Hi-Tech Comedy: Tim Lee

Today I’m honored to be interviewing Tim Lee. Tim wasn’t supposed to be a comedian. A biologist by training, he graduated magna cum laude from UC San Diego with honors in biology. He went on to complete his PhD at UC Davis. He spent years developing simulation and analytical models of population dynamics before he discovered that this bored him to tears. When he tried comedy for the first time the tears stopped.Tim Lee

1.How are you using the internet / social media to promote your personal career?

I use it primarily as a place for people to watch my videos. YouTube has been huge for me. It’s allowed a broad audience to watch me perform. Before YouTube I relied strictly on live shows. I also get a lot of private bookings from people who watch my videos on line: Johnson and Johnson, Microsoft and Genentech all watched my videos before booking me for private events.

One important benefit of the internet is it has allowed me to stay in touch with  fans. They write to me and I write back. The people you correspond with become your most devoted fans.

2.Have you noticed the payoff yet?

Yes, the attendance at the shows has gone way up because people can see what the show will be like on line. It used to be people relied on your credits to determine if your show was worth watching. Now, they can watch a snippet on YouTube.

3.Your act involves technology: a projector, a screen, PowerPoint slides and a remote control. Has this kept you out of some standard comedy club venues or do you just bring your own equipment?

It’s amazing to me that most sports bars have a better AV setup than a comedy club. However, I work in all kinds of venues that don’t have a projector and screen.  I just bring my own projector and screen. It’s a pretty simple solution.You’d be surprised how many venue operators freak out over this issue. It’s like some kind of voodoo to them.  I have to calm them down and assure them that modern technology is not inherently evil. Ticketmaster.com just makes it seem that way. (Thank you for those online convenience fees!)

4.Was it more difficult starting out because you had to setup equipment at open mics, or did you build an online following before doing a live show?

I did my first PowerPoint jokes while I was giving talks in grad school. I had seen many professors put gag slides into their talks. I decided to do the same. When I started at the comedy open mics I did straight stand up for a over a year before I brought the PowerPoint back into it. That happened when I found a sports bar with an open mic. They had a better AV setup than any of the clubs. I tried the PowerPoint science jokes there and the audience loved it. I figured if it went over well at a sports bar it would probably go over well other places.

Once I felt I was onto something, I developed most of the act at a hole in the wall in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. We were right in the middle of crack central. There was (and still is) all kinds of drugs and prostitution going on right outside the door. The only people who would come to the show were the tourists who didn’t know what a crappy neighborhood the show was in. I got a lot of positive feedback from them despite the less than ideal setting. At that point I knew that a broad range of people from around the world liked the comedy despite the cerebral focus on science. I didn’t get the chance to do the show at a nice place for several years. It was mostly  the crappy rooms that welcomed me. I couldn’t open for anyone else and use the PowerPoint. No one would allow it.

Finally, I decided to produce my own show. At first I did it at small theaters then eventually I got the Punch Line in San Francisco to let me do my show there. It was a Monday night which is a notoriously difficult night. Despite the bad timing the show sold out and we had to turn people away. At that point I decided to shift my focus to producing my own shows in theaters around the country.

I have to say I get a big kick out of it when people tell me my show wouldn’t work someplace because the venue is too crappy. If they only knew…

5.Did you ever try performing comedy without the PowerPoint? How was it?

I still perform without the PowerPoint regularly. I enjoy it. I’ve been training in martial arts for many years. It’s been drilled into my head that you must be good at wrestling, muay thai, and jiu-jitsu if you want to compete on a national level. For me the same holds with my comedy, I need to be good with PowerPoint, stand up, sketch comedy, and acting if I want to compete at a national level. Of course the PowerPoint is the strongest part but I constantly work on the other parts as well.

6.Besides yourself, I’ve seen Demitri Martin and The Stand Up Economist do their act with video screens playing a big role, do you think this is a trend?

It’s a medium that can be used to get a lot of information across quickly. However it’s most common use is to stretch 3 minutes of useful information into an hour long torture session. Demitri and Yoram are demonstrating how visuals can be used for good. Will that spread into a trend? No idea.

7.How do you think digital tools will change comedy in the future?
Anyone can make professional looking comedy videos now on the cheap. That’s a big plus for the small time comic. The challenge is getting people to watch them.

8.What do you think about posting videos of your performances online?
Great idea. How else are people around the world going to see you perform? I get people writing me from the Middle East, Indonesian, Australia and Europe because they’ve seen me on YouTube.  Do people steal your jokes? Absolutely they do, but people steal your jokes from live performances as well. If you are worried about people stealing your jokes I recommend Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.

9.How much information do you tend to share on the social networks?

I share what I think is interesting… sometimes I’m wrong.

10.What’s your weirdest online experience involving your comedy career?

The head of the Church of Satan wrote me to compliment me on my act.

11.Any last thoughts?
Is that a threat?

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