Jonathan Katz on ‘Dr. Katz Live,’ Jon Benjamin, and Comedy as Therapy
“A lot of therapists don’t write their own material,” said Jonathan Katz, onstage with David Wain at the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, cracking up the audience while also summing up his 90s animated series, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, and its current, live iteration.
Twenty years after the series premiered on Comedy Central, those who enjoyed Katz’s therapy sessions with comedians and banter with his curt assistant Laura (Laura Silverman) can see the live-action version at festivals like SF Sketchfest, Austin’s Moontower and this past weekend’s Riot LA Comedy Festival, where Katz was joined by Silverman and patients Bob Saget, Andy Kindler, Thomas Middleditch, David Wain, and Maria Bamford on Sunday.
While the beauty of the animated series lied in the guest stars’ well-written comedy acts being paired with co-creator Tom Snyder’s “Squigglevision” animation, the live show has a looser feel, with comics relying less on prepared bits and more on the dynamic between themselves and the “Doctor.” The material has also changed. When Dr. Katz was on the air — before 9/11, before social media and smartphones — a lot of the comics vented about then-modern inconveniences (answering machines, paper checks), and more mundane comedy (airline food, men vs. women). The fact that Sunday’s live show came after Trump’s inauguration and Saturday’s Women’s Marches added an almost somber dimension to the sessions, with Katz joking about hotel bibles being replaced with The Art Of The Deal, and Kindler getting right into his Trump vs. Hitler material (“At least Hitler was a veteran”) and ultimately joking about his pretend therapy session: “This is real now.”
But even the heavier topics get their edges rounded off by Katz’s relaxed approach to comedy (an abortion discussion, for example, ends with Katz suggesting that life begins “after the second cup of coffee”) which can be soothing in these turbulent political times. Guests Middleditch, Wain, and Bamford, who never appeared on the animated show, added their own energy with more absurdist humor and intentionally uncomfortable moments, and less schtick.
I spoke to Katz over the phone before Sunday’s show about performing live-action, his relationship with Jon Benjamin, who played his stunted adult son Benjamin on the show, and revisiting the animated series as a time capsule of 90s comedy.
I want to start by saying that I’m a huge Dr. Katz fan. Do you ever go back and revisit the animated show?
Only if it’s a scene or an episode that applies to what’s going on in my life or in the world. There’s an episode where Dr. Katz decides to run for Alderman and Ben is my campaign manager. That seems somehow connected with what’s going on in the world, although much funnier. Or, if it’s connected to a holiday, like the Thanksgiving episode. I get emails from all over the world about that one.
That’s one of my favorites, too. And Carrie Fisher voiced your ex-wife Roz.
Yeah. I don’t know how many people know that that was her voice. It’s not very obvious. You’re not used to seeing her in that character, so you’d have to really know her voice.
But making Dr. Katz was an amazing, wonderful part of my life. Before that I had been a standup comedian where I told the same jokes every night for fifteen years. It’s like I was trapped in a one-man show, and it wasn’t until I met Jon Benjamin that I was able to sort of break out of those things that bound me. Oh, now I’m really talking in some civil rights terms here.
Dr. Katz is also how Loren Bouchard and Benjamin became linked, right? Dr. Katz is partly responsible for Bob’s Burgers?
In some way, yes, absolutely. Loren Bouchard was first working as Tom Snyder’s apprentice, who’s the co-creator of the show. He learned so much from Tom before he produced, with Tom’s help, Home Movies, and then Bob’s Burgers.
Tell me a little more about working with Benjamin, whose voice wasn’t as known yet. You two played so well off of each other.
Well, I guess one of my favorite things about Jon Benjamin was that, at the time we were making the show, he was living with Laura Silverman. They were boyfriend and girlfriend. And the worse things were in their relationship, the better the show was, because there was so much passive aggressive behavior between them on the show and all the couple problems just helped.
