A Friendly Chat with Tom Snyder

Tom Snyder is the creator of Squigglevision, the animation style made famous by Comedy Central’s cult classic series Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, which he created with Jonathan Katz.  He was the executive producer of Home Movies, Hey Monie!, and Science Court. He also composed the music for many of these projects, including Dr. KatzScience Court and his web series Explosion Bus. He joined Joe Kennedy for a friendly chat about all of these things but most importantly his new AudioMusical™ Is Anyone All Right?

HeadStuff: I’m not a fan of musicals at all; I normally bolt from the room if someone threatens to put one on but I really enjoyed this because of the settings, the way the characters are normal people.

Tom Snyder: Thanks for your nice compliment on the musical. I, like you, sort of run from musicals in a lot of contexts, because it’s all so fabulously over the top. And I’m almost embarrassed with the excess of showmanship and emotion… not emotion, maybe but the big dance numbers and the people bursting into song. I think I’d prefer if people burst into flame. I am very attracted to the use of song as a way of expressing the emotions of characters . I’m hoping I can start a whole new thing.

HS: A whole new genre?

TS: Yeah the AudioMusical™ genre

HS: TM, trademarked as well I see!

TS: Yeah, you know how I trademarked it by the way?

HS: No?

TS: I put a T and an M after the word

HS: That’s very creative

TS: Well I went the fuckin distance on that one. You know I have to take my career seriously.  It took a long time to figure out this genre and figure out how much story there should be and how much song and how much narration versus voiceover. It’s funny, you’re the first fella I’ve talked to from Ireland and one of the actresses is Irish.  You know why I did it? I was writing this character who, in the US we would say is on the spectrum and often they can sound pretty angry, when they’re not angry they’re just being specific and I was thinking of some Irish women I’ve met in pubs who I thought were angry, their diction was so sharp. And I realized it was just like going to Brooklyn in New York. And you ask a guy from Brooklyn “Excuse me do you know where Bond Street is” and he’ll say, “What’s your problem?” You realize that to his ear he’s just saying “How can I help you sir” but it comes out ”What’s your fuckin problem?” and I thought it would be great, especially for American audiences , she wouldn’t sound angry exactly but very direct.

HS: Have you been to Ireland?

TS: I have, I was a young man just out of college which was a long time ago for me. I remember picking up a hitchhiker and he wanted to talk about the troubles about which I knew nothing about save the Paul McCartney song. I started singing it and apparently it was the wrong song. You know. I had no idea about any of it. It was a good song. I think he wanted to be let out but it was a good song.

 HS: One thing I noticed about your characters is that nobody sings at each other. There are duets but they’re singing for themselves.

TS: You’re very perceptive. You’re the first person who has mentioned that. And I remember coming home one afternoon or evening and saying to my wife, ‘I had a breakthrough! It’s gonna make all the difference in the world. I wrote the entire thing in the third person and the narrator’s omniscient but doesn’t know what people are thinking.

In any other novel you read in the third person, normally they say  so-and-so just entered the room and she was feeling very self-conscious and I just decided I’m never gonna do that, I’m never going to have a narrator know what she was thinking, and the only way you’d find out is if she said it but mostly if she’s saying it or he’s saying it.  And so the song is basically a monologue about their feelings and you’re so right, I’m glad you noticed it when Pablo and Ben are singing to each other they’re sort of singing in the same room about each other.

Then, the only time there’s sort of a duet is at the very end when they’re both singing the jukebox song of ‘My Side of the Bar’ and I’d written a song that worked with both of them singing what if they’d never sort of crossed the bar, from her position behind it working in him as being a patron.

The team behind Dr. Katz. l-r Tom Snyder, H. Jon Benjamin, Jonathan Katz, Laura Silverman, and Todd Barry
The team behind Dr. Katz. l-r Tom Snyder, H. Jon Benjamin, Jonathan Katz, Laura Silverman, and Todd Barry via learnedleague.com

HS: Ok, so when I write I’m always one of the characters. Were you Ben maybe, or…I’m assuming not Dirk?

