-by Ken Plume
A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of sitting down for an in-depth interview with Jonathan Katz. I can only assume he was sitting as well, a necessary bit of speculation considering he was over a thousand miles away and our only connection was a phone line and the fact that he had agreed to do the aforementioned interview.
Besides his 20 year stand-up career, Katz was the star of Comedy Central’s award-winning Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist (the first two seasons of which are currently available on DVD), and is a regular contributor to The Next Big Thing radio show on NPR. He recently performed Dr. Katz: Live in New York along with Jon Benjamin, and has just released his first CD, Caffeinated.
KP: Hey, Jonathan, this is Ken.
KATZ: Hey Ken. Is this an okay connection on your end?
KP: It sounds fine on mine.
KATZ: It’s perfect on mine. So to give myself a little pep talk, first of all, are you recording? Because I encourage you to do that.
KP: Yes, just started recording.
KATZ: I was giving myself a little pep talk, and I was thinking about two things. One is a comedian I used to work with named Ron Darion. And he used to do this bit about New Yorkers, how they’re missing that little part of the brain that tells you you shouldn’t do something. I was thinking about this in the context of these two radio interviews I did on Monday. And I just could not censor myself.
KP: Were these in promotion for the live performance of Dr. Katz?
KATZ: It was part in promotion of that and partly in promotion my enormous big fat Greek ego. But mostly I’m promoting this CD that’s coming out this month.
KATZ: Yeah. That’s the thing I’m mostly excited about. Because I kind of like to document my work, and this really represents 25 years of my life. I just got so bored saying that one phrase. So the one thing that made me think about is that Ron Darion thing. And then the other thing is that I was trying to find a reason to justify is taking that very expensive trip into space which is being offered commercially now. Do you know about this?
KP: This is the Virgin Galactic flight? Or is this another one?
KATZ: I guess somebody’s offering, “If you put up enough money, we’ll get you into space…”
KP: I know the Russians have been doing it, but Branson has been taking bookings for that Virgin Galactic…
KATZ: I think I can justify it two ways; one is that it’s a chance to meet my public…
KP: What’s the implication, that your public has been slowly migrating towards space over the past few years?
KATZ: No, I thought I was gonna meet them on the bus yesterday, because I took the Greyhound bus from New York to Newton where I live, and I hadn’t been on a bus in years and I thought that would be a chance to meet people I like and who are like me.
KP: How do you define that? What are the characteristics?
KATZ: Well, people I like is an enormous range. I like women more than men. I like people who get my jokes. People who make me laugh, I really like them. They are few and far between.
KP: Now I’m getting performance anxiety.
KATZ: No, no. Ken, you’re pre-sold.
KATZ: I like Loren Bouchard a lot. Either a young woman or even an aging woman.
KP: It’d be quite a surprise to his wife to find out he was either of those…
KATZ: Yeah. But he gets my jokes and he also is very good at providing a context for them. And I also like people who know about stuff that I don’t know anything about. And those people are all over the place. I know so little about anything. Except myself, my family, comedy, psychology, psychiatry. I know a little about animation. I know a lot about audio, and I love audio.
KP: So you really can’t say that you know very little about most things. There obviously is a large swath of stuff you do know quite a bit about. You certainly know about comedy.
KATZ: Yeah, but I was on a plane recently and I met some guy from Armenia. I don’t know anything about Armenia. Coming back I met a guy who was a… what do they call somebody who looks for pieces of previous civilizations?
KATZ: Yeah. But he had a such a unique take on archaeology. Because that’s my definition of an archeologist - you go look in the sand for things. Or you look under a building to find traces of what was going on before there. There’s so many more aspects of archeology. But I do know a lot about comedy.
KP: When you talk about that 25 year span, what are you trying to condense into an 80 minute CD?
KATZ: First of all, it’s 50 minutes long. Because the first 20 years just flew by. The CD’s 50 minutes long, five-oh, and I’m trying to give people a sense of what I did as a stand up comic during those years. So it’s material that started in the real world and then it just sort of morphed into comedy.
KP: Was your path into comedy a surprise to you?
