Too Soon Forgotten : Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist
Let me tell you, I’ve been keeping an eye on the news and scrolling through social media feeds lately, and it’s led me to one conclusion: You could all use some therapy! Between COVID-19 keeping you locked down and insurrection crazies (AKA “The South Shall Fall Again”) trying to overrun your government, you’re all basket cases of insecurity and angst. Allow me to offer the perfect prescription:
Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist was an animated series that ran from 1995-2002, six seasons that neatly bridge the turn of the century. In terms of TV animation, it looks pretty plain, but this humble little series did the heavy lifting for every animated series that would come after. Dr. Katz‘ spartan design is all deliberate, for very good reasons, making for a minor feat of media engineering.
Why Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist is an important series
This cartoon has the distinction of being the very first original animated series produced for the Comedy Central cable network. At the time, Comedy Central had a shoestring budget and was concerned that an original animated series would be too expensive to produce. The success of Dr. Katz soon convinced the network to branch out into other animated series, which opened the door to preview some construction paper cutout animation from a couple of innovative cartoonists named Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of what we now call South Park.
This was still the middle years of cable TV. Cable networks could easily profit from re-selling licensed content, but the concept of a cable network producing its own TV show was still foggy. Comedy, however, was one of the cheapest possible genres to produce in-house. Led by HBO, cable networks churned out endless stand-up acts by third-rate comedians, some of whom matured to the first-rate level. This is why you see so many old clips on YouTube of obscure stand-up comedians in front of a brick wall in some anonymous pub today. Louis C.K. was born in front of one of those red brick walls with a microphone in hand and worked his way up from there.
Dr. Katz, P.T. would then be a natural progression of this idea. The unique look of the show’s animation was produced by a software product called “Squigglevision,” which basically did nothing but take line drawings and make them jitter around like electrocuted Ramen noodles. The premise of the show was a masterpiece of simplicity: Stand-up comedians would re-purpose their routines as therapy sessions. In between was a tight-knit small cast doing their own partly-adlibbed patter which moved along a sub-plot or two through the episode. The soundtrack would be smooth experimental jazz, and the setting would be New York City.
Dr. Katz was a surprise hit
All of these elements came together to produce a surprisingly sophisticated show. You don’t think of how many comedian’s routines make for good therapy sessions. But the main cast had an alchemy of their own.
Jonathan Katz plays the good doctor, and few other performers would have nailed the role so perfectly. Katz has a low-key, easy-listening delivery which makes for both a believable therapist and a perfect dry-humor straight-man. H. Jon Benjamin plays Katz’ slacker, live-in, adult son Ben, in one of the only actual Generation X portrayals on TV as well as the sharpest skewering of Gen-X stereotypes. And Laura Silverman (sister of Sarah) plays the receptionist as a perpetually bitchy seat-warmer who isn’t such a bad Gen-X portrayal herself. The show dug up a few other recurring characters later on at the Cheers-style bar Katz would unwind at after work.
The unique style of the show made it a program that felt more like a modern podcast than a TV show. You could have it on in the background and selectively tune in for stand-up bits or one of Laura’s withering sarcastic remarks, without missing much. At first, the show was calling comedians begging them to come in and do an episode, but after awhile, comedians were calling them. Some, such as Ray Romano, credited Dr. Katz with getting them the exposure they needed to get their own shows.
Over its run, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist would win 5 awards, including a Peabody Award and a Daytime Emmy. Jonathan Katz himself relates, as late as the 2010s, that the show has an undying cult following.
Dr. Katz broke important ground
Even though the ’90s had no shortage of original animated TV series – indeed, some call it the ’90s renaissance of animated TV – cable network original series were still an iffy proposition. A cable network has to live with the fact that there’s only so many providers willing to run their network package, a reality of the business which has extended to satellite TV even now.
Streaming TV and the Internet came along (or at least, grew more popular) and animated shows could finally count on having enough eyeballs to support a show, no matter how niche. Most of those owe their debt to South Park, the great successor to The Simpsons which paved the way for 21st century animated series. But without Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, there would be no South Park. For an extra twist, most of the show’s production crew can now be found working on the show Bob’s Burgers.
How does the show hold up today? It makes great binge-friendly watching. The rotating comedy guest stars give each episode a unique flavor, while the banter of the regulars keeps the series grounded in continuity. A lot of the stand-up material, however, doesn’t play too well 20 years later. Jokes that were current in the ’90s age very fast, such as Marc Maron’s bit about the Internet (season 3 episode 3). But overall, the cozy atmosphere and non-demanding pace make it ideal evening viewing.
Jonathan Katz himself is also an accomplished comedian, with a weirdly magnetic stage presence that’s halfway between an even balder Paul Simon and a live-action Charlie Brown. There’s just something comforting about Jonathan Katz’s voice, and with the low-fi beat of the whole show. You might even say that watching it now is almost… therapeutic.
Whoops, you know what the music means! Our time is up.