Creatively Speaking: Tom Snyder

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Creatively Speaking continues today with Tom Snyder, creator of one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Dr. Katz.

I've also selected two excerpts from episodes that make me laugh every time I see "˜em (recently got a hold of the complete Dr. Katz on DVD, including commentary by Tom and Jonathan Katz, as well as some episodes that weren't originally aired).

First one to correctly tell us what movie Ben Katz is quoting somewhere hidden in the first clip gets serious _floss braggin rights. Another interesting bit of Katz trivia: the song the Dr. sings in the first clip was written by our interviewee today, Tom Snyder.

Dr. Katz and son Ben

DI: How did you first come up with the idea for Dr. Katz?

TS: I had an educational software company at the time and I'd met a woman, a bartender, at the bar where I liked to write. She drew on napkins all the time and eventually I asked her if she'd like a job drawing illustrations for the educational software games. She worked for me for a year and we started messing around on weekends with me recording my voice and her drawing silly illustrations. So I did a little thing where I played a shrink who was talking to his son and did both of the voices by pitching my voice electronically. It was about a minute long, animated. We sent it out to a friend of mine who worked in Los Angeles. A week later he called and said, 'Come on out and we'll pitch it to Comedy Central,' which we did. They said, 'It's fantastic, but what you need Tom is talent.' Of
course, I thought they meant I wasn't talented, which was hurtful. But what they really meant was I needed to hire someone like a professional voice comedian to play some of the parts. So I found out that my favorite stand-up comedian, Jonathan Katz, lived in my neighborhood in Boston. So I went over to his house and played this little one minute thing and asked him if he'd like to be the doctor and he said, 'Definitely, yes.' So we started making little bits and pieces and Comedy Central picked them up. At first they were little bumpers that would go between advertisements. But then they moved us up to the half-hour format and pretty soon we had an Emmy.

DI: The animation in Dr. Katz has a unique, static feel to it. Can you tell us about the technique called Squigglevision, which gives the show its trademark look?

TS: Well it's not something I'm proud of, except that it was cheap. Some
people refer to it as the perfect crime. Some people say it causes
epilepsy. But with this educational software company, I'd come up with a
really cheap way of making illustrations look animated by having an
illustrator draw an outline of a character and then the computer would
draw it five times over and over again with randomness added. So it would
kinda squiggle. And it was really cheap because there was no animation
involved. So we started doing it on the Dr. Katz stuff, not really
thinking it would be enough for primetime but we stuck with it. And it was
funny because there's no animation. Nobody walks anywhere, nobody reaches for anything. Steven Spielberg became very interested in the effect and our comedy and so we did a pilot for Dreamworks and we were out at his office and I mentioned in passing that there wasn't any animation, that it was just squiggling characters. And he said, 'Well that's not true because we just saw an episode and Dr. Katz is at the sink and then he walks over table and they have breakfast and Ben gets up to leave.' And I said, 'No, actually, no one ever moves. We just cut from one shot to the next, back and forth.' So there's no real animation involved.

DI: Did you coin the word Squigglevision?

TS: Yes. As a matter of fact, we copyrighted it, thinking: everyone is going
to be doing this. Boy, how wrong we were. It had charm, but I think it
kept us from being as mainstream as Family Guy and other shows that came
after it.

DI: If you had pitched the show today, do you think anyone would have even bothered?

TS: No. You couldn't sell Dr. Katz today, regardless of the Squigglevision,
for the simple reason that it's not vulgar enough. Even then they were
asking us if we could use the word ass more, if we could make it dirtier.
Even back in the mid-90s. But we said, 'Nah, it's really sweet.' If a
stand-up comic has a particularly funny routine, we'll do it. But it
wasn't what we were going for. We weren't doing it to be rude. We were
doing it to be funny and conversational, and kinda dry. There's no way you
could do it now. My former company has a show on now called Assy McGee
for Cartoon Network and it's about a cop who's just an ass. And farts,
that's how it talks. That's the kind of stuff they're doing now, which I
have no interest in, really. I'm an old-fashioned guy. I like musical
comedy.

