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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

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

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Creatively Speaking: MeetingBoy
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Read on to win a new Meeting Boy wall calendar!

We have a nice interview/contest today with someone you need to know about if you don't already. PC World named him one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. Like Racer X, no one really knows who MeetingBoy is, but whoever is behind this madness is one hilarious, talented fella. Tweeting out quips and one-liners, he's amassed close to 80,000 followers on Twitter as @MeetingBoy. I first got to know him (well, as much as you can know a masked-man) after he re-tweeted a Twaggie (illustrated tweet) we did off one of his tweets over on my start-up, www.twaggies.com.

Then one day, MeetingBoy asked me if I'd like to give away one of his new MeetingBoy wall calendars in a contest. I said sure, under one condition: he do the following interview. So read the interview and follow the contest rules at the bottom of this post. We'll pick one tweet/comment at random and send you the calendar in time for Christmas! Good luck!

DI: First of all, where do you take your meetings? Tell us about your day job.

MB: I work in a glass & steel high rise in New York with lots of lazy idiots. The managers spout buzzwords to impress each other, and my boss is a clueless, bullying hypocrite more concerned with covering his own ass than getting things done. Does that narrow it down?

I am stuck in 3-5 meetings a day, so if there’s a way to waste someone’s time, I’ve seen it. And I’m sick of it. I must have really bad karma to deserve this. I must have been something truly awful in a former life, like maybe a manager or CEO.

@MeetingBoy: 125 PowerPoint slides? Well, I hope you're not presenting a case for how efficient our department is.

@MeetingBoy: Definition of insanity: holding the same meeting with the same people every week and expecting different results.

@MeetingBoy: Four meetings today. And then later, no doubt, a meeting with my boss about how I'm not getting anything done.

@MeetingBoy: I'm confused by this article about Bernie Madoff. I thought "white collar prison" was just a euphemism for my office.

@MeetingBoy: 7 hour conference call, though my lawyer says I'll be paroled in 6 with good behavior.

DI: How’d all this Meeting Boy stuff get started? Walk us through the early days.

MB: Since my biggest pet peeve in meetings is people who ramble on and on, Twitter was the right place for me to vent. The forced brevity was just right. If only I could force the people who write PowerPoint presentations to stick to 140 characters instead of 140 slides!

I’d been on Twitter before, but mentions of work had become a problem once people knew I was tweeting and started following me in the office. After I got a new boss last year, I created the MeetingBoy account so I would stop hearing about it. Since then I only tweet under my own name after hours.

@MeetingBoy: I'm married to my job. I don't love it. It was a shotgun wedding; I had knocked up my credit cards with all sorts of debt.

Early on as MeetingBoy, I was getting positive responses. People identified with my complaints-- in fact the most common response to MeetingBoy is “do you work at my company?”

Of course I hate buzzwords, and so many of my rants result from sitting through an hour of them. The word I hate the most is “robust”:

@MeetingBoy: At the end of the day I think we can all agree how tired the phrase "at the end of the day" is.

@MeetingBoy: When the revolution comes, I'm shooting everyone who says "robust". Well, except the coffee roasters.

DI: When did your first little break happen?

MB: Last October, PC World named me as one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. My following increased dramatically as a result. This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea I had broken out of the Favstar community of internet jokers. After that my friends who weren’t on Twitter insisted I start cross-posting my material to Facebook and MeetingBoy.com so they could follow along too.

DI: And then your big break?

MB: Earlier this year someone at Twitter added me to their Suggested Users - Funny list. I was pretty excited; after all, as my friend said, “It sure beats being on the Suggested Users - Not Funny list.”

Though some people would say my “big break” was when I got a boss that didn’t get my sense of humor, forcing me to put more of it on the internet. Speaking of my boss:

@MeetingBoy: We have high expectations for him - he got his MBA in business jargon from Wharton.

@MeetingBoy: You're right. It was wrong of me to question how another layer of paperwork would speed up the process. I apologize.

