Cracked Exclusive: An Oral History of ‘Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist’

Cracked Exclusive: An Oral History of ‘Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist’

Two of the most beloved comedies on TV right now are Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bob’s Burgers. While both are unique and brilliant in their own way, they each owe a tremendous debt to a 1990s Comedy Central show that kicked off the Curb-perfected trend toward largely improvised scenes and introduced the world to Bob’s Burgers’ Loren Bouchard and H. Jon Benjamin: Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist

Running for six seasons from 1995 until 2002, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist centered around the life of therapist Jonathan Katz — played by comedian Jonathan Katz — and his son, Ben (Benjamin) as well as his acerbic secretary Laura (Laura Silverman). The show is best remembered for its therapy sessions, as half the program was dedicated to Dr. Katz’s sessions with comedians who always played themselves. Most of the time, these comedians would do their act while on Dr. Katz’s couch, with the show cutting to an animation of their jokes.

Well, perhaps “animation” is a bit generous, as Dr. Katz was presented in “Squigglevision,” a dirt-cheap computerized animation style developed by the show’s co-creator, Tom Snyder. Although the characters hardly ever moved on screen, Squigglevision delivered an affordable, unique-looking show for Comedy Central’s early days. Either because of — or in spite of — such a groundbreaking aesthetic, the show won a Peabody Award as well as an Emmy for Katz. 

Now 20 years removed from its final episode, we thought it well past the time to book another session with Dr. Katz himself, in addition to Snyder, Bouchard, Benjamin, Silverman and the host of comedians who threw all their problems at him.

Developing ‘Dr. Katz’

Tom Snyder, co-creator of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist: The road to Dr. Katz started in 1991, which was almost two years before I even met Jonathan. Loren Bouchard — who would go on to create Bob’s Burgers and who had previously been a student of mine — and I were looking for a way to do unscripted animation. We had people like Richard Snee come in and tell stories, then we put me in the booth with him with just a bullet-point narrative, as opposed to actual scripting. Simultaneously, we were developing a very cheap, sleazy type of animation called “Squigglevision.” 

The two of us spent almost a year playing with that format. We also did a project called Shrink Wrapped, where there was a doctor and his son and I did all the voices. I wasn’t in the business back then, but I had a friend at HBO in the sports department. I showed him a one-minute clip of me as a doctor and his son and they said, “Let’s do a thing.” 

However, they told me I needed voice talent, and they read off this list of comedians they were working with through Comedy Central. One of the names on that list was Jonathan Katz. I went nuts because I adored Jonathan Katz. I’d seen him in movies and on TV and even in a couple of clubs. In addition to that, he was on the East Coast — in Newton, Massachusetts, actually, which was just one town over from where I lived. Then I went over to his house…

Jonathan Katz, star and co-creator of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist: Do you remember what I said as I greeted your family?

Snyder: Yeah, you opened the door and the first thing you said was, “I hope you all have had spinal meningitis already.” Which I guess isn’t that funny anymore.

Katz: No.

Snyder: So I sat down with Jonathan and showed him this video, and he became the doctor. From there, he came over to my studio, and we started messing around. 

Katz: Tom’s studio, at that time, was his pantry in his kitchen. 

Snyder: It had egg cartons on the walls though. Anyway, we started messing around, and in 1992, we did The Biography of Mr. Katz, which was a very funny eight-minute video. 

After The Biography of Mr. Katz, HBO Downtown allowed us to just make bumpers of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. They were basically some experiments used as interstitials with comedians like Larry Miller and Cathy Ladman. 

Loren Bouchard, writer, producer and audio engineer on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist: We did seven one-minute shorts for Comedy Central’s Short Attention Span Theater, and they were just therapy. Then, Comedy Central and Tom and Jonathan were talking about doing a half hour show, but I just couldn’t picture it. How do you turn that into a half hour? And they said, wisely, “Well, he’d have a son and his secretary and we’d fill out the world outside of therapy.” 

Snyder: We got a first season order for six episodes of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. The show was very loose when we were figuring it out. Things got really exciting when Jonathan introduced me to Jon Benjamin and his girlfriend, Laura Silverman. 

Katz: I knew Jon Benjamin from the comedy scene.

Snyder: Ben auditioned to be Jonathan’s father. It was pretty good, but he was doing a “voice,” and I didn’t want anyone to do a voice on the show. Back then, Jonathan’s dad was still alive, and we thought he’d be a good source of humor.

Katz: My dad also auditioned for the part, and I had to tell him he wasn’t right for it. 

