Professional therapists probe the mind of TV's bumbling cartoon shrink, Dr. Katz. Is he for real?

SHRINK RAP

September 10, 1997|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

There are only two words to describe the kind of man who would cheat against his 24-year-old son in a child's board game.

Professional therapist.

Or, more specifically, "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist," one of the latest and most dysfunctional in a line of big- and small-screen shrinks going back as far as 1906's "Dr. Dippy's Sanitarium," a 15-minute silent movie comedy that takes place in a lunatic asylum.

The animated series "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist" premiered on Comedy Central in 1995. It's a wry, sophisticated glimpse into the work and personal life of the ineffectual middle-aged therapist, voiced by and drawn as a caricature of Jonathan Katz, a 50-year-old writer, actor and stand-up comedian.

"I don't think, in real life, I'd recommend Dr. Katz to somebody," says Katz, the show's creator, from his office in Newton, Mass. "He practices reverse psychology."

Partners in neuroses on the show include Dr. Katz's useless, sedentary son Ben and his terminally irritated receptionist Laura. Dr. Katz, aka "the therapist to the stars," treats popular comedians and actors such as Janeane Garofalo, Conan O'Brien and Lisa Kudrow, who provide the voices for cartoon versions of themselves.

The show's signature animation style - "Squigglevision" - creates an unsettling, vibrating effect, as if the show itself is about to suffer a breakdown. The format either dissolves into your subconscious or becomes hyper-sensory torture - kind of like sessions with Dr. Katz, which stretch the boundaries of your average appointment.

The show's edgy, stream-of-consciousness style is catching on, and Katz's profile has been rising with guest appearances on "Late Show With David Letterman," "Politically Incorrect" and other shows. The cartoon has won Emmy and CableAce Awards and been included on several annual best-of-TV listings, such as TV Guide's.

Katz lives in Newton, Mass., a town that houses the highest percentage of psychologists and psychiatrists in the country, Katz says. Initially, Katz picked his neighbors' brains for realistic reactions.

"I started taking liberties," he says. "Therapists are not that funny."

But his show is, even if it does uphold certain stereotypes, which haven't changed that much over the decades.

TV shrinks have been making appointments before the days of Dr. Kildare. A short-lived drama series, "The Psychiatrist," ran in the early '70s; "The Bob Newhart Show" aired from 1972 to 1978; "Cheers" spinoff "Frasier," about stiff, effete call-in radio show host Frasier Crane, started in 1993. And a variety of therapists have popped up on prime-time shows from "Mad About You" to "The Nanny."

This fall, another take on the mental health profession premiers in "Cracker," an American version of the British series.

In film, the crackpot Dr. Dippy has evolved into Woody Allen's neurotic-chic therapists and "Conspiracy Theory's" plotting mind-control expert.

Fictional types

Most of these fictional mental health professionals fall into one of three categories, according to Krin Gabbard, co-author of "Psychiatry and the Cinema": Dr. Dippy, Dr. Wonderful and Dr. Evil.

Dr. Katz and Newhart are both Dr. Dippy incarnate, the waffling therapist who is needier than his patients.

Patient and caring, Dr. Wonderful is the one with all the answers: Judd Hirsch in "Ordinary People," for example, or, more recently, Barbra Streisand in "The Prince of Tides."

Then there's Dr. Evil, who's either crazy or has ulterior motives. This category is currently epitomized by Patrick Stewart in "Conspiracy Theory." But Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs" is probably the most notable Dr. Evil of late.

"Dr. Katz may not be competent, but he's not malicious," Katz says.

Most issues that fictional therapists face are just fantasy, but some reflect real moral dilemmas.

For instance, Dr. Katz has faced a sexual conflict with unexpected ethical aplomb. He chose to discontinue therapy with a patient with whom he experienced a mutual sexual attraction.

"Dr. Katz feels for his patients, but he doesn't feel his patients," Katz says.

But some screen shrinks do, such as Barbra Streisand in "The Prince of Tides." And some, while otherwise perfect, are oversexualized, such as Counselor Deanna Troi in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," an intergalactic siren comforting the crew with a sexy voice while wearing space Spandex.

"She makes my life miserable," says Ilsa Bick, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Fairfax, Va., who also writes papers about themes in movies and television. She violates Bick's concept of a responsible therapist. "She's seductive. She's touching her patients all the time."

When "Suddenly Susan's" Kathy Griffin declares that she needs Dr. Katz to hold her for a portion of therapy, he declines her offer to "spoon." Once, comedian Dom Irrera, male, proposed marriage.

"I did entertain the thought for a minute," says, Katz, briefly slipping into character. "That's probably something a therapist wouldn't do."

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