Halving and Halving
“I’ve always compared therapy to a bad talk show,” says writer, director, and comedian Jonathan Katz. On his TV show, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, comedians of varying levels of fame use the couch as a venue for their stand-up material. Fortunately, Dr. Katz manages to rise above the meager aims set forth by both its creator and format. Incorporating bits of Dr. Katz’s home life, the series splits the difference between a sitcom and an animated stand-up comedy hour, and achieves a balance between humor and charm.
The most obvious limitation in Dr. Katz is its famously minimalist animation. “Never once does anyone walk across a room—or lean forward, or pick up a cup,” says co-creator Tom Snyder on the DVD’s commentary. “We actually didn’t know how to animate it.” The result is a series of static, black-and-white backgrounds with in-color protagonists animated in “Squigglevision,” which gives the illusion of movement when really, only the characters’ mouths and eyes are in full motion. The odd appearance only supports the voice actors’ dry style of humor. Jonathan Katz, H. Jon Benjamin, and Laura Silverman deploy just a few straight-faced quips per scene, creating a spare aesthetic.
Everything else in the series falls into lockstep with its understated visual style. In lieu of visual detail, the show comes across as “talky”, with actors delivering their lines in a hilariously low-key, expressionless cadence. In listening to the commentary tracks (available on about a third of the episodes), it becomes clear that the characters’ voices mirror the actors’ everyday speaking intonations almost exactly. This is unusual for actors in general, but doubly so for voice actors, who are prone to going over the top with their performances.
Very little happens during the half-hour episodes. Snyder calls it the “technique of halving and halving an episode.” He offers an example in the season’s first episode, “Bystander Ben”. Katz’s son Ben (Benjamin) is quoted in the newspaper as a witness to a crime. The first time the plot is “halved”, Bed admits that he was more of a witness to the aftermath of the crime than the crime itself. Eventually, he confesses that he really didn’t see anything at all. By episode’s end, the plot has been reduced to its minimalist essence: nothing happened.
The actors worked off scene outlines rather than scripts with setups and punch-lines. “We had a script,” says Snyder, “but it was only used as a backup.” This low-key approach affected the guest stars too; in this season, they include Steven Wright, Kevin Meany, Emo Philips, and Janeane Garofalo. Instead of exposing every half-baked notion and cultural observation that cross the comedians’ minds, their performances are limited to what might occur in believable therapy sessions. Mostly, this boils down to personal neuroses (“One afternoon, when I’m walking home from school, I see some men building a new house,” says Philips. “The guy hammering on the roof calls me a paranoid little weirdo… in Morse code”) and family (“There was always some aunt, you know, with a moustache and a wart on her head, and she gives you a big sloppy kiss, but when you try to go further with her…”). Such storytelling reduces the usual shtick of stand-up comedy, as the comedians are grounded in the show’s hyper-reality.
The insecurities of all his patients are reflected in Dr. Katz’s home life, which, to the show’s credit, is a bit unconventional. He’s trying to manage his relationship with Ben, his adult son still living at home, and Laura (Laura Silverman), his office assistant. No spouse, parents, or even a distant love interest complicate his family life, and yet he still can’t keep it all together. “Why do you have such little faith in [Ben]?” a friend asks Dr. Katz. “I don’t know,” he responds earnestly. “I think it’s because I’ve spent time with him.” Instead of coming across as hypocritical, the doctor’s flaws make the series convincing and even touching. Jonathan Katz sums it up best: “Dr. Katz isn’t a great therapist, but he’s the dad we never had.”