KATZ: I guess so. People have been laughing at things I’ve said for years, but I never thought I would get paid for it. Nor was that an ambition of mine. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to make my living in music, and I did for a while. You know, I’ve written more than 40 songs in my life, and they all fall under the heading of mediocre.
KP: By your definition?
KATZ: Yes. And even by the definition of my iPod. I created a category called Mediocre.
KP: Is it only populated by your songs or have you included others in it?
KATZ: No, just me. It’s just a playful look at my songs. Not that they don’t have good qualities. I think I’m challenged as a lyricist. I write pretty good songs, but when I write the lyrics, I write myself into a hole.
KP: So you’re saying that you need a Sondheim? Or a Taupin?
KATZ: Well, I’ll give you an example. This is my favorite example. This is an example of a bad lyric I wrote. This is me running into a hole with just a bad lyric. It was a samba. And I wrote it in the 60s and it goes, “Another night with you would be too much to ask; a final fight with you would me flabbergast.”
KP: It’s certainly unique.
KATZ: Just to use the word flabbergast…
KP: It reminds me of something you might hear from Shel Silverstein.
KATZ: Or Howdy Doody.
KP: Or Howdy Doody. But really, isn’t that a fine line?
KATZ: Yeah, it is. This is an example of me writing myself into a hole, because I think this is not a bad song, I just got stuck. The lyric is, “It’s a strange situation that I find myself in, perhaps you’ve been there too; I’m caught between a hard place.” And now that I’ve written that line I am fucked. I have nowhere to go.
KP: Well, I’m sure there’s a rhyming scheme. You could find something.
KATZ: Oh yeah, but there’s no happy ending to that lyric.
KP: Unless you do a complete 180…
KATZ: I could bend that line that leads into it.
KP: I believe that’s when people normally go to the bridge.
KP: And hope that people forget what the last lyric was when they come back.
KATZ: I was once at an improv class in New York, and a woman named Lisa Mende was my instructor. And I guess we met twice a week, and one time she brought in a pianist who was a friend of hers. I was really so bad - and this was probably in the mid 80s. I was really bad, and the pianist was playing, and I sing one line and then I say, “Take it!” and asked her to do a solo.
KP: Not exactly the way that improv is supposed to work.
KATZ: No, not at all.
KP: Did she take it? I guess in improv you’re not supposed to turn anything down.
KATZ: No, she took the solo, yeah. I can picture her. She was quite beautiful. Although on the other hand my memory is quite jaded. People look so much better in my mind than they do in real life, especially in my mind on the past.
KP: So you’re saying you frequently clean up the images in your memory?
KATZ: Yeah. What do they call it what they do in those girlie magazines?
KATZ: Airbrush, yeah. I can’t believe I said girlie magazines. That makes me sound like I’m about a thousand.
KP: Give or take. But hey, that could make a comeback.
KP: You could reclaim “girlie” for the modern hipsters.
KATZ: Yeah. I always thought that the character Ben on Dr. Katz was always doing cheesecake poses, which is really ancient.
KP: Yeah, but he always struck me as the type that would do it consciously.
KATZ: You’re probably right about that.
KP: As an affectation.
KP: And with the belief that it would make himself more appealing to any woman that might encounter him.
KATZ: Yeah. We did Dr. Katz live in New York on Tuesday. That was when we did two shows. One was with Dave Attell and Janeane Garofalo, and one was Janeane, Eugene Mirman, and a guy named Tom Leopold. And Tom Leopold is just like an improvisational genius. He’s on the Jon Benjamin scale in terms of his improvisational speed.
KP: Well, that certainly puts him up there.
KP: Listening to the audio pieces you did for the DVD, what struck me was that Dr. Katz could return at any point. There’s nothing about the comedy, the presentation, or the premise that’s aged in any way…
KP: So it’s always surprised me that it hasn’t made a comeback yet.
KATZ: Yeah, you and me both.
KP: What was the genesis of doing the new audio pieces for the DVD?
KATZ: People that put out the DVD at Paramount, they do it to generate revenue. And I guess bonus tracks make a DVD much more appealing to a consumer.
KP: The concept does make some sense.
KATZ: Do you own any Dr. Katz DVDs?
KP: Both of them are sitting right here.
