This year marks the 20th anniversary of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. Created by comedian Jonathan Katz and producer Tom Snyder, it ran on Comedy Central from 1995-1999 (a final three episodes were broadcast in 2002), and earned a Primetime Emmy, CableACE Award, and Peabody. Its simple originality made it a fan favorite at the time, and in the years since it was on air, it’s developed what I hate to admit is a cult following. The intimacy of the show means I’ve sort of convinced myself that the characters are, well, friends of mine, so my initial reaction when meeting a fellow Dr. Katz fan is an irrational jealousy, until we start quoting lines and laughing over shared memories and then are bonded for life.
The title of the show was pretty much its premise: Dr. Katz (Jonathan Katz) is a professional therapist. His receptionist Laura (Laura Silverman) is entirely uninterested in his work and his patients, most of whom are comedians, whose sessions we sit in on. Outside of work, Dr. Katz grabs drinks with his friend Stanley (Will LeBow) and Julie the bartender (Julianne Shapiro, now Bond) and interacts with his son, Ben (H. Jon Benjamin), who is both the light of his life and the bane of his existence.
Its simplicity in premise was matched by its animation style, Squigglevision, invented by Tom Snyder. It’s visuals have been called “crude”, although the connotation isn’t quite fair. The backgrounds were grayscale and without detail while the main actors in the scene were in color and moving — even when they weren’t moving, because the animation’s name is appropriate: while most of the characters are seen just sitting or standing, their outlines squiggled slightly. (Squigglevision was also used in the first series of Home Movies, on which Snyder was a producer.) It was definitely “low tech”, but we can’t forget that it’s now 20 years old, so it wouldn’t be reasonable to compare it to newer techniques. It’s actually irrelevant to make comparisons anyway, because the animation style perfectly reflected the vibe of the series.
That vibe was low key, in part because Jonathan Katz is a low-key guy. His soft voice and gentle humor were the heart of the show. With the comedians, Dr. Katz usually played the straight man, posing questions and giving brief responses. This actually caused some issues in the early days, which were recorded as conversations. Producer Loren Bouchard said, “Sometimes it seemed like [the comedians] would drop down to match Jonathan’s energy. And he was playing it deadpan and quiet … 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” (Ashley Burns and Chloe Schildhause, “From The Pantry to a Peabody: The Wonderful Story of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist“, Uproxx, 8 June 2015).
So they changed the set up — creating a small makeshift comedy club, complete with an audience of production company members, who could provide the energy needed to get the comedians ‘into the zone’. They then used ‘retroscripting’ to edit in Dr. Katz’s questions and comments to create the conversations. Much of the rest of the show was somewhat ad-libbed, so it all ended up feeling organic, flowing naturally.
The guests were obviously the initial draw of the show — commercials at the time built up who would be featured on Dr. Katz’s couch next week. Really all of the big names of stand-up comedy made appearances. Obviously, some were more effective guests than others. I preferred the ones whose routines more closely resembled therapy sessions — Kevin Meaney talking about the traumas of his childhood, Laura Kightlinger and Jake Johannsen discussing dating woes, Andy Kindler lamenting his trouble with work, and Fred Stoller and Steven Wright just offering explanations for their weirdness.
Dave Chappelle did a (slightly too long) bit about superheroes which didn’t work quite as well in the context; Brian Regan, Eddie Brill, and Gilbert Gottfried went off on tangents that were not worth the trip. Of course, different comedians appeal to different audiences, so it makes sense that not every guest would work for everyone. I’ll be honest: I’m not keen on Gilbert Gottfried in any setting, and Jeff Garlin’s routine about prank phonecalls didn’t mimic a therapy session, but I still found it hilarious. But that was one of the strengths of the show — it was about the comedy of its day, in all its forms.
