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Small-screen shrinks

Psychiatrists from Bob Newhart’s Bob Hartley to Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane prove that laughter is the best medicine

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The voice of any sort of psychotherapist on TV, from Dr. Joyce Brothers to the title character of the Comedy Central cartoon Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, is invariably low and soothing, a confidential murmur designed to put you at ease. (Big exception to this rule: Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the subject of a typically featherweight yet interesting A&E Biography on June 30. With her shrieky babble, Westheimer distinguishes herself as TV’s only jarring therapeutic voice.)

The recent TV season contained a good number of therapists: Mad About You‘s Paul and Jamie had a low-level-wacko one, played with subtle schizophrenia by Mo Gaffney. On The Nanny, Fran Drescher was mollified by a shrink in the person of Spalding Gray, the actor-monologuist whose fuzzy-blanket vocal cords always radiate a hypnotic warmth. It’s a general rule that the most successful TV therapists are found in sitcoms; dramas about the profession tend to be downers in need of the entertainment version of Prozac. Even a perfectly decent series like this season’s now-canceled (but still airing) Moloney, starring Peter Strauss as a head doctor working with the police, failed to find much of an audience, despite its fresh takes on the profession.

No, viewers don’t much care to spend an hour taking other people’s problems seriously; we prefer to see a sufferer’s pain get either resolved quickly or just made fun of. For proof of this, think of those silly siblings of the superego, Doctors Frasier and Niles Crane on Frasier. Or, even better, TV’s most beloved therapist — the one Bob Newhart portrayed for six years on The Bob Newhart Show, which Nickelodeon reruns weeknights at 12:30 a.m. (a perfect time for a couch session, by the way — do you ever get that after-midnight feeling where you can’t tell whether you’re a filthy speck in a cruelly immaculate universe, or just really, really drowsy?).

You’ll recall that Newhart’s psychologist Bob Hartley specialized in group therapy; for example, the session that included the hostile, sarcastic Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley), the neurotically insecure Mr. Herd (Oliver Clark), and the nattering knitter, elderly Mrs. Bakerman (Florida Friebus). One of the brilliant aspects of this series was the way the writers used Newhart’s stand-up-comic persona — a poker-faced, waffling mumbler — to make Hartley a believable professional; another masterstroke was the way they had Carlin ridicule these very qualities. In an episode I caught recently, Bob was telling the group a typically roundabout anecdote. ”What’s the point of this story?” Carlin snaps. ”I haven’t gotten to the point,” says a sheepish Hartley. ”You rarely do,” sneers Carlin. Mrs. Bakerman pipes up, ”I love your stories — sometimes they put me to sleep!”

Like Dr. Bob Hartley, Dr. Katz is a bumbler who is nonetheless very serious and sincere. Dr. Katz, created and voiced by comedian Jonathan Katz, has just begun its second season. The best moments in this half-hour cartoon are the exchanges between Katz and his layabout son, Ben (H. Jon Benjamin), who has a voice every bit as calming as his father’s. Unfortunately, any given Katz spends most of its time with the patients, whose voices are provided by guest comedians doing bits and pieces from their stand-up acts. Thus the quality of an episode is dependent on the quality of the comic’s material, which is often excruciatingly dull.