Arts & Culture

Tim Lee mixes science and comedy for powerful reactions

Science comedian Tim Lee performs Jan. 21st at the Carrboro ArtsCenter.
Science comedian Tim Lee performs Jan. 21st at the Carrboro ArtsCenter.

Tim Lee loves to see his 2-year-old son do science.

He’ll watch the older of his two children piece through how to work a lamp or unlock a door in his Carlsbad, Calif., home. He knows a key unlocks a door, say, but has to work through the process of elimination: not just any key will do the trick; okay, this is the right key, but it has to be oriented just right to work. It’s what any kid does, but Lee also recognizes it as the scientific method.

“He basically slowly figures it out by coming up with ideas and rejecting the ones that don’t work until he’s left with one idea that works,” Lee says. “That’s basically what science is. That’s the hypothetical deductive method, which is the backbone of science.” And it fascinates Lee to see his son follow this process without even knowing what it’s called.

Lee, who brings his comedy to the Carrboro ArtsCenter Saturday, began his career as a scientist. In his routines, he retains the mindset and scientific literacy of someone who has spent time doing laboratory research. Yet a few years of parenting have profoundly affected Lee, and his near-successful attempts to get a sitcom off the ground have revealed crucial lessons about the entertainment industry.

It’s not totally natural to him, he admits, but he’s purposefully open about the things not everyone would want to talk about in public, whether in giving a comedy roast of his wife, as he did at the Hollywood Improv, or making a flow chart of how his child reacts to stuff he finds around the house.

The upside of being a comedian – even the duty of one, Lee explains – is turning stress or bad days into jokes by finding some kind of humor in these situations. As a parent – and especially as the parent of a seizure-prone child – stress is never far away.

“There’s no shortage of pain anymore to talk about,” he admits.

To be clear, Lee hasn’t written jokes about his son’s medical condition or talked about it onstage. It’s too painful to turn into something funny just yet, he says, but he’s not ruling it out: pain plus time is supposed to equal comedy, he notes. As awful as it is to see his son experience a seizure, Lee says, he prefers knowing what medical science has to say about the condition to being in the dark, even if it’s not necessarily reassuring.

“A whole lot of research is trying to figure out what’s going on, but they can’t even tell you what it is,” he says. “It’s abnormal electrical activity in the brain, which is kind of like saying, ‘His brain’s not working right,’ which is obvious because he’s on the ground twitching.”

He says he has never felt more helpless than when this happens. Still, knowing the current science helps him understand what’s possible and what’s simply good luck.

When Lee does make a joke about parenting or married life, as personal as it may be, he knows he’s on to something when people laugh. This is called recognition laughter, he explains, and it means others have experienced the same thing or feel the same way he does.

“There’s something reassuring about that,” he says. “It helped me get through the family strife that everybody has to go through.”

Lee has started working in television, which has been a learning experience as well. He’s appeared several times on the Discovery Channel series “Beasts Behaving Badly” and “How Do They Do It?” The former, which is a more comedic show based on viral animal videos, is just plain fun for him; the latter is more educational, and the ever-curious Lee got to learn about how everyday objects are made.

“When you see a granite countertop, you never think about dangerous explosives being used to dislodge chunks or how long it takes to cut them,” he says with wonder. “It takes three days to cut through these big chunks they blast out of the ground.”

Lee has learned a lot from his own attempts at starting a sitcom, too. It was almost in production, but the interested network went belly-up, he explains. Then he shopped it around to others, but without much luck. People tended to like his script, he says, but were nervous about the premise. His show parodies the pharmaceutical industry, but is also educational about the nature of that field. Networks got nervous.

“They’re just terrified. The pharmaceutical business spends between $2 billion and $4 billion a year directing consumer advertising, and most of that goes to television,” Lee explains. If you do a show about that, he says, networks are concerned about upsetting a major advertiser.

“The reason it’s an original show is because no one else has ever done it. The reason no one else has ever done it is because they’re afraid to do it, which I hadn’t thought of.”


Who: Scientist Turned Comedian: Tim Lee

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: The ArtsCenter, 300-G E. Main St., Carrboro

Cost: $20-$30 ($9 for students)

Info: or 919-929-2787