If it seems like “alternative” comedy has taken over popular television in recent years – think the absurd and kitsch humor of Bob’s Burgers, or the cringe-inducing awkwardness of Curb Your Enthusiasm – it’s largely due to Dr. Katz creator Tom Snyder, and the show’s namesake, comedian Jonathan Katz. Dr. Katz revolutionized what an animated comedy could be. Snyder used what he dubbed “retro-scripting,” in which the voice actors would improvise together in the sound booth, with something resembling a “plot” edited together after-the-fact, to craft the hilarious dialog of the show. The show also served as a an early platform for dozens of comedians who would go on to become household names, like Louis C.K., Ray Romano, and Jon Stewart. I spoke to Tom and Jonathan about their continued collaborations and Tom’s newest production, Is Anyone All Right?, an original musical he scripted and composed which is currently available as an audio play on Audible.
Jonathan, as a comic in the “boom ” of the 1990s, at the beginning of “alternative” comedy, what do you make of the stand up boom of the last decade?
Jonathan Katz: Yeah, I guess now I’m in the middle of my second comedy boom. One in the nineties, and now another one. But in the nineties, there was a time when one out of three Americans was working as a stand up comedian. You could walk into Bloomingdales and say, “Where do you find men’s shoes?” And the guy would say, “On men’s feet, sparky.” There were out of work comedians. There were too many of us. Is that called a dearth, or a plethora, or neither?
That’s a plethora. A dearth is a lack.
Jonatha Katz: Hey, speaking of lacks, do you know who Laxmi Singh is?
Tom Snyder: The public radio newscaster, right?
JK: Yeah. Well, every time she says this is Lakshmi Singh, I say, “Laksh-ME Singh.” [Snyder laughs]
JK: I think the boom that’s happening now has more to do with sketch comedy than stand up.
There are a lot more platforms for sketch comedy now, certainly. When you started Dr. Katz on Comedy Central, there weren’t these other channels – IFC, FX, Adult Swim – producing original shows. Have you thought about pitching new content to any networks?
JK: We think about it a lot…
TS: Every day, every day…
JK: And then we think about something else.
TS: Animation is a lot more expensive than just doing live action [television]. I think it’s incredibly unfun to watch, because everyone is using exactly the same tool to create their animation – it’s all done in a program called Flash. And it all looks the same. The same movements, textures, everything. I’m honestly surprised there hasn’t been more blowback within the industry. Unless, of course, you’re going all the way up to Pixar, or something like that and doing really expensive stuff.
You’ve used different animation techniques in your various series – for example, in Explosion Bus, you use more of a storyboard style. What goes into those creative decisions?
TS: What we tried to do is hire really good storyboard drawers. For example, any movie that’s come out, for a couple thousand bucks you can find the storyboards for it, and it is fantastic. It’s better than the movie, just flipping through them. So we hired this woman from the midwest. She was very sweet. I told her, “I want you to be your own director and story boarder and I’ll flash those images up. So she heard Jonathan Katz speaking on the audio I sent, and she sent a picture of a guy who looked like Superman, basically.
JK: Wasn’t everybody too attractive?
TS: Everyone was incredibly attractive. Jon looked like Brad Pitt –
JK: And he means a young Brad Pitt, by the way.
TS: So I said, “Not him. Maybe more ethnic.” And she said, “What do you mean by ethnic,” and I said, “Well, maybe Jewish,” and she said, “Oh, with a big nose?” And I said, “Y’know, I can’t hear you very well!” And so I found a guy who was doing storyboards, and he got more elaborate – he started adding motion and everything. But I thought an animated storyboard would be killer.
JK: But The Explosion Bus really went through a couple of new incarnations – the first one, all the artwork was done by Bob Kehoe.
TS: Yes, the first season.
JK: And that was more gestures than animation. Tom is very conscious of the kind of gestures that people use, and if you look at the first season of The Explosion Bus, nobody’s mouth is moving, it’s just about the gestures they make.
TS: Right, and I preferred it, in a way, because it was very painterly. But it was taking him longer, when I thought this style would take less time. And then we converted to real animation, and it went faster, and I don’t know why. Animation is a really hard animal to wrestle if you’re trying to do it cheaply, and Jon and I were producing it ourselves.
With reference to Dr. Katz, why did you choose the therapist platform? Why did you include his family life in addition to the therapy sessions?