Snyder: That was brutal, yes. Anyway, we also had Jon Benjamin audition for your son, and the ages were close to right, so that worked. Dr. Katz and Ben ended up having this sweet relationship as a father and son. Between Jon Katz’s brilliance and Jon Benjamin’s brilliance, that relationship was the thing that was pumping life into the show. 

Katz: The comedians were a marketing tool for Comedy Central, but the show is really about me and Ben. 

H. Jon Benjamin, Ben on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist: Dr. Katz was a pretty bare-bones operation. I remember I went into this guy’s pantry, and I was like, “Is this fake?” 

Bouchard: I built that booth, but I didn’t take all of the shit out of there that was in there originally, so while you were recording, there were cans of soup and stuff like that. We’d also have to remember to unplug the fridge so the compressor wouldn’t kick on while we were recording. 

Benjamin: I went in with my girlfriend, Laura Silverman, who they were also auditioning, and we fooled around with a bunch of different ideas. It definitely wasn’t the character of Ben yet. I did an audition for the son, and originally, it was that Dr. Katz had a son who lived with his girlfriend — that was one variation. It eventually became the premise that I lived with my dad. Ben was a funny character who was a version of a failson — a kid who lived with his dad when he was about 30 and he was constantly bothering the receptionist played by Laura. 

Laura Silverman, Laura on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist: Jonathan and Benjamin had a magic between them, and it was really fun to watch them do it. 

Bouchard: I remember in the early days Tom saying, “This is actually a love story between a father and a son.” Laura was fantastic too. I don’t want to leave her out.

Snyder: As for Laura, she had a natural impatience, bordering on rudeness, to her. I remember Jonathan said she was the least interested person you ever spoke to on the telephone, so that’s where her character came from.

Katz: Yeah, I was trying to reach Jon Benjamin and not only did she refuse to take a message, she wouldn’t even allow me to get through my request to take a message. 

Silverman: Jon Benjamin and I were boyfriend and girlfriend at the time, and we lived in a house with some other friends. Jonathan Katz was friends with Jon Benjamin and our other roommate Chuck Sklar, and every time Jonathan calls somebody, he opens with a joke. So the phone would ring, I would answer, and Jonathan would tell a joke. I’d just go, “Chuck, it’s for you!” I was always like, “Ugh, this guy again.” That planted the seed for the character of Laura in Jonathan’s mind.

When I got the part, improvising with Jonathan Katz was a lot of  fun. Even though my character wasn’t nice to him, there’s a warmth there. As for Jon Benjamin, I remember It was very frustrating to improvise with him. I was shy, it was my first job and I was playing this character who was all about restraint and minimalism, whereas he was just talking and talking and talking — I’d get really frustrated with him.

Benjamin: I think, with Laura, she got to play out her fantasy of how our real-life relationship should have gone. With her just being absolutely fucking annoyed with everything I was saying all the time. It was a perfect release for her.

Snyder: The way they did the scenes was unique. There was an outline that said where the scene was going, but it didn’t say exactly how they were going to get there. There were suggested jokes by Jon Katz and Bill Braudis, but that’s it. The show had pace to it that Loren equated to jazz.

Katz: I have to brag about this, because most people credit Curb Your Enthusiasm with creating that kind of storytelling, but before that show, Tom actually met with Larry David to explain just how Dr. Katz has that realistic sound. It’s not like he ripped us off, but he was guided by Tom. 

Benjamin: Tom, Jonathan and Loren wrote out a brief outline on a piece of paper, and it would be five beats of story like, “I want to buy a pet pig.” Then we’d improvise, sometimes for a long time, like 30 to 40 minutes. Then Loren would edit that audio down into short, three-minute scenes.

Silverman: They actually did write a script, but we weren’t allowed to see it. We’d only get an outline, and we’d go through the outline together and then go scene by scene in the booth and improvise every scene according to the outline. They wanted to see where the scenes went without the script. Then, as a backup, we’d do the script from beginning to end. There was always a script though; it was always the last thing we’d record.

Katz: When Tom showed the pilot to Comedy Central, they said, “That’s great, when do we get to see the real thing?” 

Snyder: That’s true. I said to them, “That is the real thing!” And they said it could be so much funnier, and it’s got too much Katz in it.

Katz: Too much Katz, can you imagine?

Snyder: I told them, “That’s all we’re doing. I negotiated a really low fee for making these things.” The Simpsons was costing a million an episode, I did these for about $185,000 an episode. So I said, “No, absolutely not. We’re already working on the second one. If you want to cancel the series, I have a software company that desperately needs me right now.” After that, we never got any more notes from them.

Bouchard: The premise of Dr. Katz — with a therapist interviewing comedians — gets you a season, but the relationship between Ben and his dad, and Laura too, gets you six seasons. We weren’t some ratings smash like South Park would become, but Comedy Central kept coming back for more because of the quality of those performances and the taste of the show.

