Stand-up comedian Jonathan Katz is not a doctor, but he played one on Comedy Central for six seasons. Now the wise and witty Dr. Katz has left his couch long enough to record his debut album.
By John Delery
For the price of admission and two drinks, audiences at comedy clubs receive the nonrefundable gift of laughter and bonus prizes: the answers to some of life’s mysteries from uncommonly wise guys. OK, smart asses.
After all, only comedians realize that “Do these pants make me look fat?” is a trap, not a harmless question. And when does life begin, you wonder? “After the second cup of coffee,” says Jonathan Katz, spouting an amusing theory that scientists can dispute but probably never disprove.
A caffiend himself, Katz’s percolating comic mind is responsible for Caffeinated, his debut CD from Stand Up! Records, released after almost 25 years in this funny business. Just when you think you know where his performance is going, it veers in one of three directions: silly, cerebral or somewhat sinister.
“I’m a silly person,” Katz says sitting in his home in Newton, Mass., where he lives with his wife — “We met at a seance,” he says on his album. “I was regular, she was a medium — and his youngest of two daughters. “I’m also maudlin and morose. I can be serious — for about 30 seconds a day.”
The comic artist in Katz, best known as the voice of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist on Comedy Central from 1995 until 1999 — season two of six is now available on DVD — molds jokes from Play-Doh, it seems. Katz, who’s 60, hardly ever acts his age onstage.
“I can’t hold my liquor in the winter,” he announces about halfway through Caffeinated. “I’m pretty sure it’s the mittens.” “A bad joke, but a funny image,” Katz resumes without even pausing to pick himself off the stage after a verbal pratfall. When a joke dies, he has the resuscitation skills of a paramedic.
“I have a really dirty mind,” Katz confesses, sounding less like a lech and more like a nerdy kid hoping to impress a new friend, because when Katz, a subversive but gentle comedian, slides a sex joke into his act, it’s like listening to Mr. Rogers whisper a dirty joke at a dinner party: surprising and surprisingly hilarious.
Join us as Punchline Magazine explores what’s brewing in the wonderfully warped mind of this contemporary comedy legend.
Your joke timing has always set you apart from other comics. What’s more important, the joke or the delivery?
I don’t know. I think there are some people who can’t make even a great joke succeed because they’re not good at telling jokes. And on the other hand, there are some people that take a joke that’s not that good and make it work, because their delivery is that good.
I’ll give you an example: My friend Brian Kiley is a brilliant joke writer and a very good comedian. He’s been writing for Conan [O'Brien] for the past few years. And we would get together every week over lunch and exchange jokes with each other and try out new jokes. And he gave me a joke once because he didn’t think he could make it work. This is the joke: He said, “My uncle died penniless last week. Had all them dimes.”
Now, he’s written many brilliant jokes, and that is not one of them. But I was still grateful because it came from him, and I think it might be fun to tell on stage because it’s such a bad joke. One of my jokes of his that I really like is: “I just bought a house with one-and-a-half bathrooms and that’s really because sometimes you just want to wash your leg.”
Anyway, I’ll let you get back to asking questions.
No, that’s good. I prefer laughing to asking questions. What I most like about your comedy is that it’s silly. And that seems to be what’s missing lately. Anger seems to be the primary emotion in comedy these days. But you just still do flat-out silly humor.
I was wondering about this. I’m doing Conan in a couple of weeks, and I was wondering if I should tell him that I had my torso removed last week, which was just preemptive. So this actually is an artificial torso. It belonged to a young man named Roger who was in a car accident and left only his head and his legs. That’s just a stupid joke. It’s silly. I think that’s in a whole other category of silly.
But is that conscious?
No, I don’t come to a decision. I think anybody who knows me, including various shrinks, would say that I’m a silly guy. Being my shrink is really a thankless job, because I would give her one straight answer and then three jokes. I’d be giving away such great material to this shrink, and then she’d send me a bill. I’ve really had very perverse relationships with many psychiatrists in my life.
It’s interesting that beyond the silliness, you have cerebral and sinister sides.
Yeah, I think I have a very dark sense of humor. And also I have, like most men, I think, a really dirty mind. “Dirty mind” is such an old expression. Lenny Bruce has dispelled the whole notion of dirty words, unless it was George Carlin. Well, maybe it was both of them. But I guess you could say the world of sex and gender cracks me up.
But it doesn’t come across that way. I think of Robert Schimmel when it comes to that type of comedy. His whole act is about sex; it’s almost pornographic. But you do it very subtly. Why do you hold back?
I hold back because I have a wife and daughters. But so does Robert Schimmel.
Do you try out jokes on your wife and kids?
I do tell jokes to my wife and kids. But my daughters insist I’m not funny, both of them.
Well, that’s their job.
Yeah. And my wife is so unpredictable about what’s going to strike her as funny. I never know. I’m always surprised when she laughs. I’m not surprised when she doesn’t laugh because my timing with her is not great. But she works very hard, my wife. When she comes home, she may not want to hear my new joke. She may not want to listen to this thing I’ve edited downstairs. I’ll say, “This is from my new radio show,” which doesn’t really exist.
