Bridgetown Comedy Festival comes around for its eighth year this Thursday with a program that runs the gamut of laughter-inducing art forms, some cutting edge and some timeless. Jonathan Katz, this year’s festival headliner and creator of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, falls into both categories. In 1995, Katz was an innovative humorist with improvised dialogue and stand-up comedy cartoons, animated using computer software. The experience of Squigglevision initially struck audiences with an unforgettable impression, but the natural dialogue of H. Jon Benjamin, Laura Silverman, Jonathan Katz and his innumerable hilarious guests who occupied the couch, is what kept Dr. Katz on the air for six seasons in the mid to late 1990’s. On Bridgetown’s opening night Thursday, Katz will bring the iconic Comedy Central flagship show to the stage in Dr. Katz Live, proving the comic endurance of the program, the strength of its cult following and to celebrate twenty years since it’s debut broadcast.
When I was fifteen or so — this was 1997 — my family jumped on the wagon to join the computer age, purchasing a PC with a Pentium II and a dial-up connection. My sister and I discovered Geocities, a place where you could lease storage space and build a website, for free or at a premium. We learned html through tutorials, and naturally being American consumers, we produced fan sites for our favorite television programs. She built an X-Files site, I built one for Dr. Katz. Truth told, I also made one for Seinfeld (which came first) but it was Dr. Katz that was attracting the most traffic, being a more scarce thing. It came complete with audio clips, images, links, and well… that’s all the internet could handle back then. Since I was a rerun junkie all the way through my teens, I believe I watched every episode of the show. I don’t know when I let that site go, but I wish I had a back-up of it now.
When I learned that the program would come to life at Bridgetown, I was enthusiastic. I requested press access and was quickly scheduled to interview Jonathan Katz himself. I have conducted dozens of interviews over the last seven years, with a few famous guests scattered in there, but this is a milestone for me, not to mention the personal triumph it pointed to. A teenager who built websites in devotion to mainstream television, I’m now a latent grown-up actually engaging with those things from the independent mag that I publish. Maybe all that homework I missed just paid off.
So my interview with Katz was pretty good, considering it brought me right back to childhood and dangerously close to a therapeutic mindset, not to mention a nervous one. The beginning was a little rocky, taking a few minutes to settle in, both of us seemed a bit eager, which helped me let my guard down; Jonathan was very personable. I edited the audio and transcript starting from my own bad joke, which begins a funny road that weaves around the topic of Dr. Katz and his upcoming live show at Bridgetown.
Jonathan Katz interview recorded 04-29-15.
Audio editing and text transcription 05-02-15.
Click immediately below for audio.
SO: Did you give H. Jon Benjamin permission to use Squigglevision? That’s kind of a joke question, but it means something.
JK: I am not quite sure what you mean, I know it’s a joke question, but I don’t get the question part — or the joke part.
SO: Okay, so the show that you started really started a trend and it became synonymous with the show. That whole technology became synonymous with the show. Jon Benjamin — I was just a teenager when Dr. Katz was out — he went on to do many more cartoons, some of them using that technology.
JK: He didn’t create the technology nor did I.
SO: I know, I know. But you became synonymous with it, which is kind of interesting.
JK: He got two shows on the air: Bob’s Burgers and Archer. All the Bob’s Burgers guys are Dr. Katz alum. I mean the guy who produces the show worked on Dr. Katz for years, Loren Bouchard. He’s worked with Jon Benjamin forever. One of the guys in Portland, Brendan Small, whom I haven’t seen in years, started Home Movies, which is another show that involved Tom Snyder and what I think was Soup to Nuts Production Company.
Boy this must be exciting for your listeners.
SO: Fortunately, I have none.
JK: Oh. That’s a relief! Phew.
SO: I am curious about the show a lot and how it’s going to play out on stage. I haven’t heard the album and I haven’t watched a live performance of it.
JK: The major difference is that there is no editing. So the TV show was edited to within an inch of its life — so closely. When we go live, there’s no turning back; whatever you say is in the show. My problem is not to step on the lines of my patients. No one’s really there to feel better. Nobody gets better by being treated by Dr. Katz.
