In the early ’90s, before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and before South Park redefined the way that animated children behaved, Comedy Central was a valuable resource for fans of stand-up comedy. Half-hour shows like Short Attention Span Theater and Stand Up Stand Up introduced viewers to up-and-coming comedians in brief clips, essentially chopping up full routines for the sake of spreading them out over hours of programming. For many people, it was the first time that they’d be introduced to today’s biggest stars, like Stewart and Louis C.K.
That said, when a software developer and former teacher named Tom Snyder (not the late talk show host) met a talented stand-up comic named Jonathan Katz, they decided to develop an animated series together… an unlikely pairing, to say the least. Snyder had already pitched a show about a therapist, and Katz accepted the role of a therapist who treated a variety of hilarious patients, played by popular stand-up comics.
The series became Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and, in 1995, it was one of the first original programs that Comedy Central would air. It didn’t matter that this group of people had very little experience in animation because, when the right people find each other, magic happens. To get the story of how this Emmy and Peabody award-winning series came to be, we spoke to Snyder, Katz, and many of the other key players involved in the show. Enjoy.
Choosing Your Doctor
It is wonderful, just wonderful… when do we get to see the real thing?
Jonathan Katz jokes that we have President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Federal Works Administration program to thank for the creation of “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.” In reality, the man responsible for this simple-yet-wonderful idea was a software developer named Tom Snyder, who had initially developed the idea on his own, providing everything from the voices to the music. While Snyder is undoubtedly talented in his own right, we should all be thankful that someone at Comedy Central pointed out that in order for the series to succeed, he’d need someone with a little more name recognition… a well-known comedian, specifically. Snyder accepted that reality and his decision was quite simple.
Tom Snyder, Creator: I had a software company in Cambridge, Mass., and I created an animated short where I played a psychiatrist, and I had one of my illustrators do this illustration. I made a three or five-minute show about a doctor and his son called Shrink Wrapped, and I hadn’t known Jonathan at this point. I took it out to L.A. where I had a friend. I had no connection with the TV business at all. I was more of a geek, but I had always loved comedy… I showed it to (industry people his friend introduced him to) and they were like, “Let’s do it, but you’re going to need talent.” And I said, “Hey, f*ck you,” [laughs]. I didn’t realize they meant the industry term for talent. They said, “We’re going to need well-known people.” So, they gave me a list of well-known people and one of the people on the list was my favorite stand-up comedian in the universe, Jonathan Katz. So, I went to him at his home and showed him the piece and said, “How would you like to be the doctor? I’ll even call it Dr. Katz because it’s a nice Jewish name.” He said, “Cool.”
Jonathan Katz, “Dr. Katz”: Tom and I had a small business where, you know, at one point, the U.S. Government was paying farmers not to grow wheat. There was too much wheat available in the world. It had to do with the marketplace. It made sense for Americans not to grow wheat. Tom and I were actually being paid not to grow wheat when we first met, both of us. We never actually grew wheat, we just realized you could get paid not to grow wheat. So, it just seemed like a good business opportunity. Then, we moved on to not doing other things after that. That was our biggest financial success. We made quite a bit of money not growing wheat.
Snyder: He was, and still is, a comic’s comic. Comedians loved him, which was great because, when we decided to have comedians be patients, a lot of comedians were excited about the idea of working with Jonathan because they respected his craft so much. So it was easy. And then the first couple comedians were very well-known guys: Dom Irrera, Ray Romano, Steven Wright. That made it easy, too, because once they had a couple well-known comics on and people saw how well the show worked, they wanted to be on, too. It was not hard lining up patients. Plus, they all enjoyed playing the role of someone who was incredibly f*cked up and needed therapy because they probably were [laughs]. Don’t quote me.
Katz: I guess I better play it straight so the stories coincide in some way [laughs]. We had a couple different connections. One was a guy named Henry Felt who had a company, he was the “F” in a company called CF Video. And Tom was working with another guy from CF Video. I forget who the “C” was. I guess he was working with the “C” and I was doing something with him. But the way he became aware of my work as a comedian was through this movie Things Change, a David Mamet film. He and his wife saw that one night and he discovered that we were neighbors, kinda, so we started working together in the ’90s and have never really stopped since then. We’re always in the middle of something. We produced many things together and separately since Dr. Katz. Tom more than me because he’s a more productive guy in general.
Snyder: We hired this kid, Loren Bouchard.
Loren Bouchard, a “low-level” employee (and creator of Bob’s Burgers): I was a student in grade school at a school where [Tom] was the science teacher. This is going back all the way to the ’80s. I was in fourth, fifth, and sixth grade when I knew Tom and had him as my science teacher. He also taught me piano and my dad was also a teacher at that school, so I knew him a little bit in the way you know teachers when you’re a faculty brat. Then, I don’t see him. He leaves teaching. It’s the beginning of the computer era. He was one of the first teachers who bought a TRS-80, one of the first personal computers you could get. I think, in fact, I helped him carry it from his car to the science lab. He got really good at programming and started designing games for the kids to play, for me to play. He got so interested in that he went and started a software company — an educational software company to keep doing this and he had so much success with it that he quit teaching. That’s where he left me. I sort of stayed in touch with him, but not much.
I went on to have not the most illustrious academic career, and I was now about 23-years-old in 1993, and I was really worried that I had screwed up my life by not going to college. I was very interested in doing something creative. Writing was in the forefront of my mind, but also music and cartooning; drawing, specifically. I was lucky enough to be at Harvard Square on a particular day, he was walking through Harvard Square. I think he was headed to a funeral, and I bumped into him. We’re catching up and he said, “Do you still draw?” and I said, “Yes.” He said, “I just started doing animation on the side, would you be interested in checking it out?” And I said, “Yes.” So, I visited his office.
Snyder: I hired him, and we put him on the project, and he became an invaluable genius to help us produce Dr. Katz.
Bouchard: He offered me a job, a low-level job according to him. I knew right then and there that it was my lucky break. That it was as lucky as winning the lottery, maybe luckier. I was absolutely committed from that very second when he first invited me in to do basically anything that needed doing.
Jonathan Katz had recorded himself with three comics out in L.A. and had brought them back to Cambridge. Tom said, “You want to pull these back into the computer and help me edit the audio to make these little one-minute pieces?” This is how Dr. Katz started. Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist was seven one-minute pieces that aired on Short Attention Span Theater on Comedy Central. That was the first gig. Editing that audio was where I truly found a home in animation.
Snyder: I think it took us about nine months, like a regular pregnancy, to finish our first episode and send it to Comedy Central. I showed it to friends, and we’re watching it, and we all thought it was just perfect. Absolutely perfect. We sent it in to Comedy Central, and the woman who was producing it at that point in the early years called me and said, “It is wonderful, just wonderful.” I was ready to hear praise and I said, “Thank you, thank you.” And she said, “When do we get to see the real thing?” I’m not trying to make that sound more funny or dramatic than it is. She actually said those f*cking words to me. I don’t blame her because it’s incredibly minimalistic, and I said, “That is the real thing,” and she said, “Oh! It could be so much better.” Some of the other producers said, “It could be so much better.”
Bouchard: What I think was nice about that time, though, was Comedy Central was such a young channel. They really were figuring out what they wanted to do and what their tone was.
Snyder: I wasn’t being cocky. It was just like, I know we can’t make anything better or funnier than this. She said, “Well, it’s just not ready.” And I said, “I’m really afraid we don’t have a deal because that’s the first episode, and, if you want, I will stop working on the second and third one simultaneously.” Because you have to do that. You have to have several things in the can at once in order to keep up with the TV schedule. I didn’t hang up mad or anything, but I got off the phone really quickly. Then, I called and they said it would be okay, that can be the first episode, and we never got notes again.
Everyone’s First Job
I don’t even think we should record him. The guy sounds like a dick.
