A Chat with Jonathan Katz
ALSO! Check out our review of the season one DVD.
In the world of deadpan comedians, there are few with a delivery that can match Jonathan Katz. Katz’s name and voice became a staple on Comedy Central in the mid-‘90s, thanks to his animated series, “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist,” which, thanks to its never-ending stream of guest voices (Dr. Katz’s patients were voiced by comedians ranging from Emo Phillips to the Smothers Brothers), kept viewers tuning in for five seasons. Comedy Central is finally releasing the first season of “Dr. Katz” on DVD, which inspired its namesake to chat with Bullz-Eye, telling jokes and dropping names, as well as providing us with insight on his health, many memories of the show, and possibly the best opening line of any interview currently contained on this site.
Jonathan Katz: (Coming on the line) …oh, my God, there’s naked girls!
Bullz-Eye: (Laughs) I have had few interviews start any better than that.
JK: Oh, really?
BE: You must be checking out our site.
JK: Yeah, ‘cause I thought it was going to be…like, the Torah. Like, little excerpts from the Torah. Anyway, I can’t tell you I’m disappointed. I’d be lying.
BE: Well, excellent. As long as it meets with your approval. That’s really what we’re most concerned about.
JK: Yeah. So, how are ya?
BE: I’m good. How are you?
JK: I’m good, thanks. Thank you for your interest.
BE: Absolutely. It’s great to have you back on the radar again. I know you had been doing a radio show, but…
JK: You know, I had this thing at WNYC for awhile called…the show was called “The Next Big Thing,” and my segment was called “You’re on the Air with Jonathan Katz.”
BE: Right, and that’s the one I was aware of. I went to the website and listened to some of the clips.
JK: Yeah, but that’s no longer on the air. The show has been cancelled.
JK: (Whines) Why is it always the good people who lose? (Gets serious again) But I’m busy with a million other things, including a full-length animated feature called “The Traveling Talent Show.” But, you know, there are so many things going on in my life besides “Dr. Katz.” But I guess “Dr. Katz” has made a lot of these things possible, because of the way it connected with a big hunk of the population.
BE: And a lot of people have been waiting for it to come out on DVD.
BE: Was there any particular reason for the delay, or did they just not think there was an audience for it?
JK: I think Comedy Central was waiting for the VCR to become obsolete. And they’re close! I don’t really understand the timing of it, but I’m thrilled. For me, in my mind, the show was never cancelled; it was just that all of my patients went into remission.
BE: Well, certainly, it’s only been relatively recently that it stopped being re-run constantly.
JK: Yeah, it’s not been that long in the scheme of things…when you consider that, uh, was it Moses who got the Ten Commandments?
BE: Uh, yes.
JK: Yeah, now that’s been awhile. But even Moses said to me, nothing is carved in stone. (Pauses) See, now, I’m workin’ too hard, trying to make too many jokes. Life is brief. That’s what I do: I make jokes and I drop names.
BE: Well, you’ve got plenty of names to drop as a result of the people who guested on “Dr. Katz.”
JK: Yeah, well, not only that, but my best friend in the world is David Mamet, whose name I drop probably more than anybody. And sometimes I even drop his name while I’m telling a joke. And it goes like this. I have a dog named Bongo; he’s a miniature poodle…but when I told that to David, he said, “Don’t you mean ‘substandard’?” (Pauses) Not a bad joke. It’s not a great joke. But it is coming from a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright.
BE: As a matter of fact, along with Bullz-Eye, we have a sister site that’s an entertainment blog – PremiumHollywood.com – and my pseudonym on there is Shelley “The Machine” Levine (from “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a Mamet composition).
JK: Oh, you’re kidding me!
BE: So I’m totally pro-Mamet.
JK: Oh, that’s so cool! You know, I worked with David in real estate in the ‘60s in Chicago, so Shelley “The Machine” Levine is a real guy! Well, he was a real guy then; now he exists in fiction.
BE: Did he look anything at all like Jack Lemmon?
JK: (Takes a deep breath) No. But, you know, the guy who I can visualize like it was yesterday was Aaron “The Machine” Bartlestein. I think he was the guy who was part Shelly Levine and part somebody else. Aaron “The Machine” Barlestein said to David one day, who was looking at a new issue of Playboy or Oui Magazine or whatever guys read in those days, and he said, “Tell me that’s not his joint. It can’t be his joint, or I’m gonna kill myself.” (Pauses) So I worked at the real estate place for a summer and got paid, and David wrote an award-winning play and a movie.
JK: I’m not complaining. It’s just…odd. But it really was fun.
BE: Did you enjoy revisiting “Dr. Katz” for the special features on the DVD set…?
