We try and keep our interviewees at a distance. Our identities a secret. However, with Jonathan Katz, famously known as the lovable, squiggly psychotherapist on Comedy Central’s Dr. Katz, there was no avoiding it. Before we could say, “The Dr. will see you now” he had turned the tables on his interviewer, and things got personal.
BREE PERLMAN: Hi, I’m calling for…
JONATHAN KATZ: Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash…
JK: I like to open with a joke.
BP: (nervous laughter).
JK: So how are you doing?
BP: I’m OK.
JK: Are you in Austin, Texas?
BP: Uh huh. I’m a New York transplant to Austin. 4 years now.
JK: Did you grow up in New York?
BP: Yeah, well I was born on Long Island, actually. Great Neck.
JK: My father was the executive director of Temple Israel.
BP: Oh really?
JK: Before you were born. This was in the 60s.
BP: Yeah, I wasn’t born yet.
JK: You know it’s funny, when I say, “Before you were born” I mean it euphemistically but it’s probably true.
BP: Yeah, it is true. ’76.
JK: Nice. I’m curious about Austin. I hear it has a great music scene. And maybe comics. I don’t know, do they?
BP: There does seem to be a lot of comedy out of here.
JK: Hey, I know I asked for your permission to record but I didn’t have time to set up so if I say anything funny it’s going to be your responsibility to remember it.
BP: Ok. Well, I’m actually recording. What we do, just so you know, is a literal transcription. Our interviews are always word for word.
JK: Including my opening line?
BP: Yeah, I got that one too.
JK: You know what that is? Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash...
JK: The Kaddish. When somebody dies you are supposed to say it. If you ever see a Jewish comedian die sometimes they’ll say it to themselves. On stage.
BP: As they are going down…
JK: I can’t just assume that you are Jewish. I apologize if I made that assumption.
BP: That’s OK. I actually have a really bizarre background. My mother’s Armenian.
JK: There’s nothing wrong with that.
BP: And my father was Jewish and Amish.
JK: Holy moly.
BP: Yeah, it’s been a bit of an identity crisis all my life. It’s made for some strange experiences.
JK: I did one of my worst shows in Brookline, Massachusetts, really one of the worst performances I ever did. It was all my fault–I just wasn’t prepared and hadn’t thought about it enough–but at the end of the show the janitor came up to me, he was cleaning up the theater, and he sat down next to me and he says, “You’re comedy. It’s Armenian.”
JK: I’m not sure what he meant. I’m guessing that they were not so different, historically, Armenians and Jews.
JK: You can ask me questions now.
BP: Ok, are you ready for serious interview questions?
JK: Only if they are about your family.
BP: Is there anything in your life, any experience, that you completely and utterly failed to see the humor in?
JK: I guess my own shortcomings as a husband and a father, which I don’t find at all funny. However, having said that, a lot of my act is about being a father and a husband. So much of my comedy is about my marriage and my kids. But that’s just comedy. I guess in real life…first of all, how many people do you know that have to qualify what they are about to say with, “But in real life?”
BP: I actually have another question about that we can get to in a minute.
JK: Well I spend so much time in make believe world and have so many of them in my head right now because that’s what I do for living. And that’s what I have been doing, playing make believe. It’s not very different than what you did as a young girl when you went downstairs and played with dolls. Or at the risk of being presumptuous, handguns.
BP: How do you know so much about my childhood?
JK: I know Great Neck. The Jewish Armenian mom. It’s just a coincidence, I promise it means nothing, but when I would do stand up and make a really disgusting joke I would say, “Not for the squeamish; not for the Amish.” I just liked the way it sounded.
BP: That’s a good tag line.
JK: So did I answer the question or did I deflect it?
BP: I think you deflected. But it kind of brings me to my next question: I know you had wanted to record our conversation today, do you look at everyone and everything as possible material?
JK: Yeah, I do.
BP: Do you think that affects your relationships with people?
JK: I would say that’s not totally inaccurate. I think my family in particular, they have had enough. When we sit there and have dinner and somebody brings up something serious and it’s my straight line, at some point, it’s got to be, enough is enough.