Today, H. Jon Benjamin is the leading man of animated voice work. As Sterling Archer and Bob Belcher, his voice is so easily identifiable that it not only defines the characters, but somehow makes them funnier. However, when Snyder and Katz were rounding out the small cast of “Dr. Katz,” he had never even thought about doing voice work. As he told us, he had “no interest whatsoever in the world.” But as soon as Benjamin showed up to audition for the role of Dr. Katz’s father, Snyder and Katz knew that they’d actually found Dr. Katz’s son, Ben, as well as his endearingly indifferent secretary, Laura.
Katz: Playing a guy named Jonathan Katz was such a luxury because it just borrowed so liberally from my own life when I was doing that role. Almost everything that Dr. Katz experienced I actually experienced in real life. Except, I mean, I’ve been in therapy, but I never was a therapist. A lot of the stuff that I talk to Ben about during the show was stuff from my childhood. I don’t know if you ever saw an episode where I’m making a certain kind of lunch for him called, I forget what the name was, it was a special kind of lunch where it was a piece of American cheese where the eyes were made out of peas and there was a nose made out of carrot. But that’s what my mom used to do. We didn’t have a lot of money, but she tried to disguise it behind these creations of hers.
Snyder: I wanted to have a love interest for Jon, so we had them go to a bar after work where there was a very sexy bartender named Julie, and there was a woman working for me as a producer who was an actress who has just the deepest, sexiest voice in the world, Julie Bond. We said, you’re going to be his bartender and Jon’s going to have a crush on her. Then we got a guy, a local guy who is sort of a jokester. He likes old Jewish jokes and stuff like that. We thought it’d be fun to have Jon have a joking relationship with the guy at the bar and a love interest with the woman. We had Jon be divorced.
Katz: My parents were communists or activists, and I think I even make allusions to that on the show. I think there’s something about Dr. Katz’s ex-wife, who was portrayed by Carrie Fisher in the show. She was an activist, who in the ‘60s, didn’t burn her bra, she pre-heated it. Sounds like a joke I might make.
Julianne Bond, “Julie, the bartender”: I first got involved in ’92 when Tom Snyder and Jonathan Katz had an idea, it was the beginning of the idea of Dr. Katz. It was called The Biography of Mr. Katz, and it was basically what Dr. Katz became. Jonathan doing his material and I played sort of the NPR-style biographer. I was clearly the straight person and we figured out how I could set him up as an interviewer. Then, we began to think about how else we could go, the idea of it really got opened up. I came on as Julie the bartender. I was a voice and also, because everybody wrote on the show, one of the writers and a producer because none of us had ever done anything like this before [laughs].
Katz: Julie was a friend of Tom’s and had a very sexy voice, which he thought might help, and also was kind of a very deft actress, a voiceover actress. Stanley was played by a guy named Will LeBow who was a trained classical actor who does Shakespeare and just loves old jokes and was a great foil for me. Tom was the guy who thought there should be a third location other than my home and my office. I think he was right about that visually.
Bond: We structurally thought about what his world was and what the relationships represented in archetypical relationships. We already had him at home, in his office, and we didn’t want another female character like the secretary, because that wouldn’t make any sense. We needed someone who was almost like his therapist. Because Jonathan has this great, quirky material that he couldn’t really pull out when in the office because he had the comedians. I mean, he could do some crazy stuff, but we needed to be able to get to see that side of him. So when he was in the bar he would become like his patients. That was where you saw him in a more human way. And who better to have that conversation with than a bartender?
Katz: Jon Benjamin came in to audition for the role of my father. As did my father. My dad actually came in to audition. My father really, he had no talent at all. But was a very sweet guy. He was about in his mid-’80s, didn’t quite understand what we were doing. When I was a musician he would tell people, “My boy’s a minstrel.” He never accepted the fact that I was a comedian. He always thought I was a Canadian.
Bouchard: I got the job of calling Jon Benjamin to schedule the audition. My very first interaction with him was with somebody who was a little bit rude and didn’t seem to be making any effort to seem grateful for this opportunity. So I hung up the phone and I said to Tom, “Jesus, I don’t even think we should record him. The guy sounds like a dick.”
H. Jon Benjamin, “Ben Katz”: Jonathan was somebody I respected and admired, a very successful stand-up, so there was that in mind when I went in. I didn’t know who Tom Snyder was and I didn’t know Loren at all. I only knew Jonathan and he had come a generation before me and was a well-respected comedian.
Snyder: Jon Benjamin played the son, and he is probably the biggest name in animation right now. He’s in Archer and Bob’s Burgers and everything. He is eerily talented as a voiceover guy. He came in and Jon and I had him first read to play Jonathan’s father, who we thought would be a fun character to have in the show. So, he read for the father and was just hilarious, just incredibly funny.
Benjamin: They auditioned me for a couple different things. I remember auditioning to play his dad, putting on an old Jewish voice. I came with Laura Silverman, who was my girlfriend at the time, so we traveled together. Only later did I find out that Laura had the part for the secretary because Jonathan used to call our apartment because he was very good friends with this comedian named Chuck Sklar, who was our roommate. Laura used to pick up the phone when Jonathan called Chuck. I think Jonathan was smitten by her total disinterest in talking to him. So he had her in mind for the role that she ends up playing, which was the way she appeared to him in real life.
Katz: Laura, my version is that I was trying to reach Jon Benjamin and they were living together at the time, they were a couple. She was so unpleasant on the phone. I made what I considered a pretty good joke, and her response was, “Do you want to leave a message?” So, I thought that would be a great character for the show.
Snyder: She was a comedian in her own right, did improv and sketch comedy, and she read a couple lines, but did improv, too, to play Jon’s secretary. Before they left we said, “Hey, play Jon’s son who has a crush on his secretary.” The only instruction we gave him was: “Ben, you’re Jon’s son and you’re kind of ne’er-do-well. And Laura, you don’t respect Dr. Katz and you don’t respect his son and you don’t respect any of the patients. That’s all you need to know about your character.”
Benjamin: We had auditioned together as boyfriend and girlfriend because we were that way in real life. They prompted us to have a conversation as we would have. I remember us talking about something that really did happen. We used to live across the street from a Revolutionary War actor because we lived in Cambridge, where they all live, so I remember doing an improv about, “There’s the guy again across the street, in the tri-corner hat with the pipe. He’s leaving again.”
Snyder: Just the two of them together we said, “Alright, pretend like you’re in the elevator, meeting, going up, and Ben you have a crush on Laura.” They’re just sitting in the sound booth with microphones and headphones, and we were out in the control room relaying. I was directing at that point so I said, “Just let her rip, see what happens.” Ben goes, “Hi Laura” and Laura just sighs and Ben says, “What’s that supposed to mean? I’m fat?” We realized that he could play the father or the son, but the son was even more attractive to us. That’s how we cast that.
Benjamin: In that iteration I was living somewhere else, not at home, so I think they were figuring out the show as they were auditioning people to do that. I also don’t know how many other people auditioned. It might have been just us [laughs]. Which would have made our chances very good to get the part, which we did.
Bouchard: They auditioned together and they were absolutely amazing. We didn’t audition anyone else after that. They were the first and last. They got the job right away, both of them.
Bond: It’s one of those amazing, organic things that just began to happen. There was so much more gold in Jon Benjamin being the son than him being the father. It was a little more one-dimensional. And that’s really where it started to really evolve. We felt that it began, that there was so much more richness in going down certain paths. We had some rules, but we didn’t have a lot. We just did it.
Step Into The Pantry
It was like watching the worst episode of Jay Leno where he’s just talking with Chevy Chase about a charming thing that happened.