SO: That’s part of his evil, part of his plan, his financial plan. The improv aspect then — I read that the editors often would choose improv because it flows better in that moment when you’re trying to figure out how to edit something together. So you do this improv live — you have a couch, you have kind of a stage set-up and you’re in front of an audience — but when you’re in the studio, that cold studio with microphones and headphones on, did you have to do any special preparation to set the mood so you guys could enjoy…
JK: For every episode there was an outline, and oddly enough there was a script. At the end of every episode, the improv and the scripted stuff would battle it out and it was usually the improv that won, because it was performance oriented. And it’s hard to write for Jon Benjamin because no matter what you write, he will say something funnier.
Every once it a while, a joke I wrote or a joke that Bill Braudis wrote (who was the other guy who wrote scripts) would actually show up on the air, it was kind of a small victory for writers.
SO: Is that because writers often are separate from the show, the writers are not featured on the screen, so to speak?
JK: Right. And most TV shows are — and I’ve worked on a couple — most of them are done with a staff of writers who sit in a room and talk about the arc of the episode, the arc of the show, the arc of the series over several years if they’re lucky. Some of them are there to pitch jokes, some to pitch stories, and then once that happens they all go their separate ways and write. It’s a very lonely job, writing. For which you get paid thousands and thousands of dollars to be lonely.
SO: If they’re lucky.
JK: As opposed to other lonely jobs.
SO: It’s a lonely world. So in the studio itself, did you just sit there in headphones and…?
JK: We had some direction coming from the outside of the booth, depending on who was directing that particular episode. It was usually Tom Snyder for the first couple of years, then he started handing it over to the audio editors, like to Loren; a guy named Carl Adams directed some episodes. Dorothy Gillim was an editor who directed.
But we always started with this outline to tell you what the episode was about, and the job of the director was, once you had what you thought you needed to construct an episode, to stop, before there was no more air left in the room. Some people were better at that than other people.
Sometimes we would record the voice of lets say, Garry Shandling in Los Angeles and then several months later I would drop in my voice in response to what he was saying.
SO: Ah! Sometimes I can see that. Like I watched the Mitch Hedberg episode last night and it didn’t seem like Mitch was there at all with you.
JK: Right, and he wasn’t.
SO: So he wasn’t.
JK: We were not in the same room, no.
SO: But other times it felt like you were really bouncing off the comic on the couch.
JK: Yeah, that happened mostly with Dom Irrera. Even with Ray Romano — another guy I know very well and work with on the road — what worked with him was when we said, “Ray, why don’t you just do your act and we’ll bring in all the animators so you’ll have a live audience.” He could hear the audience but it didn’t bleed onto the recording. That was helpful because comedians like to the hear laughter.
SO: That’s interesting, not a big audience, but just enough to get the vibe. Ok, but when you were acting with Ben (Jon Benjamin) was live in the studio, together.
JK: Yeah, it was ridiculous. We would get in the zone and we’d be laughing. I actually fainted twice from laughing with Jon Benjamin.
JK: Yeah, I made the mistake of having a sip of miso soup — this was in LA in a restaurant — and I passed out. The next thing I know, we’re on the floor in the bathroom and he’s talking to my wife saying I just passed out.
SO: That’s dangerous. Is being funny a curse?
JK: Oh… It is a curse? I think it’s a blessing and curse. It’s a blurse.
SO: It’s a blouse.
One of the things that people don’t realize is that there was a character on the show named Stanley who played my best friend at the bar, and he would only work if we held a gun to his head. He wasn’t union, so he was not supposed to be recording for the show so he would only work at gunpoint. So he was a guy who was really under pressure.
I’m sorry, I’m trying too hard to say something funny.
SO: I’m always trying too hard to say something funny. See, I wish I was blessed with that. I tried to be a comic actually but it didn’t work out too well…
JK: Do you edit the audio for this show?
SO: I assumed it would be turned into a transcript and then edited as a text.
JK: And who is going to transcribe it?
SO: Um, me.
Gee, you said that with such sadness.
SO: Yeah. I’m lonely! I’m lonely over here, and this is my only breath of fresh air, and then they put me back in the… I put myself back in — because I’m the Publisher — to the writer’s room with no windows. No, actually it’s a lovely view.
JK: Can you see… what’s the mountain there, Mount Hood?
SO: From my apartment, I can see Mount Saint Helens.
JK: Does that erupt once in a while?
SO: Yeah, it’s pretty much active.
JK: But not hyper-active.
SO: It stays put.
JK: I love nature and I’m afraid of it at the same time. I’m allergic to certain bugs, and I like nature from the indoors. I like to look at it from a screen porch, or a hotel room.
