Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist crosses genres and styles, from sitcom to minimalism to an inexpensive animation process called “squigglevision.” But its most accurate label might be “talk show.”
Katz‘s half-hour episodes regularly cut between scenes of the psychiatrist Dr. Katz with his patients (usually voiced by standup comedians) and glimpses into his life at home with his live-at-home, 20-something son Ben (H. Jon Benjamin of Home Movies). The therapy segments boil down the “interview” portion of a typical late-night talk show to its essence: one comic (Katz) asks another comic and/or (the client) softball questions, setting up anecdotes that sound a little less rehearsed than they probably are. Ray Romano, for instance, is a frequent guest in Season One, now available on DVD, here toying with the domestic material that would later inform his massive hit of a sitcom.
On most talk shows, the guests have something to promote. Here, they mostly just talk. Even the sitcommier half of the show has the dialogue-heavy rhythm of two comedians bantering with each other, though Katz and Ben are better than most at sounding like people you’d meet outside of show business. The testy chemistry between slacker Ben and his dad elevates sitcom scenarios, such as Ben’s overreaction when his father throws out a cherished childhood toy. A sitcom reaction would favor the histrionic potential, but Katz and Benjamin underplay the hostility, creating a more plausible version of the ridiculous.
The intricacies of Dr. Katz‘s many conversations render the disc’s several commentary tracks somewhat redundant. The shared commentary by Katz, Benjamin, and co-creator Tom Snyder (not to be confused with former talk show host Tom Snyder) is, like the show itself, low-key and amusing, spoken in a hushed deadpan (and offering some half-joking observations about how the show came together), but amounts to another layer of chat.
The show itself works through the chat to explore intersections between showbiz conventions and what might be termed “real-life” tensions. In one of the bonus features, a cartoon called “The Biography of Dr. Katz,” he narrates his own squigglevisioned history. Though this “Biography” predates the series, after watching six episodes of Katz playing straight man to his patients and son, it’s pleasantly jarring to hear him fool around in his own voice, which, judging from this short, resembles that of the early Woody Allen. The quasi-narrative is mostly an excuse for one-liners and absurdist non sequiturs.
But where Allen cast himself as the neurotic who visited the shrink, Dr. Katz places the comic as the doctor, with Romano, Dave Attell, and others as the overbearing clients. This relies on the familiar conceit that comedy is therapy, for performers and for us. The routines sound more like conversations without a studio audience, while the therapy setting acknowledges the peculiarity and pain of the usual comic’s nitpicking, ranting, and obsessing.
This makes Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist a provocative representation of the troubled psyches beneath the smiley surface of the talk show. David Letterman and Jay Leno exemplify basic talk show recipes: Letterman’s crankiness and Leno’s craven eagerness to please function as seasoning to celebrities’ bland promotional chitchat. Katz, so welcoming and passive, invites his guests to share their stories, while the show slowly teases out his own personality in the home scenes. Ben here becomes his father’s Ed McMahon, so that the separate realms remain connected. Home and work are showbiz in the end.