Friday, February 7, 2014

Bouchard Buffet, Part 1: Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist

Greetings, anthropods!

I was recently thinking about how Bob's Burgers is the best animated sitcom since The Simpsons and feeling a yen to write about pop culture again (seeing how it's been nearly two years since my last "let's overthink some video games from the 1990s!" piece). So I've decided to do an overview of the cartoon career of Loren Bouchard, creator of Bob's Burger's and Home Movies. Someone more eloquent than me has lauded him for [helping] spark a refreshing movement in modern day animated television, one that champions conversation as the main character. Quite so. Though Bouchard may not have the celebrity stature of Matt Groening or Seth MacFarlane, I'm confident that history will show him to have been no less valuable a contributor to the world of animated cartoons. But while we're waiting for the cultural bean counters to catch up, why don't we take a look at what he's contributed thus far?

This is ordinarily the sort of thing I would do at SMPS, but seeing as how the site is on hiatus, we'll have to make it happen it right here. Just for a personal challenge (because I don't have enough to deal with already), I'm going to try to bang out each installment within one to two weeks. I'm sure that by the time it's over I'll be gnashing my teeth to start writing about stars and trees and bugs and books and stuff again.

So let's begin with. . . . .


 

Take a look. Take a long, hard look. That's the withering gaze of a cartoon iconoclast pressing into your soul. Step through the door on the right and you'll be entering the domain of one of American broadcasting's quietest rebels. Sessions by appointment only. Rate is $150 an hour.

Strictly speaking, Dr. Katz isn't a Loren Bouchard cartoon. Even though Bouchard was a producer and certainly brought a lot to the table, he can't take credit for the show's concept, characters, or vision. Still, it was the first show he worked on, and it left such an indelible impression on his imagination and approach to development that any overview of his career must begin with Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.

Hmm. Glancing back up, I'm thinking maybe the "iconoclast" epithet might be a bit hyperbolic. "Quiet rebel," however, is not. At once obstinate and unassuming, Dr. Katz a peculiar show. Nowadays, after the flourish of (minimally) computer-animated late night 'toons in the last decade, Dr. Katz might not look like such an oddball, but in the context of its time, it cannot but be regarded as eccentric.

That context was American television animation, circa 1995. The landscape, very broadly speaking, could be divided into three areas. First, there were the all-ages cartoons: Nickelodeon's Nicktoons, the Disney Afternoon block, the Saturday morning network fare, and so on. There was the hip, bizarre, and cutting-edge stuff being produced by MTV Animation, which was really a world unto itself (see: Æon Flux, The Oddities, Liquid Television, etc.). And then you had the animated sitcoms: The Simpsons and the shows trying to ride its coattails (see: The Critic, Capitol Critters, Family Dog, etc.). If Dr. Katz has to be pigeonholed into one of these three categories, it can only be the animated sitcom.

So let's categorize Dr. Katz as an animated sitcom: we wouldn't be the first. But considered by the criteria of an animated sitcom (circa 1995), Dr. Katz does everything completely wrong.

The animated sitcom is the successor of two distinct traditions: the situation comedy and the animated cartoon. First: the situation comedy. A broadcasting ubiquity predating television itself, the sitcom is a lighthearted drama with a regular cast, a regular location, and a formulaic story that moves at a brisk pace, driven forward by pithy dialogue and a barrage of sharply-honed zingers. The basic blueprint for a sitcom plot looks something like this: some event occurs, jolting the characters out of their normal routines; everyone recoils, runs around, and responds to the disruption; there are conflicts between characters and uncertainty as to how everything will be set right; and then everything is resolved, everyone settles down, and the world returns more or less to normal.

Second: the television cartoon. American animation, from its pre-WWII beginnings, is generally a spectacle of elasticity and kinetic action, replete with bright colors, loud noises, and a mixture of winsome hijinks and sadistic violence. Television cartoons are usually inferior to their cinematic counterparts, but during the early 1990s, they were in the grip of a wider renaissance in American animation. After decades of cheap, stiff, half-assed Looney Tunes rip-offs being the only cartoons on the airwaves, fluid, stylistic, cel-based animated 'toons were suddenly the norm on the networks rather than the exception.

Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist is a black sheep of both families. As a sitcom, it balks the dictates of form. Its plots are thinner than its titular protagonist's scalp and move along with as much speed and form as its maundering dialogue. As a cartoon, it can be considered animated only on a technicality: it has so little movement that characters' outlines are made to oscillate (by way of a computer macro) to create the illusion of actual animation. Were it not for the Squigglvision treatment, Dr. Katz episodes (particularly those from the first couple of seasons) would consist of motionless pixelated faces cycling through three-frame "talk" animations against static, colorless backgrounds. (Again, this might not seem unusual to our post-Adult Swim sensibilities, but minimalist computer animation was rather uncommon on TV when Dr. Katz first aired in 1995.)