My wife and [youngest] daughter will come home at the end of the day. My daughter is 15 and my wife is in her 50s. And I say, “Listen, I had Bob Dylan on my radio show. And they both say, “You do know you don’t really have a radio show, don’t you? And of course, they’re right, but it doesn’t stop me from doing an interview with Bob Dylan.
What is this show? Where can we hear it?
Right now it’s at my house — or on the World Wide Web at JonathanKatz.com. It’s called Hey, We’re Back. And I only call it that because I like saying that. There are three or four segments on the Web. I keep making them, because I like doing it. I like editing audio.
Why did you wait so long to put out a CD? Why do it now?
I’ve always liked to document my work. And I think that with the release of the Dr. Katz DVDs and the amount of press that’s generating, it seemed like the right time. And also I don’t travel. I don’t do clubs and live engagements anymore, because, among other things, I have [multiple sclerosis]. But I do travel a fair amount. I do some club work, and I do love to perform in front of a live audience. But I don’t think that’s as practical now as it once was. I also like to keep an eye on my daughter. Her picture is inside the CD. She’s the one who’s pouring me the cup of coffee.
How old is your other daughter?
My other daughter is 24 and she lives in Philadelphia with her boyfriend, who will kill you if you even look at her funny.
Do you wear blinders when you visit?
Nah. I’m thrilled that somebody in our family is sexually active.
So what you say on your CD is all true?
It’s all true.
About renewing your vows of celibacy?
Yeah. Sad but true. Marriage takes a toll. And it’s also an incredibly wonderful thing. I’m a big fan of it and I really like the safety net that we provide for our daughters. And I like being part of a marriage. I play the role of the husband. We’re celebrating our 25th anniversary on the day the CD is released.
Does you wife mind being talked about in your act? I think she’s used to it.
I think it was a little hard at first, but she knows that it’s not her, that it’s some caricature of her.
You’ve said that anybody could write a book but that naming it is the tough part. So, does that go for CDs as well? Why did you name your new album Caffeinated.
That was actually my wife’s idea. I’ve often said coffee is my reason for living. It’s not true, obviously, but I do love the stuff. I drink a lot of it.
And there’s a song called “Caffeine” on the album. It’s huge. I think those are the only good lyrics I’ve ever written. I’ve written 40 mediocre songs. They’re not bad. But they’re definitely not good.
Were you a musician at some point?
Yeah. I was a musician before I got into comedy. I had a band called Katz and Jammers in New York. I played rhythm guitar and sang lead. And I wrote most of the original songs, not all of them. And after the band, I worked solo as a musician. But then I noticed that when I started singing, people started talking. So I started talking more and singing less, which is how I made the transition to comedy.
When I met my wife I was the leader of Katz and Jammers. I met her on Christmas day in 1979. She didn’t know it was Christmas. I didn’t know it was 1979.
So you knew each other before you were a comedian?
Yeah. She was my first and only groupie. You really only need one good groupie. Are there journalism groupies? There must be.
If there are, I haven’t found them.
Well, I was sad to discover that when I started doing comedy, my groupies where these middle-aged Jewish people who’d come to see me perform and then invited me over for soup. Not exactly what I had in mind. But I’m probably better off.
So when did you make that transition from music to comedy?
I would say 1983. I did a set at The Improv, and the producer of the Letterman show was there. He actually hadn’t come to see me; he came to see some guy from San Francisco who was late. So he saw me by accident. I was still using the guitar in my act at that point. And he said, “Jeez, you’d be great on our show, but you’d have to lose the guitar.” So let me see, I think it was in June of 1985 that I made my debut on that show.
And that led to fame and fortune and Dr. Katz?
Yeah, I guess so. I also had another career that’s connected to David Mamet, who was my best friend in college. He was nice enough to give me a writing credit for the movie The House of Games. And I appear in many of his movies. So that’s also helped me out in show business enormously because he’s so successful. He, too, is an incredibly silly guy. Really silly.
Really? Because most of his movies are very serious.
He seems like he’s pretty intense and serious, but he’s also very silly. A couple of years back, if somebody said to his kids, “Nice to meet you,” he trained them to grab the guy’s knee and say, “Mice to eat you.” That’s the tip of the iceberg with silly with that guy.
Is that what comedy should be? Silly?
Should be? I don’t know. I don’t know what it should be. It should be whatever strikes you as funny.
I think about this time I got on stage at Carolines, and Jack Rollins was in the audience. He’s every comedian’s dream manager. And he came up to me after the show, and he said, “You should come to my office tomorrow and we should talk.”
So I went there the next day, and he said, “You know, Jon, what you need is a manager.” And then he said, “But who’s going to manage you?” And he wasn’t trying to be mean, he was just being pragmatic. Because my act is from the ’60s and this was the ’80s. He knew that what I was doing was a little too gentle for the public. But we remained friends. He was the first manager I never had.