TS: The deal was that we had access to comedians. Who doesn’t love a joke? There were thousands of jokes that we had access to that were from very funny people like Ray Romano and Don Gavin. I would say – maybe this is true for you Jon – that our favorite part of crafting the show was the relationship principally between Jon and his son, then Jon, his son, and the secretary, and then Jon, his son, the secretary, and the bartender, Julie. Who am I leaving out, Jon?
JK: Well, Stanley. But by far, my relationship with Jon Benjamin was the most fun for me. And then Laura.
TS: I don’t know if you remember this, Jon – and I’ll use codenames for this story – but there was a very sweet review of the show on the Today Show –
JK: Tom, if you’re going to use codenames, can I be Bird of Prey?
TS: Who did you call me earlier today?
JK: Oh, “Senator.”
TS: Yeah, I’ll be Senator. So we knew that we wanted B and C stories in addition to the therapist work with the comedians. And when Jon Benjamin came in, he was with Laura, who was his girlfriend, and we were recording it at my house in Cambridge, in Boston. And Jon and his girlfriend lived in Cambridge, so they came over. The first role we had him try out for was Jon’s father. And he did the father, and I wish I had that tape, it was incredible. He was screaming at the top of his lungs.
JK: We even had my father try out for the role of my father. He couldn’t quite nail it, oddly enough.
TS: And then we said [to Jon Benjamin], “Try playing his son.” And it clicked like crazy. It was just wonderful.
And how did Laura get involved?
TS: Well, we knew she was going to be a rude secretary, because every time Jon had ever talked to her on the phone, she was extremely rude.
JK: Yeah, I would call to talk to Jon Benjamin, and she wouldn’t even identify herself – she’d say, “Do you want to leave a message.” She was just really abrupt. We became friends before Dr. Katz, because we both worked on a very low budget film together which Jon Benjamin wrote with his friend Chuck Sklar. And obviously we became friends during the production of our show, and we remained friends.
TS: It’s like a father-son thing still. That’s what it feels like when I see you guys together.
You recently did a live, staged revival of Dr. Katz with Laura Silverman.
JK: Yeah, we did one in San Francisco at the Sketchfest. And not this year, but the year before, I’ve been doing a scaled-down version of that in different festivals, where I do some stand up and then I walk over to the set of Dr. Katz. But the one you’re talking about had Tom at the piano playing my therapist, and it was wonderful because at one point a comedian named Ron Funches – a very big, huggable guy. And at one point he was doing therapy with his head on Tom’s lap.
TS: Yeah, that was fun. How many live Dr. Katz‘s have we done?
JK: We’ve done probably a dozen – in New York, at Gotham [Comedy Club], we did it in Summerville, Massachusetts. We did it in LA.
TS: We did it in Aspen, for the comedy festival.
JK: Right, that was the first time we did it, in Aspen, Colorado. With Larry Miller and Janeane Garofolo, I think. And that was done by a production team called Moffett-Lee, who produced comedy specials.
TS: Yeah, there were actually light cues.
How do the live shows differ from the original series? Do the comedians respond better with an audience, compared to the animated version of Dr. Katz where they’re performing to, essentially, silence?
JK: Well, before I answer that, I want to talk about a comedian named Lou Schneider who I worked with recently, who was on the show. And talking about a certain kind of joke you could tell on Dr. Katz that you couldn’t tell on stage. He did a joke on the show about the first guy who was ever sarcastic, what that must have been like. And that’s a joke that he felt uncomfortable doing on stage, but it worked perfectly in Dr. Katz. It’s from the point of view of a caveman, and his cavewoman asked if he was hungry, and he said, “Absolutely not. Wait, no, I’m being something.”
TS: Yeah, she says to him, “Why are you saying you’re not when you are?” And he says, “I don’t know. I’m being…something.” You asked a very good question, though – if only you had been working for us back in the 90s when we did Dr. Katz. We would put comedians in the sound booth and it was quiet on the set, and we’d have them do their stuff. And then we redesigned the whole studio with a bar in it, and with couches and chairs, and figured out a system where we could have an open microphone out in the studio that was going to the comedians headphones but not on the recorded track, because they hated doing a joke and having nobody laugh. Especially in the beginning, we had a lot of male comedians. And they couldn’t stand not hearing female voices laughing at them. And my company at that point was about 170 people – we would invite anybody who was a generous laugher to come downstairs to the studio when people came in, and it really changed the show dramatically. It’s something I’ve been using ever since, making sure the comedians can hear laughter. But every time we went into a recording studio, which we had to do occasionally in LA or New York to get certain comedians, I’d say to the engineer, “I want them to be able to hear me, the engineer, any people I bring, laughing.” And they’d say, “But the sound would bleed right over,” and I’d say, “It’s not that complicated. Figure it out.”