“Dr. Katz” had plenty of charming aspects during its seven-season run on Comedy Central, but its humble beginnings take the squiggly cake. This wasn’t New York City or Los Angeles. It was Cambridge, Mass., and Katz was inviting his comic friends to record their therapy sessions in Snyder’s pantry, which this small team had managed to not only turn into a functioning recording booth, but eventually the world’s smallest stand-up club. For a group of people with very little experience at producing an animated TV series, they were making decisions that would prove to be brilliant and groundbreaking.
Benjamin: I didn’t think of it like, “What a fresh new concept for a television show.” I was very young, not circumspect at all about my choices. I thought Jonathan Katz was funny, that’s as far as I remember. If anything I would say I was more instantly cynical about the audition because of how disorganized it was. I don’t mean to be a crank, I am one, but at the time I think I was like, “Boy, they gotta get their sh*t together because they’re never going to make it.” I’m being cheeky, but that’s kind of the way, when you do an audition in somebody’s pantry in a small apartment in Cambridge, it was like everything else I was doing. There was not a sense that this was some big deal.
Katz: It really baffled people in Hollywood that we could make a TV show in somebody’s kitchen, essentially. And it wasn’t even that big a space. It was really more like somebody’s pantry. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in an old New England home, it was actually a very modest home, in those days. It was a really small space full of blankets and all kinds of fabrics to dull the sound. We outgrew it when the show got the first order for six [episodes].
Benjamin: I remember leaving and being confounded that we were in somebody’s house. At the time it wasn’t like I was expecting a studio, I had never done anything before professionally except for random stand-up comedy shows, so I was pretty green. I definitely remember being taken aback by the way we recorded the audition in his pantry where he had hung a mic. He had retrofitted a pantry into a recording booth. It was a little tiny pantry and he hung a mic from a shelf. And then, outside — it was a makeshift studio — Tom, Jonathan and Loren were sitting and listening. So we recorded, at least a lot of the first season, in that pantry.
Bond: It was like a big walk-in closet with those little egg-cart shelves, for the sound, put some microphones in and we’d go in and we would do the bar scene, there were three of us in this pantry [laughs].
Bouchard: We built a little space, our first studio was entirely handmade. We built it in the downstairs of Tom’s house and I loved every aspect of that. We went to Home Depot and got a heavy-duty door and put it on the little pantry in the kitchen there. We had to turn off the refrigerator when we had to record and we had to unplug the refrigerator so the compressor wouldn’t kick on while we were recording. I’m pretty sure the food was still on the shelves. There were cans of soup and stuff still on the shelves when young Ray Romano did his first episode of Dr. Katz. And we had mics in there and a little bit of sound proofing, and then we ran them into the back bedroom and that’s where we had the computers and the recorders. For me that was it, that was everything. I was completely happy.
Bond: The bar scenes were the most intense to do there because, literally, you were right next to each other. In a certain way it was great to have had the experience recording like that. When the comedians would go they would just go in on their own, or if it was a two-person scene, then two people go in, but with the bar it was always the three of us. It was an interesting challenge. We used to make jokes about the pantry, but then, after a while, it just got to be normal.
Snyder: I don’t want to break your heart about how Dr. Katz was produced because the first episode, when we had comedians come, we put Jonathan in the booth with the individual patient because that’s what it sounds like. It sounds like Jonathan is in the room talking with the patient. And it did not work at all. It turned into a conversation. It was like watching the worst episode of Jay Leno where he’s just talking with Chevy Chase about a charming thing that happened to Chevy in the desert or something, what a f*cking waste this is of this brilliant talent.
Bouchard: Sometimes it seemed like they would drop down to match Jonathan’s energy. And he was playing it deadpan and quiet, so you really needed, in a way, to have a comic by themselves in there playing to us in the control room like an audience in a club. A few people got confused and actually treated the opportunity to really feel like they were in therapy. For some reason they got lulled into a sense that Jonathan was a real therapist and that they really could talk about real problems. Maybe it was just an aspect of Jonathan’s personality or because they really were in therapy at that time.
Snyder: Jonathan was kind of bringing them down, so we quickly learned, “Oh my God, we got to get the comedian in there alone.” You’re going to think I’m a lowlife, but I’m just going to tell you the honest to goodness truth — we had all the young comedians in there, they all work in comedy clubs. And you know what they’re trying to do at a comedy club? Get laid, basically. So, they’re going in there, they’re having drinks, and they get instantly famous with the crowd that night and are used to trying to make women laugh. It’s the only thing that’s worked for them in their life and so we invented this new talk-back system where I would invite anybody from the company, especially women, when we were recording. Secretaries, administrators, vice presidents — we had a lot of women in our company because it was educational software and we tended to hire a lot of women — we brought them down, especially if they were generous laughers, and just turned on the talk-back mic.
Bouchard: Somewhat by design and somewhat by luck we ended up with this system where our talk-back mic in our control room was always live. Stand-up comedians in particular benefitted from this. If we had a bunch of people in the room they could hear us laughing and that, we found, was better than them looking at Jonathan who sometimes would laugh, of course he would break character and laugh, but other times he would stay in character and slowly their blood pressure would start to lower until we got the sleepiest version of their material.
Snyder: We also built a little sound room with table and chairs so people could be sitting, like in a club. Then, we put a comedian alone in there, but he performed for a live audience. Comedians, like musicians, like everyone, you do it for love. You want to be loved and it’s a little bit weird doing it in a dead sound booth. We would bring them in and say, “Do whatever material you are willing to share,” and they would do it, and then they would leave and fly back to wherever they lived.
Bond: The very early comedians were in the pantry and they loved it. It was so weird and it felt cozy, because it was. Then, we would sometimes record people by phone in L.A. or sometimes in New York. Sometimes, we would go to New York or L.A. and record stuff there. Depending on what we needed to achieve, when Carrie Fisher played Ben’s mom, Jonathan Katz’s ex-wife, she couldn’t leave and she had just had some oral surgery, so we recorded her on the phone. We just worked for some of it, we were kind of able to pull off, the sound quality wasn’t good and it didn’t really matter. We played pretty loose with stuff, and the technology’s not even close to what it is now.
Snyder: Then, we would do this other “retroscripting” thing which is, the next day, Loren and I, and then eventually just Loren, would edit the voices, the material of the comedians, so they were really nicely delivered pieces. And we decide what we like with Jonathan, and then we put Jonathan in the booth asking questions and responding to them as if he had been in the booth with them, so the comedians were on, as opposed to just sitting there, trying to be pleasant.
In one of the episodes, Ben has come down with a fatal disease. By the time we cut it in half twice, Ben’s found his father’s medical textbook. And Jonathan just said, while we were at the bar, you know it was a two-beer sit down, “You know what I’d say is, ‘Ben, you remember the last time you read my textbooks,’” and there was a pause and he says, “‘you were convinced you had an ovarian cyst.’” So, that went into our script. We would have a script, we would have an outline, and then enormous room to play, to do improv as well. We invented the word “retroscripting” at that point, which we trademarked.
Katz: Once we realized [the second season] was a larger order, he would need to expand the physical space and hire more people. Some of the stuff I recorded was done way after the fact. They were called drops. Like, Lisa Kudrow recorded in Los Angeles, but I was not there when she was recorded. I added my lines weeks later.
Bond: It was such a great organic way of doing a show. It makes so much sense. The animators were inspired by what they were hearing and we were inspired by each other. Having that come first gave a pass to the animators that made it feel like everybody was all together doing it at the same time even though we weren’t. It was cool. Either Jonathan was having the conversation, and we have the benefit of real time response, or he would drop it in.
Bouchard: We shot a lot of stuff, we would do a lot of improv, and do lot of takes, and then we would spend a lot of time listening back and gluing them together in different ways and really honing the track before it ever got to the animation stage. And that’s all I wanted to do. I stayed late and I got there early and I was the pig in sh*t.
What’s A Squigglevision?
The fact that it literally made you sea sick when you watched it at a movie theater didn’t seem like a good omen.