JK: I did. I really did. Y’know, I’m prematurely sentimental about “Dr. Katz,” since it hasn’t been that long, but my biggest disappointment was that Dom was not available…Dom Irrerra, who was my favorite patient…but I loved talking to Ray (Romano). I used to do standup with Ray. I loved to talking to Dave Atell, who I don’t know as well as I’d like to, but he’s a really funny guy. He cracks me up. And, of course, hanging out with Jon Benjamin for more than 5 minutes at a time is the reason I look so young.
BE: Well, we are very big “Home Movies” fans here at Bullz-Eye, so... (Writer’s note: Benjamin was responsible for voicing Coach McGuirk, as well as other characters, on “Home Movies.”)
JK: Yeah, he really is brilliant. He’s a brilliant actor, and he’s a guy who makes me laugh harder than anybody. And, y’know, I think you can hear that on the DVD, on the bonus tracks. As soon as he starts speaking, I lose it. And Tom Snyder (the co-creator of “Dr. Katz”) is also there. He’s like the grown-up of the group.
BE: When I interviewed (“Home Movies” creator) Brendon Small, he said he needed a grown-up on hand, too, when he was doing commentaries with Jon Benjamin.
JK: You need a grown-up. I mean, I’m only 59, so I’m just a kid. How old are you?
BE: I’m 35.
JK: 35?!? Well, shame on you for looking at that garbage (on Bullz-Eye)!
BE: I’m sorry.
JK: But can you send me hard copies?
BE: I’m sure we can. It’s the least we can do for getting the opportunity to talk to you.
JK: I forgot how beautiful young women look. As a guy with two daughters, I’m walking a very tricky line here. A wife and two daughters! And to have friends who are comedians, who…y’know, they tend to be slightly more predatory than most men.
BE: I’ve heard that.
JK: Like, you know, my friendship with Dom Irrerra is more than twenty years old, and he loves my wife and he loves my kids, but would I let them live with him in L.A….?
BE: I’m going to guess probably not.
JK: Maybe. I might. Actually, I would. He’s a very decent guy. He is a…I tell people who go see him do standup, don’t bring your mother and make sure it’s not a first date, because he’s a poet with a filthy mouth. He really is a brilliant comic and a wordsmith, but some of the words are really…if you combine them, they’re a little scary for the uninitiated.
BE: I believe I saw him in “The Aristocrats,” did I not?
JK: Yeah, but that was Dom Irrera Lite.
BE: Oh, geez!
JK: You’ve gotta see him in a club. Where do you live?
BE: Right around Virginia Beach, Virginia.
JK: Yeah, we used to work down there. I used to work at a club down there. Virginia Beach. For me, it was like the big time: somebody was paying my airfare to Virginia Beach. There was a guy named Jerry Stanley who used to book us all, and there was a woman there who ran a club who was kind of cute. She’s probably my age now, which happens.
BE: How is your MS doing? (Writer’s note: Katz was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1996.)
JK: You know, it’s not so bad. You know, I’m writing a book about it. It’s called “Finding the Disease That’s Right for You.” And the guy I’m working with says to me every day, “Jonathan, there’s got to be something bad about it!” And, of course, there is. But I just make jokes about it. Which is what I would do if somebody pulled a gun on me, probably. In fact, I got held up in Mexico City by a street gang, and the guy pulled a knife on me, and I said… (Pauses) I don’t know if I make this joke – it’s a little racist – but I’ll do it, anyway. I said, “What am I supposed to do, push Juan for more options?”
JK: Oh, lord, that is a bad joke. Not only is it racist, it’s corny. What a great combo.
BE: That’s the best of worlds, right there.
JK: I can piss off my wife and my sister, who lives in Puerto Rico.
BE: So…where do you keep your Emmy (for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance, for “Dr. Katz”)?
JK: It’s about four feet away from me.
BE: Is it really?
JK: No, wait, it’s about twenty feet away right now. But the thing some people don’t know about an Emmy award…they’re not that heavy, but it’s so sharp. It’s like a weapon. (A dog barks in the distance) That’s my guard dog. I have a dog and a bird and an Emmy. I’ll let them take everything else. (Pauses) So the radio show that I do now is a show that mostly exists, uh, in my mind, and it’s called, “Hey, We’re Back.” And I called it that because I just love saying the phrase, “Hey, we’re back!” But there’s a show up on my website at JonathanKatz.com, and then it’ll show up maybe on iTunes with a little bit of luck.
BE: Oh, great!
JK: Along with my first comedy CD, which is coming out soon.
JK: How’s that for self-promotion? I tend to give too much stuff away in my career, like to public radio…or to the homeless.
BE: Now, do you continue to tour? I don’t know how up-to-date your listing on Wikipedia is, but it suggested that, because of the MS, you tend to get around using a scooter.
