There’s no advantage to working clean, comedian Tim Lee says. But he does it anyway. And there’s probably no advantage, either, to Lee (technically, Dr. Lee) leaving the academic world to tell jokes for a living. But he did it anyway.
“For whatever reason, I like doing things that are very difficult,” Lee says. “I’m attracted to that.” The day we spoke, Lee was excitedly anticipating the birth of his first child. And true to form, he had fought an uphill battle to name the boy Tiberius, for the T in James T. Kirk. That one he lost.
Still, Lee’s had his share of victories. There was getting on stage in the first place – not bad for someone who was never even in a school play. That first open mic went well, launching him on a comedy career telling scientifically literate jokes. He’s spending the first few months of 2015 on the road, a tour that brings him and his tongue-in-cheek PowerPoints to Carrboro’s ArtsCenter Saturday night.
We talked to Lee about his split with the scientific world and his love of clean comedy.
Q: When did you know you were over academia?
A: Basically I was bored and frustrated. I didn’t like writing papers, I didn’t like reading papers anymore, even. It gave me a chill down my spine having to do that all day.
I knew I had wanted to try comedy for fun for a long time. I watched interviews with people on talk shows. Actors always come off as disappointing. Their characters were impressive, but the interviews themselves didn’t really have the same depth. But comedians always were sharp and funny on talk shows. If I ever was going to do anything in entertainment, I would have to do comedy.
Q: You’re a clean comic. When did you decide to stay clean?
A: From the beginning I wanted to write clean. It was always the comedy I liked the most. I tell people there’s no advantage to being a clean comic – there really is no advantage career-wise. You have to do it because it’s the kind of comedy you like the best. It’s not going to get you on television any quicker, it’s not going to get you a bigger audience. If anything, it holds you back, because the clubs put you up first all the time. You have to fight your way out of that position.
Today we have Brian Regan – he’s the biggest clean comic out there today and a lot of people have never even heard of him. Jerry Seinfeld, obviously, works clean as well. The funny thing was, I accidentally swore on stage, just because I was frustrated, and I would get laughs.
Q: What does clean comedy do for you?
A: I know a lot of comics who were dirty trying performing clean, and they’d just drop the f-word – that’s it, and the joke doesn’t work anymore. It’s a shortcut I think people rely on a little too much, and I think it keeps you from thinking about what’s at the heart of the joke. It cuts the quality down. A lot of comics will disagree with it, they love it. It’s the only place you can talk like that, and it needs to be done that way.
I feel like it’s an intellectual shortcut. Instead of thinking of “it’s so hot that we spontaneously combusted,” just say “it’s f-----g hot” and get a laugh. There’s something intellectually unsatisfying about that.
Q: Does being a comic feel similar to teaching?
A: They are more similar than people think. I used to give talks in front of smart people who made fun of my logic; now I give talks in front of drunk people who make fun of my jokes. But it’s essentially the same forum.
I used to do jokes in my talks. I would be giving talks about my research and I would throw in some PowerPoint jokes, just to spice up my talk. I always liked it when people would throw in a Far Side cartoon or some kind of gag slide. So I decided to write some of my own jokes to throw into my talks, and those were my first jokes.