UC Davis scientist turns comedian
Dr. Tim Lee grew up near Monterey before attending the University of California, San Diego and receiving his bachelor’s degree in ecology and evolution. He earned a Ph.D. in the same field at UC Davis, before leaving a career in science for stand-up comedy. Lee’s routine often includes comedic PowerPoint presentations which parody scientific lectures. (He can outline a scientific principle and riff on his roommate’s body hair in the same slide.) He’s also a growing star on YouTube, with more than 4 million channel views. During a recent comedy-tour stop in Los Angeles, Lee chatted with SN&R about his unlikely transition into comedy and his time in the Sacramento area.
Why did you leave coastal San Diego for UC Davis?
I thought I wanted to be college professor, and that meant leaving behind a very cool situation to hopefully find another. … As it turned out, I loved Davis. It didn’t have the coast or history that San Diego did, but what it had a lot of was character. It’s a great college town, and I loved my time there.
You’re paying off a Ph.D. program with comedy. Do you have another job?
Comedy is now my only job. I am almost constantly on the road doing shows. It’s a strange life. I love the time on stage with the audience. That’s the biggest reward to being a comedian. A close second is hanging out with other comics. What I wasn’t prepared for was how difficult this lifestyle makes it to maintain relationships. It’s very easy to meet people now, but difficult to keep them in your life.
Is that why you live with this roommate you make jokes about? Do you really have one?
Oh yeah, he’s real. All my close friends already know who he is. They always ask me, “Why don’t you kick him out?” It turns out there’s no law against being disgusting.
Science is analytic and writing jokes is creative. How did you bridge that gap?
Science and comedy are actually very tightly related. I used to give talks in front of smart people who’d try to pick apart my logic. Now I give talks in front of drunk people who try to pick apart my jokes. Science is the pursuit of the truth. Comedy is the truth plus absurdity. My job is to add the absurdity to the science, and the humor will flow naturally.
Did you start writing jokes during your Ph.D. program?
Oh yeah. I did my first PowerPoint joke during a serious talk I was giving. I’ve always loved it when professors throw gag slides into their talks. It relaxes the mind, like a deep breath for the brain. When I started giving talks, I decided I would come up with my own gag slides. About half the people loved them and half were mortified. That was my first lesson in comedy. There is no joke that everyone finds funny.
You worked in Roseville at Hewlett-Packard. What’d you do there?
Before I became a comic, I wrote software for the Enterprise Information Architecture division in Roseville. We worked in a converted parts warehouse that lacked even the slightest hint of an artistic touch. Think of a giant box with no windows and a football field of cubicles inside. It’s amazing how that sterility affects your attitude. I think I realized then the value of adding some artistic beauty to your life. I had never thought about it until it was all taken away.
You cut your teeth at San Francisco’s Punch Line Comedy Club. Was that transition easy?
No, the transition wasn’t easy. … You have to remember that I had never done any performing arts before. I was never in a high-school play. I was never in the choir. Getting up onstage to entertain was terrifying! I needed that terror to spice up what had become a very comfortable, boring life.
My first set was at a laundromat cafe south of Market Street in San Francisco. I can still see the faces looking back at me as I stood behind a microphone for the first time. Some of my jokes hit. Some of my jokes did not. Inside I was vacillating between moments of sheer terror and moments of mild terror.
What do you miss about the Sacramento area?
I miss the summertime strawberries you could pick up at a roadside stand. I miss hanging out at a coffee shop in Davis, having a bagel and a good conversation. I miss watching the river flow through Sacramento at night.
What’s it like having so many people watching you on YouTube?
It always feels great to have people appreciate your work. YouTube is unbelievably powerful because it’s a way for me to go right to a worldwide audience without having to go through a TV network. That wasn’t possible 10 years ago. At this point, having an online hit is actually more important than having a TV appearance, because you can stay in touch with the people who find you online. It’s a two-way conversation, and the audience loves that.