JK: Yeah, I use it to get around airports sometimes, and I use it to get around large buildings, but I still walk okay. I just don’t…I use the scooter to get to where I need to walk. So I’m going to be performing in New York at the Gotham Comedy Club with David Cross and Susie Essman, doing “Dr. Katz” live, on May 9th. That’s something that I’d love for you to mention. I think tickets are still available. But, y’know, I’ll be doing some standup, and we’ll be doing “Dr. Katz” live.
BE: I’m a huge David Cross fan.
JK: He’s a very funny guy. Really funny.
BE: And you actually did the voice of Dr. Katz on an episode of “Mr. Show.”
JK: I did. Y’know, it was a great episode, because this guy Tom Kenny, who is best known as – you’ll pardon me – Spongebob Squarepants, he played this character, Kedzie, on “Mr. Show,” who was like a hack comic in this episode, doing “Dr. Katz.” And he just does every hack comic line. I think you’ll be able to see that, too, on my site pretty soon.
BE: Now, I just want to be absolutely sure: is your site JonathanKatz.com? Because I know there’s more than one Jonathan Katz out there.
JK: Yeah, I’m not the guy who wrote the history of gay America. Or the guy with the bad breath clinic.
BE: (Laughs) I saw that on Wikipedia. It clarifies right at the top of your entry, “This article is about the American actor. For the technology writer, see Jon Katz, for the queer studies professor, see Jonathan D. Katz, and for the historian, see Jonathan Ned Katz.”
JK: Yeah, I’m none of those guys. They’re not bad people, I suspect, but I don’t know ‘em. I have a library in my home of books by other Jonathan Katzes, including “The History of Gay America,” there’s a book called “Black Woman” by Jonathan Katz…uh, what else have I got? Oh, yeah, there’s some books by me…like “The To-Do Lists of the Dead.”
BE: I think the closest thing I have to that is a book called “The Will Harris Murders,” which I had absolutely no part of, and have an alibi for, since they took place in the late 1800s.
JK: Well, “The To-Do Lists of the Dead,” I think you’d get a kick out of that. I was sitting on a plane one day, and I started working my own to-do list, but I got bored, so I wrote one for Abraham Lincoln. And it said, “Free slaves,” which I checked off, then, “Find a new way to say ’87 years ago,’ which I checked off, and then it said, “Beef up security at Ford’s Theater”…which is not checked off. And that was the beginning of that book. But you remember what Patrick Henry was famous for saying?
BE: (Momentarily blanking) Um…
JK: I’ll give you a hint. “Give me…”
BE: (Utterly chagrined) Oh. Duh. “Give me liberty or give me death.”
JK: Yeah, so his to-do list says, “Just blurt things out.”
BE: You know, I’m pretty sure I remember when the book came out, now that I think about it.
JK: Yeah, I plugged it on “The Daily Show” and on Conan.
BE: That’s probably why I remember.
JK: And I’m gonna be plugging it again now because it’s on sale. (Pauses) Any other questions?
BE: Do you have any idea when the live CD will be available on iTunes, or is it still in the theoretical stages?
JK: I…I don’t. I wish I could tell you. But you’ll be able to hear about it on my site.
BE: Do you have a favorite comedian who appeared on “Dr. Katz”?
JK: Well, my favorite guy is Dom. I also loved working with (Garry) Shandling, because I’ve admired the guy for so many years. Sarah Silverman is very funny. Let’s see, who else? Jesus, it’s hard to single them out. Brian Regan is great.
BE: Has Comedy Central committed to releasing more than one season on DVD?
JK: I think they’re going to wait and see how this does. And I suspect it’s going to do very well. I already own two copies. (Hesitates for a moment) Conan O’Brien was fun to do. He was very good on the show. He understands cartoons; he used to work on “The Simpsons.” But, y’know, the best people on the show were the regulars: Laura Silverman, who played Laura, and Jon Benjamin, who played Benjamin. And also Will LeBow as Stanley, and Julianne Shapiro as the bartender. They were all really good.
BE: Is there a definitive list out there anywhere of all the comedians who appeared on the show?
JK: Yeah, I think you can find one at IMDB.com.
BE: Okay, well, I think that’s it.
JK: Great! Well, I really appreciate you calling.
BE: Absolutely. And if you do a more extensive tour, I hope to see you.
JK: In Virginia Beach.
JK: That’s my new destination.
BE: There is, actually, a new place…well, not a new chain, but a new location here…called the Funny Bone.
JK: Yeah. But I guess we’re working in larger venues if we do this thing…more theatrical venues. As much as I loved working in comedy clubs – which I did for fifteen years – I find that the audiences who go to theaters are a little more forgiving. You can get away with different kinds of jokes.
BE: Well, there are places here like Chrysler Hall, or even the NorVa, a concert venue which has been known to book stand-ups on occasion.
JK: Oh, yeah? Well, I’ll put it to you another way: if you’re a laugh-a-minute guy in a comedy club, you’ll get fired…because it’s not enough. (Pauses) Okay, well, anyway, it’s been a pleasure.