, most of us know him from the animated sitcom he created, wrote and voiced in the 90’s, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the series and is being celebrated with the release of a new album, Dr. Katz Live. Speaking to Katz over the phone was like talking to the Doctor himself. In fact, at times I caught myself opening up to him as if I were in an actual therapy session. Perhaps this is from his inquisitive nature and because he was genuinely interested in learning more about me as well.

As mentioned on his website, Katz’s comedy is not for everybody. It took him time to find his audience, but once he did, he established himself as a brilliant (and very dry) comedian. I recorded my conversation with him as I always do with interviews, to make sure I didn’t miss anything and in listening back on our conversation, I realized that I initially missed out on some of his humor. There were many moments, that that I never “got” until the second listening. Like the rest of the world, it took some time, but while I was a fan of the show before, now I’m an even bigger fan of the real guy. After you read our conversation, come back and read it again. I promise you’ll appreciate him even more the second time.

Dr. Katz Live is coming out. Obviously, comedians are always working, but it does seem like you’ve been out of the spotlight for a bit. Would you look at this as a comeback?  

No, I don’t really see it that way. I never really left the spotlight. I went from television, to other appliances. I was featured on the vacuum cleaner for two years.

That’s just a bad joke. I’m sorry, Monique. You deserve better. No, I guess there is a lot more attention in the press than I’ve gotten in a few years, but I was a standup for 15 years before Dr. Katz. And that was like being trapped in a bad one-man show, because I didn’t realize that I, too was allowed to enjoy it. I was just reciting my lines every night.

What else would you do if you hadn’t done Dr. Katz?

I think it helped get me on TV, onto Letterman and then ultimately an HBO special, but Dr. Katz was by far the most fun I’ve had in comedy. To get to work with Jon Benjamin and Laura Silverman and Tom Snyder, it just was ridiculous. Just going to work and laughing for five hours and getting paid.

How was it reuniting and doing the live show?

Well that was something we did in San Francisco a few years ago. So it wasn’t, the event didn’t happen recently, it’s the release that’s happening. We are doing the sketchfest again this coming February.

Then he started asking me to describe my comedy. Not something I’m going to share here, since this interview isn’t about me. The point is, he was sincerely interested and I found myself opening up, including talking about being more honest and the insecurities of being an artist.

I’ve gotten really good advice from some people about comedy. One of them is that the best comedy is the most personal.

What’s your writing process like?

Because I love to record things on an audio file, I record a million voice memos, I write things down on my phone. I’m redundant. I back things up on carbonate and hard drives. I keep a secure hard drive off about five miles off the coast of California, just because the laws are different there.

And once California falls into the ocean, you know that it’ll be safe.

Yes. Exactly. Have you ever met Dom Irrera?

I haven’t.

He’s an LA comedian who has a podcast at The Laugh Factory. He’s one of the most disgusting and funniest people I know. He’s truly disgusting, but my wife can crack him up.

Is she funny?

Not particularly. She just cracks him up. If they’re talking on the phone and he’s driving to a gig, he’ll have to pull off the road just to laugh.

How much does your wife help you with stuff?

Well, she’s in a totally different field, which I think is good for a marriage. Is your husband in comedy?

He is. He’s more of an actor, but is also sort of my silent writing partner. We’re lucky in that way in that I tend to come up with the ideas, but I’m wordy, so he makes things more concise and will be like, “Actually…”

Yeah, my wife is a good editor. Sounds like what your husband does. How long have you guys been married?

We just had our nine-year wedding anniversary.

Oh! Congratulations.

Thank you. How about you two?

Thirty-Two years. Like many couples our age we are planning to renew our vows of celibacy.

Wow! Ok so what’s your advice how to have a long-lasting marriage? You can give me a joke one, but I also want a real one.

I’ll start with the real one. It’s a really well timed snack.

How is that the real one?

Because, sometimes you’re just on the verge, you’re about to have a fight with your spouse and you realize it’s just because you’re hungry.

Good point, actually.

I guess a certain amount of humility is involved. That’s not my strength. I’m pretty taken with myself, especially at the moment. I’ve gotten too much attention in my life.

Why do you say that?

