Interview with Jonathan Katz
Actor, Writer, and Comedian Talks About New Short, David Mamet, and M.S.
Monday, November 23, 2009
KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando interviews actor, writer, and comedian Jonathan Katz.
Writer, actor, and comedian Jonathan Katz had a hit animated series -- "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist" -- on Comedy Central for six years. He now has a new animated short on YouTube where he plays an overweight man on death row and weight watchers. You can also listen to my interview.
Jonathan Katz is a funny guy. For six years he made audiences laugh with his “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist” on Comedy Central. He also won the cable channel its first ever Emmy (for Outstanding Primetime Voiceover Performance). He’s also appeared in films such as “The Independent,” “Daddy Day Care,” “Things Change,” and “State and Main.” He’s appeared on TV in “Ink,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.” And he’s written the book “To Do Lists of the Dead.” All this while also coping with Multiple Sclerosis.
I spoke with Katz from his home in Newton, Massachusetts. Here’s what he had to say about “Death Row Diet,” the short animated film by Mike Salva, and his career. (You can also listen to the full interview.) You can also read my interview with Salva.
Beth Accomando: I’m KPBS film critic Beth Accomando and I’m speaking with comedian, actor and writer Jonathon Katz. Hi Jonathon.
Jonathan Katz: Hi sorry I just took a sip of coffee, which is my reason for living.
BA: I wanted to ask you about this new short film “Death Row Diet.” I understand this is audio that you had recorded awhile ago and had no intention of turning it into a cartoon.
JK: Right. You know Tom Snyder is the guy with whom I created a TV show called “Dr. Katz” for Comedy Central. And he’s a good friend who also lives in the neighborhood. And Tom Leopold who is the voice of my attorney, and I play a guy who’s both on death row and weight watchers, and Tom Leopold plays my attorney. And the three of us were hanging out in my home studio in Massachusetts, and we were recording many things that day and that was one of them. And one of the three of us will come up with the conceit like what about two guys who open up a venison only restaurant in NYC. Then we will record it and Tom will edit it to within an inch of its life. Because there’s no script we are just improvising. But have you gone to see live improv?
JK: Imagine how much funnier it would be if you could edit it. Well that’s what we did with “Dr. Katz” and that’s what we do with the kind of stuff we record now. Nothing magical but I guess the difference between public radio and comedy is that as a journalist – oh god I’m gonna sound so smug when I say this but I think this is true – that your responsibility is to keep things in a context. And as a comedian I try to hear things out of context.
BA: So you created these as radio pieces or for podcast?
JK: Just for our own amusement really. And we did a series of them under the name Inspired, and Inspired was a fake public radio show dedicated to exploring the creative mind.
BA: So then how did this turn into a short cartoon?
JK: Well I was approached by a guy named Mike Salva, who is an animator who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. And he had heard my audio on my… I do a podcast at WKATZ.com. I know it sounds like a radio station but it’s my name. And he had heard the audio there and asked my permission to animate it. And I said I’d be delighted.
BA: And so how did you feel about seeing the cartoon when it was finished?
JK: He did an amazing job. I think it makes it more fun to watch than just listen to it but I also think it succeeds as audio. But watching it is really interesting because my character has been drawn, my voice has been drawn as an animated character in many different ways and this is my favorite in recent years.
BA: What did you like about it?
JK: I’m kind of a fat blond guy. I’ve never been a blond. I’ve never been fat. And I’ve never been behind bars.
BA: You said you spent a lot of your life as an animated character so I was wondering if you could talk about your character Dr. Katz, which is probably how most people know you.
JK: It’s weird because my voice is much better known that my actual face. And my likeness is better known that both my face and my voice. Dr. Katz was just a wonderful convergence of the talents of Tom Snyder who understood how to create a world in which I could be funny. The brilliance of John Benjamin who played my son on the show who introduced me to a totally new form of comedy you know my background is stand up. And I still do stand up but with stand up comedy I can kind of see the jokes coming but what John Benjamin did in Dr. Katz I had no idea what this was or where it was coming from. It was just good. He taught me that I had the ability to improvise. Cause I didn’t really know that.
BA: Even though you were working in improv comedy?
JK: When I did stand up for the first fifteen years I would never stray from my act. I was too scared to try something new in front of a live audience and now when I get onstage it’s very hard to keep me on track.
