Fun fact: Jonathan Katz once sold a vial of Robin Williams’ urine to a rabid fan for $500.
The unassuming comedian, writer and actor behind the influential ’90s animated series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist began his entertainment career late, forming a six-piece R&B band called Katz and Jammers when he was deep into his 30s. “On a good night we would make $600,” he says. “We never had a good night.”
Originally from New York City, Katz attended Vermont’s liberal Goddard College with classmate Valerie Velardi, who married Williams in 1978. When she passed along some of Katz’s songs to the comedian/actor, Williams liked two of them enough to perform during his Reality …What a Concept tour, on which Katz served as musical director.
“He was red-hot at the time from Mork & Mindy,” Katz recalls. “Women were just throwing themselves at him, and they were desperate, and I took advantage of that.”
Exactly how did one collect Williams’ liquid gold? “You don’t have to; you can just pretend. It can be pale ale.”
Neither music nor black-market urine sales paid the bills for long, and Katz began frequenting Hell’s Kitchen’s original Improv Comedy Club as a solo act: “When I sang with Katz and Jammers, people talked. When I talked, people listened. And when I danced, people left.”
Katz struggled to occupy the stage alone. His stand-up incorporated prerecorded material and a guitar fitted with a tape recorder. As he pretended to play, the crowd suddenly heard the voice of his conscience, a one-sided conversation with an audience member or the harmony of backup singers. An offer to perform on NBC’s new Late Night With David Letterman — sans any gimmicks — permanently weaned him from the guitar.
With his old Goddard College pal David Mamet, Katz collaborated on the story for Mamet’s 1987 directorial debut, House of Games. Katz earned a rave review in The New York Times the following year for portraying a sleazy Vegas comedian in the Mamet film Things Change.
HBO execs Stu Smiley and Caroline Strauss soon invited Katz into a brainstorming session with talent including Larry David, the Higgins Brothers and future Mystery Science Theater 3000 host Joel Hodgson. The goal: Program and launch a new endeavor called the Comedy Channel. Within two years the channel had merged with Viacom’s Ha! Network to become CTV: The Comedy Network, soon renamed Comedy Central.
In the interim Katz notched a couple of appearances on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, a writing and creative-consultant gig for Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher and correspondent appearances on Michael Moore’s TV Nation. Comedy Central took particular notice of The Biography of Mr. Katz, a cartoon Katz produced with the help of educational-software designer Tom Snyder. Its unique “Squigglevision” aesthetic was created using an algorithm based on human error. “If you try to draw the same thing twice in a row, even if you’re a trained artist, you can’t do it exactly the same,” Katz explains. “That’s why the characters vibrate and move but they don’t go anywhere.”
In 1995, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist debuted on Comedy Central. The half-hour sitcom centered on a divorced therapist and single father whose patients happen to be professionally funny. Early guests included Ray Romano, Dave Attell, Dom Irrera, Larry Miller and Andy Kindler. “The patients were really a marketing tool for Comedy Central,” Katz say, half kidding. “Also they gave us 11 minutes out of 22 minutes with their material. That was comedy we didn’t have to write; they had already written it for us.”
Though Katz and Snyder outlined scripts, comedians tended to simply ad lib their way into their acts’ more psychologically explorative bits. It wasn’t until audio was finalized that animated likenesses of the participants were rendered and implemented. The concept, unique look and deceptively low-key tone helped lend brand identity to the fledgling network. Plus, with Snyder initially working out of his home pantry, it was cheap.
The animated twist on stand-up was innovative, basic-cable freedom meant comics could curse and, hey, it was just cool to be turned into a cartoon character. Over 81 episodes, guests included Garry Shandling, Louis C.K., Marc Maron, Jeff Ross, Bob Odenkirk, Jon Stewart, Rodney Dangerfield, Joan Rivers, David Cross, Katz’s sometime collaborator Mamet, Lisa Kudrow, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jim Gaffigan, Dave Chappelle, Conan O’Brien, Brian Regan, David Duchovny, Patton Oswalt, Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, David Cross, Kathy Griffin, Jeff Goldblum, Paul F. Tompkins, Mitch Hedberg, Wanda Sykes and, as Katz’s ex-wife, Carrie Fisher. “She was better known for some other roles,” Katz deadpans.
Comics sometimes played with the format, framing their sessions within the conceptual environment. “Al Franken was great,” Katz says. “He had done his homework, and he had a plan. His approach to therapy was to just make another appointment. He didn’t want to discuss anything other than my availability.”
Of Bill Maher, Katz admits, “He’s the only guy who, when asked to do Dr. Katz, showed up at the studio and said, ‘Wait a minute, you want me to tell my jokes on your show?’ and left. That was just cold, considering I had been writing jokes for him on his show, some of which were quoted in Time magazine.”
Dr. Katz won Comedy Central’s first Emmy, two Cable ACE Awards and a Peabody. It also established a loyal fan base, which Katz credits to his character’s relationships with his son, Ben (H. Jon Benjamin), and receptionist, Laura (Laura Silverman). More than two decades later its DNA informs animated adult series including Squidbillies, Archer and Bob’s Burgers. Comedy Central has even approached the creators about producing new original webisodes, though rights disputes with another production partner nixed that possibility.
In 2014, Katz began starring in Dr. Katz Live shows, prodding non-Squigglevision comedians at festivals including Just for Laughs Montreal, Austin’s Moontower and SF Sketchfest. The fifth annual Riot L.A. presents Dr. Katz Live with Laura Silverman and guest patients Maria Bamford, Thomas Middleditch, Tig Notaro, Bob Saget and David Wain at the Orpheum Theater on Sunday, Jan. 22.
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Since his 1996 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, Katz has increasingly experienced painful neurological symptoms called trigeminal neuralgia, which prompt sporadic pauses in conversation. "It’s only happened once onstage," he says. “I’m not sure the audience picked up on it. They just thought it was part of my act, taking an incredibly long pause.” A motorized scooter and cane aid his mobility.
From his longtime home in Newton, Massachusetts, Katz additionally produces the nostalgically folksy podcast Hey We’re Back! and is working on a top-secret project for Audible.com involving Silverman and Andy Kindler. He doesn’t consider himself much of an improvisational actor, but his continued interactivity with peers, younger comics who grew up watching Dr. Katz and multiple generations of fans indicates a talent for inspiring trust on par with that of real doctors.
“Unlike the TV show, Dr. Katz Live requires me to be present in the current moment,” Katz says. “Back then, I could be in some other moment and they would edit it together to make sense. Doing it in front of an audience really locks you into going where all of these wonderful comedians would like me to lead them. It’s always very energizing and rewarding.”
Given his measured assurance and soothing universality, he might even help his guests — and audiences — feel a little better about their own looming uncertainties in the process.