Interview: Jonathan Katz, Stand-Up Comedian

Filed Under Interview, Stand-Up Comedy

Stand-up comic Jonathan KatzJonathan Katz loves jokes. And he cannot resist making them. He’s best known for Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, an animated comedy that was the only reason to watch Comedy Central prior to South Park. But he’s been a performer for more than twenty five years, first as a musician and then gravitating to the Boston comedy scene. In 1997, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He often describes it with a typical lightness: ‘‘I have two incurable diseases. I’m a comedian, and I have MS. And neither of them is getting a lot better.”

His first CD Caffeinated plays as a sort of greatest hits, putting together pieces from more than twenty years of performance into a seamless package. (The track “Three Hobbies” has three of the funniest prank calls I’ve ever heard.) I talked to Jonathan Katz about his beginnings in the Boston Comedy scene, Dr. Katz’s legacy to stand-up comedy and how the media expects someone with MS to behave.

One of the things that you joke about with your comedy is how it’s not for everyone. But is there a certain pride that you have in that?

Well, yeah. I think what I do is a try to give the audience as little information as they need to get the joke. And if they don’t get the joke, it’s not the right audience.

I guess it’s a kind of a snobbery. I’m not saying I won’t let them into to the show. But I’m challenging them to pay attention.

You would want more people to get you if they could.

I think there the Jerry Seinfeld model. He created a kind of comedy that appeals to such a broad audience up to and including Asians. (laughs) I don’t know what that means. He works with such a broad audience and he’s at least as clever as I am, if not more.

And then there’s somebody like a guy named Robert Shakes, who I quote all the time but nobody ever heard of because he died before he turned 40 of a heart attack. He did jokes that you really had to pay attention to. Steven Wright is in that category. Steven Wright could have found a broader audience. But instead of finding a broader audience, he went out and found the people who love him. And eventually they started looking for him.

I’ve heard you describe yourself as a comedian in an accountant body. You say it like it’s a curse, but do you think it helps you create surprise in audiences who don’t expect what you say to come from you.

I described myself that way after working in Boston for a few years where there was a shortage of bald, Jewish comedians. Not the case in New York, but in Boston I was following these very energetic wild zany guys. Guys like Kevin Meaney, Steve Sweeney, Don Gavin, Lenny Clarke.

Would you say Boston’s more of working class comedy town in that regard?”

Yeah. Working class is an apt description. Denis Leary came out of this scene. Paula Poundstone, also a very eclectic comedian. Somebody’s who’s been making me laugh for years. But she also struggled working in Boston.

When I was performing these one-nighters in Boston, I always felt I was dressed in a tutu performing for pirates. That’s just how I felt. They would look up at me and I would not be what they had in mind. They wanted to be titillated. They wanted to be insulted. They wanted to be a part of the show.

But so many of those people – Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone and yourself – did well enough there to thrive nationally. It was supportive enough to allow some diversity.

I made my debut on the David Letterman show, which was really my debut on national television, in 1985. And then move to Massachusetts the next day. So it’s a very weird career. And the reason I stay in the national scene has to do as much with Dr. Katz as stand-up comedy. I became a regular on Letterman, on Tonight Show and on Politically Incorrect, but it was Dr. Katz that kept me in the eye of America.

But Dr. Katz has such a strong connection with stand-up in many ways.

Thank you for reminding me. I had forgotten about that. (laughs) Seriously, I do forget about that occasionally.

If you think about it, a lot of the popular comedians today like Attell and Hedburg and Chappelle, the first time many people heard their stand-up material was on Dr. Katz.

Ray Romano said to me that before his show that Dr. Katz was the most heat he ever had as a comedian. And heat of course is something you never hear surgeons talking about. You never hear about a good gastroenterologist who had a lot of heat. (laughs)

How do you feel about that legacy? Because I found a lot of YouTube clips which show a lot of these comics and I was struck by how many of them I had first seen there.

It is an interesting introduction for stand-up comedy because there’s the brick wall and there’s Dr. Katz. I’m very proud of that show and I have to share the credit for that with Tom Snyder, who’s my friend and collaborator who had already achieved enormous success in educational software when Dr. Katz began. Comedy was his hobby. Still is. He happened to be a very funny guy who’s a scientist.

I want to talk about multiple sclerosis for a little bit. In that, a lot of comedians take a dark experience that they use but it still seems like it swallowed them. You can hear the pain still. But when you talk about MS, you keep it light. And it fascinates me because he seems you can tough something like that but not let it eat you.

That’s a nice way to put it. For a couple of years I had a literary agent who was getting me to write a book about living with MS. And I spent the first year naming the book. I had names like “Moby Dick 2.” I wanted to capitalize on the success of the first one.