Mention “Dr. Katz” to a fan, or really anyone who watched Comedy Central in the ‘90s, and the squiggly animation is probably the first thing they’ll mention. Squigglevision, as Snyder dubbed it, wasn’t intended to change the way that we looked at animated programs, nor was it used as a statement on the therapeutic nature of this series. Simply put, it was cheap. Not everyone was a fan of the style at first – hell, it could have caused serious brain damage on a big enough screen – but like everything else about “Dr. Katz,” Squigglevision just worked.
Snyder: I invented that Squigglevision thing, too, and I don’t like it when people say my role in this was creating Squigglevision. That is said far too often [laughs]. That was just a cheap way to get the thing done. The joke is people will say, “The aesthetic of the Squigglevision, did you do that to capture the angst of the patients?” And I’d say, “Yes.” [laughs] “Yes I did. Thank you.” That was fun to do. But then Jon and I had some great jokes. Squigglevision is an acquired taste the first time you see it because it’s kind of rough. I think we were at the New York Museum of Film and TV, Jon and I, doing a talk together. Someone asked me about the Squigglevision and I said, “You know, for every ten people that we talk to that don’t like it, we can find one that doesn’t mind it that much.” That is my current description of the aesthetic power of Squigglevision.
Katz: I had no knowledge of animation or of audio recording or anything like that, and he was so steeped in that stuff because he ran a company, Tom Snyder Productions, which was an educational software company. He had just won a lifetime achievement award in education for having the most successful educational software company in America. Ever. They sold only to schools and a lot had to do with, he and his wife are both educators and it had to do with his feelings about education, but through doing that he became very talented in editing audio, and also creating what was the beginnings of Squigglevision in educational software.
Snyder: I had come up with Squigglevision because I was looking for a very quick way to be able to use the illustrators to do the animation for the software for my software company. This woman who was working for me, she became the head animator for Dr. Katz and her name was Annette Cate, but she was just a bartender of mine. She used to illustrate stuff so I said, “Could I take some of your illustrations and squiggle them? And I’m going to squiggle them using computer software.” We did it and it looked cute because she was a children’s book illustrator and so when she drew me for the first show as the shrink, it was very cute. When she drew Jonathan it was even cuter because Jonathan is so adorable. His bald head, his nice round smile. He was just adorable and she made everybody cute and we did a squiggle.
Katz: I was so amazed to see my voice coming out of somebody else’s mouth who looked like me. I didn’t understand the technology and I never really liked cartoons in my life. But I was amazed at the response it got. And I loved that people in different parts of the world would recognize my voice.
Benjamin: I didn’t really, maybe I didn’t think it looked great. I wasn’t against it, I don’t know. Later on, after we had been on air for a few years, a lot of people commented on how bad it was. But that made sense and I think it got even more negative attention than South Park, a show that came out around the same time that used some of the same, not techniques, but they used the cheapest possible animation. And Dr. Katz was still drawings that were squiggled. Squiggle definitely got more bad notices than South Park’s cut-outs. Squiggle was more annoying because it squiggled.
Bouchard: I liked everything [laughs]. I was all in from the beginning and I didn’t have a critical eye towards any of it. It seemed sort of born so completely of itself, especially now looking back, we were so lucky. There was something really blessed in a way about how it all came together. Annette Cate, who Tom hired to be the art director and head animator and character designer, she was really brilliant. She had a complete voice in herself and Tom recognized that. It takes care of so much when that’s already there.
Bond: I thought it was amazing. It was the first time I had seen any animation that wasn’t cell animation and so it was animation that was the only thing we could do on these Macs and I loved it. I thought it was genius, it was how we were able to do this show, we wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise if we didn’t have that technology because we couldn’t have afforded it. I think that initially people paid a lot of attention to the fact that it was squiggling. In the beginning, I got the feeling sometimes that they were focused more on the form than on the content. Some people didn’t like it, but, after a while, it was just normal, then they could really take in the content of the show.
Benjamin: Some people thought it was charming, I guess. On the whole it worked. I mean certainly with a bigger budget it would have worked better to flash animate it or something. Maybe they just wanted it for that show, I can’t remember. They must have.
Bond: What the animators brought to it was genius. They would work from our edited audio track and they would create the visual from that, so it was kind of backwards from the way animation usually gets done. Sometimes Jonathan would say something, but it would be him sitting looking like he was taking notes, and then it would cut to what he was writing and him drawing a horrible picture of his patient. That was not us at all. That was the contribution of our amazing animators.
Bouchard: It was enough of a success that General Cinema wanted to put a few short clips in movie theaters. It was small, maybe it was only going to be locally, I can’t remember the extent of the plan, but one of the nights that it was going to be premiering in a theater, they made kind of a big deal. Comedy Central flew up a camera crew and everyone from the Dr. Katz offices went out to Framingham, Mass. to go to this big flagship General Cinemas movie theatre and see Dr. Katz on the big screen. It was going to be shorts that aired in front of features.
Benjamin: It was playing at like a multiplex where they projected it. It was unbearable. Like, you’d have a seizure.
Bouchard: I have to say it was a sickening experience to sit in the front row and watch Squigglevision on the big screen. It was literally nauseating. The motion was not at all right for the big screen and being in the big theater. It affected me and shook me a little bit, I have to say. When we went back to work the next day it was hard to see it. Even though it was fine on TV and didn’t make anyone nauseous, or hopefully didn’t make too many people nauseous, it did affect my impression of it. The fact that it literally made you sea sick when you watched it at a movie theater didn’t seem like a good omen.
Snyder: I don’t think [Comedy Central] ever had trouble with the look of it because they had bought the Squigglevision look that I had shown them. They just thought the show could be funnier, and they were wrong. We had an Emmy so quickly that they also had to learn to shut up. What are they going to do?
Scheduling Some Patients
If Everybody Loves Raymond hadn’t happened, (Ray Romano) would have been a regular on Dr. Katz, which would have been so amazing.
Between Comedy Central’s stand-up archives and Katz’s popularity among comics, it wasn’t hard to find “patients” for each episode. Many comedians had so much respect for Katz that they were willing to give him whatever he needed in terms of material, and after the show had won an Emmy for its first season, agents took notice and were pushing their up-and-coming clients on Snyder and Katz. However, they ended up on the couch, some comics understood the show, and some didn’t. In fact, some of the visiting comedians actually treated Katz like a therapist, missing the mark entirely. And then there was Rodney Dangerfield, who was simply hilarious for all the wrong reasons.
Bouchard: The concept was brilliantly conceived. And then the comics that we got early on were sweet, they helped set the tone. Dom Irrera was one of the first, Ray Romano was one of the first, Cathy Ladman, Wendy Liebman… they had a sweet voice. They weren’t insult comics or whatever you want to call it. They didn’t have a particularly hard edge. That also helped define us.
Katz: It became something that people wanted to do. It was a good credit, like the Letterman show, or The Tonight Show on a much smaller scale.
Snyder: In Cambridge, there’s this comedy club that’s called the Hong Kong, it’s upstairs in a Chinese restaurant. So many good intellectual comedians got their start there: Paula Poundstone, Steven Wright, and Eugene Mirman, so many people did their craft there. It’s literally a 15-minute walk from my house and we knew them very well. We would go down there and talk to them, plus Comedy Central would send us a lot of stuff. Anyone that Jonathan had worked with that he thought was funny was fair game for the show.
Bond: We would listen to tapes often, Jonathan, Tom, me and Loren Bouchard. We would go through a lot of people’s material, video tapes, audio tapes. Then, after a while, and not a very long while, people started approaching us who wanted to do the show. Sometimes we would go to New York and we would pick a hotel room, and the comedians would come and we would just record them and meet with them, and then usually we had a pretty good idea by then of who we wanted to use and we would just go there to record them.