One might not be surprised to learn that Dr. Katz was created and produced by a team that had never worked on a TV show before and pretty much made things up as they went along. The limited experience and resources of its creators during the early days of production account for many of the show's idiosyncrasies, but more importantly, these were people primarily concerned with following their own creative caprices instead of calibrating their show against what was also airing at the time. Whereas The Critic (for instance) very consciously strove to differentiate itself from The Simpsons wherever possible, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist couldn't have cared less what The Simpsons (or anyone else) was doing.

Some background is in order.

Dr. Katz is the brainchild of Tom Snyder, a Boston-based teacher and owner of an educational software company (Tom Snyder Productions) who thought it would be fun to make cartoons on the side. Since Snyder was already in the business of making visual-intensive computer games, it was little trouble to repurpose members of TSP's graphics department into a part-time animation team. In 1992, Synder and artist Annette LeBlanc Cate produced an animated short called "Shrink Wrapped" about conversations between a therapist and his son (both voiced by Snyder). He shopped it in Hollywood and got lucky. Some producers at Comedy Central expressed interest in turning it into a series, but gave him some advice: "what you really need is talent." Snyder has joked about being taken aback until he realized that "talent" is Hollywood parlance for "professional actors."

The way Snyder tells it, he remembered comedian Jonathan Katz from the 1988 film Things Change (scripted by Katz's college buddy David Mamet and poet Shel Silverstein) and was suprised to discover that Katz was living in the Boston area. Once Katz was on board to voice Snyder's therapist and help develop the show's tone and style, he roped an acquaintance from the comedy circuit—a twentysomething H. Jon Benjamin—to voice the therapist's son. Benjamin was dating a young woman named Laura Silverman at the time, and so Snyder enlisted her to round off the cast as "Doctor" Katz's receptionist.

Another nugget of production advice Snyder and Katz received during the early days (from comedian Larry Miller, actually) was that the show might be much improved if it were about something. This suggestion was summarily vetoed. Snyder and Katz were adamant about keeping the show true to its original conception as a series of conversations between a therapist and his son, even if that basically made it a show about nothing.

"A show about nothing." Where have we heard that before?

Yes! Seinfeld! One of the most revered sitcoms of all time. The self-declared Show About Nothing. "Everybody's doing something! We'll do nothing!"

But Dr. Katz is quite different from Seinfeld. Things happen in Seinfeld. Its characters go places, do things, shout at people, get embroiled in wacky misunderstandings and tiffs with a litany of kooky extras, slide through doorways, kill their fiancees with toxic envelope glue, and so on.

In Dr. Katz, people sit around and talk. Sometimes they stand around and talk. On occasion they might raise their voices (but usually not).

Dr. Katz is the next stage in the evolution of the Show About Nothing. Dr. Katz is a Show About Nothing Happening.

Here are the plots of some typical Dr. Katz episodes:

  • Dr. Katz and Ben plan to go camping over the weekend. Then they don't. The end.

  • Dr. Katz is challenged to a game of table tennis by an old rival. The big day arrives and his rival cancels. The end.

  • Ben thinks about joining the Army. He decides not to. The end.

  • Dr. Katz and Ben drink more coffee than usual. Life goes on more or less the same, except Ben gets a stomachache. The end.

Each of these stories is conveyed exactly the same way as the others: by people who stand around and talk quietly to each other for twenty minutes. And unlike Seinfeld, it's always the same people talking.

On that note: why don't we take a quick look at the cast?


Dr. Jonathan Katz

Our hero. Formerly a hippie, currently a schlemiel of a psychotherapist. Soft-spoken, well-intentioned, and gentle to the point of nebbishness. Enjoys playing the guitar and spending time with his son. Voiced by Jonathan Katz, master of comedic tone and timing.


Benjamin Katz

Dr. Katz's sluggish manchild of a son. Unemployed. Lives with his father. Primarily interested in watching TV, disparaging his dad, and hitting on Laura. Doesn't have a plan. Kind of a huge pain in the ass. Voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, who lends his inimitable talent and charm towards making Ben simultaneously precocious and boneheaded, and lovable in spite of himself.