KATZ: The bonus tracks I guess were… Tom Snyder and I, we work a lot together still since the cancellation of the show. When we talked about doing the bonus tracks, we needed some kind of angle to make them feel new. And we’re both new to the world of bonus tracks, so he came up with a conceit that was on the 2nd season set, with Emo and Steven Wright and Joy Behar. I think Dr. Katz has always been slightly needier than you want a therapist to be. So he’s calling them just to catch up. That’s thinly disguised on the DVD, but that’s really why he’s generating that call. He’s just lonely.
KP: No no, you definitely get… particularly in the Behar call that he not so much wants to plug his book, as he wants to see that a patient will care about him plugging his book.
KATZ: Yeah. The only patient who really raised the question directly was Dom Irrera; “Who’s your favorite patient?” But I think it cuts both ways. “Who’s your favorite therapist?” was always the question on Dr. Katz’s mind.
KP: Well, it seems like he was just about to take them all out to dinner.
KP: There always seemed to be that undercurrent, that he would love to have hung with them socially - just to have someone to hang with socially besides Ben.
KATZ: Well, he hung with Will Le Bow at the bar. But I think you’re right; I think he wants… it’s just like comedians - when you start doing standup, there’s a real desire for the camaraderie of it. Just as important as getting your first laugh on stage is getting your first laugh at the bar. And I think Dr. Katz wanted to be one of the guys.
KP: Do you think, as a character, he was capable of that?
KATZ: No. Totally not. Even with Laura, he wanted her acceptance. I think there’s an episode on this season where he’s trying to get her to hang around to celebrate Christmas with him?
KATZ: And it’s really kind of heartbreaking to see how desperate he was for companionship.
KP: Just short of locking her in.
KP: In fact, that situation could have turned at any point.
KATZ: She was so close to changing her mind.
KP: Do you think it’s almost more a matter of Dr. Katz keeping Ben around than Ben himself keeping himself around? That the dependency leaned more to him being the motivating factor that kept Ben from ever moving out…
KATZ: I always saw Ben - and Jon Benjamin, of course, may resist this notion - but I always saw Ben as me as a young man. Because I had this incredibly overindulgent father that cut off my allowance when I was 30.
KP: That’s gotta hurt.
KATZ: Yeah. And he just could not say no to me. My dad said to me at one point… he noticed that I was at an age where I should have an income of some sort. But he would never, ever not make his apartment, his food, and even his money available to me. Which is why I was this 35 year old man living in Manhattan who never owned a checkbook.
KP: That’s gotta be quite the learning curve by that point.
KATZ: Yeah. So as much as I loved my dad, he enabled me to stay a boy much too long.
KP: So like Ben, you just really, as you describe him, had no momentum behind you.
KATZ: Right. I was very much like that as a young man. I never met anybody like Jon Benjamin and I never met anybody who approached comedy the way he did. Because my background in comedy - and I think that’s one of the reasons the show survived, is it was totally different than his. He comes to comedy from a totally different angle than me. I try to construct jokes in my mind, and he tries to construct moments.
KP: So you’re saying you have more of an architectural style of comedy?
KATZ: Well, at least it’s the more familiar style. To me. And probably to people my age. Even people who were weaned on stand-up comedy. There’s kind of an elaborate setup. More elaborate than most, in my act. And then it’s sort of a sleight of hand and then I take something out of context, and that’s the joke. I’ll tell you my most elaborate setup, because people laugh not so much at the joke, but they laugh that I would take the trouble to write this joke, I think. It’s about a guy who was a farmer in upstate New York and had to go out of business because he couldn’t make a living, and he went into the phone sex business. And he did it - and this is going to sound cruel - by cutting off the lips of his sheep and the lips of his cows. And he puts them in the barn with a speakerphone. And people call up and they hear, “Ooo, ahh, ooo, ahh.” So all by itself that joke is not that funny. Do you get it?
KP: Yes, I got it.
KATZ: But when I tell it to a live audience, they are so amazed that I conceived of it that they laugh…
KP: I always thought, when viewing your standup, that it was sort of a balancing act. The audience was sort of looking at you up on the trapeze…
KP: Wondering when you would take the next step… Would you fall? Would you continue along the surreal lines of the set-up for the finish? It was like watching a dangerous spectacle, because you constructed this sort of bizarre, unique universe around yourself. If that makes any sense…
KATZ: Yeah, I understand what you’re talking about.