DI: Much of each episode wasn't scripted. Can you talk about the process? How did the stories evolve?

TS: We'd give Comedy Central an outline, not a script. So the show was about 60-70% off script by the time we were done. We had awfully good improvisers. For the first couple years, I'd write an outline about the story. Then, John Katz and I would meet in a bar and I'd read the outline to him. And he'd say funny things, so I'd jot them down. And then they became part of an expanded outline. And then I'd go home and retype it bring it back to him and he'd say even funnier things. So the outline would evolve that way. And then we'd bring people into the booth, the regulars, John Benjamin, Laura Silverman, and they'd improv off it. Then we brought the comedians in. Initially we'd have them go in the booth with John [Katz] because they were in therapy. He played the therapist and they
played the patients. We did that twice, but it just didn't work. The rhythm and pace got all f-ed up. It wasn't singing at all. So when Ray Ramono came in--one of our first patients--we said, 'Ray, just come in and do your routine. And we were smart enough to bring employees from my company and have them sit in the control room outside the booth so Ray would be performing. Comedians are funnier when they have an audience. So they would do 20 minutes and then we would repurpose it after they were gone. We'd have Jonathan sit in the booth and we'd stop and start and stop and start the tape and have him drop in vocals as setups, to make it sound like a therapy session. And that worked like a charm for 6 years.

DI: There were so many amazing stand-up comedians on Katz's couch. Everyone from Steven Wright to Jeff Garlin, from Sarah Silverman to Conan O'Brien. You also had literary luminaries like David Mamet and one of Hollywood's tallest actors, Jeff Goldblum. How did you get all those amazing people to
come in and sit on the couch?

Two words: Jonathan Katz. At the time we did the show, he was the guy
referred to as "the comic's comic." He's very smart, very sweet, and
gentlemanly, very funny and he'd worked with everybody during the 80s and
early 90s and everyone wanted to be on the show. Early on, he brought in a
couple of his buddies like Ray Ramono and Dom Irrera Once word-of-mouth
caught on, we could have any comedian we wanted. Sometimes they got in
touch with us, sometimes we got in touch with them. Winona Rider, David
Duchovny, Jeff Goldblum, they all got in touch with us. The only person we
couldn't get, who I really wanted, was Bob Newhart. I'm not sure he got
the humor of the show.

DI: Did Comedy Central ever censor content?

Not really. Although there was this one time when we had a gay comedian
from Boston come in with his real-life lover to do couples therapy. They
were both very smart and very funny but one of the things that came out in
the course of their session was that not only was one of the guys dying,
but he was probably going to die soon. For me it was magical-the way they
were talking and joking about it. They had just gone out shopping for an
urn for the ashes and the guy said he'd decided not to buy the urn because
it made him look wide at the hips. So it was funny, and moving and, at the
time, Comedy Central would put anything we did on the air with no notes.
We had an awesome amount of freedom with them. But ultimately we decided not to do the episode because some of the younger producers on the show were a little embarrassed by the sentiment. That was a big disappointment for me. But all we ever heard from Comedy Central was to make it dirtier! We were too clean for them.

DI: So what are you working on these days?

TS: John [Katz] and I are forever pitching shows. And I've got my own company now and I'm writing and hoping to produce a musical comedy for the stage. I'm not Jewish, I'm not gay, I don't live in New York City-really, I have no right to be doing this. But musicals are my first love, so I'm writing this show about a guy who's an extremely good liar, an impulsive liar. He can't stand when people are sad around him, so he lies to make people feel better. And ultimately he gets in trouble because he's in over his head and falls in love with someone he's been lying to. So it's the story about my life, essentially.

Jeff Garlin on the Dr.'s couch


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March 30, 2008 - 11:16pm
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