Tuesday brought us the DVD release of season one of Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, the greatest television show of all time.
Historians were quick to note that at numerous points in the past, I have described Arrested Development as the funniest television show of all time.
Both statements are true. Arrested Development is funnier; the thing that makes Dr. Katz great is that it is exactly the opposite. Jonathan Katz and the other creative types crafted this show to — at every turn — shoot for the least funny option (line, joke, or gag).
Not the most un-funny thing, mind you, the least funny thing. That’s a big distinction. Even as a stand-up comic, Katz always aimed to make the audience continually never quite sure whether he was being serious or making a joke. There are other comics who seem to enjoy keeping the audience off-balance, as it were, though most of them tend to do it through shock value.
The example I like to give for novices is from a scene where Ben and John are eating cereal, debating the merits of the different meals. At one point Katz attempts to sum up his position with the proclamation “Breakfast: it’s not the most important meal of the day — but it’s not bad.”
That’s just barely even a joke. But that’s not easy to do. Try it yourself; try to come up with something only a tiny, tiny bit off-kilter. Just subtle enough to make the hearer stop and re-think. The NSF and the scientific journals would probably describe phenomena like this as quantum comedy. Or, in the vernacular, quamedy.
For the show, Katz teamed up with H. Jon Benjamin, like-minded comic who in interviews has expressed his lifelong desire as a performer to play away from the funny:
“I’ve never had the desire to tell jokes. I’ve always been more interested in not making people laugh, but people seem to laugh at that. So actual jokes have always been the antithesis of what I’ve wanted to do. I started doing comedy with a lot of people who were great at telling jokes so I just wanted to not do what they did.”
The result is precision comedy, like a balancing act; hovering just barely over the threshhold of humor.
There were other great elements to the show — the weird animation style, the fact that the entire half-hour of each episode was improvised — that contribute to its greatness. But at the core, the key is still that unique focus on being so dry that you have to pay attention in order to spot the joke.
In so many ways, it’s easy to go for the big laugh. What I admire about Jonathan Katz is his ability to go for the small laugh, and to hit it every time, repeatedly, for six years.