KP: I think there are comedians that create bubbles of reality around them.
KATZ: Yeah. But I think I have… Like most comedians, I have trouble censoring myself. Unfortunately, it bleeds into my real life much too much. But I guess my audience is whoever happens to be in the elevator with me.
KP: So you’re saying that essentially anyone can be your audience…
KATZ: I’m always working the crowd. Doesn’t matter if it’s in a comedy club, in an elevator, at Staples, at a restaurant. The only place I try not to work the crowd is at the dinner table with my family, because they deserve better.
KP: How often do you find that people try and work you?
KATZ: Well, when someone finds out I’m a comedian they feel almost obligated to say something funny. Sometimes it’s excruciating how hard they try. Then when I hang out with comedians, which is rare… Dave Attell’s a guy who makes me laugh most. Just the idea of him is pretty funny. And Jon Benjamin, of course. But so much of what he does in life is funny, Jon Benjamin. When we did this live show, one of the conceits was that Ben thinks that my therapy business is in trouble. That I need to spice it up a little bit. So he proposes a million different ways to help generate business. He does it on stage in such a convincing way, and I think we’re pretty believable as a father on son on stage. It’s weird.
KP: What was interesting about the audio commentaries from that first season Dr. Katz set was how quickly you two fell into patterns of playing off each other.
KATZ: That’s true.
KP: That goes back to what I mentioned earlier, that literally it feels like there’s no reason why there couldn’t be more Dr. Katz. Particularly since it’s an animated medium, and based on how the live show and the DVDs have been received, the audience is still very receptive to the characters and the premise.
KATZ: Right. Well, it’s all about money.
KP: Has anyone approached you about re-launching the show?
KATZ: Occasionally. My manager would love to see that happen. That’s the great thing about having a manager when you’re a performer, is that you have somebody else who has a financial interest in your life. But I would love to make more episodes of Dr. Katz.
KP: Loren had mentioned that he was under the impression that you may own Dr. Katz, and that there was some deal worked out years ago with Comedy Central as far as the ability to do more material…
KATZ: It’s much more complicated than that, and something I don’t feel qualified to discuss. Oddly enough.
KP: It isn’t a black & white situation, then…
KP: Did it feel right and natural doing the live shows and bringing the characters back in person?
KATZ: It did, because there’s such a loyal fan base. If nobody showed up it wouldn’t feel right. And also the live show itself is flawed in many ways, and I think we would need a bigger venue, a more theatrical venue. It shouldn’t really be staged in a comedy club, it should be done in a theater and it should be done with very good sound and good lighting and good sight lines. And if people are drinking, I guess that doesn’t bother me but I don’t think it’s necessary, necessarily. I’m not afraid to perform in front of the alert.
KP: Do you think it’s less conducive to the comedy to have a level of inebriation in the room?
KATZ: No, it’s not that. If I was going I’d want to drink.
KP: That’s for different reasons.
KATZ: Yeah. But I think it’s more the physical structure of a comedy club, and the expectation. If you’re a laugh-a-minute guy, you can’t make it in the comedy club. They need much more. You’ll be unemployed. But you can be a laugh-a-minute guy on public radio. You can be a laugh-a-minute on Dr. Katz.
KP: Because of the energy or the level of attention?
KATZ: Because of the audience’s expectations… Because of the attention span of the audience. And because some jokes take a little longer in the construction and don’t necessarily have this enormous payoff that comedy clubs require.
KP: Some have called you a more cerebral comedian than some.
KATZ: If you substitute the R in the word and put in a W, how would you say that?
KP: Like Elmer Fudd?
KATZ: Can you try it?
KATZ: That sounds funny! I would pay to see a cewebwal comic.
KP: I should conduct the entire interview like this.
KATZ: Yeah. I was trying to get Sirius to call themselves Siwius. “Here on Siwius Radio.”
KP: I might actually listen to it then.
KP: It seems there’s a particular kind of comedian that really depends upon pacing and delivery; Steven Wright being another one…
KP: That it really is about hitting a rhythm within the performance. Was it something that took a long time for you to develop, that balance to where you can bring the audience with you but still not betray the type of comedian you were?
