If you're like me you watched reruns of "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist" on Comedy Central whenever they were on back in the '90's, even when you should have been doing other things. And if you're like me now, you're enjoying going through all the episodes now that the entire series is out on DVD. In addition to playing a cartoon shrink for several years (for which he won an Emmy), he is a standup comedian, podcaster, voiceover actor, actual ping pong champion, former rhythm and blues band frontman and good buddy of David Mamet (whose name I tried to avoid bringing up for some reason until he did).
Jonathan and I spoke over the phone and enjoyed a meandering conversation that at times made me feel like I was the audience of a personal standup comedy show. I condensed it here for your enjoyment because sometimes I told stories that would be boring to you, and other times he told his jokes and stories in such a low voice I couldn't transcribe it all but I still think what's left is still pretty great. And yes, he started it off.
JK: Do you mind if I record this conversation, in case one of us says something extra clever? My experience with interviews is that nobody is really interested in the truth.
CZ: I think I am.
Nobody but Claire. You're only the third Claire I've ever met.
CZ: How were the first two?
JK: Not great. The first one was actually a good friend in New York City, in Manhattan when I was a little kid, but she disappeared. Maybe we disappeared, I don't know. And the second writes for Conan. She's unemployed at the moment.
CZ: So I have a silly question about "Dr. Katz." Obviously, you resemble your cartoon avatar and so did the comedian guests. But I Googled H. Jon Benjamin and he doesn't look like his character. Did he look more like that at the time?
JK: He never looked like that. Do you know what the H stands for? Haffectation. I've been making that joke for so long it would make you nauseous. I love him more than an actual father.
CZ: Were there any guests you wish you could have had that you never had on?
JK: David Letterman. He's not comfortable talking about anything to do with his actual life. He's a closely guarded guy.
CZ: How did the scenes between you and Ben get set up, did you draft them ahead of time or did you go in and improv from there?
JK: This is where there's a certain amount of folklore about my story. It was written by me or Bill Braudis, every episode. But before we'd go to that script, we'd record things based on an outline, which was written by Tom Snyder, and those scenes were improvised, and then the script and the improvised stuff...usually the improvised stuff would win. I had a very hard time letting go of the very carefully-constructed jokes I had written in favor of the performance. It was just so wild and unpredictable. He really taught me a different side of comedy - the funny side.
CZ: Did you have any rules or guidelines in terms of things you didn't want to take an episode to?
JK:That was just the nature of generating too much artwork. I think the show had a tone that was really guided, mostly by Tom, and also, to a certain degree, by the head of animation. She was prematurely grown up. She was a young woman, but she had a conscience about what was and wasn't acceptable to say on the air.
CZ: You have a more low-key style than a lot of the people in stand-up.
JK: My favorite example is a guy in St. Louis, and his opening line was, "Hey, who wants to monkey-fuck?" It made no sense, and he did like 35 minutes, and at the end of the show, he was like, "Hey, have a good night, but remember, don't litter!"
CZ:You've loaned your voice to other animated shows - do you follow any?
JK: I don't really like cartoons. But I really appreciate the magic of cartoons. I'm a guy who's living with MS. In the real world, there are not many things I can do, but in cartoons, it's unlimited.
CZ: How is your mobility? Are you able to get around?
JK: I walk with a cane and sometimes I use a scooter. I did this thing you can see online called Death Row Diet, did you see that? It's a clever piece where I'm convicted of some crime, it's not clear whether or not I committed the crime, but the guy who defended me is trying to get me off death row, and he's trying to get me an endorsement with Weight Watchers. You can see it on wkatz.com. There's some film festival in France that wants to show it.
CZ: What's made you laugh lately?
JK: My daughter, my 18-year-old, was listening to this guy, Daniel Tosh, and just the fact that she listens to it cracks me up. She once saw me do stand-up, when she was about 12, and she came up to me after the show very concerned and said, "Dad, you should tell more jokes." Nothing I say strikes her as funny.
CZ: You used to hustle ping pong with David Mamet, right?
CZ: Did you ever get in trouble?
JK: There was one night we had to leave the pool hall.
CZ:You were going to get punched for taking someone's money?