TS: Yes, ah! I’m glad I’m not Dirk. And by the way I named him Dirk to remind myself every day that he was a dick. But I am so thoroughly Ben it’s embarrassing. It’s funny, I’ve written a lot of shows for TV and never written myself in as a character, never once, but this was so much more personal and I got to realizing that I’m gonna kinda create minds through these things and I wanted to be much more personal than one who’s in a sitcom, or something like that

HS: You were writing this for a long time, I gather.

TS: Yeah, two and a half years I worked on it, but I really started trying to write, musicals or Broadway style musicals back in the early 2000’s and I had a couple shopped  and I’d done stage reads, where afterwards people said wow, this is good, this is really going somewhere but I kept on abandoning them because I hadn’t hit the formula that I wanted that I’d hit with this which is a very simple cast of five, just three settings, not a complicated mystery or anything like that, just a simple set of relationships.

HS: There was the line I really enjoyed – “only one in ten million businesses succeed”

TS: (Laughter) I know, I know, though, I kept on changing the number from billion. It was billion for a while and then because he thinks of himself as a numbers guy (Laughter). My son who read it, had me take out a lot of malapropisms that he had done that just made him sound too stupid, not realizing I couldn’t make him sound too stupid

HS: Of course, no then how could he have Emily, I guess (laughter)

TS: Yes, well it’s awful, it’s pretty questionable why she would stick with him, although  if you think about it at all, mostly women but some guys do it too, where they stick with the wrong person, sometimes the person who’s truly dangerously wrong  for you and there’s no explaining. Sometimes in fiction you feel it’s your job to explain why he or she should be sticking with someone and sometimes you go, well because they do, ya know, they do until they don’t.

HS: Before you started trying out the musicals on Broadway were you interested in musicals when you were younger? Did you maybe perform in some when you were in high school or anything?

TS: No, I’ve always seen myself as funny and a writer, I’ve never seen myself as a great performer, but as a young boy, my mother professionally was on Broadway, that’s where her job was, and so I would go down to New York and by the time I was born she had quit to become a mother and moved out of New York City but I would go down on the train with my mother and sister to see musicals by Rogers and Hammerstein who were really the greats. I just couldn’t believe how much I loved them. My mother was actually pretty crazy. She drank a lot because that’s what you did on Broadway, she smoked a lot, she was very underweight because she was anorexic, always trying to lose weight for the parts and she was actually kind of ill  and my father was just out of World War 2 and violent. He came back from five years fighting both the Germans and the Japanese and so he put up with no shit from me, and my mother was no help and so emotionally, I had no outlet really. I was very quiet everyone told me, I always had a frown on my face but I’d come home from school at the end of the day and my mother or my sister would be playing the musicals on the record player and I quickly learned to sing all the songs and I taught myself piano so I could play along with all the songs and then I started figuring out that in addition to the words and melodies the chords that that were used were much more expressive than chords in rock and roll.

Chords are pretty much simple 1-4-5 structures, you know, C F G, sort of things, so I taught myself that sort of 1-4-5 pop, east-western music structure, and then I would hear this diminished chord, or a chord that was temporarily out of the key but then came back to the key through a circle of fifths or something and I realized it was so surprising and so emotional if it was used at the right moment in the song that this opened a whole world of emotion to me that makes me who I am today. I never would have been me if I hadn’t discovered this so it was really a lifesaver for me, there’s no question about it.

HS: It took you out of your shell.

TS: I guess it did. It gave me a secret place to have a deeply emotional life because I couldn’t in front of my father. If I acted even a little bit enthusiastic or whatever he would accuse me of being a faggot or he’d hit me (laugh). And certainly if I cried he would. My mother was pretty much the same. She didn’t accept much in me.

