At Livermore's Bankhead, comedian to explore humor in science
By Lou Fancher
Ex-scientist and comedian Tim Lee's witty and mildly edgy humor gets its bite from an invisible straight man and a silent PowerPoint partner.
Oscillating between smart insights into universal human fallibilities and scientific theories including chaos, molecular bonding, ocean acidification, linear regression and others, the straight man is science itself; the nonspeaking sidekicks are words, images and graphics that appear, perfectly timed, on a large, overhead screen. The Los Angeles native brings his 75-minute standup routine to the Bankhead Theater Saturday at 8 p.m.
Appropriately, the fact that Lee stands under blazing stage lights and pokes holes in the serious facade of science is funny in itself. With an undergraduate degree in biology from UC San Diego and a doctorate in ecology and evolution from UC Davis, the 4.5 million views on his YouTube video channel are definitely a surprise, one of the major elements of a good joke.
And his "debut" as a comedian -- at an open mic night in a laundromat where he says the audience was held "captive" by dirty laundry -- provides a mental picture that is surely laughable. His big break? It came in a Santa Cruz nightclub with an act for which he earned $35. Since that appearance, Lee has toured across the United States and internationally.
"I'm interested in all kinds of things," he says. "I don't focus on what's hot. I write about things that undermine science, which is a pursuit of the truth."
Asked if there are recent scientific discoveries that he's not written about but would like to, Lee's permanent geek arises. "The obvious thing is gravitational waves. Haven't you read about them? Everyone is writing about them."
Several minutes later, after sketching why space/time scientist and even Einstein from his grave will be thrilled by ripples, Lee admits in confidential tones, "But my heart is into the bogus science coming out of the pharmaceutical industry. There are papers that have been altered and abstracts modified. I haven't written about it, so I'll have to find the funny in that."
Undoubtedly, he will. Or, he'll abandon the search for the pharmaceutical laugh and toss it temporarily into the not-funny bucket along with matrix algebra and Poisson distribution. The latter, a way of gathering truly random events like how many bugs a driver hits on his way home from work and building corresponding (but false) expectations, "wasn't ever funny," he says, "so far."
Like any scientist, Lee studies humor and puts jokes to the test. "YouTube was good for having people see your comedy, especially early on. There were a lot of people watching it and there wasn't a lot of content. Now, it's become more controlled and people have moved to other platforms."
Live shows allow Lee to interact directly, providing short feedback loops that mean he knows instantly if a joke is good. "I like not waiting so long for the results, but if it goes bad, the stakes are higher. It's like surfing: when it's bad, it can be ugly."
He's also found logic in the absurd-plus-science-equals-funny equation. "There are patterns, like twisted logic. I have a joke about shopping at Target and there's an 'expect more, pay less' sign. So I stole the camera."
At other times, audience response seems completely random, or at least, unexpected. "I tell one about driving and seeing a sign for Ocean Beach. I thought, that's a really lazy name for a beach. The only thing easier would be calling it "Beach Beach." That joke came to me in a second and it worked great."
Similar to other comedians, this surfer dude, married less than two years and with a 13-month-old son, draws humor from life. When Lee has a rare, factual misstep in his act and a scientist shouts out a correction, he calls it "peer review." As a new father, living with "the thing that goes from an egg to a demanding human being" is providing a new angle on evolution. "I can't reduce what's funny to a formula. Basically, it's things that make me angry, bored or interested. Whether I keep a joke is entirely up to the audience."
His favorite comedians are masters of the art form: Steve Martin in an older act Lee calls "bizarre, with philosophy, bunny ears and music;" Bob Newhart's two-minute setups that he says today's audiences are not patient enough to allow; Mitch Hedberg for his intelligent writing and others. Currently working on a pilot for a television sitcom that's "all about science," Lee says pleasing network executives is the first objective. If there's a formula for a successful sitcom, he's not telling -- but if he ever does share the secret, count on it being funny and science-y.