JK: You got that right, Senator.
TS: Thank you, Pocahontas.
What was the inspiration behind creating a therapist who interviews comedians?
JK: If you’ve ever been to therapy, you know that there’s very little you can’t say. And so I thought, “There’s nothing you can say to an audience that you can’t say to a therapist.”
TS: And the other reason we used therapy is because that’s what I pitched to Comedy Central. I had hired a waitress as an illustrator for my company for other stuff, and I had written and gotten audio for the show, so I told her, “You draw the pictures and I’ll animate them for you.” And we did it in two days. I think that’s why Comedy Central bought it, because of the obvious connection between therapy and comedy. It would be hard to imagine any of the comedians I’ve seen in the last twenty years who haven’t been in therapy.
JK: I mean, Dr. Katz‘s patients – I think two of them kill themselves, and one of them dies of natural causes. But that has nothing to do with mental health.
TS: That is not your fault, Jon.
JK: And we had one couples’ therapy where one of the guys died. We had a gay couple on the show and one of them had AIDS, and they were incredibly funny, but we never released it because the fellow died about a week after. I wanted to put it on so much, but we couldn’t.
Do you have any plans to release it? Or are you withholding it out of respect?
TS: Well, it wasn’t out of respect, because the survivor got in touch with me and said, “Please put it on.” And there was a young man who worked for me who was embarrassed by sentiments, and I was giving him a lot of authority as I was training him, and he was dead set against it because he thought it was maudlin. And I thought, “Are you kidding me?” Do you still remember the joke that they told, Jon?
TS: They were very open about the fact that the fellow had AIDS, like a lot of gay people were in the nineties, because the epidemic was just so awful. And he said he had just been out shopping for an urn, and they said that they returned it because they felt that it made him look a little big in the hips.
Dr. Katz features mostly comedians, but as the seasons progress, you’ve had a few dramatic actors as patients. How did you connect with guest stars on the show? Did you put together the season before you knew all of the featured actors, or did you wait until you secured guest stars to write?
TS: We started with outlines every time.
JK: I always thought of the show as kind of modular. One segment could fit into almost any episode, especially the scenes that were happening between the regulars. But the comedians could fit into really any episode.
TS: Is it fair to say, or is it dangerous to say, Jon, that having dramatic actors on was not as satisfying as comedians because they weren’t funny.
JK: Well I think that was certainly the case with – I’m not going to use her actual name, but I’ll use her Indian name, which is Winona. But we had Jeff Goldblum, who’s a very famous actor, on the show, and he was very funny.
TS: Yeah, he was great.
For those bigger guest stars, did they approach you about being on the show, or did you reach out to them?
TS: We approached them at the beginning, and then I had a whole person dedicated solely to reviewing tapes – this was back in the VHS days. Then it flipped around, where management was calling us with Rodney Dangerfield or Joan Rivers, people that we weren’t thinking of at all.
JK: Gary Shandling was an exciting one.
TS: Whoopi Goldberg requested to be on the show.
JK: And Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
TS: That’s true. I don’t think we put Whoopi on, though. That’s considered the lost episode, it didn’t work.
JK: Is that true? I know she wasn’t funny on the show.
TS: Well, she’s not really a comedian. I know she used to do stand up, but – and this is just between us – if you go back and look at her stand up, she imitated valley girls. That was her whole act. It seems impossible, but I am not exaggerating one bit. She did her whole act as a teenage valley girl. Which reminds me of Joe Piscopo, who could do Frank Sinatra impressions, but was’t actually funny.
In the production of Dr. Katz, you recorded the voice actors in the studio together, rather than at separate times, so that they could improvise off of each other. Do you think the show’s improvised dialog and audio serves as a precursor to the now-ubiquitous comedy podcast?
JK: I think it was a precursor to Curb Your Enthusiasm.
TS: Well that’s for sure, yeah. They actually sort of borrowed our technique of outlining. The scenes between Jon and the other regulars – Jon Benjamin, Laura, and Julie – were really just putting people in a booth. One difference, though, is that we used this technique that we dubbed “retro-scripting,” because Jon and Jon Benjamin might have a ten-minute conversation that was all over the map, and we weren’t trying to make it sound like a really lovely panel on a talk show of very funny people making each other laugh. We were trying to make it sound like a real father-son conversation. The magic there, I have to say – it sounds immodest, but it was in the editing after the fact and making it sound like the conversation had a direction.