SO: And imagine.
JK: Or an air-conditioned car.
SO: Coming back to what we might expect at Bridgetown, I read that Tom Snyder would often play your therapist, but I didn’t see his name on the press release.
JK: We’re taking a different tact this time. In Austin, I just did stand-up at the beginning of the show. That way there is almost a magical transition from Jonathan Katz to Dr. Katz — from walking one part of the stage to the other and sitting down.
JK: Then my patients would start to arrive, who in Portland will be Janeane Garofalo, Ron Lynch, a ridiculously funny guy, Dana Gould, also very funny. Janeane Garofalo has done Dr. Katz Live in New York, and she was on the show.
SO: Andy Kindler.
JK: Andy Kindler is the best!
SO: He’s a favorite.
JK: Is he a hot item in Portland?
SO: I think I saw him come into town and do Helium recently, but I notice he’s a comedian’s comedian. He appears on Maron a lot, he was often on Dr. Katz. I would that say he’s famous among comedians, but I’m not sure that he really super-broke-through with like the average… Like Dr. Katz, they may not know your first name but, it’s a household name.
JK: It’s weird that people know my likeness better than they know my face, or my voice better than my name.
SO: I think I would be panicking if I was actually in front of you right now because I wouldn’t be able to compute the difference.
JK: You were a teenager when the show was on the air, so you must be in your early thirties?
SO: Yep, and proud of it.
JK: I’ve got a daughter who got a lot of mileage for having a father with a TV show.
JK: She is much funnier than me. She’s been giving me a courtesy laugh for like twenty years. Both of my daughters are funnier than me.
SO: What do they do?
JK: They’re both teachers. One of them is a national cultural agent for the arts. She is really enormously powerful in Philadelphia as an educator. The other one is younger and is just starting to teach in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She uses theatre to teach kids.
SO: That’s great. That’s really great actually. I had to go home and watch Comedy Central all day to blow off steam from the humorless environment that was high school.
JK: What does the TV show Portlandia have to do with Portland?
SO: Um… nothing. No, I mean, you know… have you watched it much?
JK: A little bit, but I’m not totally into it yet.
SO: I don’t think I am either.
JK: Can’t think of that guy whose the star, whose name I can never remember.
SO: Oh, Fred Armisen.
JK: I like him as Seth Meyer’s band leader, which he does once in a while.
JK: He cracks me up. But I don’t really know the show that well. Is any of it shot in Portland?
SO: 100% shot in Portland. It’s all actually shot on location, so they use existing businesses and they give credit to them so it seems to be sort of a boon to these businesses. I was hired as a production guy for one particular sketch that was in the park, because I knew how to put up this canopy in this park — it’s a beside the fact story — but it’s all shot here and it makes fun of people who are actually here. Some of the characters that they’ve invented are satirization of real people who live in this city.
JK: I think I saw one scene that takes place with a really small police department, maybe on the outskirts of Portland — Portlandia.
SO: While you’re hear you should come to see the actual Portlandia.
JK: There is a real place, Portlandia?
SO: There’s this kind of funky looking 1980’s post-modern architectural building — its the city’s building — and there’s a sculpture, we call it our Statue of Liberty, because it’s a big bronze, or some big metal, sculpture that sits on that building named Portlandia.
JK: Did you know that Oregon is one of the few states in this country that does not have a state bird?
SO: I’m embarrassed to say that I wouldn’t know if it… it’s got to have a state bird! It’s gotta have one. I’m gonna get it one.
JK: If you can get that by Tuesday night that would be great.
SO: You need one?
JK: I always feel more comfortable working in a state with no bird. I don’t know what the bird of Massachusetts is.
SO: Where do you live right now?
JK: I live in Newton, Massachusetts right out of Boston.
SO: Did you live in New York?
JK: I grew up in New York City.
SO: And Dr. Katz is supposed to be in New York, right?
JK: We never really knew where Dr. Katz was.
SO: That’s what I always figured, I always thought it was New York, but I guess I don’t remember that either.
JK: We never specified a location.
SO: That’s interesting, how you can skirt around that for three years.
JK: But I will tell you that during the run of that show, I took my role too literally as therapist. I made one woman cry and one man feel better.
SO: Is that true?
JK: Yeah. I made Bob Balaban, who was a really wonderful actor/director, I made him feel better. And I made a young comedian cry because we were talking about some issue that was really important to her and I forgot I wasn’t a therapist.