Bouchard: Jonathan, what I came to realize while we were working on the show was the extent to which he was such a comic’s comic. It was great to see comedians who clearly were in total control of their craft who had great, great, great material, but who loved Jonathan. They had either seen him on the road, they had shared some dates together, or they were aware of him somehow. So, all these comics who came in were really giving with their material. There was a lot of trust there. At first, I think I mistook it as, wow, this is the nicest group of people in the world. But I came to realize how much of that came from Jonathan. They really trusted him with their material.
Katz: When the show started I had been working as a comedian for many years and those were the first people I called on to do Dr. Katz. Bill Braudis was in my first episode and is a great comedian and friend. Dom Irrera, who I had worked with in New York City for a few years. I started doing stand-up in 1981 when there were not so many jokes. A lot of these guys were guys I worked with either in New York City or on the road. Ray Romano was such a guy. Gilbert Gottfried. All these guys I knew from the club scene.
Snyder: Bill Braudis was one of our very early comedians. I remember every single joke he told. He told the joke about how the shrink asked him if he was having trouble being intimate with women and the shrink asked him if he remembered the first time you were intimate with a woman. And Bill played this straight, naive, sweet guy and said, “Yeah I remember the first time because I kept the receipt.” It was so exciting that there were these craftsmen and women who had such, such good material that they were willing to share with us on the show as patients.
Benjamin: At the time comedy was booming, stand-up was, so people would come through town and you’d book them as they came into town, in a way. Friends of Jonathan would maybe come in and do it, but I was definitely more separate from that part of the show; although, as the show got going, maybe the second season, I would sometimes do scenes with the comedians depending on what the outline of the episode was. But mostly Jonathan recorded with them.
Katz: Initially everyone came to Watertown, Mass. where the studio was and then, when we realized that people in Los Angeles and elsewhere wanted to do the show as well, we developed this other system where they could record with somebody on the phone. And they would lead the talent into areas that were funny. We recorded Julia Louis-Dreyfus while she was very pregnant and I think that was one of the best sessions. I was on the phone, but I think that was just a coincidence almost. She was just great.
Bouchard: We had these two big air compressor air conditioning units that they installed. The fans, the big compressors, were right outside the door of where we did the recording once we built ourselves a proper studio in Watertown. And then Jonathan would always lead the stand-up comic, our guest, on a little tour, and he brought them over to where the animators sat so that they could be photographed and drawn primarily, and also so they could see how we do the show, and every single time he would walk by those two fans and he would turn to the comic and say, “A couple of my biggest fans.” He loved jokes that he could really repeat. He loved his jokes and he loved ones that he could say more often.
Snyder: Ray Romano is one of the funniest stand-up comedians who ever lived. He was just brilliant and thrilling to have him in the booth. Everything he said was gold. As a matter of fact, the first time Ray came we were going to put him in as a regular on the show as an office partner, a guy next door who was running another business. Kind of like Bob Newhart’s show almost. And so I asked Ray if he would do it and he said, “Can you call me next week? I’ve got this thing that I might be doing.” And it was Everybody Loves Raymond. But he wasn’t sure if it was going to happen or not. But if Everybody Loves Raymond hadn’t happened, he would have been a regular on Dr. Katz which would have been so amazing.
Bouchard: Ray was one of the first comics that we did when we got picked up to be a half-hour show and he made himself hoarse in the booth because he went so long. He did all his material that he was doing in clubs at that time then, as far as I could tell, he was going through the back of his notebook trying to find anything else that he might be able to give us and he was having trouble speaking because he had been in there for two and half hours. We didn’t just get one episode from that one session, I think we got three episodes worth of stuff from him from one session in our first season, and a lot of comics were like that. They were extraordinarily generous and trusting.
Bond: He was so generous with us and it was before he became a really big star. He was certainly known and respected, but not like what he became. His humor was so like Dr. Katz in a way. It was like an extension of that. I always loved it because he would talk about his kids or his wife, so even though he was saying these often not very nice things, there was so much love behind it. It was just wonderful. There was a kind of gentleness to it.
Snyder: I drove to the airport once to pick up Steven Wright and I brought my son, Timmy, along in the car. Timmy was in third grade, and I gave him a Steven Wright CD and he memorized it. Driving back from the airport he did Steven’s entire oeuvre for Steven. And you would think most comedians would be like, “Hey, your dad and I are trying to talk,” and when we got to the house Steven was so sweet and so kind to my son who was so proud. We started having this slogan, we just want to work with nice people and it really worked. Andy Kindler, you couldn’t find a nicer guy. Oh my God, he’s just tremendous. Some of these guys, and women, too. Sarah Silverman is so nice. Jesus. Friendly and wonderful.
Bouchard: I grew up following Stephen Wright as a comic who I absolutely adored. What was so bizarre was to hear him laugh because that’s not part of his onstage persona. But in real life, the guy loves to laugh. And like all of our guests, loved Jonathan, so here comes Steven Wright to fool around with Jonathan. He didn’t want to get into the booth and do his set, his act. He wanted to get in the booth with Jonathan and fool around and that was fine. We were all happy to have him. And out of his mouth, after the first thing Jonathan says, comes this explosive laugh. That’s an example of where, people who you might expect to be a little bit reserved, or even chilly or aloof or whatever, were the opposite. Even when they play a guy who doesn’t crack a smile, they turn out to be really sweet.
Benjamin: I recall Dom Irrera being really funny on the show and I definitely like him as a comedian. A lot of them were my friends, like Louis C.K. and Marc Maron, and people like that who were my contemporaries, who I was hanging out with. So, it was fun when they came on. Then, as the show got more acclaim, it was fun to see Garry Shandling come on and people like that who I really loved.
Bouchard: Dom Irrera, it was so nice to see that guy because he could just switch back and forth between a guy who could play the toughest rooms. Jonathan used to say, “Some comics got ruined by the road,” and I thought that was interesting. You’d look at somebody performing. Usually we’d see a group of them doing stand-up on a national TV show. Could be The Tonight Show or a big benefit that’s getting broadcast all over the world or whatever. And sometimes you’d sense that their material was really broad and Jonathan would say he was ruined by the road because he was telling jokes that play anywhere.
Bond: Dom is also amazing, and there are moments, particularly in those early shows, that are just very memorable. Things the comedians would say, lines that would come out that I’d hear people repeating. It was really great. Then, I just really loved some of the episodes and what they were about and how they were, at the time, kind of unexpected and always kind of silly. A silly kind of humor that was, I think really resonated for a lot of people. Like Ben climbing into the dumpster and looking for his (stuffed toy) bull, having a fight about how Ben should grow up and clearly he should have grown up by that point, but he hadn’t. There was all this opportunity to explore what I think are central themes in a universal way.
Bouchard: We got really excited about Andy Kindler. I remember watching his tapes and he seemed to be bombing. It was this exciting thing that I knew existed, this idea that you could bomb and be perfect at the same time, where your audience doesn’t quite deserve you. He was doing that very effectively on purpose on late night TV, so we have clips of him seemingly bombing on Letterman, on Conan, and we were really excited about him.
Snyder: I don’t want to say that Andy Kindler wasn’t well-known, but he wasn’t as much of a national act. I remember the first time we saw him where he was bombing on purpose just so he could do his special bombing jokes to his audience. We were all so impressed with who he was, and he was well-known probably in L.A. and New York, mostly in L.A.
Bouchard: Louis C.K. was already one of the best stand-up comedians even 15 to 20 years ago. He was extraordinarily good even then, he was obviously a younger man, but he used to play this little tiny comedy club in Harvard Square, they called it the Comedy Studio. It was on the third floor of the Hong Kong restaurant in Harvard Square, and I always made an effort to go see him because I knew that he was somebody who would make me laugh till I cried and beyond, make my stomach hurt or whatever.
