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The professional
For six seasons, his Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist was a Comedy Central hit. Now, Newton comic Jonathan Katz is using humor to tackle a new challenge: multiple sclerosis.

JONATHAN KATZ may have multiple sclerosis, but save your pity for someone who needs it. "Comedy," says Katz, "is kind of my salvation."

Itís not surprising; the 58-year-old Newton resident has made a living from being funny for decades, and has been a veritable comedic staple since his Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist debuted as Comedy Centralís first animated series in 1995 ó and won the network its first Emmy Award. Nine Letterman appearances, several David Mamet films, and numerous awards later, Katzís working life shouldíve been smooth sailing. But his 1997 MS diagnosis provided an unexpected wrinkle. "I was afraid that no one would ever hire me again," he admits.

He neednít have worried. Katzís first book, To-Do Lists of the Dead (Andrews McMeel), was published in 2000, and heís currently working on his autobiography; heís made frequent public appearances to talk about living with MS; he continues his cinematic career, appearing most recently in the 2003 Eddie Murphy film Daddy Day Care; and he brings his new show, 75 Laughs: An Evening with Jonathan Katz, to Somerville this week.

And despite whatever physical challenges he faces as a result of his illness, his sense of humor remains blessedly intact.

Q: Do you mind if I turn on a tape recorder?

A: No. In fact, I wish you would. Do you mind if I record my end of the conversation?

Q: Whyís that?

A: In case I say anything funny. Hasnít happened yet. I mean, itís happened in my life, but not today.

We are rolling. A guy walks into a bar ...

Q: Whenís the last time you told that joke?

A: I think it was the last time I saw a guy walk into a bar, actually. Iím very literal.

Q: Tell me about the show youíre doing at Jimmy Tingleís Off Broadway.

A: Itís so complex. Itís called 75 Laughs. Even the name is very deliberate. It has to do with the fact that in comedy clubs, if youíre a laugh-a-minute guy, youíll get fired. And I didnít want to feel that kind of pressure, because I donít want to promise more than a laugh a minute, even though I suspect that will happen. I know there are going to be guys in the audience counting. Like my father-in-law.

Working in a theater for me is really exciting. This is a very ambitious production for me.

Q: Why?

A: Because Iím not just doing my act, Iím staging Dr. Katz live, some of it. Iím showing clips from other animated shows. Iím talking about living with MS. Iím reading excerpts from my book on tape, which is kind of a very subtle joke, reading excerpts from a book on tape. Because I had made a book on tape, I printed it out, and Iíll be reading from that. But itís not that good a joke; it just happens to be subtle. Iíll be doing a live radio show. Iíll be doing stand-up.

Q: You havenít done stand-up in a while. What have you been up to?

A: For a couple of years, I made a living talking about living with MS, and I was on the payroll of a drug company. I developed this odd sense of competition with other people who did the same thing, who were celebrities ó which I am, kinda ó who would talk about living with MS.

Q: Who else was talking about it?

A: David Lander, the guy who was Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley. Teri Garr. And Teri Garr and I became good friends, because weíre part of a very small group of people. One day I said to her, "Teri, Iím going to make you wish you had lupus."

Q: And does she, do you think?

A: No. But those are the kind of jokes you get to make if youíre working on the disease circuit.

Q: What makes a good stand-up audience?

A: When I worked in clubs, I used to feel like I was wearing a tutu performing for pirates. That would constitute a bad audience. So I guess no pirates.

Q: Keep the tutu?

A: Iíd take off the tutu. Iíd put on something slinky.

I guess [an audience with] a good attention span is a big help for me. My comedy is pretty slow-burning. Oh, please donít fall asleep. My style of comedy, itís not for everybody, itís for everybody else. I mean, there are people who will never find me even slightly appealing, and there are other people who will travel hundreds of miles to see me bomb.

Q: Are you the hit at dinner parties, or the irritation?

A: You tell me. We went to a dinner party two nights ago. On the way there, some very aggressive woman cuts me off in her Mercedes. I gave her the finger. Twenty minutes later, Iím sitting opposite her at the dinner party. But my short-term memory is so bad that I canít remember if I gave her the finger. So I gave it to her again.

Q: How do you think Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist affected the world of comedy, and specifically Comedy Central?

A: Well, the world of comedy, I think there wasnít much of an appetite at that time for adult animation. And Iím using the word "adult" advisedly. Because I went to an adult book store the other day.

Q: Whole different thing.

A: Yup. Totally. And I consider myself pretty grown up.

Dr. Katz began as interstitials on Comedy Central. And then we discovered there was an appetite for what we were doing. Iíve said in a glib kind of way that I put Comedy Central on the map. I didnít really put them on the map, but I did nothing to remove them from the map. We won their first Emmy Award. Cable Ace Awards, a Peabody Award for Excellence in Broadcasting. And, what other people donít know is that we won three soccer awards. We had a soccer team.

Q: You did not.

A: No, I made that up. I was just on a roll.

Q: Tell me about your MS diagnosis.

A: In í96, I was working on a sit-com called Ink, with Ted Danson and his wife, Mary Steenburgen. And after every show, we would take a curtain call, and I noticed it would take me a little longer to get to the audience to bow. I called my doctor and I said, "I think thereís something going on." He said, "Well, youíre probably not having a heart attack, but I would like you to see a neurologist when you get back." And then a few months later I was diagnosed with MS. [My wife] Suzy and I saw a neurologist together, and I said, "What does a 49-year-old guy do when he finds out he has MS?" Because I really didnít know what it meant at the time. And he said, "Well, some guys have 10 affairs; other guys climb Mount Everest." So we talked it over, and we decided on one affair and three romantic dinners.

Q: And no Everest.

A: Yeah, because Iím not an outdoorsman.

Q: Initially you kept your MS a secret?

A: Yeah. I was afraid that no one would ever hire me again. I was producing a TV show called Raising Dad in LA, and the physical demands of the job were really wearing me down. Even harder than having MS is pretending not to have it. I was constantly covering my tracks. At one point I was telling people I had plantar fasciitis, and then I started saying eggplant parmesan, because it sounded a little bit similar. But they saw through that scam. People are not idiots.

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Issue Date: January 28 - February 3, 2005
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