@MeetingBoy: Hey, everybody! My boss is running a special on poorly thought out, unworkable ideas today. The discount code is YESSIR.

@MeetingBoy: "Dumb it down. Remember, you're presenting it to management."

@MeetingBoy: "I didn't read the executive summary you sent. Can you just put the idea in a few quick sentences and send it to me? Thanks."

@MeetingBoy: New line on my job description: "maintain high morale". Told HR I could do it, but not if my boss keeps trying to motivate me.

@MeetingBoy: My boss is very susceptible to food poisoning. Apparently this occurs when he stays out late drinking.

@MeetingBoy: The boss sent an email at 11:30 "reminding" everyone that he's working from home today. He sent it from his Blackberry.

DI: Did you set out to achieve Internet fame or did the idea sort of take over by itself?

MB: I set out to vent about work in an amusing way, in part because I was so annoyed at how people in the office reacted to my being on Twitter. I certainly had no idea how to get people to write about me or who at Twitter to sweet-talk to get them to recommend me.

Being famous and anonymous is a little odd though. None of the benefits of fame have come my way. I’m not getting a better table at Sparks or celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. And no matter how many followers I have, I’m still stuck in the same meetings every day.

I would like to see a MeetingBoy calendar make an appearance on The Office. Seems like something Jim Halpert would have (though since he gave up his office, I’m not sure where he’d put it). Or maybe Michael Scott because he’s a “cool boss” and none of it applies to him..

DI: Talk about the tweets themselves. Mostly they are things you think up in these meetings every day?

MB: They are responses to things that happen in meetings. Or things I wish I could say. In a few cases I’ve actually said these things. Of course the names have been removed to protect the boring, the rude, the jargon-spewing types, the lazy, the bullies, and the people with “bad grammer”.

@MeetingBoy: I know, I know, but if your idea is so good, why hasn't some VP passed it off as their own yet?

@MeetingBoy: Sorry, I have to leave your meeting. I have something I need to do. I need to not be bored to death.

@MeetingBoy: This PowerPoint needs an art director? Wow! I never thought I'd say this to you, lady, but you're overthinking this.

@MeetingBoy: That email you claim I never sent you? Here it is. Along with your REPLY TO IT.

@MeetingBoy: No, I wasn't playing Devil's Advocate. I really think your idea is stupid.

@MeetingBoy: You are mean, incompetent, and ignorant. Life did not hand you lemons; life handed you CONSEQUENCES.

DI: But other times I see you attributing the tweets to other authors/publishers. How does that work?

MB: Sometimes I see a tweet that I wish I wrote. Other times my followers send me one I missed. Either way, if it’s something I think my audience would appreciate, I share it. After all, I don’t want to be like that guy in my office who thinks the only good ideas are the ones he thinks of.

For example, some of my favorite tweets that someone else wrote are:

@swimparallel: I've recovered from my death sickness. Now I'm back in the office. It feels like a lateral move.

@summersumz: Evaluating data, making conclusions. LIVING THE DREAM!

@kerissmithJA: Your cc list doesn’t scare me. I still refuse to respond to your email.

DI: So now you have this cool wall calendar. How’d that come about?

MB: A friend makes up a calendar with photos of his family, which I dutifully hang in my cube. I thought it would be cool to have a MeetingBoy calendar. I’d hoped to make a 365-page-a-day calendar, which I think would really work for my short quips, but I couldn’t find a way to publish it. So I went with a wall calendar, and asked for illustrators among my followers.

Of course once I had printed the calendar, I realized I couldn’t possibly put the calendar on my desk. I can’t have my boss or coworkers know that I’m MeetingBoy, and it’s probably better if they don’t even know he exists. Clearly I hadn’t thought this through.

I think the calendar makes a great Secret Santa gift. I think coworkers across the English-speaking world would love to get one.

Calendar available for sale online at http://meetingboy.com/calendar

DI: Have you learned any profound lessons going through the self-publishing process?

