Graduating from academia to comedy

Graduating from academia to comedy
Tim Lee, who is performing at the Brooks Theater in Oceanside Aug. 23, switched from a life in academia to one of comedy. Courtesy photo

OCEANSIDE — As far as discoveries go, Tim Lee’s own probably won’t be written about in any of the scientific journals or entered into the annals of history.

The Ph.D.-turned-comedian has kind of a funny story from having gone to researching porpoises to discovering his life’s true purpose.

Growing up as the fourth of five kids in what he said was a very humorous household, in a sort of insulting way, he and his younger sister would bear the brunt of teasing from their older siblings.

They were the easy targets, he said, because they hadn’t yet found wit and logic.

Lee said that he remembered one time hearing someone use a word that he thought was so funny in a joke, that he started to think there might be a craft to being funny and from that, he discovered that the best defense to any ribbing was to give it right back through humor.

Fast-forward to his college days, Lee found himself enrolled at UC San Diego. Studying the sciences, he had wanted to become a college professor, simply because, he said, he loved college.

“I loved learning,” Lee said. “I think I liked college for some of the right reasons — and some of the wrong reasons. It was just awesome that I didn’t have a schedule,” he said. “You’re supposed to be at class, but no one cared if you showed up in class. As long as you did the work everything was OK.”

As an undergrad he would help with research projects, capturing and tagging blackbirds on the campus of UCSD. He eventually went to work for Scripps Institution of Oceanography, studying whales, dolphins and porpoises — which he called one of the best times of his life.

Though he was getting paid less to do research at Scripps as a biologist than he had while working as a messenger on the campus of UCSD running packages around, he said.

The next three years he spent as a grad student at UC Davis.

But a sour experience with an advisor while there led to his losing his verve for academia.

Taking a job as a programmer for Hewlett-Packard got him a good paycheck and a nice apartment, he said, but he was spending 80 hours a week at work.

Lee couldn’t see where his life was going, he said. “I needed to try something different, and comedy seemed different.”

Having never been on stage before, Lee went to San Francisco and tried comedy, not thinking he would become a comedian.

Taking an academic approach to it, he started reading books on comedy and then writing his own jokes.

“I sat down and tried to write some jokes and said, ‘Hey this is not as easy as I thought it would be.’ Once I got the jokes you want to know if it’s going to work on stage,” said Lee.

As it goes, he tried some of his jokes at an open mic night at a Laundromat in San Francisco.

He still remembers a couple of them he told, which got a few laughs. “I’d like to say they were brilliant right off the top,” he said, adding that most of them were word play humor or based on local topics.

Now Lee talks about everything from email spam to Whole Foods to everything he learned as a scientist, including linear regression.

But sometimes those science jokes just don’t work.

“Part of the fun of comedy is that you don’t know 100 percent what’s going to work,” Lee said.

He likened it to the thrill of surfing. “If you screw up, it’s quite painful. You get held underwater for a long time and you feel like you’re going to die. But it’s kind of like that with comedy. It’s part of the thrill of, when it works, is that you know it could’ve gone so bad and been so painful.”

The audiences he attracts run the gamut, he said.

“They’re people who have an interest in science and they want to laugh about it,” he said. Lee is performing at the Sunshine Brooks Theater in Oceanside Aug. 23 at 8 p.m. For tickets visit



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