KATZ: I think the thing with me and comedy is I like to give the audience as little information as is necessary for them to get the joke. And I guess if that’s cerebral, then that’s what I am. If it’s annoying, then that’s what I am. But there are other comics, and I guess the guy I admire the most - and I’ve never gone this long without talking about him - is this guy Ronnie Shakes, who is a comedian who died before he turned 40, I think of a heart attack. He was one of Johnny Carson’s favorites. I always tell the same joke, but I’ll tell a different one this time, which is… and he had kind of a 1940s throwback delivery. Had a very big handlebar mustache. And he would say, “I got busted last night on some trumped up charge. They threw me in the clinker, and they said you’re allowed one phone call. Nobody called.” But that was the kind of joke he did. His most famous joke is that “being in therapy for 12 years, yesterday my shrink said something to me that brought tears to my eyes; ‘No habla Ingles.’” He’s a very efficient comedian, and I guess…
KP: Did he have a rapid fire delivery?
KATZ: No, it wasn’t rapid fire at all. He was efficient in his use of words. Rita Rudner is a fan of his, and she’s somebody who I admire in terms of the jokes that she writes. She’s not my favorite performer, but she really is a brilliant joke writer. She helped me with a joke of mine years ago which is, “My wife insists on turning out the lights before we make love. Which does not bother me. It’s the hiding that seems so cruel.” Now I forget how I put it, but I had an extra sentence in there. And when she pointed that out, the joke started working.
KP: It has a natural 3-beat rhythm to it.
KP: I mentioned that reality bubble that requires a certain level of attentiveness from the audience, and with this one, it’s not just a knock-knock joke or an observational joke, it’s a situational joke that requires the audience to actually listen to you.
KATZ: Yeah. I told a joke a New York, but it had never worked before. And this is a joke that is interesting because I’m not sure when it’s over. Usually I can tell when a joke is over, but this joke, I honestly don’t know when it ends. It has to do with me coming home the other night and seeing this strange car parked in the driveway. “I got back a day earlier than I anticipated. There was this strange car parked in the driveway. I open the door, I see a cigar smoldering in the ashtray. I tiptoe to the bedroom and there’s my wife in bed with some strange guy, going at it. Now, I don’t smoke.” I didn’t set the joke up correctly. I said, “Maybe I read too many detective novels.” The end of the joke could be, “Now, I don’t smoke.” Or if that doesn’t work, I say, “and then I go back to the ashtray and there’s a naked man smoldering inside the ashtray.” I would keep doing different versions of a joke until I can figure it out, because I think there’s something innately funny about it. Or I could be wrong. That’s the thing about comedians; if a joke doesn’t work, they might say it louder. They might take it up an octave. But ultimately they have to admit it’s just not funny.
KP: How often in the past have you blamed an audience for a joke not working?
KATZ: When I first started out, if a joke didn’t work I’d always blame the audience. But I would record everything I did, so at some point I had to relieve them of the responsibility and assume it.
KP: What was the joke that you thought was funniest for the longest time, that you eventually came to the realization was simply not funny?
KATZ: I guess it was… “You know the expression you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink? Now they can make him drink. Those Japanese.” And the joke never worked.
KP: I can see what you were going for.
KATZ: Yeah. But to hear 150 people say, “I see what you’re going for,” cannot replace a laugh.
KP: No, I suppose it can’t. Although it would certainly be an interesting discussion for a night at the comedy club.
KATZ: It would be great to try and get them to do that.
KP: You should hand out pencils and a pad of paper when they come in and go, “You know, help me work this out.”
KP: “We’re gonna workshop this.” First interactive standup act.
KATZ: We were doing this thing at Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway Theater in Somerville, Massachusetts. Me and Tom Snyder and a guy named Bill Braudis. Wonderful comedian and also wrote on Dr. Katz. He was my first patient, and one of my oldest friends in the comedy business. We were doing something in Somerville, and I would get on stage holding a sign that said “Hysterically Funny” or “Doesn’t Work For Me.” And then we’d ask somebody to come up on stage and hold the sign. And I would tell them a joke. Those two phrases were written on different sides of the sign.