JK: We had taken unfair advantage of someone, which I think is sort of the unwritten rule in the pool hall. It's a place where you go to take unfair advantage of people.
CZ: Wouldn't you think you were getting hustled if someone said, "I'll spot you 18 points"?
JK: We were playing pool, which is a game at which we're also really good. That's a great game. I don't play that often. I'm sort of a hustle blogger.
CZ: My dad asked if my website was a 'blob' the first time he heard that word.
JK: We have a bird named Nibbles, and my mother in law for years thought his name was Nipples, and she said to my wife, "Why did you name a bird Nipples?" But I like your story better.
CZ: When you're playing ping pong at a high level, who shags the balls for you?
JK: If I'm playing at a really high level, there are barricades. I can't play it at that high of a level anymore. Ask me what my style was.
CZ: What was your style?
JK: [defensive tone of voice] Defensive. But I was the kind of guy who played like 20 feet behind the table.
CZ: When did you discover you had a predilection towards ping pong?
JK: The first time I realized it I was a kid in the Berkshires on vacation. I overheard these guys at the Y talking about a place where you could play with professional equipment - this is when I was living in Manhattan on the east side and the club was on the west side. I met Marty Reisman, two-time champion, as you know, and he said, "Why don't you play with a ping pong racquet and I'll play with a chess piece," a friendly bet, a dollar, and he beat me for a dollar with a chess piece.
JK: I was a pawn in his cruel game.
CZ: When you do stand-up, who were some of your favorite openers?
JK: My favorite comedian of all time is a guy named Ronnie Shakes. Nobody knows about him, because he died as a very young man. I was with him as he died, and his dying words were, "Do my act." I'll tell you one joke of his: he said, "I've been seeing the same therapist for 12 years, and yesterday, he said something that brought tears to my eyes: 'No hablo ingles.'" Do you know that joke? Want one more? "I just blew 5,000 bucks on a reincarnation seminar. I figure, what the hell, you only live once." He was my favorite. I also liked Wendy Liebman, and a guy named Barry Sobel who was wonderful. Every once in a while he'll disappear for a few years at a time. I am a Rita Rudner fan, which is hard to imagine, being a Dom Irrera fan and a Rita Rudner fan. Gilbert Gottfried. Brian Riggins did a great...do you know his work? Ray Romano, wonderful on "Dr. Katz." Fun to work with, I worked with him many times in Las Vegas. Before "Raymond," that was the most recognition he ever got.
CZ: Do you follow any young comics?
JK: Yeah, I like this guy I saw on Comedy Central...just because I like them doesn't mean I can remember their names. Daniel Tosh. I also like Demetri Martin.
CZ: What are you working on lately other than your podcast?
JK: I'm on development on two different animated shows, one with Tom Snyder and one with a guy named Bill Braudis, who was Dr. Katz' first patient. I'm hoping to make the talk show rounds again.
CZ: What music are you listening to?
JK: Katz and Jammers. I love it. No, I love Ry Cooder. There's a woman named Adele, do you know her music? My daughter Julia sent me a song of hers, which I love. I also love John Legend. What I'm really trying to do is learn how to play lap guitar.
CZ: Didn't you play electric mandolin?
JK: I played the electric mandocello, and then the electric mandolin.
CZ: How is learning a new instrument?
JK: I was a pretty accomplished guitarist, but because of MS I lost a lot of dexterity in my left hand. Playing a lap guitar could help out with that. It's also listening. I bet if you were near a piano I could teach you in less than five seconds how to play any song you ever loved, on the phone. For free.
CZ: Your father was a Hungarian immigrant?
CZ: Have you been to Hungary?
JK: No, but I'd like to go. It must be beautiful. Have you ever been to Madrid? My wife and I are going to Madrid on the way back from a wedding in Tel Aviv. I've been to Israel a couple of times. It's kind of like Puerto Rico, where my sister lives. Israel is where my sister-in-law lives, and where my niece is getting married. It feels so much like Puerto Rico, but very different cultures.
CZ: How does it feel to be the 252nd person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
JK: The number 252 has its own significance. It's the square root of something. Also, I went to PS 252, that's why it means something to me, as a kid in Brooklyn. It's not an accident. You know who else lived in Sheepshead Bay is Larry David and Terry Gross when they were kids.