For US television watchers in 2008, it’s hard to remember a time when Comedy Central wasn’t a basic cable powerhouse. But only a short time ago “the house that South Park built” was a fledgling network just like any other, struggling for ratings and battling to develop an image and a niche. Though there were many shows that helped cement a solid fan-base, like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, a frequently unsung player on the team is Dr. Katz Professional Therapist. Running for six seasons between 1995 and 1999, Dr. Katz carved itself a home by using a simple, tried-and-true method of entertainment: proving that comedians are crazy.
Each episode focuses on popular and rising comedians’ therapy sessions with Dr. Katz (voiced by Jonathan Katz). Many times, the patients perform their stand-up material with the added twist of Dr. Katz questioning what their feelings and ideas said about them and their psyche. Using an improv writing technique known as retroscripting, the dialogue was only loosely written and gave the interview a talk-show-like feel – though the topics are rehearsed, the pacing is conversational (see Jesse Hassenger’s review for more on this idea).
These sessions were then interwoven with vignettes from Dr. Katz’s life with his man-child son Ben (H. Jon Benjamin, Home Movies), and his receptionist Laura (Laura Silverman The Sarah Silverman Program). This deceptively simplistic, dialogue-based format is complemented greatly by a cheap animation style called Squigglevision, which until then had only been used for low-budget educational videos.
Dr. Katz found a home in pop culture and is often referenced today, mostly in animated shows, despite being over a decade old. And though the complete series has already released on DVD, with this simple, feature-length The Best of Dr. Katz Professional Therapist, Comedy Central is trying to wrangle in some buyers who might not be willing to purchase all 81 episodes.
This DVD takes some of the best of Katz’s sessions and edits them together in one 90-minute program (though it’s chaptered by comedian). The result offers a much different feel than that of the original show. Instead of watching a streamlined 22-minute episode, with a basic narrative arc and two comedians, the feature mimics a long night of stand-up comedy. Each of the performers has about five minutes, they do some material, thank the audience, and the MC comes out and introduces the next comic.
While it’s an interesting change of pace, I don’t know exactly who this format appeals to. All of the comedians are large names in their own right (Janeane Garofalo, Dave Attell, Dave Chappelle, Dennis Leary to name a few), and most of the material they perform is well-worn; so there’s little incentive to have this DVD if you already enjoy the comedians. And because most of the father-son, father-receptionist, son-receptionist bits are discarded, there’s little reason to get this if you love the show.
This idea is compounded by the fact that some of the session material plays oddly when re-contextualized in this manner. Without the outside scenes breaking up the sessions, sometimes the gags wear thin. And though six vignette scenes are available as special features, they only give a brief, stilted look at this very well-made show. The “Greatest Hits” comes off more as a “General Smattering”.
There’s an old Kids in the Hall sketch (and Bruce McCullough song) in which McCullough plays a Doors-obsessed record store clerk, explaining his love of the Doors to an unwitting patron. At one point in the sketch, Kevin MacDonald’s character asks, “Should I start with the Greatest Hits?” To which McCullough’s shouts, “Hey! Greatest Hits are for housewives and little girls!”
Blatant sexism and ageism aside, what his character means is true: Greatest Hits, in general, are for casual fans. If you really love Dr. Katz Professional Therapist, you’re probably willing to spend the money on the complete boxed set, but if you only vaguely enjoy it, you’re buying items like this for a much different reason. Many times, it’s because you like a particular song, or episode, or skit and you want to watch or listen to it for nostalgic purposes. The problem with this DVD is that if you liked, for example, Patton Oswald’s bit, you could just as easily buy a Patton Oswald DVD, and if you liked the narratives, they’re left unaccounted for. So, in a way, this format even alienates the show’s casual viewers, off-put by the complete series’ higher price tag.
The only group of people I can see this DVD appealing to, are those who want to get their friends into different stand-up comedians. There aren’t many DVDs that can offer such a variety of established comics doing what they do best, so this provides a brief look at some classic bits. But even then, you could probably scour up a good comedy festival DVD (or just a long YouTube session) that could serve the same purpose. And although a good amount of care and effort went into editing this footage together, even a casual fan would be much better off purchasing any single season of this very funny show for about the same price.
Sadly, The Best of Dr. Katz Professional Therapist is just another gold-mining opportunity. Consider that opportunity squandered.