Dana Gould’s Decade as Planet of the Apes’ Dr. Zaius

Gould as Dr. Z. Photo: Robert Cohen

Comedian, writer, and actor Dana Gould has parlayed a lifelong obsession with the original Planet of the Apes movie franchise into a cottage industry. For the past ten years, he has performed in full makeup as the ape planet’s Dr. Zaius, Minister of Science and relentless advocate for the destruction of the vile pestilence known as Man. In recent years, his Dr. Zaius has — pardon the expression — evolved into Dr. Z, an old-school journeyman actor and name-dropping raconteur with a ready reference to anyone who was anyone in Hollywood, from jet-skiing with Bob Goulet to appearing in a Pasadena Playhouse Production of With Six You Get Eggroll with a young Lindsay Wagner.

Since he debuted his incarnation of Dr. Zaius in 2012 at SF Sketchfest, Gould has performed it for friends’ events and on behalf of the Apes film, appearing on Turner Classic Movies to share dubious anecdotes about the film with Ben Mankiewicz, as well as on panels to celebrate a milestone anniversary of the sci-fi classic. Gould is at a loss to explain why the franchise so resonated with him growing up. “It was my baseball,” he says.

On February 14, Gould’s Dr. Z returns for season two of Hanging With Doctor Z, the YouTube talk show he launched in February 2021, when desperate times called for something sweet and stupid. As the glad-handing host, Gould’s Dr. Z has yukked it up with a game roster of Gould’s celebrity friends, including Patton Oswalt, Janet Varney, Tim Meadows, and Will Forte, along with Gould himself. Season two boasts another stellar guest line-up including Maria Bamford, Dave Foley, Bobcat Goldthwait (returning from the first season), Ron Funches, and “Weird Al” Yankovic.

The series is a labor of love; Gould wouldn’t exactly call it a cottage industry. “This show makes the opposite of profit,” he says, “but I love doing it.”

You were four years old when the original Planet of the Apes was released. So what was the first film in the series you saw?
I was six when Escape from the Planet of the Apes came out. My mother tells me that the commercial came on TV, I stood on the coffee table, looked them in the eye, pointed my finger at them, and said, “We’re going to see that.” They were so taken by that, and so we did.

That’s like seeing Phantom Menace before A New Hope, or Bowery Buckaroos before Dead End.
I surely wouldn’t have wanted to start off with Beneath the Planet of the Apes; I would have been traumatized. In 1973, my parents took me to see Battle for the Planet of the Apes. In the fall, the original aired on CBS. That set me off on the road.

What was your reaction to the original? Did you feel like it was superior to the sequels you’d seen?
I was 9; they were all awesome. When you’re a kid, the last movie you saw is the greatest movie you’ve ever seen.

By the time you caught up with it on TV, did you know the ending to Planet of the Apes?
I didn’t know the ending. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, okay, that makes sense. I was already prepped for downbeat ’70s cinema.

What was it about this franchise that so resonated with you?
I can’t explain it. I’m the runt of the litter. All my brothers are giants; I was the scrawny little kid reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. I’m sure a therapist would say I related to Charlton Heston railing against this upside-down civilization.

What is the origin story of the importance of being Dr. Zaius?  
When I was a writer on The Ben Stiller Show, I wrote a coming-to-your-town commercial parody for Planet of the Apes: The Musical. The B sketch was a “From the producers of Planet of the Apes: The Musical” commercial for a one-man show starring Hal Holbrook as Dr. Zaius performing Mark Twain Tonight. I wrote them because I wanted to wear the makeup. Ben is a big Apes fan as well, so I knew there was a chance of getting it into the show. We got canceled before we could do it. The musical idea ended up at The Simpsons before I got there. They did a fantastic job.

Cut to 2012. John Hodgman had seen a picture of an actor on the Apes set reading Mark Twain’s biography and had an internet challenge going for a video of someone dressed as Zaius performing Holbrook’s classic one-man show. I told him, “I wrote that sketch 20 years ago.” He asked me to do that at SF Sketchfest. I said no, but then I realized I am close friends with a lot of makeup artists. Greg Nicotero, an executive producer of The Walking Dead, is one of my best friends. He said, “Sure, we’ll do it.” I rented a Mark Twain outfit, and the rest is history.

What was it like when you first appeared in front of that audience as Dr. Zaius?
I knew there would be a laugh, but when the audience realized it wasn’t just a shitty mask and it would be more than they thought it was going to be, they went bananas.

That had to be thrilling after the hours getting made up.
It was totally worth it. It was a big room, and it was a beautiful combination of a passion of mine and my skill set. It was the kind of thing that was so weird, obscure, specific, and stupid. I love SCTV, I love Pee-wee Herman. I love comedy where smart people are being stupid, intentionally.

Did you think that would be it for Zaius?
After I did Sketchfest and it got on YouTube, Joel Hodgson of Mystery Science Theater, an old buddy, asked if I would appear on his telethon to crowdfund. I said 100 percent. I did a Russian doll thing with me doing Dr. Zaius doing William Shatner reciting “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” I showed it to John Landis, and he said, “More specific.” Then Wayne Federman asked me if I would do it on his Christmas show with Paul Williams, who was in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

From that, Turner Classic Movies asked if I would help introduce Planet of the Apes, which was being screened in theaters for Fathom Events. I appeared with host Ben Mankiewicz, and that’s where the Dr. Z character developed as this show-business figure — like when you watch Orson Welles on Merv Griffin and he’s like, “I was at Suzanne Pleshette’s and Alan Alda came by …” I loved that, and that’s where the character came from.

What has been your favorite Zaius moment?
I did a Legacy Panel for Planet of the Apes’ 50th anniversary. That was terrifying. The audience didn’t know I would be there. It could have gone south in such a huge way. I didn’t want them to think I was making fun of the artists on the panel. Probably my favorite moment of doing Dr. Zaius other than Sketchfest was when I turned to Matt Reeves, who directed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes. I said [as Zaius], “Matt, do you have an Android or iPhone?” He said he had an iPhone. I said, “So, you could have called me, you just didn’t.” He looked at me and went, “Who are you?”

How did the web series originate?
My writing partner Rob Cohen and I go back to The Ben Stiller Show. During the pandemic, we were going to do a short movie like Henry Miller Asleep & Awake, which would have been a day in the life of Dr. Zaius shuffling around his Hollywood mansion. But then he had this idea to do a talk show with a green screen and, because it was the pandemic, guests that would be on a monitor, like Space Ghost. It was a light-bulb moment. We figured it would cost us a lot of money and put us at risk of being sued by Disney; this is perfect. The two things we had going for is parody law, and we’re not making money. They only get annoyed if you start to make money.

What was the original conception for the show?
When we called our famous friends to be on it, we described it as Fernwood 2 Night meets Between Two Ferns. The first guest we did it with was Janet Varney. We were doing it like Ferns, just shitting on each other and being passive aggressive, and it wasn’t working. So we went against the grain, and the show changed on a dime. It’s such a sour time, so what I like from a writer’s perspective.

Can you tease anything for the new season?
Each episode is between 10 to 15 minutes long. They’ll drop once a week. They’re beautifully stupid. If you’re looking for the important, sacred mission of a comedian’s job to hold up a mirror to society, you’re looking in the wrong place.

Dana Gould’s Decade as Planet of the Apes’ Dr. Zaius