Then I got into writing because there are certain musicals that by modern standards are not laugh out loud funny, but the music is so clever and so fun and that was the kind of clever lyricism that I built my sense of humor on when I was young and then it became much more inappropriate and improvisational-based as I got more into stand-up comedy and adult comedy

HS: How did you first get into comedy? From what I’ve read you had a software company?

TS: I did, well actually, my first career was when I turned eighteen I moved temporarily to Los Angeles because I got a recording contact singing with a rock and roll band because I became quite proficient at music and writing songs. I wrote, very Paul McCartney-esque rock songs that even I was able to sell and get into a band first in LA and then in New York and then when I got out of that I went into teaching which might not surprise you given the story of Ben. I became Ben, a very dedicated teacher who loved explaining complicated things to kids in unusual way. I taught for a good long time and then I started a software company to sell educational software when the personal computer first came out and then after running that for quite a while I developed some graphics routines that allowed me to do animation very cheaply.

picture from Dr. Katz
Dr Katz: Professional Therapist, animated in Squigglevision via behindthevoiceactors.com

HS: Squigglevision!

TS: To this day when I’m interviewed they’ll say, ‘Did you create Squigglevision for Dr. Katz to create a sense of angst in the psychological patients?’ and I would lie and say, ‘Yes I did, yes, I did’. That’s exactly what I made at Squiggle. Well actually I made a Squiggle because I can do it about one thousandth the cost of any of my competitors in the United States. And then I started meeting an awful lot of comics and for twenty years I’ve been hanging out with comedians which is the most fun I’ve had. It’s not the most fun in the business sentiment because they don’t have this thing called a ‘work ethic’ (laughter), and I have such a work ethic from having started business-y stuff and having been a teacher that it was very frustrating for me trying to include them and make them producers in shows and stuff like that.

So that was one of the fun things when I just decided to do this musical because I could, I wrote all the music myself, I wrote the lyrics myself, I wrote the book myself, I did all the digital audio editing myself which I knew how to do from my computer days and my recording days so it was just a really fun thing to do on my own and then all of the collaboration really was with the singers and the actors when they would come into my studio.

HS: Looking back does your career make sense to you? Was there an obvious progression?

TS: Looking back yeah. But going forward people are saying  “are you fuckin nuts, you’re leaving teaching to start a software company? In 1980 when there’s one personal computer on the market?” And then “are you fucking messing you’re going to do animation for adults when no-one has done that?” And then, they said “are you fucking nuts, you’re going to make a musical for audio?” (Laughter) And I’m currently still at the stage where people are saying “are you fucking nuts, you’ve made a musical for audio?”, so I’m getting to live in that delightful world.

HS: I must ask you about Home Movies. I was probably a bit too young to get Dr. Katz at the time but Home Movies came out when broadband came along and my friend somehow procured me all the episodes of it

TS: Oh, good, good

Scene from Home Movies
Home Movies via about.com

HS: Yeah, I absolutely loved it, I was crazy about it. Could you tell me a bit about how that started?

TS: When I started Dr. Katz, I hired this kid, just to be a technical support for me, who was a bouncer actually in a bar but he wasn’t a big bruiser. I had taught him when he was in the fifth grade and his mom had died so I was kinda looking after him. He hadn’t finished high school or gone to college so I brought him in and taught him how to do the digital audio editing, taught him how to do the outlining, and made him a producer on Dr. Katz, which he did for all the remaining seasons of Dr. Katz, which were six or seven I guess.

Then I did a second show, which he helped on, and then I started saying to him, it’s time for you to have your own show, and what I want you to do, is go out to clubs, and you’ve gotta get a comedy crush on a comedian. I had this sort of comedy crush on Jonathan Katz, this standup comedian, because I’d seen him on a lot of TV, and so I based my first show around Jonathan so I said, you’ve got to find someone whose comedy you really trust and who’s funny with their hands tied behind their back. And even if you think you’re funny, as I did, you’re not as good as the stand-up comedian who’s going out there fearlessly night after night after night and holding their material. So he did that, and he went out and found a young man who lived in my hometown called Brendon Small.

