You have to stay on your toes with Jonathan Katz.
Katz, the comedian, musician and writer doesn’t miss a thing. When talking, he will quickly change the subject, turn the conversation around and ask you a question.
After talking about living with multiple sclerosis, and saying his family was his main source of support, he began questioning me about my family. Before I knew what was happening, I was telling him where I was from and that I had a sister who is two years older than me.
The former star of the Comedy Central smash hit Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist recently took some time out of his busy days, filled with jokes, barbs and insults, to discuss his latest show, 75 Laughs.
Katz, who recently performed at Jimmy Tingle’s off Broadway Theater, has been telling jokes long before he walked onstage. An alumni of Goddard College in Vermont, Katz enjoyed spending his free time driving around Vermont with one friend riding shotgun and another tied up in the trunk. He would then pull over, pick up a hitchhiker and then ask him to help move something.
Katz recalled his college experience.
“I lived in a lesbian, vegetarian dorm,” he said regretfully. “I blew my cover. I ate meat.”
Katz got his first big break in 1978 when he was invited to go on tour with Robin Williams, after his ex-girlfriend played the famous actor/comedian some of Katz’s songs.
“It was during that tour that I discovered I love being on stage,” he said. “But I don’t really love being on stage with Robin Williams because everyone’s looking at him and not me.”
After his work with Williams, Katz went to New York to work in cabarets. He described the experience of cabarets as being different than that of comedy clubs.
“You’re allowed to take longer,” he said. “And be more whimsical.”
He said the name “75 Laughs” also comes from comedy clubs, where the number of laughs a comedian receives per minute gauges their success.
“If you’re in a comedy club and you’re getting a laugh a minute, you’ll get fired,” he said. “Professional stand-up comedians get as many as 10. So, I’m being a stand-up comedian where I don’t have to be a stand-up comedian.”
The role that Katz is most well known for is Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist. Beginning as one minute segments that aired in between programs on Comedy Central, the show went on to win Comedy Central’s first-ever Emmy Award for Outstanding Primetime Voiceover Performance, the Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting and two Cable Ace Awards. It featured various stars as guests, including Dave Chappelle, Garry Shandling, Janeane Garofalo and Jeff Goldblum.
The show’s secret to success, according to Katz, was the relationships between the characters, especially the father and son.
“The trick is not to judge … but to just enjoy them for what they are,” he said. “They had a perverse, loving relationship.”
Katz said he draws the majority of his comedy from his own life. He was even asked by his daughter once, “can’t you make something up?”
The answer is apparently no.
“I don’t make anything up,” he said. “I tend to fictionalize my own life on a sound stage in Hollywood or a cartoon in Watertown or a radio show in Newton. My own life, if I don’t fictionalize it, is not that interesting.”
One aspect of his life that he has been honest about is his battle with multiple sclerosis, which he was diagnosed with in 1997. Katz has spoken publicly about the disease’s effect on his life, often applying his comedic skills while doing so.
“I have to prioritize,” he said. “I used to have three kids and I’m down to two. I have to slow down, literally and figure out what’s important to do that particular day and do that.”
He said he frequently uses humor as a surviving mechanism.
“Comedy is a great coping medicine if you’re a comedian,” he said. “If you’re a serial killer and you use comedy to cope, that’s not helping. People cope with different things differently. Denial is also a good coping mechanism. Maybe I am in denial and I just can’t admit it to myself.”
Honesty is a priority with Katz, in both his personal and professional life.
“I play myself, which is what I think all the good actors do,” he said. “With the exception of Dustin Hoffman, I think the best actors in the world are the people who can just reveal themselves on camera. It’s a certain kind of lack of self-consciousness or lack of generosity, or willingness to embarrass yourself. That’s where I fall short.”
When asked why he fell short, he paused and answered thoughtfully, “It’s too embarrassing.”
“Ask me anything,” Katz said. “Anything at all.”
“What’s the meaning of life?”
He paused. “It’s all about coffee.”