Katz: The best stuff was when people would show up with a plan. They would have done their homework. Like this guy Ron Lynch, who I worked with recently in Portland, Ore., he couldn’t accept the fact that he was seeing a psychiatrist, that was his thing. So, he had to pretend I was a dentist and that all the pain he felt was in his teeth. Al Franken showed up, only wanted to talk about scheduling appointments, his availability, my availability. But never discuss anything of a personal nature. Those are examples of people who did their homework. When Steve Martin shows up on a talk show, he always knows exactly what he would like to do. Ron Lynch and Al Franken are examples of two guys who showed up very well-prepared. Then with other people, and it wasn’t necessarily their fault, I got very heavily into the therapy mode because my voice has a soothing quality, I’ve been told. I know the talk. I speak therapy. I took the role a little too seriously and it sort of lulled everyone into a stupor. So, we didn’t want people to feel like they were in therapy or to improvise, we wanted them to do their act.
Bouchard: Rodney Dangerfield didn’t realize that we need 15 to 20 minutes of material. I remember directing him, we were on the phone and he was in the studio, and he did maybe four or five jokes. He did a tight three minutes, then said, “Are we done?” And we were all aghast. Like, “No, we need a lot more, we need to cover at least 10-15 minutes.” And he’s just, “Oh God, you’re killin’ me here, c’mon.” And we were like, “Didn’t anyone explain this to you?” He sort of hesitantly gave us a few more jokes and then, of course, we ended the session. But my memory about that is we used some of that stuff. Of course we were rolling tape when he said, “Are we done? You’re killing me here!” So, that ended up in the show.
Jonathan’s comedy… is perfect for Squigglevision, terrible for comedy clubs full of drunken college students in Boston.
Dr. Katz’s couch had been warmed by some of the biggest names in comedy throughout the show’s 81-episode run, as it was broken in early on by Ray Romano and Dom Irrera and eventually christened by beloved icons like Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield, Steven Wright, Garry Shandling, Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Bob Odenkirk, David Cross, Jon Stewart, Bobcat Goldthwait, and many more. Obviously, we would have loved to talk to as many of these “patients” as we could, but we’re confident, though, that the comics we did speak to are speaking on behalf of the majority of their peers.
Dom Irrera, Season 1 “Pot-Bellied Pigs” (among others): Every time I hear Dr. Katz, I think, “I think I’m falling hard for Dr. Katz, I think I’m falling hard for Dr. Katz.” This is how long ago it started, we used a reel-to-reel tape recorder to tape my spot which was a teaser for Comedy Central. I was the first comedian they had on there, and it was so primitive to do that. Comedy Central liked it so they picked it up for seven minutes, and then they liked it even more so they picked it up for a series.
Andy Kindler, Season 1 “Family Car”: The first thing that comes to my mind is just how funny it is. Always hilarious and exactly my kind of comedy.
Wendy Liebman, Season 1 “Pretzelkins”: I started doing stand-up in Boston and that’s where I met Jonathan Katz, and so that’s how I got on the show. I always feel like it makes me one of the cool comedians to have been on that show. He included my mother in one of the episodes and there’s a picture of her, because he did a calendar one year, and you know how on a calendar on the back they show each month, in a little thumbnail? So, they have her on the back of the calendar saying something, I guess she’s trying to find out when I’m in therapy or something like that. And I’m thinking, this is so funny that they gave her attention, just write comedy and get attention.
Irrera: Jonathan was an old friend of mine, so there was no tension or anything. I basically just went in and did some of my act in therapy. Laura Silverman was the secretary, she’d call me in, “Dr. Katz will see you now,” I go in and that’s how it started. Just being in fake therapy doing some of my material. After a while, because I did the show so much, I didn’t want to do my material anymore so I started improvising. And that’s when my segments got better, once it wasn’t so staid and contrived. We made new material.
Dana Gould, Season 6 “Snow Day”: I’ve known Jonathan for a long time. I knew him before the show because I’m from Boston and that’s where I started out. He was one of the comedians that I would watch when I was just an open mic-er and learning how to do stand-up. I really admired him because the kind of comedy that Jonathan does is very smart and you need to pay attention to it. That wasn’t always the case with the audiences in Boston [laughs], a lot of times. The crowds were, let’s say less than polite. Jonathan never pandered to them. He would always hold his ground and do what he did. I really admired that a lot. When I heard that he had gotten a show, by the time the show had come around I had moved to California. But I thought it was such a great idea. And my biggest memory of it was it was so easy. I was in New York and we just went into a recording studio and just knocked it out. It took an hour and now it’s this thing that, 20 years later, people still talk about.
Liebman: It fit so perfectly with his personality. It seems like a show that’s always been there. It was perfect for him. I’ve always wanted to play a live action therapist on a sitcom, that’s my goal one day, so he paved the way being a television therapist and I couldn’t love Jonathan any more. He’s so funny.
Kindler: In my heart, that was such a seminal part of life, and I learned so much about myself as a comedian doing that show, because if you watch tapes of my stand-up, like I did a special in 1992, and I’m just loud and a lot of that had to do with how you develop as a comedian. But I didn’t have dynamics, I didn’t relax into the comedy. That’s what Jonathan Katz did and that’s what the show reflected.
Irrera: My act is hard to write and I didn’t want to write for a show and give away material that I would use for my own HBO specials and my own TV stuff, but I loved doing the show when it first started and I loved it even more when I was able to improvise. Just mess around and get funny stuff out, what I really felt about therapy. Because my real feeling about therapy is they want to get you better, but they don’t want to get you too much better because then you’ll leave them. They want to help you with a problem then help you find another problem so they still have business.
Liebman: I think I gave Jonathan a list of jokes I had written up at that time and he picked out the ones he wanted me to say. Then, I recorded a lot more than what they used. I remember seeing them a couple different ways each time. It was the first time I had ever said my jokes like I was talking to a therapist, instead of yelling at an audience. So, I really appreciate that in helping me find my true voice, which is probably more talking to a therapist than yelling at the audience [laughs].
Kindler: The thing that made the show even funnier, I also brought material that wasn’t so set-up for punchlines. Like I described once how my sister went to this acupuncturist. He was really great, but then he just started to miss certain basic medical things that he should know. My sister ended up having Type 2 Diabetes and he kept missing the signs. Like, a test came back, “Tell Janet Kindler she has diabetes,” and he missed those signs.
Gould: My style of comedy is, especially then, much different than Jonathan’s. It was very theatrical and presentational. I wrote in large chunks, big bits. I was anything but quiet. But what was really great, and I experienced when I did it with him live again — we did it in Austin then in Portland — you just sort of put yourself in Jonathan’s hands. He’s so good at setting the tone of the scene and by just sort of, where my bits were so, for lack of a better word, operatic, all I would have to do is glance often and he would make it into something very fantastic. I was really putting myself in his hands and trusting in the process. If I didn’t know him I wouldn’t have trusted him so much. But I knew him and I knew how good he was and I felt confident enough to not come out with all my guns blazing. It would have been unwatchable [laughs]. If I had followed my instincts it would have been unwatchable.
Kindler: I really do think the basis of the show is the relationship between Jonathan Katz and Jon Benjamin as the father and son. More than even any other traditional sitcom that’s trying to be sentimental, they really had levels there. There was an episode where Benny loses his stuffed animal from when he was a kid and I’m crying [laughs]. Not that that was ever the point, it was never like you’re going to learn something in this half hour. I’ve never been a big fan of that, a “what did we learn” thing.
Irrera: I like the one where I talked about, can I just lay down on top of you and talk? And the whole thing about him being better than me and he wouldn’t have a beer with me. I like when he presses the answering machine and I’m singing that song. That stuff always cracks me up. And when I come in dressed like a woman, with the big fruit thing on my head, that’s pretty funny. Those illustrators did a great job. I look at it now and I think, man, I wish my face was that thin.