Looking back at Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist now provides us with a valuable time capsule of American culture at the turn of the century, since comedy, after all, is a reflection of the world in which it exists. It’s interesting to see what was and wasn’t talked about in the sessions. Of course, work and relationships and family came up — the bread and butter of comedy (and life) regardless of the time period. Technology, though, was largely absent — there were a couple cell phone jokes, but Ben’s daily calls to Dr. Katz’s office were made from a good old-fashioned landline. Computers were mentioned only briefly, ironically, by Marc Maron (who now is most well known for his WTF with Marc Maron podcast). Maron talked about not really “getting” the internet, arguing that the computer isn’t a tool, just a toy. He only used his to write, and when his friend forced him to get online, he saw no value in it. Oh, how times have changed.
Dave Chappelle made a joke about terrorists hijacking a plane, and Bob Odenkirk bemoaned the fact that despite his being desperate to join a terrorist or hate group, none would accept his application (his experience on his softball team wasn’t satisfying enough as they weren’t really fanatical and didn’t even care much about winning their games). There were a few references to abuse — Wanda Sykes talked about kids being too soft these days because when she was young, they’d get hit by cars and just say, “Don’t tell my mama I got hit by that car, she’ll beat me”, and Dom Irrera admitted that his aunt was “the first person who ever exposed herself to me in a long line of people who almost molested me or I think they were thinking about it”. None of these jokes are that outrageous or offensive, but it’s interesting to remember a time when there was less fear — no one could even imagine the concept of an out-of-context clip going viral to be attacked on YouTube or Fox News.
Some of Dr. Katz’s patients visited him shortly before they hit the big time: Ray Romano, Louis C.K., and Sarah Silverman have all since had their own hugely popular television shows. David Cross and Bob Odenkirk were making Mr. Show during Dr. Katz‘s run, but are now probably more recognized for their acting roles. Tom Kenny swapped Squigglevision for life under the sea as the voice of Spongebob Squarepants. Jon Stewart appeared twice, and I’m pretty sure he’s gone on to do rather well for himself.
Seeing the show on DVD now provides one a chance to see some comedians who have since died — Rodney Dangerfield was a guest though he didn’t seem to really get the premise; Richard Jeni, Joan Rivers, Robert Schimmel, and John Pinette were also all patients. Mitch Hedberg, who died in 2005, appeared in two episodes, and it’s particularly lovely to see his animated version in action.
A few guests weren’t stand up comedians, but actors: Lisa Kudrow and Julia Louis-Dreyfus had therapy sessions by phone; Carrie Fisher appeared, not as a patient, but as Dr. Katz’s ex-wife Roz; and Winona Ryder also gave it her best shot. David Duchovny was quite funny (insisting on starting his session hidden in the broom closet while wearing Dr. Katz’s coat and hat, “just to shake things up”), and Jeff Goldblum delivered throughout his episode, especially his awkward compliments to Laura (her response: “Are you like really crazy or what?”). Screenwriter and film director David Mamet, a good friend of Jonathan Katz, took a turn. When Dr. Katz unsuccessfully used hypnosis on him, he clarified “Is there a difference between relaxing and getting bored out of your mind?” and wanted to know if he was actually going to be charged for the session.
By far, the best guest of all was Dom Irrera, who appeared in ten episodes. Irrera had worked the stand-up circuit with Jonathan Katz, and their comfort with each other made for some great conversations. Irrera said that “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”; Andy Kindler added: “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” (ibid, Burns and Schildhause at Uproxx). A lot of that comedy focused on Dom’s (the patient, not necessarily the man) desire to win Dr. Katz’s affections — either by singing him love songs, performing dances/stripteases, or just making unusual suggestions to try to balance the power dynamic of their relationship:
Dom: You know what I’d like to do right now?
Dr. Katz: No, Dominic, I don’t.
Dom: 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, Doc. Flat, level. Two guys, flat, face-to-face. And then I’d like to put a big, red, flowing chiffon evening gown on you and ride you around my house. Not in a gay way but like a viking. Like only two vikings who are so secure in their Norse heritage, they can ride each other up and down the steps and not have one tinge of homosexual panic.
Dr. Katz: Um…
Dom: Do you see it?
