Nearly 20 years after the original six-season run of “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist” ended, Jonathan Katz will take up the character again Sunday in an online format, providing a sympathetic ear to guests Gary Gulman, Tom Papa, Aparna Nancherla, the Sklar Brothers, and Erica Rhodes, with Laura Silverman returning to play his sarcastic secretary, Laura.
Comedy Central aired the animated “Dr. Katz” from 1995 to 2002, and in the years since the character has stuck around in the form of some bonus episodes of the show, a boxed set, “Dr. Katz: The Audiobook” in 2018, and numerous live shows, including several over the past year.
Katz, who lives in Newton, is happy audiences still enjoy seeing him play the character and that comedians still line up for a session on his couch. “I get fan mail from people who have become therapists because of ‘Dr. Katz,’ who have sought help because of ‘Dr. Katz,’” he says. “People have just laughed themselves silly for years. People in this country, in New Zealand, in Mesopotamia, ancient Greece.”
He jokes he’s a little envious that Dr. Katz is more successful than the real Jonathan Katz. “I was talking to my shrink about that, who wants to be my manager,” he says. “That’s so weird. I talk to my shrink about show business.”
So he talks to his real therapist about his claim to fame as a fictional therapist? “Yeah,” he says, “and also my music career. She thinks I should pursue that more seriously. And she’s never heard my music.”
Katz’s comedy isn’t deadpan so much as it is stealth comedy. It’s sometimes hard to tell when he’s setting up a punch line until it passes. In a recent RushTix show, he started a casual line of conversation with Dave Attell about smoking, after the comedian lit a cigarette. Katz wistfully mentioned that he missed the smell of cigarette smoke because his mother had the habit. “She smoked three packs of Camels every day for 30 years,” he said, “died of lung cancer, smoked for another three months.”
He’s also fond of trying to sell a cheesy old joke, sometimes telling it more than once. After a while, it’s not the joke that’s funny as much as Dr. Katz’s confidence he can get the laugh if he just tries harder. In one online show, he told the old chestnut, “How do you make a Venetian blind? Poke him in the eye.” He told it in more than one segment, even insisting to his son Ben (played by H. Jon Benjamin) that it might be the best joke of all time. Then he tried it again on guest Dom Irrera.
“I used to say that Jonathan had a special talent for getting away with really corny jokes and having them be hilarious,” says Silverman. “And that’s a special talent, to be able to take something that’s like a commonplace failure and make it a tremendous success.”
Silverman believes audiences and comedians are still drawn to Dr. Katz because of that subtle and unique sense of humor. “It’s got its own sort of cadence and rhythm that I think is almost soothing,” she says. “It’s also just a brilliant format for bringing comics and having them get kind of real and raw, and be in character as their stage character, which is very close to who they are.”
Gulman remembers watching the show when he was just starting out in the Boston comedy scene in 1995, dreaming that someday he might have the chance to improvise with Dr. Katz. The original show was an important resource for him to see comics do material in the days before stand-up was streaming on Netflix and YouTube. “I’ve been friendly with Jon for several years now, but I have never been able to interact with him in that persona,” he says. “It’s a little bit surreal for me, because it’s one of those things that I fantasized about and now I’m getting to do.”
This will also be a rare chance to see Gulman on a Zoom comedy show. He doesn’t enjoy doing comedy without the immediate feedback of a live audience, so he hasn’t performed stand-up on the format. Being able to interact with Dr. Katz is a different animal. “I’ll just be able to concentrate on what he’s giving me,” says Gulman.
The danger for Katz is that he sometimes takes his role too seriously, which started in the original run of the “Dr. Katz” series. “One of the production partners called me up and said, ‘Jonathan, you know, you’re allowed to be funny, too,’” remembers Katz. “And that was such a relief. Because I had been the straight man for about three years.”
All these years later, he still loves talking to comedians in character. But he has to remember it’s just a character. “I still have the same problem I had in the cartoon and with this live show,” he says. “I think I can actually help them. I’m a nice guy, you know? And I am curious about people. That’s different than being a shrink. I should come with a disclaimer: I can’t really help you.”
DR. KATZ LIVE
March 28, 8 p.m. Tickets: $20, www.rushtix.com/events/dr-katz/