Kindler: I love the relationship between Dom and Dr. Katz because that seemed to be the most, stream-of-consciousness kind of comedy where they would just go nuts together. And I also love all the stuff when he would go down to the bar, and there would be a friend of his. So, that would be the way I would remember it, by pulling some of them together. I definitely felt doing my mom was my favorite thing. I also remember I did a thing about being scared of being in prison that I really, really liked.
Gould: Seeing it through the context of the show I thought it looked great. Jonathan’s comedy is very quiet and he uses silence and pauses and stillness which is perfect for Squigglevision, terrible for comedy clubs full of drunken college students in Boston [laughs]. But I actually thought, in that regard, that the animation actually helped the show. I thought that particular style was very beneficial.
Liebman: I had never seen anything like it and it just sort of fit. Just perfect for that show. Just a kind of kinetic energy, nervousness about him and his patients. I never really articulated that before, but I think that’s what it is. My hair is different now, but they made me look like an aunt or something, curls, maybe that’s how I used to dress, I don’t know. But it was hysterical watching myself like that.
Gould: I was quite flattered [laughs]. I certainly came out better than I feared.
Irrera: I thought, like a lot of people, that it was like this artistic breakthrough. I didn’t realize they did it because it was cheap. They could produce them in a very short time. When I did Hey Arnold or any of those other cartoons, Rocko’s Modern Life and Back at the Barnyard, they would take a year to get back. They would send them to Japan or something. Squigglevision was a lot more economical and faster. I thought it was pretty cool. I loved the show, I think it’s a great show. I’m proud to have been on it.
Kindler: I’ve had a lot of insecurities, but none of them were around my height or how I looked, so I was never afraid to see how they were portraying me, but I really loved it, because when I was a kid I had an eyelid that was half closed, but then it got corrected through surgery, but I kind of have that droopy eye lid thing where they come half down. I thought the show really was so much a collaboration. The animators were brilliant on that show. I think what they did, and I might be wrong, I think they took a Polaroid of you and when you take a Polaroid it looks a bit different anyway. Then, they would draw from the Polaroid and I loved what they did.
Liebman: From the get go it was this cool thing. I know I use the word cool a lot. But the other thing I should mention is that I think on one of my episodes is Ray Romano, and this is before his show or whatever, and it’s just cool that — again, cool, I just love that — that I’m on a show with him. It’s funny to me. The world is funny.
Irrera: It was more of an intelligent show. Once South Park came on Comedy Central it knocked it right out of the water. Because you can’t compete when talking about potty stuff and sex stuff. I mean, South Park is great but Dr. Katz didn’t stand a chance against that.
Gould: Joel Hodgson had something he used to say about Mystery Science Theater, which has a similar cult following. And it was that not everybody will get it but the right people will get it. I think that Jonathan’s show unwittingly adheres to the same belief. Comedians are like a band that doesn’t just speak to everybody, but says something very specifically, that you’ll hang onto that. You’ll keep that with you for a long time. REO Speedwagon were at their height when The Smiths were at their height. But there aren’t as many devoted REO Speedwagon fans around, but there are for The Smiths because The Smiths spoke to something in people that was very, very specific. And those people appreciate it and they don’t let go of that sort of thing. All sort of cult things that speak to you, you don’t let go of them. Whether it’s The Smiths, whether it’s Star Trek or a specific comedian or a show like Dr. Katz or MST3K, which I would put in that category as well. They speak to you, you’re not going to abandon them when they go away, you’re going to keep them with you.
Irrera: I knew, when I was in Boston, any kid that walked up to me and looked like they were from Harvard or MIT, they were the Dr. Katz fans. I had a football show on and I had kind of a dirty show on Showtime and I could always tell by what the kids looked like what they watched. So, if I saw like a nerdy little kid with kind of an afro and knew he or she was a Harvard student, they were Dr. Katz fans.
A Father And His Son
Ben was a bit of a tragic character really. Which are the best characters in a way.
The relationship between Dr. Katz and his son, Ben, was sort of pathetic in the most endearing way possible. In reality, the dad should have been forcing his 20-something slacker of a son to get a job and get the hell out of his house, but they actually needed each other. While that would have been pitiful on most television shows, the ongoing banter between Dr. Katz and Ben was really quite sweet and, of course, hilarious. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that things were pretty great behind-the-scenes, too.
Bond: There’s something about the relationships, particularly between Jonathan Katz and Jon Benjamin, who played his son, that was a very unusual relationship to be shown at the time. And even though it was these cartoon characters, it was very authentic. Jon and Jon really love each other and it really showed in what would come out. They just had a great chemistry. I think that the bar scenes were a little bit like that, too. There was a sense of real friendship and community that came from even though it was a cartoon.
Bouchard: We came to think of it as a love story between a father and a son.
Benjamin: I guess when it started it was much more evenly split between this narrative about a single dad raising his shut-in son, and comedians doing their routine in this weird way. I don’t know, maybe because I was in the part where the son was in, more people now remember the show as a father/son comedy than the comedian part. It was obviously the part of the show that had a connection for a long period of time.
Bouchard: Jonathan and Jon Benjamin — though this is true of everybody who worked on the show — loved to try to make each other laugh, to surprise each other in the booth and generally to just fool around in character. And one of the things we got addicted to early on was when they laughed at each other, if they didn’t break character, or if they did, but not completely so it was usable, the sort of joy they got from each other, the little gleeful moments that snuck in because they were improvising and surprising each other and making each other laugh, became part of their characters because you bought that it was not Jonathan Katz breaking character and laughing and becoming himself, it was more like a dad who’s a therapist laughing at something his son said.
Benjamin: We worked well together instantly. It was instantly fun. So, I really liked it. And it depended on the day, sometimes it was hard to do. But it was a bit of a work in progress all the time. In the beginning, we pieced together versions of our storyline, very haphazardly. We would kind of come in and do more, we worked it out as we went. It wasn’t anything like it works now, where everything is scheduled. Everybody worked on it like it was a research project.
Katz: One of my favorite episodes was when I took a mask-making class. But the episode became about how scary the mask was to Ben. He ended up having bad dreams in the episode. And one of those dreams, he tried to kill me and I said, “Ben, I have those kind of dreams all the time about killing you. The trick is to enjoy them for what they are.” There was an episode where he witnessed a crime, in one of the first seasons, it’s called “Bystander Ben.” That episode could have involved the crime, the investigation, but it was all about just the fact that he witnessed a crime and he thought this was his new gig in life, he was going to be an eye witness, a professional eye witness. And then it turns out that he didn’t really witness it because he said to the police he heard as many as three shots and possibly as few as none. So he had fabricated the whole thing.
Benjamin: Ben was a bit of a tragic character really. Which are the best characters in a way. Core tragedy I think if he’s living at home and he’s in his early 40s, that’s really bad. I think it’s fairly reasonable, although ill-advised, to live with your family till you’re 30. Ben was probably in his mid to late 20s, so I feel like he needed to move out of there soon.
I think it better served the show for that, even in the animated world, it never seemed like there would be any real attraction between Laura and Ben from Laura’s point of view. Just as, physically I imagine Laura was fairly repulsed by Ben. That’s what it seemed like, though Laura had that attitude toward everyone. I feel like it better reflected the real world. It’s not like Sam and Diane on Cheers — they both looked good. You could imagine them in real life. [Ben and Laura] were never meant to be. It was the opposite of what was happening in real life, which is that Laura and I were dating. Laura, at least from what I noticed in the animation, was very pretty. Ben was very homely. I don’t mean to be rude, but I feel like there was no attraction there that Laura would have for Ben. And I don’t think she liked him as a person. I think he grew on her a little bit but she was probably already dating somebody else if there was a world outside of Dr. Katz.
