When the animated series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist was canceled in 1999, its fans reacted with a natural hoarding instinct: They recorded the final marathons and braced themselves for a couple of Katz-less years. But scarcity soon turned to famine. While every other cartoon in the history of the world came out on DVD, Dr. Katz remained inexplicably locked in the Comedy Central vault. Ray Romano, Dr. Katz’s breakout guest star, passed through the entire sitcom life cycle: pilot, fame, reruns, DVD. Still no Dr. Katz. Fans got desperate. A grass-roots movement collected online signatures demanding a DVD. Bidding wars erupted on eBay over fuzzy home-recorded VHS versions of the complete series, then over even fuzzier DVDs copied from the VHS.
It’s clear that Dr. Katz indeed greatly influenced the TV sitcom—from the fantastic (Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office) to the intermittently terrific (Life with Bonnie) to the just plain awful (Fat Actress). Its conversational stutters, false starts, overlaps, and interruptions paved the way for shows—such as the late, great Arrested Development—that used the patterns of real-life talk (and its awkward silences) as a source for laughs. Lots of stand-up comedians laid down on Katz’s couch—Jon Stewart, Wanda Sykes, and Dave Chappelle all appeared on the show; Sykes was a sort-of regular. Its casual approach—nothing much ever happens on Dr. Katz fit well into the 1990s zeitgeist. (See: Seinfeld, Friends, and every other New York-based sitcom from 1995-2000. And, god, there were a lot of them.) It’s hard to imagine the success of South Park’s limited, crude animation without Dr. Katz before it. Hell, they were both on the same channel.
It’s a shame that Dr. Katz wasn’t particularly funny. Anderson admits as much: “Though Dr. Katz rarely makes you laugh out loud, it will take you to a place that American comedy too often ignores: It will keep you blissfully suspended, for hours, on the edge of laughter.” Sorry, Sam, but I’d rather laugh.
And this has got me thinking about influence, and how much of an artwork’s greatness we can attribute to it. How do we define “great art?” The three criteria for greatness are: 1) aesthetic superiority; 2) commercial and/or critical popularity; and 3) influence on later artworks. Truly great artists—Michelangelo, the Beatles, John Coltrane, Jean Renoir, Mark Twain—seem to have all three traits in roughly equal proportions.
Here’s where this gets contentious. Take, for instance, Björk. I think she’s one of the most innovative musicians of the last 25 years, but I wonder if she’s great with a capital “G.” Certainly, her recordings are gorgeous, and she’s got a sizable cult of fans. But is she influential at all to other musicians? She seems to be sui generis, still, after over two decades of recording. I don’t see other pop stars doing what she does musically or even in her videos.
Or what about artists who were very popular with both audiences and critics during their lifetimes, but whose actual art wasn’t particularly great nor had lasting influence? The Pulitzer Prizes are littered with writers—Herman Wouk, James Gould Cozzens, Edna St. Vincent Millay—who were revered while they were alive, but who nobody reads now. Are these great artists?
Which leads us back to Dr. Katz. Can we call it a great show even though, aesthetically, it wasn’t usually that good? Its “Squigglevision” technique made me seasick after a while; its framing and compositions were uninteresting; the conversations fell flat more often than they floated. The plots weren’t tightly structured—if nothing else, Dr. Katz gives me even more appreciation for the mostly improvised Curb Your Enthusiasm, the episodes of which click together with decisive snaps.
Nevertheless, Dr. Katz was one of the shows that made it okay for American cartoons to be geared towards adults. Its gifts were honed and sharpened on later, better countless TV comedies, animated or not. Dr. Katz’s fans are what Malcolm Gladwell calls “early adopters,” people who latched onto a trend, a style, an aesthetic before the rest of the world caught up.
Or before the style got good enough to be worth latching on.
Of the three aforementioned criteria, I think #2 is the least important. Fashion fades; remember when Guns ‘N’ Roses was the biggest band in America? Critical attention ebbs and flows, too, which is why Faulkner only got the fame he deserved decades after his best stuff had been written. But popularity does give us a sense that an artist has his finger on the pulse of the culture, and that can’t be ignored.
Even this is suspect, though. Last weekend, I drove down to New Orleans for a 4th of July pleasure trip to that most un-American (and yet most American) of American cities. I blazed the deluxe version of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend as I drove, and several things struck me. One, Girlfriend is one of the greatest rock albums of the last 15 years. Two, it’s great to drive to. Three, its mixture of gorgeous harmonies, squalling and grating guitars, and pop lyrics is a concoction that doesn’t seem dated at all.
Girlfriend came out in 1991, the same year as Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten. The year ushered in grunge. Sweet’s album shared some of the genre’s dynamics on the surface—it’s noisier than a cement mixer; it swings from forlorn to ecstatic in a heartbeat, and back again. But Girlfriend still believes in fantastic solos, clean production values, catchy tunes, and songs about love. It’s like Sonic Youth and the Beach Boys decided to make a record together, and the effect is an album that’s still startling and weird.
Now, Girlfriend was the most popular (and best) album Sweet’s produced. But its sales and critical attention paled in comparison to the Seattle juggernauts. But who says the word “grunge” without irony these days? Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Temple of the Dog, Mudhoney, and the rest are barely listenable once you’re out of high school.
Girlfriend, meanwhile, sounds better every year. It’s the definition of a great pop record, of great art. But, unlike Dr. Katz, lots of Girlfriend’s influence has veered towards the bad. Gin Blossoms, Matchbox 20, No Doubt, and the Goo Goo Dolls all owe a great debt to Sweet, but we’re the ones who are having to pay. Girlfriend certainly meets criteria #1 and #2, but #3 if iffy.
Then again, what great piece hasn’t brought on lesser spirits? Dr. Katz works the opposite way—it’s a mediocre show that led to plenty of terrific ones. It’s a qualified greatness, but I’m feeling charitable.