SO: That’s possible that the role could overtake you.
JK: And I also carry a doctor’s bag, which has nothing to do with medicine, I just carry my ping pong racket in it.
SO: That’s right, do you still hustle people?
JK: I don’t think I’m that good anymore. I used to be really good, but I don’t think I’m good enough to hustle people. I’m good enough to be hustled.
SO: I was really interested in your former musician past, and I wondered if, in 1979 when you were musical director for Robin Williams (rest in peace) did you think of that as your big break in music or comedy?
JK: I thought of it as a chance to spend more time with Valerie Velardi, who was his first wife, and my ex-girlfriend.
JK: Yeah, but it was really an exciting time, because he was so red hot from Mork and Mindy. He included my songs in his act and then his management said he’s not really a singer, he doesn’t need a musical director. But touring with him was a lot of fun.
SO: Who got you that gig?
JK: Well, I think Valerie introduced us and I sent him a couple of songs. One called, “Born to Be Punished” and “This Heart is Closed to Operations” and he did them both on the road while he was recording Reality, What a Concept, his first album.
JK: Neither of them made it onto the album, which would have changed everything for me. Because I’d be paying for this call.
JK: Wait a second.
SO: Did he want to work with you because you’re funny?
JK: He didn’t know me.
SO: He didn’t know you?
JK: No, but we both became parents around the same time. His son Zach and my daughter, Julia were born within weeks of each other, and we hung out with our new babies, neither of us knowing what to do. We became friends, we would see each other once in a while, in San Francisco and at his home in Napa. The last time I saw him was in Boston, a couple years ago.
JK: But what a talented guy he was.
SO: Just one in a billion.
Other than doing Dr. Katz Live and commemorating this wonderful twenty years, what else do you think you plan to do?
JK: Well, I’m working on another animated sitcom, and I’m working on a book with David Mamet called A Home for Unfortunate Animals, which is a book of illustrations by him and text by both of us.
SO: I would imagine he picked up that skill in the process of directing, illustration. So he’s illustrating, you’re both writing, and is it going to be funny?
JK: It’s very funny. He’s one of the funniest guys I know, David. Most people find him intimidating but he’s a ridiculously funny guy. And silly.
SO: You know the silliness, actually, the improv style and the absurdity that comes along with that approach, I would say got to be far more popular after Dr. Katz. Is that a wave you got going or that you jumped in on? That kind of television show and pacing?
JK: That’s been going on for a while. We called it retroscripting, but improvisation has been going on forever.
SO: Oh yeah, it’s got to be the first thing.
JK: That’s what people did in caves before they had T.V. — cavemen. There was more physical comedy.
SO: Before they invented the wheel or the T.V.
JK: Yeah, a guy would whack his wife over the head with a dinosaur bone, and that was like a sight gag.
SO: Right, it was just slapstick.
SO: So we’ve been misinterpreting their whole thing, that’s not how they married women, they just thought it was funny.
JK: And also, the dinosaurs: everyone has their own theory of why they went extinct and I think they died laughing, because those cavemen were so fucking funny.
SO: That was the Neanderthals were funny, right? Homo-sapiens, are we as funny as the Neanderthals?
JK: No, you can’t follow those guys.
SO: Whose gonna follow us?
JK: They were just gut funny. You know we’re much too cerebral for them.
SO: Do you believe in aliens?
JK: Uh… no.
SO: Just straight out no, no joke?
JK: No joke. I believe in… well aliens, I don’t really believe in life on other planets. I don’t think there’s even night life in my town. I live in a city where the night life is Walgreens. I do believe in night life.
SO: Do you go to the Red Box in front of your Walgreens?
JK: What is the Red Box?
SO: Have you seen those things?
SO: I call it the poor man’s Netflix even though it ends up costing poor people more than Netflix. It’s just a box where you can rent DVD’s for a day. It costs a dollar.
JK: I feel really sad about that.
SO: I know.
JK: Uh oh, I better stop talking, I’m getting too sad.
SO: Have we hit the thirty minutes?
JK: I think we’re going to have to stop this week and pick up next week. If there was music I would say, “you know what the music means,” but there’s no music. But it’s been a pleasure talking to you.
SO: It’s been a great pleasure. I’ll tell your secretary where she can send the bill.
JK: Great, okay.
SO: Alright, I appreciate it and look forward to your show.
JK: Great. See you there. Take care.