BP: It seems like it would make you one step removed from the world. Do you think it makes you inaccessible?
JK: I’m not a lot of fun in a hospice.
JK: There are people speaking maybe for the last time, and they don’t want to be my straight man.
BP: Nothing like being in hospice and still at some-body’s expense. Do you think you were always like that?
JK: No. I think it’s increased as I’ve aged. I used to be more sincere. I guess I don’t think sincerity is my strength. I think I’m genuine. If I said to you, “Bree I really think that you are somebody that has enormous capacity for happiness and I think living in Austin is the best thing you could have done.” I’m being genuine. But if I then said, “Have you ever had sex with a 62 year old married man?” That wouldn’t be genuine. That wouldn’t be genuine because that would be being obnoxious.
BP: Do you think there is a fine line between obnoxious and funny?
JK: I think there is a very fine line between being…well I’m going to answer this differently: I said to my wife recently, “What do you think they called Freudian slips before Freud?” She said, “The truth.” So I don’t think anything is said without some underlying meaning from the person who is speaking it. Maybe that wasn’t a good example. You better ask me another question.
BP: Well, let’s stay on this one for a second. Do you think people, knowing they are a potential subject, react to you differently than they would somebody else? Do you think they come armed or over the course of the conversation will change the way they are speaking to you?
JK: People I know well are certainly like that. That’s why I love talking to strangers, to people I’ve never met before because if the phone rings and somebody is trying to sell me something rather than saying, “Can you please take my name off the list?” I’ll go with a joke. I try so hard to make every person I come in contact with laugh–it’s just a compulsion of mine. It used to make more sense when I was in a comedy club and not Staples.
BP: Actually I think with the way the world is right now, Staples could probably use more jokes. Or the guy at the cleaners. Or Wall Street. Maybe you should try Wall Street.
JK: I really think I could help America with my comedy but they would have to ask first. Do you listen to the stuff I do on wkatz.com? That’s my first plug of the day.
BP: I haven’t yet, no.
JK: There are 18 episodes of this podcast that I started doing. I was so reluctant to use the word podcast because I feel like I’m competing with every teenager that owns a mic. So I called it the Make Believe Radio Show for awhile.
BP: What made you start that?
JK: I have to make something funny every day and I live in a house with not one but two recording studios and I’m surrounded by the sounds of TV shows I’ve done, radio shows I’ve done, interviews, every comedian I’ve ever worked with, Dr Katz, a show I did with my daughter called Julia’s point of view which when she was 16 she had a cartoon on NBC, music I’ve done over the years–I’m a habitual recorder of things. I listened to this recording I did with Bob Zagat and the publicity people were panicked because I had a show on the WB and we met with a publicist. Hold on, I’ll play it for you (plays recording in the background) She is just telling us the logistics. She said, “We’ll gather everyone together in the colonnade and Bob said, “We’ll all do colonics.” And I said, “That’s my stage name Hy Colonic.” Spelled H-y. Then everyone there scolded us and told us to behave. We were the bad boys that day.
BP: I can only imagine. I’ve seen some of his comedy.
JK: He’s so unbelievably dirty.
BP: It’s almost a phenomenon, how dirty he can be.
JK: It’s not just dirty. He’s straight witty which he was long before Full House-he was a witty comic. And then he became this very bland force in America comedy. He’s been trying to shake that image for years by saying really reprehensible things in public. He has a real gift for word play and timing and all the success and money that came out of Full House just sucked that out of him and now he’s just trying to pump it back into himself.
BP: I was just reading an article in the NY Times Business section about Trey Stone and Matt Parker. It talks about how they made sure they had 50/50 ownership of their show. Seems things have changed from the make money on Full House to half ownership of Southpark.
JK: I consider Matt and Trey my younger, more successful siblings. I’ve always been very jealous of their success. But I also acknowledge their talent-it took me many years, but I’m over it. I was also jealous of my patients on the show because they got to say funny things and I just got to say, “And that makes you feel…” When we do Dr. Katz live which we’ve done a few times it’s gone in an interesting direction because Tom Synder, who is the co-creator of the show, plays my therapist. So I get to see patients and spend some time with my son Ben–sometimes Laura is available, and in between sessions with my patients I see my own therapist. He’s the world’s best straight man. We would love to do it in Austin.