Dr. Katz: Um…
Dom: You know, like with me holding the horns on your metal helmet… that don’t make me gay or nothing, right?
Dr. Katz: Um…
However, as brilliant as the variety of comedy that passed through Dr. Katz’s office was, the best part of the series — during its original run and now — is the relationship between Dr. Katz and his son, Ben. I would happily watch the entire series with all the comedians’ bits cut out, just to bask in the beauty of what Bouchard said they came to think of “as a love story between a father and a son” (ibid, Burns and Schildhause at Uproxx).
In the first season, Ben was a bit of a loser. The very first thing we learn about him is that the only reason he’s unemployed is because he wants to be a daredevil and, after reading the want ads everyday, there’s just no work in his chosen field. He’s got no friends and ruins Dr. Katz’s car by driving around with the emergency brake on. His quite pathetic behavior is played wonderfully by the talented H. Jon Benjamin, who has, of course, gone on to star in both Archer and Bob’s Burgers (but he will always be Ben Katz to me).
As the series progressed, Ben’s character turned from a loser into a loveable loser. Still unemployed and lonely — his unrequited love for Laura and need for attention from his father meant multiple phone calls to the office each day — his transformation into a fully developed character hinged on his interactions with his father, who both supported and (occasionally) challenged him.
Each episode had a Ben-Dr. Katz plotline weaved in between the comedians’ appearances. These stories ranged from the mundane (Dr. Katz gets a new pair of glasses or they go to the cinema) to the unusual (Ben witnesses a crime or wins big on a scratchcard) to the mundane-and-also-unusual (Ben and Dr. Katz use henna on their hair or spend hours devising treasure hunts for each other). A number focus on Ben’s obsessions (after reading one of Dr. Katz’s medical books, he diagnoses himself with various ailments; he believes he’s developed ESP; he falls in love with a telemarketer; he attempts careers as a writer, pig breeder, hydro-farmer, and celebrity limo driver). Most of the plots were pretty silly, but you got the feeling that both Jonathan Katz and H. Jon Benjamin loved the silliness and played so well with it.
However, there were a few episodes that were actually quite beautiful in the way they portrayed the father-son dynamic. When Dr. Katz worried that Ben wasn’t social enough or felt bad at the loss of Ben’s childhood stuffed animal, he showed a sincere parental concern, and his attempts at remedying situations were awkward, as they probably would have been in real life. Though he did extensive planning to pamper his son when Ben had his wisdom teeth (rearranging his work schedule and organizing a care package of tapioca pudding, magazines, and When Animals Attack videos), Dr. Katz ended up fantastically failing to properly look after him.
They also showed the jealousy that can arise from such an intimate relationship: Ben sat in judgment of the few women Dr. Katz dated, and Dr. Katz struggled when Ben invited his mother to stay with them for a weekend. They managed the delicate balance of silly comedy with difficult familial issues so perfectly; despite their always wearing the same clothes while maintaining a constant squiggle, Ben and Dr. Katz and their relationship felt very, very real.
This relationship, due to both the strength of the characters and the actors, seems to be what viewers cherish most: Katz said he still gets “comments from fans that say everything they learned about parenting, they learned from me and H. Jon Benjamin” (Chaz Kangas, “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist Turns 20!” OC Weekly, 11 November 2014). Their interactions are remembered fondly by the cast and crew as well. Julianne Bond discussed the pair, saying “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” while Bouchard explained:
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. (ibid, Burns and Schildhause at Uproxx)
The complete series is available on DVD (with a booklet, a few episode commentaries, and other bonus features). To mark the 20th anniversary, Katz did some live shows, featuring comedians who had originally appeared in the television version. He also released an album, Dr. Katz Live, on which he reprises his role as therapist but also plays a patient himself (with Tom Snyder as his therapist).
Whether you’re rewatching it or coming it to the first time, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist is pure joy. It feels comfortable and comforting, funny and familiar, memorable and meaningful. It deserves to be adored — not just as a pioneering animated series, but as truly great television.