Snyder: My favorite joke ever told on the show was the guy, and I can never remember his name, who was complaining to Dr. Katz that he was one of those loser boyfriends. Dr. Katz asks, “What is a loser boyfriend?” And the guy goes, “Well you meet all the other loser boyfriends at the supermarket. They’re the guys who have been sent there, not just sent there by their girlfriends or their wives, but sent back because they got the wrong thing.” Then he says, “Like I see this one guy and I recognize him from before and I said to him, ‘What did you get wrong?’ and the other guys says, ‘I’m not even supposed to talk to you.’” [laughs] That just killed me because it’s got so much drama in it and so much performance just in the “I’m not supposed to be talking to you, man.” Perfectly written.
Bond: Probably my favorite episode, because it was an opportunity for me to get out of the bar, was the episode where Jonathan is trying to get in shape so we made this deal: he offered to give me therapy if I train him, because it somehow came out in one of our improv things that I did physical training. I don’t even know where that came from, but it became something that stayed in the show. He said, “Okay great, you’ll train me and I’ll give you therapy.” And I said, “No, I don’t want that. I’m not going to do that.” So, then it’s that he offers to teach me to play the guitar. It’s just funny and it’s an opportunity, again for me as an actress, to get out of the bar and to be not always the one that is the sensible one. Julie was the therapist to Dr. Katz, so it’s always a good opportunity to get out and go to his office and have him play the guitar. That was great fun.
Katz: I think he was a very loving father and I don’t think he was a bad therapist, but nobody ever got better. Just like real therapy. I made one guy feel better and I made one woman cry in the course of six seasons. I was too invested in my role as a therapist. We started talking about a very tender issue that some young woman was dealing with and I just stayed with it, when in fact I should have gone to the comedy. Bob Balaban said he actually felt better after seeing me.
20 Years Later
We just had a tiger by the tail, and I don’t think there was any way to know it.
What started out as a simple idea about a therapist listening to the material of stand-up comics eventually blossomed into a critical hit that won unexpected acclaim and the industry’s biggest awards. Twenty years later, fans still love “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist” enough that they flock to occasional live shows in cities like Portland and Austin, and Katz still can’t quite believe the response. He hopes to host a few more reunions in cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. and take some more selfies with fans, but it’s still not quite the same as watching him in that unmistakable squiggle. Did the cast and crew know that this show would carry such a legacy? Not really. But the great ones never do.
Snyder: I knew it would simply because it got the Peabody Award, and I thought that’s one award I will never get in life because, when we were there, Schwarzenegger was there with his ex-wife, Maria Shriver, for a documentary on poverty in Africa. And I’m thinking, what are the chances? When it got that kind of recognition I thought, well, people see the heart in it and so I thought yeah, it will probably last. I was really sad when it ended simply because we weren’t going to get to do it anymore. We started making more money on other shows because the budget is so low on Dr. Katz. But now, I’m glad to be out of the TV business. I’m writing a musical comedy for the stage that is really fun.
Benjamin: I didn’t care about the concept of the show very much. Now, when I look back, it’s a great idea.
Bond: As soon as we started winning stuff, then it was getting a lot of press, a lot of really good press. Then, we had people coming to us who weren’t even comedians. They just really loved the show and they wanted to be part of it. There are people that I met later on, like Matthew Broderick, working on something else, and when he found out I had been a part of it he’s like, “Oh my God, that’s just my favorite show.” By that point, we had just finished. Which would have been sort of cool. I could totally see someone like Matthew Broderick wanting to do that. He didn’t say, “Oh, I want to do that,” but I think if we had known his appreciation for it and had reached out maybe he would have done it.
Katz: It’s overwhelming each time. In Austin, Texas, the audience was so excited to see Dr. Katz live. As they were in Portland and San Francisco. And it’s just, it’s tricky not to confuse adulation with affection. Because these are strangers who love and miss me as opposed to my family. After the show they would chase me down the street to take a selfie with me. I get a little full of myself, and then it makes me slightly nauseous. After the show in Portland my wife said, “You must feel so great,” because she saw that show. I said, “Not yet,” because it takes a while to register that it went well. I don’t feel the success of the event immediately.
Bouchard: The internet was beginning to exist, but you didn’t have the ability to eavesdrop on fans of the show, talking about the show, like you would now. Probably almost 100 percent of every TV show out there in the world you can now find people talking about it online if you’re so inclined, it’s a really interesting way to hear feedback on your show. But back then, we barely had any sense that people were watching at all, for me anyway. That part of it was pretty abstract.
Bond: It was hands down the most amazing pleasure to work on this show. I was working with people that I was just so blown away by. And so, it was just a great show, and Comedy Central really left us alone because at the time they didn’t really have any original programming, so they just let us do our thing.
Snyder: I got completely spoiled having a TV show where the network didn’t give us notes. We had five or six shows after that where we’d get notes that drove us crazy because we were so spoiled by having this relationship with Comedy Central where they just let us do our show. Although they were kind of forced to because I was capable of walking away because our software business was profitable. We worked for seven seasons and without notes, which made it possible for us to work really fast because you know how long it takes to get someone down to a network, to have a network get the people to respond, and have them write up the notes, you get them back to us and have us argue with the notes, to have us give it to the animators to re-record? It’s like, no f*cking way could we do that. Also, we cost one-fifth as much as a Simpsons episode because we were turning around so quickly. So they were getting it from us very cheaply. I had a great relationship, Jon and I both did, with Comedy Central because they left us alone. It was wonderful.
Bond: I think we had some real champions at the time at Comedy Central and Tom was a very articulate guy and he would just make the case. He would say, “No really, we don’t really want to do that. If we do that it goes against what the show is about. And I don’t think it will work.” They pretty much left us alone, and they partly left us alone because we produced these great shows that people loved. There was no arguing about it. They really, really left us alone. In the pantry, by ourselves.
Bouchard: Perfect for Comedy Central and perfect for us. Perfect for animation, and in particular perfect for low-budget animation because it was a small idea, but that could, thanks to these stand-up comics, could be really polished and entertaining at the same time.
Bond: We were so removed from the hubs of entertainment. I just think we thought we were so lucky that we were getting a chance to explore something that we were excited about, that we thought people would like, if we could just get it done and get it out there. But winning that Cable Ace Award, looking back on it, the feeling was like we just had a tiger by the tail and I don’t think there was any way to know it. It was so gratifying to feel like we were doing something that we loved. That we thought was funny. That we thought was amazing. And that people liked it and wanted more of it was beyond thrilling.
Snyder: Jonathan actually is a gentleman and a very sweet man, a very kind man, and so his true nature comes out. He has an incredibly tart sense of humor, too, but that’s not on the show. I just get to hear those jokes every day. The most horrific thing that happens in the news, I get a phone call from Jon and I’m never prepared for it. Never. He’ll call me and say, “Did you hear about the mother who just drowned her six kids?” And I’ll go, “Oh God, I know.” And then he’ll go, the punchline, and you think there couldn’t possibly be one and I wasn’t expecting it and it still makes me laugh every time, even though I’m not into that stuff, but he’s so funny and dark. But he’s also a very sweet-sweet, he really cares about people. I think he just deals with his darkness, that’s his way of dealing with anything dark in his life and always has.
Katz: I say this often, and it’s true, that if it wasn’t for Tom, this just wouldn’t have been a good idea. Because he’s the guy who actually makes things happen. Or when — I feel like I’m dropping names here — but when I talk to my friend David Mamet he said, “Hollywood is full of great ideas, it’s just not full of great scripts.” He’s a guy who loves, he’s a compulsive writer and a good one.
Snyder: By the way, here’s what he said to me about the mother who just drowned her six kids, he made it sound so believable because he said, “Tom, I just want to make sure that the woman who did this is not tried by the press.” I’m immediately drawn in and thinking, God, that’s interesting. He says, “I just want to make sure she’s not tried by the press, because we have no idea how difficult those children were.” He’s very sneaky.