Have you ever noticed that a comedian on a talk-show couch sounds an awful lot like a patient on an analyst's couch?
Fortunately, Jonathan Katz did. He and his collaborators turned that peculiar insight into the basis of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, an Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning animated series that ran on Comedy Central from 1995 through 1999. Much of the sophisticated sitcom consists of the cartoon therapist (voiced by Jonathan Katz) sitting in his office as cartoon patients rest on his couch and talk about their lives.
"I remember the first time I had sex," comedian Bill Braudis tells the doctor, "because I kept the receipt." Dr. Katz's other patients are voiced by comedians, too, and what they say in their TV therapy sessions is often straight from their acts. In fact, as each episode is coming to an end, we hear the tones of a piano, which was once the universal signal that a talk-show guest was running too long.
"Whoops, you know what the music means," says Dr. Katz at the end of each episode, sounding not unlike Johnny Carson. "Our time is up."
Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist — Season One, which is just out on DVD, contains only six episodes (five with audio commentary), plus a few short extras. It's not a lot of material, but every episode is hilarious. Jonathan Katz is a very smart, very dry comedian who (like that other TV shrink, Bob Newhart) stammers well and knows how bring out the best in his patients. In season one, these include, in addition to Braudis, Ray Romano, Joy Behar, Wendy Liebman, Dom Irrera, Dave Attell, Laura Kightlinger, Anthony Clark, Andy Kindler and Larry Miller.
"I would tell people, comedians, that anything they say to the audience, they could say to their therapist," explains Jonathan Katz on an audio commentary. "It's just the exchange of money is different."
When I refer to this show as animated, I'm speaking loosely. The characters' eyes and mouths do move, but practically nothing else does. An illusion of animation is created by canny editing and by the perpetually shifting outlines of the characters' bodies, a quirky technique that Katz and co-creator Tom Snyder (not the talk-show host) dubbed Squigglevision.
"This is the most minimal kind of animation anyone has ever seen," says Snyder (on another commentary), who also wrote the catchy jazz lines that help to pace the show's comedy and whose pantry served as the first season's ad-hoc recording studio.
Dr. Katz is a lot more than those therapy sessions. Much of it involves the often-improvised interaction among the good doctor; his surly receptionist, Laura (brilliantly voiced by Laura Silverman); his slacker son, Ben (H. Jon Benjamin, also brilliant), who has an unrequited crush on Laura; and a couple of other characters. An unsentimental but genuinely touching father-son relationship emerges as the heart of the series. I'd like to say more about it … but you know what the music means.