The Adult Swim (and beyond) story (pt.1): Dr Katz - Professional Therapist
All episodes of Dr Katz are easily available on Youtube. Don't tell anyone.
Before we get to Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and the huge impact they had on adult comedy animation (Home Movies, Sealab 2021, Space Ghost-Coast to Coast, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Metalocalypse, Lucy-Daughter of The Devil...) we have to look at where it all began. If you watch, pretty-much, any adult animated modern comedy produced now it's been influenced by Adult Swim. You probably have misgivings at this point, but I'll persuade you over the course of these series of articles. It showed creators just where they could take the medium; just how inventive they could be with it .
The story, of course, starts earlier. In 1995 Comedy Central featured a show called Dr Katz - Professional Therapist as part of its late night programming block. It was made by a small production company working out of Boston. The comedian Jonathan Katz played the title character, with a certain H.Jon Benjamin playing his layabout son who rarely leaves the house but constantly phones his dad at work and pesters his secretary (the long-suffering Laura, played by Laura Silverman), and each week there would be a general story, but the main hook of the show was the quality and number of guest appearances.
Boston was, and is, big on the comedy circuit with a constant flow of established and new acts touring through the city. Using contacts on the comedy circuit the show was able to pull in all sorts of big names - Ray Romano, Steven Wright, Rita Rudner, Emo Philips, Marc Maron, Winona Ryder (that one was a curve-ball, and along with David Duchovny she was the only non-comedian on the therapy couch in all 80+ episodes), Louis C.K and many more.
There would be a general story to each episode intercut with Katz's "therapy sessions" with that weeks two or three guests. Such guest comedians have told stores of how they were driven out to an unremarkable house in the suburbs and sat in a cupboard with a microphone and headphones (tins of food and dried goods on the shelves) given a subject to complain about and then they and Katz (sat next door with a similar setup) would then mostly improvise a session (often these turned into standup routines that Katz would play off). Many enjoyed the experience so much they kept coming back - Ray Romano was one of the biggest comedians in the world but he couldn't stay away from the place.
Really the show ended in 1999 with 3 additional, previously unshown, episodes released in 2002. It had always been a production on a budget and a successor was needed to keep the boat afloat.
It'a worth taking a break here to address some misgivings we may naturally have. We'd had adult animated shows before. But like, say, The Simpsons they were usually scripted, family-style, sitcoms. You could even argue The Simpsons is basically a modern re-working of The Flintstones, which in turn was a re-working of a scripted studio sitcom called The Honeymooners. Anyway.
This was innovation. The sessions were recorded, along with any scripted pieces that were needed, and then the show was animated. What was possible in the medium had suddenly shifted - it was a game changer.
In a typical life-style choice, Coach has been awake all night drinking while watching shopping TV. As a result he finds himself the owner of a collection of expensive swords he cannot afford.
The market for weekly adult animated comedy was there - driven by cable TV and the need to find niche markets, but they tended to be comedy shows that just happened to be cartoons. They looked different, but they weren't straying from the usual formats - they weren't really anything new, no matter how good they might have been.
In retrospect Home Movies was a hard sell. One of the four main characters, Coach(he coaches soccer) was a 40 year old drunk loser stuck in a teaching job he hated, but the other three were 8 year old children. At first glance it looked like a children's cartoon, though it was anything but. Dr Katz could have easily have been an outlier - a one off. But this next project was a fortuitous blend of what had gone before, new talent - and a new way of doing things - that would influence adult comedy animation in an entirely new way.
Next up, Home Movies and the rise of Adult Swim.