The Patients

Snyder: The first episode had Bill Braudis, who was also a writer on the show, and Dom Irrera, who always made Jonathan laugh. 

Dom Irrera, patient of Dr. Katz: For me, it felt very stagey to do my act that way, so I said, “Let’s improvise instead.” We did that, and my whole goal was to make Jonathan laugh. So I’d ask him things like, “Can I lay down on top of you?” 

Katz: Ray Romano was the first guy to really get it in the way we’d usually do the show. We got the idea to have him do his act. We didn’t really want him to interact with a therapist the whole time, we just had him do his act. 

Bouchard: Ray Romano did his whole act, then he did all his “B” material. He just went until his voice gave out. It was like a three-hour session in that pantry. We immediately got two episodes out of him, which was pretty rare. 

Snyder: Originally, we tried to reenact therapy sessions, but it started to feel too rehearsed. So we got the idea to have them do their act on their own, then afterwards, Jon, with an editor, would splice in responses to what Ray was saying. Ray was so good that, after a few appearances, I asked him if he wanted to be a regular on the series. He said, “I’d love to, but I’m not sure. I’m waiting on something.” That something was Everybody Loves Raymond

Snyder: Most of the comedians were people Jonathan had worked with, but agents would also send us tapes of comedians who we just fell in love with, like Andy Kindler. 

Andy Kindler, patient of Dr. Katz: When I first recorded Dr. Katz in Season One, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. It was done in Tom Snyder’s pantry. It was such a small project, but it was exciting to be there at the very beginning. I thought it was perfect — I still think that. I think it’s the rhythm of the show. It was more like conversations actually are than they are on sitcoms. 

Brian Regan, patient of Dr. Katz: They were recording in a studio by the time I did it. I remember going into this studio in Boston, but Tom Snyder wanted there to be an audience when I did my set, so he and a handful of people would be outside the sound room and they could hear me. I did 15 or 20 minutes of my act. It’s very important to have people laughing, so that really helped to hear that little audience.

When that was done, Jonathan Katz came in, and we did a back-and-forth as if he was a therapist. He’d just ask me some questions to see if we could come up with some ad-lib stuff, some of which they used. Jonathan Katz is also brilliant. He’s very funny, and he’s a good audience. He allows other people to be funny. It was never a competition.

It was cool to see the final result, because when a comedian does their act, they have their own visuals in their head. But for Dr. Katz, they’re the ones animating to my words, and some of it was funnier than I’d imagined it. 

Brian Kiley, patient of Dr. Katz: Jonathan and I used to work on jokes together; so we’d improvise around my bits. He’d say, “Tell me about your dad,” and then I’d do my dad jokes. Then some of it was just us playing around. That was a lot of fun. I know when Conan O’Brien did it, Conan didn’t have an act, so they just riffed the whole time. It was interesting what jokes worked on that show and what jokes didn’t. It was a specific format. Jokes on that show tended to work best if there was a visual component. 

It was also a surreal thing to see yourself in cartoon form. I remember when I did the show, they gave me the cartoon cel of myself, and at the time, my son was a baby. He was like, nine months old and every day he’d look up at that cel with me as a cartoon and he’d point at it and crack up. I was fascinated by that. 

Katz: Ron Lynch was amazing. He couldn’t accept the fact that he was seeing a therapist; he had to pretend he was seeing a dentist.

Ron Lynch, patient of Dr. Katz: I didn’t really have anything in my act that I thought would work, so I came up with stuff, mostly about me being a guy who really didn’t want to be talking to a therapist. I’d be in the waiting room or on the couch not saying anything or finding some gimmicky way to avoid him.

Katz: Winona Ryder was… You know the expression “jumping the shark”? That was our “jumping the shark” moment. She just wasn’t funny.

Snyder: She’s nice, and I don’t want to take anything away from her, but that was depressing because she was trying to be funny. They also put a lot of pressure on us to have William Shatner on. I begged them, “Please don’t have us put William Shatner on.” Fortunately I won on that. The show wasn’t meant to be a showcase in that way. Not even every kind of comedian worked. Someone like Andy Kindler or Fred Stoller worked really well because they had a lot of problems they talked about. 

Fred Stoller, patient of Dr. Katz: I was in a studio in L.A., and I did my act. I didn’t interact with Jon very much the first time, but after that, Tom Snyder called me and asked if I wanted to do the show more, which I did. I’d do a lot of bits about why I was early or late to an appointment. I worked with Laura Silverman a lot for those. 