KP: Right. So they’d just flip it back and forth.
KATZ: Yeah. I would tell them a joke and then say, “Now show the audience how you feel about this joke.” And if it said doesn’t work for me, I would bring up somebody else. That kinda stuff works in front of a live audience pretty well. That’s what Tom and I referred to as a set piece. Because I also like to plunge into the audience, into the big unknown more and more these days. Because you really can’t lose if you have the mic and if you’re comfortable on stage. And that’s another thing you’ll hear on my CD, which is my comfort with the audience.
KP: Do you think it’s a hard-won comfort? Is it something that took you a while to achieve?
KATZ: Oh yeah. I used to be terrified of… I would never stray from my act. I was trapped in a one man show that was a hit, for 15 years, and then I met Jon Benjamin and developed confidence in my ability to improvise. It was like, anybody who had seen my act could do it. In fact, my wife did one night, she’d seen my act so many times. They didn’t even change the crowd, they just changed the menu. So when it was time for the third show and I started doing my act, they said, “We saw this before.” So my wife got on stage and finished for me. She has no memory of it, she was so scared.
KP: I have clear memories of your HBO special from years ago. I enjoyed the special, but it almost seemed like you were using the guitar as sort of a protection device. Like, “I’ve got a guitar, back away. Don’t get too close.”
KATZ: That was one of the big things in my career was the day I let go of my guitar. And I did it because some guy from the Letterman show approached me and wanted me to do the show but he said, “You can’t bring the guitar with you.” So I had a great reason to learn how to do five minutes of comedy.
KP: Was that like asking you to perform naked?
KATZ: In a certain way, yeah.
KP: Did you use that as a way of distancing yourself from the audience and the situation?
KATZ: No, it was just… the guitar was not really a guitar. I mean, it was a guitar, but it had a tape deck built into the guitar. So I wasn’t really playing, I was pretending to be playing. And I know there are little certain things on that tape that would work, and also it’s a way of sort of injecting some new energy into a show.
KP: At what point did you realize that the guitar was not necessary?
KATZ: Well, I probably would have still been doing it if it wasn’t for the fact that this guy suggested I could be on the Letterman show. And that was in 1983 or ‘84. In ‘85 I made my debut on Letterman.
KP: Does it surprise you to think that it’s 22 years ago?
KATZ: Who’s doing your math? Yeah, you’re right. It is kind of surprising.
KP: So, knowing how successful Dr. Katz live was, how well the DVDs have been selling, you have the CD coming out, you’re obviously doing the radio projects, you’ve got documentary projects you’ve been working on - what is the one thing that you really want to see happen in the next year?
KATZ: I guess the space ship. The trip into space. No, I have a role in a movie that’s coming out this year called Are We Done Yet, starring Ice Cube. And I have an occasional role on an ABC show called Help Me Help You. I guess the thing I would like the most is to have my own radio show.
KP: On standard terrestrial radio, or does internet radio appeal to you? Like podcasting?
KATZ: I think what appeals to me is both a combination of work and income. So I guess I’m talking about satellite radio, or commercial radio. But I don’t know if there’s an appetite for what I do on any kind of radio where they would have a budget for a weekly show.
KP: Considering that you could still fill an audience with Dr. Katz and people are still seeking you out, I don’t see how you can think there’s not an audience.
KATZ: Okay, I’ll do it.
KP: Wow. See how easy that was?
KATZ: Okay. You know, I produce a radio show everyday called Hey, We’re Back. And last week I did an interview with Bob Dylan, and at the end of it when I told my wife and daughter about it they reminded me that I don’t really have a radio show. The fact that no one is paying me doesn’t prevent me from producing one. I’m sort of compelled to do it.
KP: But that’s the whole ethos behind the internet.
KP: I think you’d make money on the internet if you went the podcasting route. But that’s just me saying it.
KATZ: Do you?
KP: Considering my job is working on the internet doing these kind of things, I guess I’m one of the success stories.
KATZ: Well, maybe you and I should talk to my manager. My web designer is a believer in podcasting. She often talks about some enormously successful song that was just put up there. Or YouTube. Let me talk to my manager about this conversation. I think you make an interesting point.
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