Laura

Dr. Katz's no-nonsense, icy-hot receptionist. Curt. Doesn't put up with much. Doesn't give a shit. Really rather alluring. Has Ben wrapped around her finger, though she would really rather he weren't anywhere near any part of her. Voiced by Laura Silverman, who must be very good at stifling laughter. (Fun fact: Silverman and Benjamin broke up at some point during the show's production. Laura's OH WOULD YOU JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP attitude towards Ben isn't always an act.)


And then there are three accompanying minor characters:


Julie

A bartender at Jacky's 33, the good doctor's favorite watering hole. Level-headed. Fitness nut. A romantic at heart. Might have a small crush on the doctor, which might be reciprocated. Voiced with warmth and class by Julianne Shapiro.


Stanley

A regular patron at Jacky's. Suave. Sharp. Confident. Seems to be Dr. Katz's best friend. A wellspring of advice about about manhood and women. Voiced with Bostonian aplomb by Will LeBow.



Todd

A clerk at Vic's Video Palace, since this is the 1990s and video rental stores still exist. Kind of a hipster, even though this is the 1990s and "hipster" hasn't yet stormed the vernacular. First appears in season 5 to give Ben somebody to talk to besides Dr. Katz and Laura. Voiced with cool lassitude by Todd Barry.


There you have it. Everyone but Todd is introduced in the very first episode. Unlike The Simpsons—which created the template for animated sitcoms for the next twenty years—Dr. Katz is uninterested in expanding its boundaries through a constellation of secondary characters encircling the main cast. Dr. Katz's world is, almost without exception, restricted to the show's principal characters. Not that Dr. Katz, Ben, and Laura never interact with other people: we just don't see it. In the handful of episodes in which Dr. Katz is dating a woman, she never appears onscreen, and is only referred to in discussions between members of the regular cast. Moreover, the individual worlds of these characters don't necessarily overlap: Ben never interacts with Stanley, Dr. Katz never talks to Todd at the video store, and Laura doesn't converse with anyone but Dr. Katz, Ben, and Dr. Katz's patients (whom we'll get to shortly).

So there are (almost) never any new characters who appear to set a story in motion, and the primary characters don't get out often enough to stumble into zany sitcom situations—at least nothing zany enough to disrupt their ordinary routines of standing around and talking to each other. Ben frequently concocts grand quixotic plans à la Lucille Ball and Homer Simpson, but he's too inept and lazy to put them into motion, and so he usually spends an episode talking to his father and Laura about his latest idea before eventually deciding to just stay put. Even beyond this, the finer details of Dr. Katz's premise are apparently designed to obviate any of the latent conflicts that usually provide the grist for sitcom plots. For instance, The Simpsons, The Critic, and Bob's Burgers all feature protagonists who cope with financial problems and/or job insecurity, allowing for episodes in which they have to get a second job, look for work, enact desperate schemes to retain their current job, etc. Shows like Malcolm in the Middle capitalize on conflict between siblings or between children and their parents. That '70s Show and Friends can build scenarios around romantic tensions between members of the main cast. The list could go on. (Yes, I am aware that my examples speak to how few new sitcoms I've watched in the last ten years.)

But Dr. Katz has none of this. The doctor runs a fairly robust practice on which he can comfortably coast, so stories about jobs or money problems are out. Ben isn't actually trying to get his shit together and Dr. Katz is accommodating to a fault, so there can't be any episodes about explosive father/son spats. Dr. Katz is divorced and Ben is an only child, so full-blown domestic squabbles aren't going to happen, either. Despite hints of a mutual crush, Dr. Katz and Julie are more or less in each other's friend zones, and Ben has absolutely no chance of impressing Laura (and doesn't leave the house often enough to meet any other women), so there's no potential for plots centered on the tensions of a potential romance between major characters.

What this all does is make Dr. Katz a conflict-free show. It's a series about stasis. About people living in quiet little ruts. About getting up and going to work five days a week. Every episode covers a span of about three days; Dr. Katz gets up, goes to work, comes home, gets up the next morning, goes to work, comes home, and then gets up and goes to work again his gray little world of traffic jams, lifeless medical plaza corridors, and perpetually cloudy city skies, his immersion in which is repeatedly emphasized through barrages of establishment shots. A world where nothing ever changes and nothing ever happens.

 
 

It sounds like a really bleak world to visit. And it might be, were its inhabitants not laughing and cracking each other up all the damn time, and if they weren't so much fun to listen to.

