Weird Science: Tim Lee brings
his PhD to the San Jose Improv

How Tim Lee made a joke out of a promising academic career
Tim Lee Tim Lee's putting his PhD to use as a stand-up comedian. His girlfriend left him, but he seems to be having the last laugh.

Those familiar with The March of Progress—that iconic scientific illustration depicting humanity's evolution from hunched apes to upright homo sapiens—will immediately get the joke.

A bespectacled man dressed in a white lab coat and clutching a clipboard is shown standing on the left side of the single-panel cartoon. Moving to the right, there is a silhouette of a Cro-Magnon man, clutching a spear. Then there's what appears to be Homo erectus, paranthropus, and finally at the far right, a man crouching, holding a microphone, and looking over his shoulder at everything he has left behind.

That man is Tim Lee.

Lee is a Californian through and through—from his laid-back, shaggy surfer haircut, to his Hollywood smile. He spent his childhood in Monterey County in Carmel Valley Village, and has lived in Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Davis and now resides in Los Angeles.

After spending the better part of a decade earning an undergraduate degree in biology from UC–San Diego, and then a PhD in ecology and evolution from UC-Davis, Lee walked away from academia, which he found stifling,to become a standup comedian.

"I changed careers," Lee says, referring to the decision he made about 10 years ago to put away his microscope and pick up a microphone. "I was just unhappy with what I was doing. I decided I would try comedy, not because I thought I would become a comedian, but just because I needed something different that would make my life interesting again."

Lee never ended up finding the satisfaction in the academic world, which he assumed would allow him to challenge the status quo and pursue truth.

"Freedom of speech allows you to question things that need to be questioned," he says. "That is really at the heart of academia"—or, at least, it should be. But, according to Lee's personal experiences, the reality of the situation is quite different.

"The culture of academia is about protecting people's feelings at all costs," Lee says. "I don't know how you can have open discussions and protect people's feelings at the same time."

It makes sense, then, that Lee would be drawn to stand-up comedy—an art form, which at its best harnesses the power of humor to illuminate some of the human condition's hardest and ugliest truths, while dispensing with the need for sensitivity.

During a 2013 performance at a TEDx event hosted by his alma mater, UC–San Diego, Lee used linear regression to investigate what kind of people post and watch cat videos online.

"To do an informal regression—pretty simple—you just take all your data points, you plot them out, and then you draw the best possible line you can in between them," he says in a dry monotone, plotting points on the X-Y axis projected onto the large screen behind him. "I found a significant relationship between the amount of free time the individual has ..." he continues, drifting off and allowing chortles to ripple through the audience. "I also found a significant relationship between the number of friends the individual has ..."

Tim LeeTim Lee

In another clip, Lee explores the similarities between Raiders fans and nuclear fission. In order to achieve nuclear fission, he explains, a fissile material, such as uranium 235, is required.

"The uranium is inherently unstable and has a certain probability of just breaking down and ejecting a neutron at its neighbor, which destabilizes the neighbor, causing it to eject multiple neutrons, and the entire process is propagated in a chain reaction," he says, cycling through a series of diagrams on slides, which demonstrate the explosive process.

"I've actually seen the same thing happen at a Raiders bar," he says, pulling up the next slide—a screen filled with 10 evenly placed circles, all labeled with the letter "R."

"Just like the uranium atom, the Raiders fan is inherently unstable, and has a certain probability of just breaking down and striking its neighbor," Lee continues, as an arrow and the words "Cold Cock" connect one of the circles to an adjacent circle. "That neighbor was unable to identify the source of the punch, and this process was repeated"—the field of "R" circles bursts into a latticework of "cold cocks."

The jokes weren't always this good, Lee says. Back in 2004, when he was just getting his start, the fledgling comic was honing his craft through trial and error at open mic nights around San Francisco. His first gig was at Brainwash Cafe—a San Francisco coffee shop, laundromat and live performance venue. It was there that he says he learned his first lesson in standup: how to embrace the inadvertent joke.

"I had a couple of jokes that got some laughs," Lee recalls of that evening, "and I said one thing that made people laugh, which I didn't think was a joke."

Lee says he was pretty much hooked on comedy from that night on. "After that, I felt like I wanted to get better."

Ever scientifically minded, Lee says he was intrigued by the craft of writing a successful joke. "It seemed like an intellectual challenge to write a joke and see if you can make it funny," he says. "I thought, 'Well, if I kept working on that, I could get good at it.'"

In an effort to improve, Lee began treating every performance as if it were a laboratory experiment—recording his act every night and analyzing it. He observed which jokes worked and came up with theories about why. Sometimes what appeared to be the same joke would bomb one night and get roaring laughter the next. He says it may be a matter of timing—a perfectly placed pregnant pause, or when he changes a slide. Different crowds also react differently to the same jokes.

In the Bay Area, Lee says, he usually does quite well—a fact he attributes the area's nerd-centric, tech-obsessed culture.

"People see that there is a reward to being creative, technical and smart," he says, "which you don't see in other places in the country—not the way you do in the Bay Area."

Perhaps for this reason, his upcoming show Dec. 10 at the San Jose Improv should land well with an audience that speaks the language.

"I love coming to perform in San Jose—particularly at the Improv, because there are great crowds," he says. "People come there with an expectation of a good show. And the audiences are generally very smart."

Looking back, Lee says, he had no idea what his passion would ultimately cost him.

He was always able to support himself—working as a computer programmer for a number of companies, including Hewlett Packard, Charles Schwab and a handful of startups—most of them in the Bay Area. However, he did encounter some serious pushback from his colleagues and his then-girlfriend when he decided to pursue comedy full time in 2008.

"My girlfriend at the time did not like it—at all," Lee recalls. "She told me that, basically, I was not good and that I needed to stop." He didn't, she left.

He also remembers co-workers who quite clearly were hoping he would fail. "They weren't happy with what they were doing and if they failed it would validate their decision to keep doing what they were doing."

In the end, Lee hasn't failed. And that's a credit to his comic ability, though it's also clearly a product of his iron will. "If I set my mind to something, I basically do everything in my power to keep it going," Lee says. "One way to say that is I work well independently. Another way to say that is that I don't work well with others, and I tend to question authority too much."

For the past six years he has been a professional touring comedian, and says he is working harder than ever to grow his personal brand. He continues to pitch television shows to networks and has come close a few times to landing a deal. Two of Lee's scripts have been given pilot episodes, though neither were aired.

"That wasn't easy to take," he admits. But he's moving forward. If there's one thing he's learned over the past decade, it's that no matter how hard he has to work at being a professional comedian, he can't imagine doing anything else. "It's basically the only job I can envision myself with now that would make me happy, so I think I made the right decision."

Tim Lee

San Jose Improv

Dec., 10 at 8pm

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