BA: So when you were doing Dr. Katz were they scripted?
JK: We worked from an outline. In fact have you seen the show “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” well that’s the template that Larry David borrowed from us to use to make his show. He asked me one day he said, “Jonathon how do you get that very realistic dialogue?” And he went out to lunch with Tom and Tom explained to him that we worked from an outline and there’s no script, and he went on to use that template to create “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”
BA: How would you describe your character of Dr. Katz? He was a therapist, so what kind of a therapist would you say he was?
JK: Mediocre. I don’t actually think he ever helped any of his patience but that’s just therapy. He’s very punctual. I think he was caring. He tried. He was very easily distracted, which is not a good quality for a therapist. He had a very hard time staying on subject. And Dr. Katz was a guy who was manipulated by everybody including his receptionist who was played by Laura Silverman who is also wonderful.
BA: On your website you have information that you were diagnosed with M.S. and you talk a little bit about how that’s impacted your career and your sense of humor. So I was wondering if you could talk about that.
JK: Well you know I have an M.S. act cause when I talk about living with M.S. I can spend a half hour just talking about the funny parts. But ultimately it’s a disease and it’s not that funny but because I’m a comedian that’s what I do.
BA: Do you find that the humor helps you cope with it?
JK: It helps me I’m not sure it helps my wife. And it doesn’t help me when I’m talking to a doctor. I have a whole bunch of jokes about M.S. and some of them are better than others. But I’m not going to run through a list of jokes. It’s too boring. But I tell people that M.S. is worse than a cold and better than cancer. Which is true. It’s not a terminal illness. It’s just a life changing illness.
BA: Has it changed the kind of work that you’ve been able to do?
JK: Well I participate less in the physical world, I do more stuff online or on the radio although I am going to San Francisco in December to do a live gig and I really enjoy performing, I’m performing in front of a live audience tomorrow night in Cambridge. So I do like to work live I just have to pace myself when I do that.
BA: You’ve also done film work as well as one of your roles was in a favorite film of mine, "The Independent."
JK: Do you like that movie?
BA: I love that film and I find it very hard to track down. I thought that was brilliant.
JK: I’m so happy to hear that. How did you come to see it?
BA: I’m a film critic here in San Diego and I saw it when it played a single week here at our Ken Cinema. Just the list of titles for the films alone were worth the price of admission. So I thought the film was brilliant and inspired. So is film still something you’re pursuing in any way?
JK: You know my best and oldest friend is David Mamet so he will occasionally invite me to appear in a film.
BA: And you’ve worked with him as a writer as well.
JK: Yeah but mostly as an actor. We’ve written stuff together but I was in his movie “Things Change,” which is how Tom Snyder discovered I was his neighbor. He saw the movie and was drawn to my comedy and we became friends. Then I was in “Spanish Prisoner,” a movie called “Homicide.” And another one called “State and Main.” I co-wrote the story on which the movie, the screenplay, “House of Games” is based. But you could also say I was the guy bringing David the coffee while he was writing a movie. He’s such a prolific guy. Good writer.
BA: Do you have any other projects that you wanted to talk about?
JK: I’m working on a new TV show with Tom Snyder, an animated show and another animated show with my friend Bill Browdus and both in development, not at a network unfortunately both are in development in our homes. So it’s too soon to say you’ll be seeing them someday soon. I’m also working on a one man show called “Lists.” Cause I love making lists.
BA: You also wrote the book…
JK: Yes the "To Do Lists of the Dead."
BA: Will there be a sequel to that then. Well you know people keep dying. But I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I also have lists of the worst names for things. Like the worst name for a country singer would be Luke Warm. I also have and this is something I’ve been doing for years starting in the mid-eighties I established a home for troubled animals along with David Mamet in Medfield, MA. It’s philanthropic work that he and I do together. And we have a goose with Down Syndrome. It gets worse. A nervous tick. A praying mantis whose faith has been shaken. A substandard poodle.
BA: I can see this as an animated film.
JK: Oh my god the list. It’s endless.
BA: Jonathon I want to thank you for your time.
JK: Oh Beth thank you.
BA: My guest has been Jonathon Katz, and I’m Beth Accomando for KPBS.