When the animated series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist was canceled in 1999, its fans reacted with a natural hoarding instinct: They recorded the final marathons and braced themselves for a couple of Katz-less years. But scarcity soon turned to famine. While every other cartoon in the history of the world came out on DVD, Dr. Katz remained inexplicably locked in the Comedy Central vault. Ray Romano, Dr. Katz’s breakout guest star, passed through the entire sitcom life cycle: pilot, fame, reruns, DVD. Still no Dr. Katz. Fans got desperate. A grass-roots movement collected online signatures demanding a DVD. Bidding wars erupted on eBay over fuzzy home-recorded VHS versions of the complete series, then over even fuzzier DVDs copied from the VHS. (The show’s animation was shaky by design, and all the amateur video transfers threatened to blur it permanently out of existence.) Finally, last month, the suffering ended: 11 years after it originally aired, the first season of Dr. Katz came out on DVD.
Even after all this time, Dr. Katz continues to fill an important comic niche. Compared to Comedy Central’s current flagship shows—the fake-news hour, South Park—Katz is an oasis of good old-fashioned, apolitical, pre-9/11 detachment. It’s quiet, slow, and about as edgy as a pebble of sea glass. Its humor is relentlessly wry, droll, and self-conscious, and it grows out of mild domestic drama: playful living-room banter between a psychologist and his unemployed son, the son’s inept flirting with his father’s crabby secretary. In one episode, the son ruins his father’s car by driving all day with the emergency brake on then justifies it by saying that everyone has a different sense of “emergency.” Though Dr. Katz rarely makes you laugh out loud, it will take you to a place that American comedy too often ignores: It will keep you blissfully suspended, for hours, on the edge of laughter. While a good episode of South Park elicits a handful of stomach-pumping guffaws, Dr. Katz gives you one deep soul-suffusing smirk.
Dr. Katz is a monument to low-budget minimalism. The show was produced entirely in its creator’s house—animators in the living room, editors in the guest room, famous comedians in the pantry—and its visual signature was a cheap form of pseudo-animation called Squigglevision, in which everything wiggles constantly but nothing actually moves. The characters’ motion is limited to mouth-holes opening when they talk and eyes shifting to punctuate jokes; they never walk across rooms or lift barbells or wave to each other. (Pixar animators, I suspect, have nightmares in Squigglevision.) Tom Snyder, the show’s creator, says on a commentary track that “for every five people who hated it, we could find one person who didn’t mind it that much.”
The show emerged at the height of the Seinfeld era, when every standup comic was given a TV series along with a glass of water (a strategy that turned out some spectacular disasters). But Katz reversed this formula: Instead of building an entire series around one comedian, it stuffed as many comedians as possible into a single series.The show was an unabashed comedy parasite. This turned out to be a unique solution to TV writing’s chronic shortage of funny material, and it makes the DVD a kind of “Best of” anthology of mid-’90s standup. Roughly half of each episode consists of Dr. Katz’s so-called psychotherapy sessions, in which animated guest comedians, posing as patients, deliver their standup acts from the couch, complete with supplementary squiggly illustrations, while the doctor interjects serious hms and uh-huhs. The cartoon couch was admirably democratic: It cupped the wiggling animated buttocks of midrange working comics (Dom Irrera, Joy Behar) and big stars (David Duchovny, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) alike, and it made almost all of them seem funny. It was my first exposure to many big (or soon-to-be big) comedians: Jim Gaffigan, David Cross, Dave Chappelle, Mitch Hedberg (whose disjointed one-liners seemed to have been designed for the show).
Along with its squiggling, Dr. Katz’s most distinctive feature was its pace. It abandoned the 4/4 beat of the traditional sitcom—a comic metronome tapping steadily from I Love Lucy to Friends—in favor of a kind of free-form vocal jazz. It was one long exercise in comic timing. The dialogue is almost entirely improvised (instead of a script, the actors worked from a short outline), so there’s an authenticity of comic thought and rhythm that has rarely, if ever, been seen on television. The characters stutter and hesitate and talk over one another; they tell intentionally bad and mediocre jokes; they lapse into awkwardly long pauses. (This parody faithfully captures the risks of this method.) The cast—particularly Jonathan Katz, the seductively grouchy Laura Silverman (Sarah’s sister), and the nasally, wandering, scene-stealing H. Jon Benjamin—had the kind of chemistry that would have died at the first whiff of a prescreened, committee-written joke.
The Season 1 disc has only six episodes, but the DVD’s commentary tracks make up for the shortage. Instead of the usual stew of factoids, gossip, and random memories, the Katz commentary is an extension of the show’s aesthetic. The best of the tracks (with Katz, Benjamin, and Snyder) feature the same charmingly ironic improv as the show itself; they’re like new episodes of Dr. Katz about Dr. Katz. The comments are often completely unrelated to the episode running in the background: Jon Katz says that the “H” in H. Jon Benjamin stands for “Haffectation”; Snyder wonders if there’s some way to warn people on the DVD packaging not to pay full price for it; Benjamin gets distracted when gum melts on his teacup and when someone’s cell phone vibrates—and then he perseverates over the fact that he’s been forbidden, for copyright reasons, to sing on the commentary track and finally breaks into a lightning-speed, unrecognizable rendition of what he says is the Star Wars theme. (When he asks, “So, what was it like to work with me?” nobody answers.)
In short, re-watching Dr. Katz made me happy—maybe even a little happier because I had to wait so long for it. At this rate, I’ll be unable to contain my ecstasy when Season 2 is released in the summer of 2018 (when it’ll be the perfect diversion from the tedious intergalactic robot civil wars).