And my favorite name, and this is what I think scared her away, was “Finding the Disease That’s Right For You.” Because she’s thinks it’s a little too cavalier. Not everybody who has MS finds it that funny. I don’t find it that funny. But I decided not to write a book about living with MS, it’s enough to live with it. (laughs)

What people expect out of you is for you to be more confessional about it.

I saw Teri Garr on Larry King Live about a year ago. And she called me up and she said, “All he wants is me crying and telling how awful my life is. And it’s really not that bad.” And she’s somebody who… first of all, she’s a woman in Hollywood, which sucks cause she’s over 40. And she was a movie star and she has MS. She’s more disabled than I am. Not to mention that she had a brain aneurysm which has nothing to do with MS.  But she didn’t want to get on his show and cry.

Isn’t there a point… I’m asking this as an interviewer, of course. Isn’t there a point that there’s a level of privacy about it?

It’s true. It is kind of personal. The guy I was writing this book with about living with MS is also a comedian. A guy named Bill Braudis. Really funny guy. And he said to me, “There’s got to be something bad about it.”

I guess that’s what people expect. They want you to put that weight on it.

Well, adversity sells. Adversity really sells.

One of the things I discover from reading interviews with you and listening to the CD, is that you seem to fall in love with jokes. That there’s some jokes you can’t seem to resist making. Do you find it hard to let go of a joke that you love even when you can’t find others who love it as much?

That’s why comedians travel. To find those people. That doesn’t really apply to that question.

I do have a hard time letting go of a joke. There’s one joke that I finally have let go of because it just didn’t appeal to enough people. I’ll tell it to you. You know the expression, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. Well now they can make him drink. Those Japanese.”

I think that joke would have worked pretty well in the 80s when the Japanese were rising.

It doesn’t. It works so rarely that joke. I finally gave it up.

At some point you can ignore the audience as long as you want. But you’re the guy out there telling the joke. Because even if you’re right, it doesn’t feel good.

Last year I was talking to Stephen Wright and he has a procedure where he tells it three or four times and if it doesn’t work, it gets discarded.

This guy I was talking about, Ronnie Shakes. He’d go out on stage and he’d tell a joke. And if it didn’t work, he’d tell the same joke immediately with a different punchline. He really used the clubs in New York like a Gold’s gymnasium for comedians.

How many of those would he have?

He’d go up on stage with a clipboard and a list of jokes. Check them off after he did them. I have to tell you his most famous joke. I’m sure you heard this: “I’ve been in therapy for twelve years and yesterday my shrink said something that brought tears to my eyes. No habla ingles.”(laughs)

He was a real wordsmith of a comedian. Johnny Carson loved him.

With a lot of comedy moving outside of clubs today, it seems to me you would have found your audience more easily in this era in alternative venues. Do you think comedy clubs restrict what you can do or are they more flexible than people give them credit?

Well, I think just the word Comedy on the name of the venue, it kind of creates unrealistic expectations. I know I’m a comedian, you know I’m a comedian, so why do we have to say the word comedy. Carson used to make fun of the names of these clubs. It was a standard bit of him. “He’ll be performing at Yuk-Yuks.” Anything with the word comedy scared me away.

There’s a little bit of deconstructing stand-up when you’re working the room on the CD. You even talk a little about being uncomfortable with it.

Well, here’s the deal. I used to ask the audience to heckle me. And the first guy would always, because I’m bald, make some bald joke. And I would always say, “Maybe you’d like to explain to your friends here what you find so comical about chemotherapy.” (laughs) “I didn’t think so, Mr. Smarty-Pants, Mr. Clever Trousers, Mr. Adroit Slacks.”

And then that got old. Then I developed the notion that I’m the guy with the mic. I’m in the guy with the timing. I’m sort of in charge. And I kind of like interacting with the audience now. I just control a bit more than most people do.

What was funny about it is you were kind of doing the magician’s secrets while you were doing it. You talk about how you have a bit for everything.

Oh yeah. We ask you where you’re from. We ask what you do for a living. Because we have a comeback for every profession.

And then you reverse it, which is wonderful.

That’s something I’ve been doing… I can do it in my sleep that put together bit. I think the thing that’s true is when I say I’m not a natural comedian, even on a good night people would say to me, “You make it look so hard.” Because I’m not a natural comedian. Although I do love to make jokes.

Why would you say that? Because that may not be obvious to someone who’s enjoyed your stand-up and watched Dr. Katz?

Pretend for a second that you own a comedy club. And that the biggest night of the year is New Year’s Eve. Nobody ever asked me to work on New Year’s Eve because I’m not festive. Maybe that’s what I mean. There’s nothing festive about me.

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