Because, I’m a comedian. I’m needy. You know my time; I need the adulation of the audience. It’s hard for a person to compete with that. Uh oh! I’m getting serious again.

That’s ok. (Laughing.)

But marriage is… I always say that comedy is easy, but marriage is hard.

You’re totally right. You can be in love and be best friends, but marriage is still tough. It’s a lot of work.

Yeah, and there are no TV shows about couples who are happily married or movies about a husband and wife who are faithful to each other. Because, it’s not that sexy, the reality of married. (yelling) I’M KIDDING, HONEY!  No, but we have a wonderful marriage, two beautiful kids, a couple of kids, not so attractive.

Do you have grandkids?

We have two grandchildren. You know I don’t smile a lot in my life. I make other people smile and laugh. But our grandchildren were here not so long ago. I went to sleep smiling and I woke up smiling. It was just because my granddaughter talked herself to sleep for about an hour and a half, just making things up. I woke up smiling, because I wanted to tell my daughter about it.

That’s adorable. Okay, let’s go back to some official questions. By the way, I listened to your podcast Hey, We’re Back. So funny!

Thank you. The podcast is great, because I can record whatever strikes me as funny that day. In the live show we did in San Francisco, Tom Snyder, who is the co-creator of Dr. Katz, plays my therapist. So, the fact that he’s playing my therapist, I get to make jokes. Patients are Andy Kindler and Eugene Mirman and BJ Novak, and Jon Benjamin and Laura Silverman were part of the show. Jon Benjamin is just ridiculously funny, and Laura is ridiculously disinterested in anything I say.

The live show, was it written or did you improvise?

No, we improvised. I mean, when we did the series it was both written and improvised and the audio editors would let those two things fight it out. More often than not, almost always, the improvised stuff was funnier. Because, you know, the editor was more performance oriented than joke oriented. Anything you’d write for Jon Benjamin, he’ll say something funnier.

You had such amazing comedians on the show. Who were your favorite guests?

My favorite guest is Dom Irrera, because we started out in standup together at The Improv in New York. When I first started doing the show, I took my role of therapist so literally, I made one woman cry, and I made a guy feel better. Then I realized, I’m not supposed to really be a therapist. We want their comedy. Ray Romano was the first guy who really shined in that area. He’s just such a good actor, because, it’s really an acting job. Todd Barry was great, Brian Regan was great. You know there were a couple people who didn’t quite get it, but I’m not going to mention them, because I’m not that kind of guy.

Have you ever, or are you in therapy now yourself?

I’ve been in therapy all my life. Since I was a kid. And that’s the time to do it, when the childhood memories are still fresh.

Yeah, a lot easier to go back and remember your childhood if you’re still in it.

I was a depressed kid, but what got me through those years was that I was in love with a depressed girl. At recess we would hand each other suicide notes. I wonder what happened to her… You lose track after a while.

Hmm, who knows? So the character, is it basically you or did you draw more from therapists that you had?

Well, you know it’s pretty much me. His name is Jonathan Katz, which is my name and unlike me, I have two daughters. He had a son named Ben. I was very much like the character Ben when I was a young man. I was a late bloomer. But the character that Jon Benjamin played as Ben is really his own creation. He just really is an amazing voiceover actor.

Is there anywhere that you and the character are not alike? Maybe that people get wrong when comparing you?

Dr. Katz is built like a yam. I’m built like a Greek god.

You know, I did a photo shoot today and it was so hard for the guy to get me to smile. The photographer actually had to call up a comedian friend of mine just to get him to tell me really disgusting jokes to make me laugh.

Is that your thing? You like gross humor?

The darker the joke, the harder I laugh. Sometimes I’ll ask a photographer to talk to me about dead babies to get me to smile. My comedy is pretty dark, but I started doing standup in 1981 when there were not that many jokes.

So, I know it’s been out there a lot, but I didn’t know you had MS.

Yes. I do, and I love it.

What?

No, I don’t really love it, but I make jokes about it. In fact, I have a whole MS act, which is totally different than my standup act.

It’s a sit down act

Well, it’s a slide show; it’s a power point presentation. And for about three years I was getting paid to perform around the country, and I went on after two neurologists, which is every comedian’s dream come true. These guys are so boring. The audience is so happy I wasn’t a doctor, a real doctor.

