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Danny Katz: ‘I’m an idiot writing an idiot column posing as a wise man’

Anne Susskind
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Published: 17 August 2021

Last updated: 4 March 2024

The Canadian-born writer has been writing the Modern Guru column in Good Weekend for 20 years. He talks to Anne Susskind about fan mail, why he hates jokes and why Australia is so strange

FORGET DECORUM: it is only when you “forcefully remove your filters” that comedy can pop out, says writer and humourist Danny Katz, whose Modern Guru column has been appearing in the front of the Good Weekend magazine for 20 years. 

A spoof on an agony aunt column, Modern Guru mostly considers questions of modern etiquette, such as Should I have slopped sunscreen on a struggling stranger? Should you pay extra to share your Netflix login with your grasping in-laws? What to do in the face of deafening music on the beach? and What’s the right date to change over into my winter pjs?  

The questions, which I’d always presumed were concocted by Katz, are genuine and he receives between 15 and 30 a week. “Oh my God, that’s brutal”, he says, when he hears of my presumption, adding that “people are nuts. That’s a good thing.”

The letters he’d really like to explore are those he often can’t because they are, as his editor tells him, too low rent - people with weird sexual problems or genuinely scary relationship issues or suicidal thoughts. “You think, ‘Jesus, do you even know what I do?’ I’m an idiot writing an idiot column posing as a wise man.’

“I once received a beautiful letter from a 16-year-old who was having dark thoughts, and wrote back with suggestions of people to talk to; proper ‘non-idiot’ counsellors.

“I do try impart some feeble wisdom and actually try answer them but I have no insight into other humans. Sometimes you think, ‘well, there could be a weird way of solving this problem that’s slightly left field, a bit funny. But it actually could be a solution’.”

Katz is certainly funny in person and also funny on the page, a rare talent he has been delivering on, consistently, for 25 years across the Fairfax mastheads (Until recently he also wrote a weekly column for the Age). He has a dry, often deadpan tone, an easy familiarity and is a great observer with an eye for the ridiculous. Katz hates proper jokes (the kind with punchlines), perhaps because he’s not good at them. He doesn’t have the timing, he says. 

We all have little things in our head that we don’t say; when you remove the filters forcefully, that’s when comedy can pop out and unexpected things can be said.

He started out as a stand-up comedian. “What you learn from stand-up is to remove filters. We all have little things in our head that we don’t say, (you might) embarrass somebody or you’ll get yourself into trouble, and when you do remove the filters forcefully, that’s when comedy can pop out and unexpected things can be said.”

As you get older, though, it gets harder for fear of hurting others. Some people don’t have the tools to deal with unfiltered quips: “I’ve hurt people doing a little gag that I thought was hilarious. If it’s a friend, sometimes you don’t know about it till years later.

“I’ve had a few situations when I thought they were loving it, that we were riffing… In comedy, somebody has to get hurt… I know my mother hates it when I’m a bit off the cuff, she’s all about being polite and decorum, but really to work in comedy you have to be a bit risky. It’s all about status games, you’re punching down, you’re punching up and sideways.”

It helps that most of his friend circle is in comedy, in television, writing or stand-up. They all “take the piss” out of each other, a great Aussie trait, and he counts himself lucky in that his wife, Mitch, a “pretty spectacular human”, and a very kind person, keeps him in line. 

It is, he knows, tricky for her to be in a relationship with a comedian. Your life and your world become fodder, and how can it not? But she signed up for it, he says, and they’ve made some money out of it. “It’s me punching up. She knows that she’s much better than me. She edits all my work and life…  If I’m in public and I’m launching into one of my no filter rants, she will give me a nudge or evil glare and shut me up.” Often, he will disguise people by changing their sex, or the environment.

Canadian born, Katz came to Australia with his parents at age seven. Before that, his father, a geologist, had been something of an “academic missionary” in Sri Lanka as part of the Colombo plan (which saw western academics and professionals placed in third world universities to try educate the locals to manage on their own). After four years in Kandy, his father was offered a job in Sydney.

I do try impart some feeble wisdom and actually try answer them but I have no insight into other humans.

Both countries are big, empty and of little global relevance, says Katz, but Australia is a bit edgier with a sense of humour and a rawness he likes.  