Most of the conversations between Laura, Dr. Katz, and Ben were improvised.
Writing for Ben was impossible because, and anybody who’s ever tried to write for Jon Benjamin knows this, you’d write something and then he’d just say something much funnier. I’d spoken to David Wain recently, who worked with him on Wet Hot American Summer, and he has the same experience. Bouchard will tell you the same thing, it’s just impossible to write a script as funny as what he’s going to make up, and he doesn’t just make it up on the spot, he shows a preparedness. He does his homework.
Do you think comedians could benefit from therapy or is their act the best way of getting things off their chest?
I think both of those things are true. Most comedians I’ve known could probably benefit from therapy. Some people think therapy is a scam. I am not one of those people. I have benefitted from therapy myself as a patient. I’m going to try and get this right: there’s nothing you can’t say to an audience that you couldn’t say to your therapist. Let me try it the other way now: there’s nothing you could say to your therapist that you couldn’t say to an audience. I think that’s more accurate.
Therapy is also one of the most self-indulgent things there is. People can’t afford clothes or food. To pay someone to talk about your problems seems incredibly self-indulgent, and yet beautiful if you do it right. One of the things about the live show, and this is true of the cartoon as well, is that if I get folks into therapy mode too much, the show would suck. It really would. That’s why when Tom and Loren said it would be better off having me away from the comedians when they record their sets. They would let them do their material and then I would drop in my voice after the fact. Ray Romano was the first guy to demonstrate that to us because his act really lent itself to therapy, but I didn’t have to be there.
How does doing the live show differ for you? Are there guests whom you wish could have been on the animated series?
Well, Maria Bamford never did the cartoon, and she’s so great in the live show, she would’ve been great. Also true is Tig Notaro, and Dana Gould. He also did the cartoon but there was something about his live performance. Maybe just the way he developed as a comedian, he was wonderful. Andy Kindler is great in both areas, live and animated.
The TV show now feels like a time capsule of 90s comedy.
Actually, some of the acts were buried in a time capsule, with enough food and water to survive. They have no idea what happened in the interim. They still think George Bush is still President.
What was really fascinating was Marc Maron’s episode, where he talks about how he doesn’t understand the internet.
Does he say that in his act? Yeah, that’s pretty funny. Marc Maron has had an enormous impact on podcasting, that’s for sure. He’s turned it into a legitimate job.
If there was a modern iteration of the animated show, what would that look like? Would it work with today’s comedy and today’s problems?
You know, I sometimes think that Ben would still be living at home, but he would be a partner in my therapy practice. He’d also be seeing patients. He’d still be in love with Laura.
Are you still close with Dom Irrera? I think of him as the original Dr. Katz patient.
Oh, thank you for bringing him up. When the show started, I was calling in favors to my friends and Dom was one of those friends. Then people wanted to do the show, like the late Garry Shandling, some of my comedy heroes, which was so exciting to me. But, Dom was just great. The fact that we knew each other so well made it even more wonderful to be in the recording studio with him.
Kevin Meaney was incredible on that show. We recorded him in a hotel room and he thought he was being “Punk’d.” We were just trying to keep him and his voice isolated from all the ambient sound of the housekeepers, so we put blankets over him. I don’t blame him for being suspicious, but he was screaming and so wonderfully funny. I think the second time he might have come to the recording studio, but the first time was in a hotel room in New York. Definitely one of my favorite guests on the show.
How do you prepare for the live show, do you agree on talking points ahead of time?
It’s kind of like a talk show. There’s so much preparation involved, it’s nuts. I probably make it harder than it needs to be, but I have to have contact with all of my patients. I like to do a pre-interview so I can lead them into a certain area. If the article goes up after the show, can I give you a couple of lines you can use?
“I have never laughed harder in my entire life.” “Brilliant doesn’t even begin to describe this show.”
Great, anything else?
“As a former can of tuna…” No, I think you’re good.
Photo by Zach Dobson.