JK: Tom, why do you say immodest? Who did the editing?
JK: Oh, okay.
TS: Finally I handed it off to the young employees.
JK: They say that editing is a young man’s job.
TS: I guess I’m in the wrong job, because I’m still doing it. When I recorded my audio musical, I used that exact same technique of bringing people in for music. The whole thing was done in the studio, nothing was done on the stage, but it sounds like a staged musical.
Do you think fans of your other work will like your audio musical Is Anyone All Right?
TS: All I know is that Jon and I always do projects together, and I didn’t want to do a project without Jon, because he always brought that very gentlemanly, sweet and sly sensibility. I do remember there was a review of Dr. Katz – do you remember this one, Jon? It was probably in ’97 or ’98 – that said, “This show is dry as a cracker.” I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was almost a criticism of how dry it was.
JK: The people really loved it because of the tone of the show. And I think anything that Tom and I do will have a similar tone. But we should really talk about the musical.
TS: Jon, isn’t that a little bit self-promotional of you?
JK: [Starts humming music] Actually, my daughter a little while ago asked me what I thought the three ingredients of a great musical are, and my answer was, “Great music, a great story, and an emotional story.” And she added, “music that goes with the story.” And I think that Tom has created all of those things in the work he’s doing. Do you have a working title for the show?
TS: Well, it’s out, Jon.
JK: So the title’s out working right now.
TS: It’s working as hard as it can.
JK: Mine didn’t come with a title, the one you sent me.
TS: That’s because I just sent you an audio file. Don’t take this the wrong way, Jon, but I thought you were too lazy to go online and buy it.
JK: What is the title of the musical?
TS: Is Anyone All Right?
What inspired you to write a musical? Had you written music before?
TS: When I was a teenager, I actually had a recording contract with Capitol Records. I was out there with a band, then we came to New York and I worked a bunch of years in New York. In fact, it’s a coincidence I never worked in the studio Jon ran at the time. We didn’t know each other. I’ve been a musician my whole life, and I wrote and performed the music in Dr. Katz. Home Movies, we got Brendon Small, who could write his own music. He did more contemporary stuff, and I did more R&B, Sting stuff that could be used in transitions. I’m an obsessive songwriter. I’ve written a couple for Jon – sing them! Sing them!
JK: [singing] Names, I just love to drop ’em/ Fame’s what you get from dropping/ Names of the folks who live in LA. Yes indeed, I was having lunch with Jeffrey Katzenberg by the way – he sends his best to you…
TS: And you…
Both: And you…
TS: I actually love that kind of show tune, and I started writing them for Jonathan after Dr. Katz was done. Jon was in one of the musicals I was putting up as a staged reading in Boston. I was only hiring people this time who were young, in their twenties, and professional singers.
JK: [singing] I tell incredible lies…
TS: That was the other one!
JK: I had a band – you probably remember it, how old were you in the 1980s, Arielle?
TS: She wasn’t born.
Yeah, my parents had just graduated college at that point.
JK: Well, they probably remember a band called Cats and Jammers, especially if they’ve been to my home. Nobody knows Cats and Jammers. But Tom’s band was a legitimately popular band.
How and why did you make the transition from music to animation?
TS: Well, after the band broke up when I was in my 20s, I started teaching to get any gig, because I was poor. And while I was teaching, I started writing musicals for students. Every year I’d put on a musical. Then I bought myself a computer and started an educational software company. Then I made that little squiggle thing [“Squigglevision” animation], and I started doing that. So I’ve had many different career shifts. And I sold all of those companies back in 2000, and since then I’ve been playing around with writing musicals for stage and apparently for Audible.com, now.
JK: There’s probably a good chance that in your education, Arielle, that you used a piece of software created by Tom Snyder Productions, because they sold only to schools. You probably learned about math from them, or maybe you learned it from your parents. But if you didn’t, maybe you learned it from the software Tom created.
You won an award for your contributions to education, Tom.
TS: I did, I won one of those lifetime achievement awards, which I think they give you right before you die. So I rushed right out and had everything checked out – turns out I’m good, I’m okay.
Are there any plans to do a staged production of Is Anyone All Right?