For all its grayness, for all the dysphoric subtextual details (Dr. Katz's loneliness, Ben's hopelessness, etc.), and for all the Charlie Brown haplessness of its protagonists, Dr. Katz is an almost incessantly cheerful series. Nothing gets the good doctor down—not for long, anyway. Ben can dump on him, Laura can shrug him off, and his patients can rag on him, but Dr. Katz's mild good humor remains unshaken. If he's not shrugging it off and laughing now, he will be in just a few minutes. Maybe Ben does need a kick in the ass, maybe Laura really should acknowledge how good she has it with a boss like him; but Dr. Katz isn't going to be the one administering any harsh lessons to the people he loves (and it's clear he loves them both). He doesn't bemoan the people he's stuck with in life, and he doesn't try to change them—he just tries to enjoy his time with them. Not only is Dr. Katz the world's premier animated psychotherapist, he might also be one of television's greatest Stoics.

On an initial viewing of Dr. Katz, the first thing the viewer will notice (besides the squiggly character outlines) is the loose, flowing dialogue. People talk over and interrupt each other, stumble over their own words, wander into non-sequiturs, and burst into laughter. The dialogue seems spontaneous and unscripted because, for the most part, it is unscripted. Scenes in Dr. Katz are usually retroscripted: the actors are sat down together (which is in itself an unusual thing in voice recording), given an outline of a scene, and then write the scene as they act it out. It isn't exactly improvisation since it's directed and edited, but it results in characters who talk like people instead of cartoons. (Fun fact: Larry David borrowed the retroscripting approach for use on Curb Your Enthusiasm after having lunch with Jonathan Katz and asking how he got the dialogue in his show to sound so natural.) It must be mentioned that Bouchard is primarily credited on Dr. Katz as its audio editor, and the methods of directing and recording dialogue that he cultivated during its lifespan will become the signature element of his work.

The animation in Dr. Katz is also retroscripted—at least to the extent that animation can be. According to Bouchard, the development of the show's audio and visuals were largely independent operations. Cate and her team were handed twenty-two minutes of jibberjab and given free rein to put moving (sorta) pictures to it. Since Dr. Katz episodes consist almost entirely of dialogue and are usually devoid of action or stage direction, the animators' contributions to the narrative consist mostly of background jokes, quick and understated throwaway gags, and visual flights of fancy, particularly where Dr. Katz's patients are concerned.

Ah, yes. The patients.

Snyder was told his fledgling show needed talent. His main character was a psychotherapist played by a comedian with an address book full of names from the scene. The idea was both obvious and brilliant: bring in stand-up comics as guest stars to play Dr. Katz's clientele. Not only does it give Dr. Katz a shot of star power, but it allows for guest talent to be integrated into episodes without disrupting the "everyday conversations between a therapist and his son" format from which Snyder and Katz refused to deviate. For the most part, Dr. Katz's patients have no influence whatsoever on the plot of a given episode. Listening to them spill their guts is just what the doctor does during his weekday grind, and his conversations with them remain behind closed doors.

Most of the on-the-couch material is usually retroscripted in one of two ways. Sometimes Dr. Katz and the patient improvise banter together, bouncing off and feeding each other. In other cases the patient just runs through parts of his or her stage routine, and Katz's uh huhs, yeahs, and so tell me abouts are spliced in later. The latter case is interesting because it gives fans an opportunity to hear familiar stand-up bits in a totally different context—in a conversational tone, without audience laughter, and with the benefit being able to do multiple takes. In the former case, Jonathan Katz gets to earn his reputation as the comedian's comedian, the ultimate straight man.

Even though they existed independently of the show's main narrative, the guest stars became Dr. Katz's main gimmick when it was airing on Comedy Central. ("Tonight on Dr. Katz: Wanda Sykes and Jon Stewart! Oh and also Dr. Katz and Ben and Laura talk for fifteen minutes about the city alderman and nothing happens. FEATURING WANDA SYKES AND JON STEWART!") Even though the guest stars play themselves, they're played in such a way that Dr. Katz, in the world of the show, can't flaunt a reputation as some kind of celebrity therapist. Throughout the show there's this unspoken undertanding that while the guests play themselves, they're not playing their famous selves. For instance, When David Duchovny stops by the office, he's not regarded by Dr. Katz or Laura as the famous actor from The X-Files; he's just "David," an eccentric patient who prefers to stand in the broom closet rather than sit the waiting room.

As the show grew in stature, it was able to attract more guests, and now it comes out looking like a veritable who's who of 1990s stand-up comedy. Say—how about a game: how many of these Dr. Katz guests can you identify? Hint: all of them appear at least once in the credits of Home Movies and/or Bob's Burgers. (You can post your answers in the comments section, if you'd like.)

