Tim Lee: Comedian, Scientist and Maverick.


tim leeTim Lee already had a PhD under his belt when he performed comedy at The Brainwash in San Francisco for the first time. 12 years later his YouTube videos have multi-millions of hits, Lee sells out venues around the world and is a regular at corporate gigs for companies like Microsoft. What SUSC found unique is that Lee blazed his own trail, booking his own venues and cultivating an audience that liked smart and funny at the same time. Lee is also a member of the Incredibly Handsome Comedians Tour, but don’t hold that against him, he’s actually a decent human being with a new baby. SUSC found Lee leaving Walgreens with Pampers.

(Tix available here for Tim at The Kuumbwa 2/28/15


SUSC: How was Walgreens?

TIM: I live in downton LA and so I had to get some stuff, we just had a baby.

Congratulations, that’s awesome, man.

Yeah, things have really changed, really changed.

How could it not be, right? I read you had already finished your PhD when you first started doing comedy. Was that in San Diego?

I was in San Francisco. I did my first set at The Brainwash.

When you started were you doing straight stand-up, or did you use the power point stuff?

Straight stand-up, there was no set-up for power point. I had used power point comedy before that was part of a regular talk, but I hadn’t incorporated it into stand-up, yet.

How was that first set at The Brainwash?

Well, it was kind of mediocre, to be honest. I got a few laughs, not big laughs. I was drunk. It was the only time I’ve ever performed drunk. It was the first time I had ever been onstage and I was terrified.

Was Tony Sparks there?

Sure, he was the host. He brought me up with his normal, “This is this guy’s first set, so give him a lot of love” and everyone started clapping. I said seriously, though they thought I was joking, “He’s right it is my first set, but don’t worry I’ve read a lot of books.” Then everyone laughed and I wondered why they were laughing. I realized that was my academic approach to everything.

Were you working when you started, or did you go fully into comedy?

You have to have a full time job when you start to become a comedian, because nobody is going to hire you. The audience decides when you should be a paid comic. My first paid gig was in Santa Cruz at The Crows Nest and that could be a rough room. I’ve had some of my worst gigs at The Crows Nest.

I’ve seen really good people crash and burn there. I saw another scientist/comedian, Brian Malow run a 45 minute set into the ground at full speed. I pulled up a chair, I love rubbernecking a good accident. When was your first paid gig?

12 years ago, so I would say around 2003. I thought that gig would go smoothly and it did go smoothly, but having done the Crows Nest multiple times since, I realize that I was actually pretty lucky. The crowd was in control with very few hecklers.

Management has reeled it in over the years, it used to be a bloodbath, but now they enforce no heckling.  Who were you coming up with back then, who were your peers?

Jasper Redd and Moshe Kasher. Moshe and I had our first sets at The Punchline together within a few months of each other.

You must have come up with Brent Weinbach, Mo Mandel. . .

Yeah, Mo was a little behind me and Weinbach started a few months in front of me. So all around the same time. Weinbach and Jasper gravitated to the front almost immediately. Moshe was not very notable at the first, but he has upped his game tremendously.

Considering you had a PhD when you started out, did you find that you had a unique perspective or voice onstage?

I never really thought about that. I just wanted to write jokes that I liked and the audience liked. I would often write jokes that I liked and nobody else liked. That’s not really self-serving. And you could write jokes that the audience likes that you are not happy with and that’s depressing. I tried all kinds of things and what worked I would keep in my act. The power point started at the Rosencrantz for the first time, because my friend Drennon Davis was hosting a show there and he was doing a PowerPoint cartoon. I thought that I had 4 PowerPoint presentations I had done in grad school and I wondered if it would work in a comedy club. And, people liked it.

I’ve seen you a bunch of times and your PowerPoint destroys. It elicits howling, rolling laughter. Has it ever failed?

Sometimes it doesn’t work. A drunk rowdy crowd might not have the patience. I would say 25% of the time the audience likes the stand-up better. I never know. If I just did only PowerPoint it would turn into a seminar. I mix it up.

Considering the talent you came up with, you’re the only one who has the ability to sell out larger venues around the globe. Interestingly, you also eschewed the standard philosophy of becoming big in SF, moving to LA, getting noticed and landing a sitcom, or special or writing job. You, on the other hand, did it all yourself.

Quite frankly, I wasn’t working well with the clubs. I came into conflict with a lot of people. I decided to take a more high and narrow approach which was to book my own shows and hope people come. The first place I rented out was the Dark Room (SF). It was $300. I knew the most I would lose is $300. That filled up so it got me looking for other places. My biggest draws are on the East Coast. Washington, D.C., Boston, Chapel Hill and Atlanta. I had no idea that people there would gravitate towards my comedy. The only way I was able to find that out was to go out there and book my own shows. I had the advantage that I was already being booked for a corporate gig. So, I’m in DC because of that gig, so I went around to find a cheap theatre and try and sell some tickets. That worked really well, and I was working with a place called The Atlas which happened to have four other theatres in different counties. The next time I went back I rented a theatre that went up a size and that sold out, and did that again, and now I’m selling out multiple shows in their biggest theatre. It’s about taking control of your life and learning to do everything from posters to marketing to press releases to hiring people to work the door. Unless you do this you will always be a slave to the club, and be losing money.

It’s a very DIY philosophy. You weren’t relying on anyone else to make you big, you made yourself big.

I’ve worked in enough business’ to realize what I had to do. For example I worked briefly on software for Charles Schwab, security systems. There a lot of people that are stock pickers, they go out and pick stocks and they believe they have an ability to spot winners. Guess what? Studies show that same amount of winning stocks could have been picked by a chimpanzee. You have your exceptions like Warren Buffet, but most of the people doing that, do no better than a chimp.  They convince people that they have an ability to pick winners. And with stocks, you can look at numbers, gross earnings, study the infrastructure but picking talent? It’s impossible to wrap your head around. So, relying on somebody else to spot your talent, is crazy. Reality TV shows propagate the myth that somebody else can spot your talent—you know, that’s how it works. There’s a miracle maker out there and they can spot your talent and say, “You’ve got it kid.” I’ve never believed in that. I would much rather put my stuff in front of an audience. I don’t need a guy who’s going to make my career for me.

You’re a maverick.

I don’t think of myself that way, I just don’t like a lot of the ways things are done.




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