We were in a very unusual situation because Dr. Katz was produced in Massachusetts-we did all of the animation in Massachusetts and we did the voices in Korea. Made you look! Made you look!
BP: I thought so. After all these years…
JK: Hey somebody sent me Asian Girls Gone Wild...
BP: Uh oh…
JK:…And I started watching a little bit of it last night and it was just a bunch of girls from Korea skipping math class.
BP: That’s wrong.
JK:You’re a good audience. I don’t care even if you are Amish. So much of my life would be different without electricity. Like this conversation would be so awkward. We’d have to be screaming from the top of our lungs. And then the time delay before you heard my voice in Austin…there would be no context.
BP: Are we could send long notes by mail.
JK: Are you in your late 20s?
BP: I’m in my early 30s.
JK: Oh my God, you’re almost dead!
BP: I know! I better hurry up. I’ve got a life list that needs checking off.
JK: Can you say one thing for me?
BP: What’s that?
JK: New shoelaces make a big difference.
BP: New shoelaces make a big difference?
JK: Don’t die.
JK: I’ll tell you what that means. When I was 17 years old I was going out on my first date and my grandfather noticed that I was wearing very dirty shoelaces and he said, “Jonathan put on new shoelaces.” And I came back in the room and modeled my new shoelaces for him and he said, “Jonathan new shoelaces make a big difference.” And then he keeled over and died. It was the end of my grandfather but the beginning of the game, “Don’t die.”
BP: So how did you find Laura?
JK: I’ve told this story so many times I wonder if it’s even true. I was trying to get a hold of Jon Benjamin, they used to live together. So she picked up the phone and I said, “Hi this is Jonathan Katz, I’m trying to reach Jon Benjamin.” And I made some stupid joke, which I always do, and she said, “Do you want to leave a message?” She was totally uninterested in what I had to say. She wasn’t rude, she was just unimpressed. So that character became the receptionist. And initially Jon Benjamin came in to read for the role of my father because it was a show about fathers and sons.
BP: So you didn’t have a son character initially?
JK: No. That was one of the advantages of living in Massachusetts because nobody from Comedy Central was shepherding the show so it grew up organically away from the suits. No one knew anything about it-we were just trying to amuse our family and friends. Which is I think how good comedy starts. Do you ever think what you want it to say on your headstone or are you too young for that?
BP: No actually, I’ve been obsessed with mortality since I was 8 so I’ve given it a lot of thought.
JK: Oh really? So what would you want it to say?
BP: The answer I came up with was that I just don’t want to die. I would like to live forever and therefore bypass the need for a headstone all together.
JK: That’s good. I would like mine to say, “Here lies Jonathan Katz, loving husband, loving father, loving son, loving brother, also on the web at jonathankatz.com.” What do you think? Are you with me?
BP: Um…yes, I’ll say yes.
JK: Oh! Hey, you know what I haven’t talked about is Next Book. Nextbook.org–it’s very Jewish oriented. I’ve been doing cartoons; they are called Biblical Shorts where I play the role of God. The one I like best is called, “Getting There is Half the Fun.”
BP: Are you going to do another CD?
JK: Is there no satisfying you? I’m not a comedy machine! I don’t just wake up and say, “How can I make you laugh today?”
BP: I’ve really been a big fan for a long time. I used to watch Dr. Katz at night and then when it would be over I would want more so badly I would watch The Critic.
JK: I met John Lovitz once. I said, “I do Dr. Katz before the Critic on Comedy Central.”He said in the voice of the Critic, “Aaaahhh.” That was the entire exchange.
BP: I was trying to figure out what it was about Dr. Katz. I mean it was funny, obviously, but there was something about it, it’s not even my family so it doesn’t make sense, but...
JK: It was sweet. And very loving.
