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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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."

Therapists probably wouldn't be as understanding as Dr. Katz, either, when patients show up days early or late for an appointment and interrupt therapy sessions.

"Calling me outside of session hours is for when you are dying. If you're not dying, deal with it," Bick says. "We're doctors. We take charge."

Nutty home life

Dr. Katz doesn't only have problems setting boundaries for his patients. Take his own domestic mess. "It would make people uncomfortable to know about the personal lives of their therapists," Katz says. "They're not any more skilled than other people."

Enter Ben, Katz's 24-year-old, ambition-impaired son. Dr. Katz tries to employ his soothing technique at home but can't tell Ben directly to put down his comic books and get a job.

Playing Dr. Parent is futile, says Rachel Cope Goldfarb, a mental health counselor at Magnolia Elementary School in Prince George's County. She's learned from experience with her own kids.

"They'll say, 'Cut the counselor you're our mother, that's all we ask of you,'" she says. "They can always tell when I'm trying to do something clinical."

Problems also arise when the therapist adopts his patients as a surrogate family. Bob Newhart's Bob Hartley took his patients on therapeutic field trips only to have his good intentions mangled by endless bickering and fussing.

But Goldfarb doesn't take offense to the exposure of these weaknesses, which are part and parcel of the entertainment media's portrayals of her profession.

And Katz maintains that he got a marvelous reception performing comedy for members of the American Psychiatric Association. "They laugh in spite of themselves," he says. "Dr. Katz can say the things they wish they could say."

But Leon Levin, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical School, doesn't think the Tinseltown treatment is that innocuous. "It can trivialize the need for treatment and the treatment itself," he says.

Levin thinks these portrayals may have something to do with show-biz movers and shakers who receive therapy and have repressed revenge fantasies.

"The stereotypes reflect defensive perceptions," Levin says. "They turn the tables, so the psychiatrist is the needy or stupid one, when that may be how people feel in the presence of psychiatrists."

For Katz, "about $35,000 worth" of therapy in his lifetime is one of the only gripes he has against the profession.

His animated alter-ego charges $150 an hour. "It's a competitive rate," Katz maintains. "He may start charging his patients by the problem."

A realistic view

If Levin could create his own faux-shrink, it would be "Dr. Realistic," who would portray therapists and the challenges they face with sensitivity and accuracy.

One of Dr. Katz's greatest challenges is trying to be a good father to Ben. And in the episode where he played dirty in a child's game with his son, he was plagued with guilt.

So he called his celluloid psychologist - Dr. Harvey Greenberg - an animated version of the flesh-and-blood clinical professor of psychology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

Greenberg won a contest to portray Dr. Katz's shrink on the show. More than one hundred mental health professionals gathered at Katz's Delicatessen in New York City's Lower East Side to tell Katz a funny story.

If Greenberg was Dr. Katz's real shrink, he would encourage him to kick Ben out of the house.

"Ben is a perennial adolescent. He drags Dr. Katz down to his level," he says. "I would tell the two of them to go into couples therapy together."

Only Dr. Wonderful could handle that.

ANALYZING THE ANALYSTS

According to Krin and Glen O. Gabbard's book, "Psychiatry and the Cinema," both big- and small-screen shrinks fit into one of three categories.

Dr. Dippy

Needy, unfocused, possibly more messed up than patients, yet cute.

Dr. Katz: During his down time, he affirms himself into a miniature tape recorder:

Who's your favorite professional therapist?

You are, you bad, bad Dr. Katz ...

Frasier: Dr. Crane is the host of a call-in analysis show, even though his dog Eddie is more stable than he is.

Bob Newhart: A champion of group therapy, Bob Hartley is a soft-spoken shrink overwhelmed by critical neurotics.

Dr. Wonderful

The shining shrink with the power to heal and inspire.

Judd Hirsch in "Ordinary People": Dr. Berger is eccentric, but also human enough to hug.

Counselor Deanna Troi on "Star Trek: The Next Generation": She can actually feel your emotions without a word. If only.

Barbra Streisand in "The Prince of Tides": She valiantly attempts to get to the bottom of a brilliant poet's suicidal tendencies by analyzing the artist's brother. Quite admirable, until they move from the couch to the bedroom.

Dr. Evil

A manipulative mercenary, libidinous creep or total lunatic.

Patrick Stewart in "Conspiracy Theory": This wicked doc tries nasty mind-control techniques on Mel Gibson.

Anthony Hopkins in "The Silence of the Lambs": The brilliant Hannibal Lecter would probably make a great shrink if he stopped imagining how his patients would taste with a good Chianti.

Louise Fletcher in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest": Frigid Nurse Ratched believes there's no mental problem a few strong volts of electricity can't cure.

Pub Date: 9/10/97

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