The earliest manifestation of it, the characters were insects but then A Bug’s Life and Antz  both came out in the same fucking summer, and it was that summer, and, and he’s like, ‘Uh Oh!’ and so he left that idea and then he went back to work on it and he was very excited about the idea of Home Movies, as in, what people take at home, and this was of course before digital cameras, not long before but a little.

I gave it my 100% blessing especially when he was talking about the home videos being sort of analogs, or metaphors for adult issues. It seemed very rich and sophisticated that way. And then I was working with Paula Poundstone. She was the original mother in Home Movies, and she was in my current show and Loren Bouchard, who was this kid who I had taught in fourth grade everything I knew about making Squigglevision animation and how to do digital audio editing. He put her in the show but then she didn’t get along with the cast of Home Movies for some reason. Some of the newer cast, I’m not sure who it was. I never wanted to know because I love Paula and I didn’t want to lose my relationship with her. She’s the funniest person in the world and there’s a show called Science Court on Squigglevision that you can look up online and she played the judge.

Jon Benjamin, who plays the little kid in Home Movies, plays the expert witness in every Science Court, and also plays the son of Dr. Katz.

HS: Yeah, of course, and so much more now

TS: He’s just made it huge and really his success has been in animation. He tries to get on camera and maybe someday it’ll work. I don’t think he commits as much on camera as he does in the sound booth.

I remember we did one episode of Dr. Katz, that was meeting Dr. Katz’s ex-wife, the one time we were gonna meet her and we had Carrie Fisher playing his ex-wife. We had her in the booth, it was really exciting and we had Jon Benjamin, and she was trapped, trying to cook in the kitchen and Ben went out in the kitchen to help and my only instruction to him was ‘Ben, I want you to lose it, because the turkey is burning’, and it was twenty minutes of like, the end of the world. All of which we got on tape, and had to reduce it to about twenty seconds, we had to cut out all the swears without bleeping it. He was screaming, ‘Fire in the hole!’ I mean, he was just going nuts, and you could count on him to do that in the booth.

Home Movies then lost Paula Poundstone and picked up another woman to be the mom and Benjamin started as one of the kids, but Coach McGuirk obviously was so perfect for him

Now are you familiar with the American show Bob’s Burgers?

HS: Oh yes, I am, yes.

TS: That also is produced by this kid, Loren Bouchard who I had hired, who is off now on his own producing animated shows. And if you look at the cast of all his shows, they’re all people from Dr. Katz or Home Movies. We made so many friends back in the 90s with comedians that we just fell in love with many of whom were from the Boston area. I’m from Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is right across the river from Boston and that’s where Jon Benjamin is from, and Laura Silverman, and ya know, everybody, everybody. Louis CK, and all those guys

HS: Is anything further going to happen with the Explosion Bus?

TS: I don’t know because I never cracked the nut of how to sell it on the web. I hired this one expert about a year ago and she said I should definitely start it up because it came out about five years too early before people were doing any sort of long form stuff on the web.

I haven’t touched that website in five years, or four years or whatever. So whatever’s on. And, in addition to Explosion Bus we did a lot of other comedy little bits that are on there with me doing fake bad teaching, and puppetry, I mean it basically was just a holding place for every funny idea that Jon Katz and I had for two years.

HS: There’s one last question I wanted to ask. What does the ‘FF’ stand for in your name?

TS: I have two little names. One is Fenimore. I was related to an American writer from the 19th Century, James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote The Last of the Mohicans, and um, other books, and then my mother’s family are French so the second middle name is French somehow, for the fact that I have many French relatives. It’s a really old, old pair of middle names that have been handed down.

Main image via Tom Snyder
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