TS: It’s interesting. I see shows in New York and Boston all the time, and I noticed that a lot of the shows are based on books or movies that they have the rights to, and then they convert it into a show. And I thought, “Well, instead of pitching a show to Broadway, I’ll write a book that I have the rights to.” And then I thought, “Well, if I’m writing a book, I might as well make the whole musical.” And so that’s what I did. Is Anyone All Right? is my pitch to stages all around the country.
Do you two have any plans to work together in the future?
TS: Yeah, we have something underway right now that I’m just pitching to producers. We’ve done some test recordings. It would be live action, and Jonathan would be the host of it, so that gives you a hint at what kind of show it is. I don’t want to give away exactly what it is. But it will have comedians on it.
And it’s going to be a television series?
TS: That’s still to be determined – I don’t know if I want to go through the bullshit of working with a network, or the bullshit of working on the internet. Pick your poison. As cool as the internet is, it’s really hard to get traction without paying for an awful lot of social media promotion. Long form is difficult on the web, but you’re kind of selling your soul when you give it to a network. When Comedy Central saw the first episode of Dr. Katz, they asked us to do it again. And we refused, and it went on within that year to win an Emmy. You have to have so much…I don’t want to say balls, what’s a better word?
TS: Yeah, daily.
You worked with Jon Benjamin really early on as a voice actor – what do you make of his current success in the medium on shows like Archer and Bob’s Burgers?
TS: The guy who produced Bob’s Burgers was an intern at my company, Loren Bouchard. And I taught him in the third grade. And the fourth. And the fifth. And the sixth. And then his mom died, and he was kind of just kicking around, and he and I got back together again, I really loved him. I think Jon Benjamin’s fame is so well-deserved. I think he’s one of the most interesting, natural comedic talents I’ve ever met. I’ve never seen the like of him, ever.
JK: Have you heard his jazz CD?
No, I haven’t.
JK: He doesn’t know how to play the piano, so it’s his debut as a jazz pianist, but he’s very upfront about not knowing how to play, but he performs with professional jazz musicians.
Tom, did your career as a teacher inspire the plot of Home Movies, which takes place in an elementary school?
TS: No, because after Loren had helped produced Dr. Katz and Science Court and a bunch of other things, it was time for him to create his own show, and I remember the way I put it to him is, “You have to go out and get a crush on a comedian.” And so he went to the local comedy bar in Harvard Square. What’s it called?
JK: The Comedy Studio.
TS: The Comedy Studio in Harvard Square, and found Brendon Small. So Loren got all excited and brought me the entire idea for that. The only thing that I was excited about was using Home Movies as a metaphor for adult life. But that’s really Loren’s baby. I was a producer on it, but it was really fun working with a lot of people who cut their teeth on Dr. Katz. Especially in this town, there are so many people who are in animation and production that got their start with Jon and me.
JK: I was moonlighting during Dr. Katz – I played the role of Joey in Friends. I’m a fan of Friends. I love Matt LeBlanc. He’s from Newton, Massachusetts.
What’s the current comedy scene like in Boston? Why did you decide to stay there instead of moving to New York or LA, where there’s perhaps more fertile ground for new productions?
TS: Because we didn’t want to, right?
JK: Yeah, I grew up in New York and I lived there for many years, but my wife is from Newton and when our oldest daughter was two-and-a-half years old, we got out of New York, and we haven’t looked back since. Newton, Massachusetts is a great place to bring up kids. If you have any kids, I’ll bring ’em up for you. Raising children since 1981.
Did you primarily use Boston actors for the cast of Is Anyone Alright?
TS: Well, one of the singers is from Toronto, and because Boston has a lot of great music schools and talent schools, I have one person from Emerson, two people from Boston Conservatory. Mostly local, but the woman who plays Antoinette, who has the Irish accent, she’s from Toronto. But it was all done in my studio in Boston.
JK: How did you connect with the woman from Toronto?
TS: I found her on an online site. To hold auditions, I put stuff out there on bulletin boards and I said, “Do me a favor – take the song from [the musical] Oklahoma” – they had a song, “People Will Say We’re In Love.” I said, “Call me up at this number and sing a capella,” and the song had a lot of very close intervals, where you had to do half-steps between notes and stuff, and I just called back the people who were even close to being able to do it. We also did all the interviews remotely. Finally, when I picked someone, I had them come over and work with me here. And that was great fun, so much fun, because everyone was really excited about working in theatre.