How has having MS actually affected your work and how do you find ways to find humor in it?

One of the reasons I work in animation so much is that I have a studio in my home. In real life, I can’t run. I walk with a cane and I get around with a scooter, but as a cartoon character I can fly. I haven’t yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I sometimes overdub my voice in cartoons like the movie, Pocahontas. You know there’s a scene where she says, “I’m Pocahontas” and he says, “I’m John Smith.” I turned that into “…and I’m John Katz.” Just for my own amusement. I also overdubbed Superman, so I did fly in that cartoon.

That could be a whole web series is of just you dubbing over classic and Disney cartoons.

Yeah, I’m sure there wouldn’t be any copyright issues at all. They would love it.

If you didn’t do comedy, what else would you be doing with your life?

I started out doing music. I had a band in New York called “Katz and Jammers.”

That’s right! You were the music director for Robin William’s standup tour.

Yep. And I got fired one day when they realized that he wasn’t a singer. He didn’t really need a music director, but he recorded two of my songs. One is called “Born to be Punished” and the other is called “Closed for Alterations.” But you know, we were friends. He became a dad around the time I did and his ex, his first wife is an old girlfriend of mine, so we hung out together when we were new fathers.

Did you continue to stay close?

I guess the last time I saw him was about three years ago in Boston. I think it was just before he had heart surgery. He was in pretty good shape then, but I didn’t see this one coming.

I don’t think anyone saw this one coming.

So, you’ve done the show, you do the podcast, you’ve toured talking about MS, what do you want to do next?

Also, when I was much younger I was the New York State table tennis champion.

That’s right!

Ask me what style I played.

What style did you play?

Defensive. That was so much fun. I loved playing ping-pong when I was younger. I was gonna go to China, but I went to college instead.

Mistake?

I think I would’ve lost either way… both things would’ve been fun, but I think going to college it was where I met David Mamet and Bill Massey. I also discovered women.

Is there any chance of Dr. Katz coming back on TV? Nostalgia is such a big thing right now. I think there’d be an audience.

Yeah, I think there is an audience for it, but you know if you look at most sitcoms on TV, a lot of it is about getting fucked up the ass. You know, Dr. Katz is a show that a father and son could watch together or a mother and a child. It was really gentle in a certain way. Most comedies are not. I think the best thing on TV is Louie’s show, but he deals with really raw stuff in a way that some people are offended and others are thrilled. He’s so brave the way he does his show. I think Dr. Katz was innovative, but to do it again would be less innovative.

I see what you’re saying. So, it’s been 20 years. What’s the difference of you 20 years ago, versus you the 20 years now?

Well, I don’t shave my legs anymore. You can say I’m desperate here for a joke. I think the biggest difference here is that I’m developing patience. I’m one of the most impatient guys in the world, but I’ve developed some patience.

Where did you grow up?  I’m trying to figure out what part of the world you’re from.

Then again, he starts asking about me and my life… again, not important here.

He also asked my age (“feel free to say its none of my business.”) Then based on my age and my voice, he proceeded to guess my weight.

Not far off! I’m impressed. If nothing else you can always get a job at the carnival.

Yeah, that’s where I belong. You know when I was a kid I lived in upstate New York. My grandfather had a low budget freak show.

Really?

Yeah, they had a bearded man, a mental midget. They couldn’t afford a fat lady, they had a woman who was pre-menstrual, a little bloated. They didn’t have Siamese twins; they had two guys with a joint checking account. The only thing I recycle in my life is jokes.

Ok, so what’s your favorite joke?

My favorite joke was written by a guy named Ronnie Shakes who died as a young man. It goes, “I’ve been in therapy for 12 years and yesterday my therapist said something to me that brought tears to my eyes, ‘No habla espanol.'”

One last question: What advice would you give to other comedians who are trying to find their voice and their audience?

I would say don’t go for a larger audience. Keep making the people who find you funny laugh. Let them find you.

That’s perfect. Thank you, Jonathan.

Dr. Katz Live was staged at the San Francisco SketchFest and included the original cast. It’s available on Tunes, Amazon, and all other digital retailers starting tomorrow.

Monique Madrid is a comedian/writer/actor living in Los Angeles.

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