Where do comics learn to be comics? A degree from the School of Hard Knocks might be the most common credential. A PhD in Ecology and Evolution from the University of California, Davis — not so much. In fact, Los Angeles comedian Tim Lee may be the only comic with such a degree, but as a performer at the Chicago Fringe Festival (August 30 – September 9), which bills itself as seeking “the untried and the weird,” Lee misfit right in.
Chicago is a relative newcomer to the Fringe Festival scene, which began in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1947. Cities all over the world participate: Minneapolis jumped on the bandwagon 19 years ago, New York City 16 years ago. That this was only the third Chicago Fringe Fest says less about Chicago’s theater scene — which has been one big ad hoc festival year round — than it does about bringing outside performers to Chicago. That, and the fact that Fringe Fest performers are chosen by lottery and receive 100% of the gate ($10 for a seat to a one-hour show), a system that allows emerging performers to test their mettle.
Lee’s comic hook is science, thus the title of his show, “Scientist Turned Comedian Tim Lee.” Using a PowerPoint presentation to display charts and graphs to illustrate his pseudoscientific shtick, Lee applies the laws of science to popular culture.
For example, speaking about dissolution, Lee says: “Just like the sodium and chlorine molecule, an athlete and his wife are very strongly bonded when they’re in the minor leagues. When that athlete signs a Major League contract, he’s thrown into a sea of bimbos and money.” The audience watches stick figures of bimbos surround the athlete, while the soon-to-be-ex-wife quickly finds an equally strong attraction to the money.
Discussing the concept of linear regression, Lee traces a positive correlation between the amount of free time an individual has and the number of cat videos he or she posts on YouTube — but a negative correlation between the number of friends an individual has and the number of cat videos produced.
Many of Lee’s charts speak — hilariously — for themselves, and Lee simply gives his audience time to read them, layering new lines of text onto the images. Indeed, the images work so well that I couldn’t help but think they’d make a dandy book. Why present them as standup?
One answer is that Lee’s material is a welcome relief from some of the crude, unfunny routines that pass for comedy. But to succeed as standup, Lee’s jokes need to work at the performance level, and here there are a few problems. Lee’s delivery falls flat in places, even though he clearly has the acting skills to pull off his routine — his vocal montage of responses to auditions was a tour de force. Segues are also a problem, draining some of the fizz from his jokes.
What sets top comics apart is the courage to reveal themselves and their vulnerabilities, something that Lee taps into only remotely, referencing a breakup, typical grist for the comedy mill. It might make more sense for Lee to joke about what he knows best: science. It’s puzzling that he shares almost no details of his scientific training or career with his audience. (After grad school Lee did research for Hewlett Packard and developed software for Charles Schwab before wearying of life as a corporate scientist and turning to comedy eight years ago.) Were Lee to disclose his science cred, he might improve his rapport with his audience. Were he to really lay it on — perhaps donning horn-rimmed glasses, even a lab coat in lieu of his charcoal suit — Lee might forge a powerful covalent bond.
Chicago’s third annual Fringe Festival took place August 30 to September 9, 2012 in six venues in the Pilsen neighborhood and featured 50 performance groups. Applications for the 2013 fest open in December. For information, go to chicagofringe.org/perform.php.
Photos supplied by Tim Lee