JK: Dr. Katz was such a loving father and he was challenged with Ben but he loved him very much and vice versa. Ben loved him. Also, the sound of the show, and I maintain it was a radio with pictures, was very natural. It was people just talking to each other.
BP: Yeah, I always just found it really comforting. It became a ritual of mine.
JK: I like hearing about that. I like hearing that parents watched Dr. Katz with their kids. Did you ever watch it with your parents?
BP: I didn’t.
JK: My sister loves the fact that so many people know Dr. Katz-not just in America but it was an international following. I get fan mail from Russia. I think it’s on the air now in Russia some how.
BP: Do you ever think about recreating it?
JK: It’s come up recently, to make additional episodes of Dr. Katz. All the art work is done-we certainly have mastered the technique. A lot of it was just the enormous talent of Tom Snyder. He trademarked the word “retroscripting” and “Squigglevision”-a very smart businessman and scientist. He invented the technology that made the lines squiggle. He’s a computer scientist who had most of his success in educational software. TV was his hobby.
BP: How did you two get together?
JK: He and his wife went to see a movie called Things Change-a David Mamet movie in which I played a comedian named, Jackie Shore. Tom after that said, “I’ve got to meet this guy; he’s funny.” And then he discovered we were neighbors and he showed up with his kids the next day and I said, “I’m assuming you’ve all had spinal meningitis.” And that sealed the deal. We became really great friends. Dr. Katz was maybe the third or fourth thing we did together. The first thing we did together was called Live at the Teacher’s Lounge because he and his wife were both teachers. It was an idea that he wanted to make something that was not just educational but also entertaining. That’s what Dr. Katz was. He did a wonderful show for FX called the Dick and Paula Celebrity Chat Show. It was a talk show where all the guests were dead people. Historical people like Darwin, Louis and Clark…I was the musical director. They made a season’s worth of shows and then canceled it. But Dr. Katz fans would love it.
Tom and I are working on a full length feature animated show called the Traveling Talent Show which is in the model of a Christopher Guest movie. We’ve recorded an hour and 20 minutes of the audio and 1 minute of animation. And the last hour and 10 minutes will be very slow because there is nothing on the screen. It’s about two guys that travel around the country staging talent shows. If we came to Austin…what’s a town much smaller than Austin?
BP: Italy, Texas.
JK: Like if we went to that town, we would meet with the mayor, in the world of a cartoon. We would ask him if there was a venue we could use to stage a talent show and then we would ask him if there were any talents that he would like to try–singing or dancing or whatever. And then we would ask everybody in that town what their talent was and then we would stage a talent show. But it was about these shows and the relationship between these two guys that had been doing this for 25 years. They were almost like a married couple. I had approached Jon Katzenberg with the idea, because we had done a pilot for him years ago and he said, “Jonathan we don’t do people anymore, we just do animals.” If I was to ask you to listen to an hour and 22 minutes of audio with only one minute of animation, you would say, “Geez I’m not really sure I can do that.”
BP: Do you think what people appreciate when it comes to animation or comedy has changed?
JK: I think I don’t think it is fair to blame youth for this so I’m going to blame the internet. People’s attention span has changed. Jon Stewart before it became the Daily Show he had a show called Short Attention Span Theater on Comedy Central which was a great name for a show. We have such an appetite for short form programming of any kind-comedy, drama, especially comedy though. Dr. Katz started as a short on Comedy Central, in between programs and that has now been replaced by the internet.
BP: It’s amazing how things are edited these days. Its’ a vicious cycle because we are being retrained in the way we take in information.
JK: I’m working on a book called Worst Names and I’m going to have to give you credit here: worst name for a bike shop?
JK: Vicious Cycle. Worst name for a country singer? Luke Warm.Worst name for a Turkish Bath? Ethnic Cleansing. The worst name for a Disinfectant? Genocide. Worst name for a coffee shop in Dallas, Texas? The Grassy Knoll. The worst name for a Greek God? Herpes. Doesn’t that sound like a Greek God a little bit?
BP: Something about the “ee’s and the “H.”
JK: Speaking of Greek Gods, neither one of us is getting any younger. I don’t know what that means. I think what I’m trying to say is that I have to pee.