I remember when Rodney Dangerfierld was in the booth, he didn’t want to be there — “Are we almost done? What am I doing this for?” So, in that episode, they brilliantly made it like he was an uncooperative patient. 

Katz: The first thing Rodney Dangerfield said when he came in was, “Am I done yet?” Somehow we were able to use that in the editing of the show.

Snyder: We could not explain to him what was happening. 

Katz: There was another awful experience. Bill Maher showed up, and he said, “Wait a second — you want me to do my jokes on your show?” Then he left.

Snyder: There was also one guy who was doing blow on the front steps of my house and then he was mean to my son, so we didn’t put him on. 

You know who was great, though? Steven Wright! I picked him up at the airport, and I brought my son along, who was in third grade and the entire way back, he did Steven Wright’s entire act for Steven Wright. He would not stop! Steven Wright was so sweet to him. He told my son, “You have done that material better than I have ever done it.” 

Steven Wright, patient of Dr. Katz: I remember I could just make up what I was going to say and talk to Jonathan Katz in the booth. He agreed to that, and it was fun because Jonathan Katz is so funny. Jonathan also has such a fun, casual demeanor, and that affected the whole experience. There was no pressure. It was like hanging out with a friend.

Katz: I remember Dr. Katz asked Steven Wright if there was a history of depression in his family, and Steven Wright’s joke was, “My grandparents came over from the old country, but they never adjusted to the time change.” 

Dr. Katz’s Time Is Up

Snyder: After the first season, which we won an Emmy and a CableACE Award for, the next few seasons were an order for 13 episodes, and the last two seasons, Seasons Five and Six, we got orders for 18 episodes. 

Katz: I remember the day we were canceled. I was in Pasadena. Upright Citizens Brigade got picked up again, and Dr. Katz was canceled to make room for it. 

Irrera: When South Park came on, I knew there was no way we’d beat South Park. It was so dirty, and with all those kids watching, there was no way we were going to win. Dr. Katz had a good run though.

Benjamin: I remember seeing the demo for South Park and thinking, “We’re absolutely fucked.” It was so amazing and funny and outrageous. Meanwhile, we were doing this quiet little show. I thought, “We’re going to get canceled like, tomorrow.” Fortunately, we lasted a couple of years before that happened.

Bouchard: I remember it being canceled, but I’m not sure as to the “why.” I remember I was on my way to the Montreal Comedy Festival to scout comics. I was at the airport, and someone called to say they weren’t going to pick up the show. I asked, “I’m at the airport to scout comics, should I still go?” They said I might as well still go since I already had the tickets. That was a sad trip.

It wasn’t a great shock though. We were all okay. We’d had a great time and did the work we wanted to do. That was a good feeling. When a TV show feels like it’s run its course to everyone involved, that’s lovely.

The Legacy of ‘Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist’

Kindler: Any show that was great was great because it was allowed to grow at a specific time. For Dr. Katz, it was pre-South Park Comedy Central. I think because Dr. Katz premiered when it did, it really took off as a cult show.

Marc Maron, patient of Dr. Katz: The format of Dr. Katz was unique, and that’s why the show worked. I knew Jonanthan as a stand-up, and he’d found this thing that totally honored his style. Also, the context of the show was just comics talking about themselves, which many of us do as an act. The nature of the format of being in therapy was brilliant because we could do what we do — talk about ourselves and how we see the world. I really enjoyed it. I’ve still got a cel of me on Dr. Katz hanging on my wall. 

Patton Oswalt, patient of Dr. Katz: Dr. Katz thought of a really, really clever framework. A lot of comedy is very angsty, and it sounds like it’s being delivered on a therapist’s couch anyway. Plus, the host was a great, very dry, very confident stand-up who knew when to jump in with a joke and knew when to hang back and let the other person riff. For the time, it was perfect. 

Silverman: Jonathan and I remain very close, he’s like a member of my family. You can’t say that about a lot of people you’ve worked with. In 2017, we even did the Audible series, Dr. Katz: The Audio Files, which was a nice evolution of the character for me. It was just me and Jonathan, and then Tom was there too, of course, because Tom found another genius way to do something for no money. 

Bouchard: It’s so impressive what Tom Snyder’s insight was back then, how he used new technology for audio and animation. Just a few years later, it all seemed obvious that animation would be done on a computer, but at the time, Tom was really ahead of it. He also saw the potential in using actors in this very improv-y style and using digital audio to make that work. Everything was there just in time to do what he wanted to do. 

Katz: We made 81 episodes, and because I took my role as a therapist so seriously, I made one woman cry and one guy feel a little better. Also, many people are convinced that I’m actually a therapist, which is a rather unique legacy for a show.

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