MB: I’ve learned that self-publishing isn’t very profitable. I’ve been very happy with all the illustrations I got, though paying for them before I sell the calendar has made money tight.

I was going to try to sell them directly myself over the internet, but I couldn’t be sure that my secret identity would be safe. Luckily one of the illustrators owns a comic shop and they agreed to carry it for internet sales.

And I’d still like to make a 365-page-a-day calendar if anyone knows how to go about that.

DI: What’s next for you and what’s your ultimate goal?

MB: Next up I’m starting to do regular illustrated tweets on MeetingBoy.com. Of course I can’t draw, so I’m using some of the same illustrators from the calendar, and any new ones I pick up along the way.

My ultimate goal is to be the boss on The Office after Steve Carrell leaves at the end of this season. Though I would also accept President Obama declaring my birthday, June 23rd, to be a national holiday, maybe National Out-of-the-Office Day. Write your congressman to make it happen.

DI: Will you always hide your true identity Meeting Boy? Or will we one day find out you’re actually Racer X’s older brother?

MB: I can’t reveal my identity without losing my job and potentially risking never working again. After all, who would hire MeetingBoy? A surly, sarcastic person who will mock your every shortcoming on the internet to tens of thousands of people. Even I might balk at hiring that guy. He kind of sounds like a loose cannon.

Okay, contest time! Of all the tweets mentioned in this post, by MeetingBoy or someone else, which would you like to see illustrated on Twaggies.com? RT it with the hashtag #twaggies and we'll pick one of you at random to get the calender. If you're not on Twitter, leave your vote in the comments below. The tweet with the most RTs will also get twagged on twaggies, too!

For my interviews with Jason Alexander, Monty Hall, Mitch Albom, xkcd and more, browse through past Creatively Speaking archives here >>

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A chat with Jeff Garlin
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Jeff Garlin co-stars and executive produces the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. The unique comedy, which is one of the rare television shows to become part of the national zeitgeist, stars Seinfeld creator Larry David, with Garlin portraying his loyal manager. Born and raised in Chicago and then South Florida, Garlin studied filmmaking and began performing stand-up comedy while at the University of Miami. He has toured the country as a stand-up comedian, is an alumnus of Chicago's Second City Theatre, and has written and starred in three critically acclaimed solo shows. I was fortunate enough to get this interview with him when he spoke at an event a charity I work with produced.

DI: Which do you prefer: writing, directing, or producing?

JG: I prefer to direct what I write.

DI: If you were to retire, what would you do with your time?

JG: Nap and eat puddin'.

DI: What's your favorite food?

JG: Puddin'.

DI: Of all the comedians and actors you've worked with over the years, who has been the most enjoyable.

JG: Larry David.

DI: Is Larry David as obnoxious in real life as he is on the show?

JG: See my answer above.

DI: What's the biggest difference between Chicago and L.A.?

JG: Human contact. In Chicago you get it on a regular basis.

DI: What's one of your favorite films?

JG: Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JG: My grandfather Harold.

DI: Who's your idol?

JG: My wife.

DI: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JG: A comedian.

DI: Where do you like to go to unwind when you're not working?

JG: Wherever my wife tells me.

DI: If you could change one thing about Hollywood, what would it be?

JG: The street names.

DI: Shakespeare wrote: "Brevity is the soul of wit." What do you think the essence of comedy is?

JG: A plate of fresh cornbread.

DI: I heard you studied law in college and almost graduated before deciding to pursue a career in comedy. Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?

JG: That's on Wikepedia.com and it's not true. I studied film.

DI: What's more difficult: performing stand-up comedy before a live audience or performing on camera?

JG: Actually, my personal life is harder.

DI: Do you own an iPod? If so, what's the most unusual music you've got on it?

JG: Chin Ho soundbites from Hawaii Five-0.

DI: Who is the funniest comedian of all-time?

JG: Jack Benny.

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