Why can’t comedy be gentle?
Well, because I think people who come to the comedy clubs want to be titillated in some way. Or humiliated, or have their friends humiliated. That’s more like it. They want to see their friends embarrassed. One of my favorite comics is Dom Irrera, who I’ve described as a truly disgusting human being — and he’s not. He’s this very obscene poet; he uses words better than anybody I know.
I know his act very well, too.
He’s not a first-date comedian.
I think I could be. I think Dr. Katz, actually, is a show to which people fell in love. Which makes me pretty happy and proud.
Why do you think they fell in love with that show?
Well, I’ve heard that from people. Like, “I used to watch it with my boyfriend. We got married. We wanted you to officiate our wedding.” Now that part I made up, because I can’t really do that. Because I was just a make-believe cartoon character. Dr. Katz is make believe. And Jon Katz can’t officiate at a wedding because he’s not licensed. Though, it is kind of nice to feel like I’ve played a role in someone else’s romance.
Are you amazed at the afterlife of Dr. Katz?
Yeah, it’s pretty amazing to think it had such an impact on so many people. And I get e-mails on the Web site from people in places like Yugoslavia or Brazil, saying how it changed their lives, and asking why they don’t see it on TV anymore. I mean, really, it had kind of an international impact. And one of the reasons it succeeded is this friendship I have with Tom Snyder, which is really the second stage of my career in comedy.
I was lucky enough to meet Tom, who was the co-creator of Dr. Katz, who made his living creating educational software. But he happens to be a hysterically funny guy who had a comedy habit. And we discovered we lived near each other, and we started working together.
Do you like your niche in comedy? Do you like being the gentle but somewhat titillating comic?
Yeah. And I also like the word “subversive.” Because I think there’s something subversive about my comedy. My parents were subversive. I’m not sure what it is that I’d like to subvert.
Language is one thing you subvert.
Also people’s false sense of safety and security in their lives. Or in their marriage and their relationships to other people. I kind of like messing around with that a little bit, like what it means to be a woman or a man.
Talk about messing with people’s sense of safety in life. Didn’t you mess with your own sense of safety when you decided to enter comedy full time? There’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed in comedy.
No, but you can always redefine the word “succeed.” You can always say, “Hey, if I make one person laugh today, I’m a success.” Now you can’t really convince your landlord that you’re a success, even though you can’t pay him. You can’t convince your parents that you’re a success because you made one person laugh. But you might be able to convince that one person. Now I’m just being an idiot.
When you were growing up, what did you foresee yourself doing, if anything?
I didn’t think I would make a living in comedy.
Do you think if you were just starting today, you’d have to change your act to survive?
No, I actually think this is kind of a good time to be doing what I do. I think there’s a new audience out there with an appetite for my kind of comedy. I glean this from the popularity of guys like David Cross, who is a younger, harsher version of me.
He’s very clever, and I think if he had to make the deal to give up the word “fuck,” he could still succeed on stage. It’s his way of saying to the audience, “Hey, I’m one of you.” I don’t blame him for that, he is one of them, but he’s also so unique. Jon Benjamin is another guy who inspires me; he’s a brilliantly funny guy.
And my biggest influence as a comedian is a guy you probably never heard of named Ronnie Shakes, who was on The Tonight Show for many years and then died at the age of, I don’t know, in his early 40s, jogging one day. He was the only comedian who didn’t drink or do drugs. He just had a bad heart.
What was it about his comedy that inspired you?
Oh, God, he was just great. He was a wordsmith. His most famous joke is, “I’ve been in therapy for 12 years, and yesterday my shrink said something to me that brought tears to my eyes: ‘No hable ingles.’” For years, I wanted to do his act, to do a one-man show as Ronnie Shakes. But no one offered to pay me to do it. But on my computer I do have every joke he ever wrote.
Rita Rudner is also a wordsmith. In fact, she and I would travel together, and she would help me refine a joke to the point where it worked much better. She’s a very efficient writer.
It seems to be that the comedy today is more about personality than the joke, as if having a larger-than-life personality is the shortcut to fame. The comedians you mention consciously arrange words in a funny way.
But very often they would do that in front of an audience. Ronnie would go up on stage with a clipboard and a list of jokes, and he would tell them. He used the club like a gymnasium. If a joke didn’t work, he might try that same joke again 10 minutes later with a different punch line. I didn’t have that kind of courage, but I would record my act every night and listen to it.
Do you like the writing process? Do you like sitting down with just you, a pen, a pad and your imagination?
I like it when someone’s paying me to write something, then I can get really excited about it. I like writing dialogue. Writing dialogue is easier than writing jokes because, at some point, the characters live in your head at least. Writing jokes, for me, is almost a compulsion, and I don’t do it when I’m sitting down to write a joke.
I write a joke when I’m talking to someone on the phone or driving and on my cell phone. I push one button and I can record…not while I’m talking on the phone. But if I wasn’t talking, I could record a joke, and I do that a lot. And I talk to myself.