Comedy Central's Dr. Katz
Being Comedy Central's first animated series isn't the only thing that makes Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist unique to its surroundings. Amid the cable channel's stream of loud, fast, ain't-we-brash noisemaking, Dr. Katz dares to be droll. It's a show that sneaks up and insinuates itself and appears on a network--heck, in a medium--that more often gets in your face and clubs you over the head. "It just has to do with my style of comedy and my tone and my pacing. I couldn't do the kind of show that sounds more like Comedy Central if I wanted to," says Jonathan Katz, the 48-year-old standup comic who co-created the show, sounding every bit as wryly bemused as his animated alter ego. "Which is why I always had a hard time doing a second show on a Friday night, when people have been awake for many hours and drinking. Not only would I be disappointing, but I'd lull them into a disappointed stupor. By the time they woke up, I'd be out of town. "I wonder if I'd have a hook there. I could book myself as a disappointing comic." The most disappointing thing about Dr. Katz is that there isn't more of it; in that way, it's pretty typical of Comedy Central. (Absolutely Fabulous fans will know what I'm talking about.) The six episodes that have aired since the show went on two months ago are the only ones in the can. They'll be shown over and over until the new year, when 13 more will go into rotation. Dr. Katz follows, at a leisurely pace, the life of a big-city psychiatrist with a twentysomething son who still lives at home, a brutally indifferent receptionist, a blithely idiotic barroom pal, and a bunch of edgy patients, all played by comedians whose sessions are based on their standup routines. The network press materials hype the use of the comics as one of the series' "two significant production breakthroughs"--the other is a new computer-animation technique called, appropriately, "Squigglevision"--but frankly it's the least interesting aspect of the show. Dr. Katz works not because it finds a new way to present yet more standup comedy on television. It works because the regular characters are alternately charmingly and irritatingly hilarious, and because it has confidence in the people playing them--enough confidence to let them wring laughs out of loose situations and improvisations rather than relying on cutout characterizations and the Great God Punchline. The conversations sound like real conversations: hesitant, repetitive, the speakers stumbling along, not sure what they're going to say even as they're saying it. That's because often, they don't. The cast essentially records each show twice--once improvising from an outline, then again with a written script. "The end result is a combination [of the two versions]. I think that gives a very airy, natural quality to the dialogue," Katz says. "We have the luxury of working with audiotape instead of a camera rolling, and not being a big network TV show with people breathing down your neck. Many of these things are recorded accidentally, we don't even know the tape is rolling. We just use everything." The entire cast and most of the production team share the writers' credit. The improvisatory style also frees the patient/comics to depart from their standard shtick, although they usually don't; it's not hard to tell when they're just doing their act. But occasionally they veer off in inspired directions, such as Dom Irrera's sudden, non sequiturial punctuating of his sessions with fantasies involving Dr. Katz:You know what I'd like to do right now? I'd just like to lay down on top of you, I'd like to put you flat down on the floor and just lie down on top of you, two guys, flat, face to face.... Then I'd like to put a big red chiffon evening gown on you and ride you around my house. Not in a gay way, but like a viking, like two vikings who are so secure in their Nordic manhood that they can ride each other up and down the stairs without having one twinge of homosexual panic.... That don't make me gay, right? The original intent was to build Dr. Katz around the patients--their bits are taped first, with the rest of the episode "retroscripted" around them--but "the show evolved into much more about [the characters'] lives, with the patients as sort of comic interludes," Katz says. The center of the show is the relationship between Dr. Katz and Ben (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), who has no job and seems to do little but hang around the house eating cereal. In a typical sitcom Ben would be either a dolt or a wisecracking layabout, but Dr. Katz is too smart for that. Ben's no fool, he's just unambitious and a bit of a bumbler. Like a lot of guys in his shoes, he simply has no clue what he wants to do with his life, and no inclination to think about it unless he absolutely has to. (Actually, that's not quite true; he wants to be a daredevil. "There just aren't any jobs right now in my chosen field," he explains.) Ben also occasionally engages in futile pursuit of Laura, Dr. Katz' terminally bored and disdainful receptionist, who is brilliantly voiced by Laura Silverman (she's got a sigh that could stop you dead in your tracks). Katz' own children are 12 and three, both daughters; he says the relationship between Ben and Dr. Katz "has more to do with me and my father than me and my kids. I was very much like Ben when I was in my 20s. I had a kind of prolonged adolescence and a very indulgent father, which I see Dr. Katz as being." Katz says the character is a composite of himself and his father; any resemblance to another wry, bald TV shrink is strictly coincidental. "I actually didn't think about it, but the comparisons are obvious, and it's been compared in a very flattering way to The Bob Newhart Show," Katz says. "I've always been a big fan of his standup comedy.... Can you imagine an audience in 1995 in a comedy club listening to him? It's sad the way audiences have changed. I'd love to go out on the road with him--kind of a 'Disappointing Tour.'" Newhart, in fact, is near the top of Katz' wish list for future comedian/patients. "It's slow, but we're moving ahead on it. I think he resisted the idea at first, but I think he's kind of getting interested." Dr. Katz actually started out, not as a showcase for comedians, but as a showcase for Squigglevision, a technique for animating line drawings in which the lines never seem to match up from one frame to the next; the characters sort of shiver in place. Katz met Tom Snyder, a software creator who developed the animation technique, through a mutual acquaintance about three years ago. Snyder was looking for a project to test Squigglevision's commercial potential; the result was The Biography of Mr. Katz, a seven-minute film "which is pretty much me talking." When they found no buyers, they tried animating other comics, introducing the Dr. Katz character as a counterpoint. Comedy Central liked the idea and aired seven one-minute pieces that ended up winning a Cable Ace award last year for best short-form programming. That got them the green light for the half-hour series. Katz concedes that some viewers seem to find Squigglevision annoying, although he hastens to add, "For every 10 people who hate it, there are 12 people who really don't mind that much." He describes the technique as "an acquired taste," but one he's acquired. "I think that it has a sort of a homemade quality, which I think works well with the tone of the show. A friend of mine said, this was totally her own projection, that the motion of the characters is a metaphor for the emotional turmoil the characters are in. I said, `Yeah, and it's cheap.'"Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist airs 10:30 p.m. Sundays and 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays on Comedy Central.