In Australia, he says, people “go mental” over Canada and, alongside his Judaism, he still draws on his Canadian roots as an ice-breaker. His identity, like that of many Jewish people, is all over the show and he likes that. He says he is Australian Canadian, does not believe in God, loathes formal religion but is passionate about Jewish culture and the arty side, and feels a massive spiritual connection when he travels in south-east Asia.

“I like to just be a human being… I’m the luckiest person, the more you can be, the deeper your life is going to be.”

Danny Katz in relaxed mode (James Willis (SMH/Age)
Danny Katz in relaxed mode (James Willis (SMH/Age)

When Katz moved to Melbourne (Mitch is from Melbourne) he was quite shocked by the “real hard core Jewish scene, very proud and a little isolated - a fortress” while Sydney Jews are “a little more just general members” of the community. The Melbourne way, he says, is not healthy PR for the Jews generally, with a lot of Melbournians just seeing Jews as people in Hasidic garb.

Some of the most hateful reader mail he’s ever received - as bad as from neo-Nazi groups - has come from conservative Jews who find out his wife isn’t Jewish (although she loves all the holidays, pushed for the Shabbat candles for the kids and eats a box of matzah every week), or perhaps when he “takes the piss out of Passover”.

And when he talks about himself in a self-deprecating way, some people are defensive and may feel he’s doing a disservice to the Jewish community. But really the plan is to make Jews more relatable to the broader community, just a regular part of humanity.

“It can get me into trouble, because people think if I’m making fun of myself, then I’m making fun of all people who are like me, but I’m not… I’m happy to be the butt of all my jokes or other people’s. I have no pride or shame. I seriously don’t care, if the jokes are funny.”

Australia is such a strange country… so removed from the rest of the world. It’s still got so much white Britishness about it.

The mail he gets from non-Jewish readers about his Jewish columns often says, “I love the Jews, this is so great to read, you guys are so funny and o interesting, I wish I was Jewish myself.” Katz says he doesn’t “really buy the special thing” that Jews have. “I think the special thing has always been a problem; that’s what creates the antisemitism.”

Is Australia antisemitic? Katz doesn’t think Australians know enough Jews to be antisemitic. While an American Jew will instantly know Seinfeld is all-time classic Jewish humour, an Aussie won’t.  “It’s such a strange country… so removed from the rest of the world. It’s still got so much white Britishness about it. I don’t think it’s an antisemitic country, I think it’s quite a kind country, but I do think it needs a bit of educating about people from other backgrounds.”

As a boy, Katz says he was the only Jew at a “really working-class boys’ school” in Sydney’s east. “It was full on bad, bad, bad, crazy stuff, chucking five-cent pieces at me, pick it up Jew boy, the whole Jew jump thing. But they didn’t know what they were doing; they didn’t know what a Jew was. I don’t know where they learnt this stuff. In hindsight, it was hilarious and I have used it as fodder for books and material, but at the time it was horrendous.”

I don’t think it’s an antisemitic country, I think it’s quite a kind country, but I do think it needs a bit of educating about people from other backgrounds.

Like most of us, he’s flummoxed when he’s in conversation and someone says something like ‘Don’t be such a Jew’ to their partner. “I’ve just thought what do I do with this? I’ve spoken up but I’ve tried to do it humorously because I know it didn’t come from a place of hate, it was just hard-wired into them, like ‘I got gypped’ from gypsy. If you can do it in a nice way, then no one is going to feel ashamed. I don’t want to turn it into a thing.”

What’s next? At 57, having given up the column in The Age, Katz will continue writing children’s books with his wife, who is a painter and illustrator. He’s working on a musical, a sort of epic rock opera based on the legend of the Golem of Prague. He and a very good friend started it when they were younger, but they’d had a terrible fight and never spoken again. The friend died last year, which inspired him to re-look at it and give it another go.

For the first time, he sounds wistful: “Making people laugh is important, but I’d like to try something new. It’s funny in parts, but it’s a really heavy topic. It occurred to me the other day that I’ve done a lot of comedy and it would be nice to write something really beautiful… and a little important.”

Photo: Danny Katz (Mitch Vane)

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