           

Along with the slightly improved animation, the introduction of Todd, and the occasional appearance of extras with small speaking roles, Dr. Katz's handling of its guest stars becomes one of the more notable aspects of the series' evolution. Perhaps you noticed David Duchovny's name up above and thought, "hey, wait! He's not a stand-up comedian, is he?" Nope. As the series progressed, Snyder and co. began inviting showbiz types of different stripes to make guest appearances. It often works well, since the guests they tend to choose are quite capable of being funny, even if "stand-up comedian" isn't at the top of their résumé (see: Jeff Goldblum). But sometimes Snyder and Katz make a bad call, and the results are awkward at best (see: Winona Ryder).

More significantly, the capacity in which the guests are allowed to appear becomes slightly more flexible. Later on, they don't necessarily appear as patients; they become involved in the main plot. In the epsisode "Thanksgiving," Dr. Katz's ex-wife Roz (voiced by Carrie Fisher) visits for Thanksgiving dinner, and—well, not much happens, and what happens doesn't go so well (of course). In "Bakery Ben," Steeve Sweeny plays a baker of questionable sanity under whom Ben (very briefly) apprentices. These might seem like betrayals of the show's ethos if they weren't so bloody funny. The final episode, "Lerapy," which centers around Dr. Katz and Ben trying to feed patient Conan O'Brien jokes for Late Night is much less fortunate, and a poor note on which to conclude the series. (Perhaps Snyder, Katz, and co. figured they might as well wrap things by completely flouting their own rules.)

And there you have it: that's the one negative comment I can make about Dr. Katz. It's altogether a consistently unique and charming series, and rich with that precious, counterfeit-proof commodity in television called "heart"—which is all the more impressive in light of the cynicism and jadedness permeating popular culture in the 1990s. Dr. Katz is all about—only about—relationships and conversations between people, and it treats them gently, at times even tenderly.

Incidentally, Dr. Katz was cancelled in 1999, two years after South Park made Comedy Central a force to be reckoned with, and the same year that Family Guy premiered on Fox. Taken all together, the coincidence of Dr. Katz's cancellation with the rise of the two definitive animated sitcoms of the 2000s seems somehow appropriate. South Park and Family Guy are very consistent with (if not to some extent responsible for) the general tone of of prime time/late night animated comedy throughout the 2000s, boasting a type of humor that's frequently cynical, shocking, loud, and mean-spirited—on the opposite end of the comedy spectrum from Dr. Katz. It might be argued that they were the logical outgrowth of The Simpsons, distilling the irreverence and coarse humor which earned the The Simpsons its early notoriety among concerned PTA groups, and intentionally rejecting those emotional, sympathetic elements whose upkeep had clearly become a perfunctory exercise by season 10 (1998–99).

It's interesting—but hardly surprising—that the pendulum lately seems to be swinging back the other way. Now that we're almost halfway through the 2010s, it's looking more and more like the definitive cartoon sitcom of the decade is Bob's Burgers, a prime time agent of the New Sincerity, and a show that would not exist were it not for Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. Not that Dr. Katz can't stand on its own legacy, but it's fitting that an excellent and underrated series about a father with an uncouth jerk of a son should have such a worthy successor to its credit.

 

9 comments:

  1. You write a couple thousand words about character-driven comedy animation and you don't even mention King of the Hill? Poor display, old man.

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    1. Patience! King of the Hill is tremendously relevant to Bob's Burgers, so we'll be visiting it later.

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  2. Dr. Katz is one of a triumvirate, along with The Critic and Duckman, of shows I loved when I was younger that I barely remember now. I'll have to revisit it sometime.

    Though for my money, Bob's Burgers has nothing on Home Movies, which has got to be the best animated work I've ever seen.

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    1. I need to sit down and rewatch a big chunk of Home Movies in the next week or so. A few years back I did a "MY TOP TEN FAVORITE CARTOONS" list thing for SMPS and put Home Movies at #1. I wonder if I'll feel the same after revisiting it?

      (Sadly, I don't enjoy The Critic nearly as much as I used to.)

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  3. Dr Katz, one of the best... Yep agreed Duckman was awesome and perhaps a little surreal too :)

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    1. Duckman is an interesting case. I didn't want to go off on a tangent, but I'd classify it as being more akin to the weird MTV stuff than the other cartoon sitcoms airing at the time.

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  4. By the way, I don't know how much you want to see it, but Arthur did a parody of Katz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f6d6N8Y8iA

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  5. Jonathan Katz is the guest on my TV Guidance Counselor podcast this week. It's a fun conversation and we do discuss Dr. Katz at length. It's free on iTunes
    https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tv-guidance-counselor-podcast/id821665905

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    1. Huh! Guess I gotta download iTunes now.

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