Dr. Brian King
In a buttoned-up profession like psychology, it's not rare to find psychologists with a sense of humor, but it can be difficult to find psychologists who are trying it out as a second career. Dr. Brian is a rare individual who can easily use psychology jargon when called upon, but would prefer to work the room at some dark comedy club. An unclear idea of what to do in his life and interactions with faculty almost accidentally led to a degree in psychology, which led to an interest in evolutionary and sex psychology. But he will also readily admit that he has dreamed of being a comedian his whole life and has some interesting thoughts on how psychology and comedy are more similar than one might think. The best part for us is that his unique career path and outlook make him an incredibly interesting interview that has a little bit of everything. Enjoy!
How did you first become interested in psychology as a career? Was there a seminal moment where you knew what you wanted to do or did it happen more gradually?
This may not be a very typical response but I’ve never really had a clear Idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I still don’t. As a college student, I loved learning but I wasn’t that focused. I remember my first semester, flipping through the catalog and thinking that every course, science and arts, sounded interesting. In my first few years, I sampled a wide variety of what the University of Texas had to offer. I had the potential to be a career student, but was aware enough to know that probably wouldn’t have worked out well. Somehow I acquired more credits toward psychology than any other degree and I decided to declare it as my major and finish it off.
One thing that drove my interest and in turn, a lot of my academic decisions I made later, was that at the University of Texas there were a handful of faculty members with interests in Evolutionary Psychology (Devendra Singh, Del Thiessen come to mind; I graduated the year before David Buss joined the faculty). Thinking of human behavior in terms of adaptation fascinated me, as did this new area of study and couldn’t read enough about it. However it seemed at the time that most contributions to the field came from social or cultural studies, not biological ones. Theories of survival and reproductive strategies were great, but I was also curious about the underlying mechanisms. Therefore, I targeted neuroscience programs for my doctorate, with an intention to interpret these mechanisms in the context of evolutionary psychology. This didn’t always work out, but it was what got me interested in pursuing psychology over all my other interests.
Considering how many subfields there are in the field of psychology, why did you choose to specialize in human sexuality? What was it about human sexuality that was particularly interesting to you?
If this were a bar, I’d have a very different answer to “why I study sex” but given the likelihood of scoring via this interview is pretty low, I’ll give you my straight answer. I entered graduate school with an existing interest in evolutionary psychology, and a lot of that had been inspired by the late Devendra Singh and his work on waist-to-hip ratio and mate selection. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to study, but I knew I wanted to focus on behaviors with direct relevance to survival. I started working in a lab studying the effects of Amygdala lesions on both feeding and sexual behavior in rats, and eventually shifting my focus to the Medial Preoptic Area of the Hypothalamus and its relevance to sexual motivation. By the way, that should be my last mention of a neurological structure. From rat studies, I jumped to human parallels and that led my work into a lot of different directions. I studied pain sensitivity and sexual arousal, the patterns of sexual arousal, mate selection, individual differences in physical attraction, pheromones, BDSM (an offshoot of my pain research) and even Cybersex (this was the early days of the internet).
That describes the development of my interests, but doesn't provide you with a “why” answer. Not everyone studies sexuality. I found being in graduate school to be somewhat like being a fat kid in a candy store (and I am a fat kid): For the first time in my education, I could literally study anything I found interesting! What is more interesting than sex? My own research would suggest that for some people, lots of things are more interesting than sex, and I’m glad that’s the case as we probably need their contributions more. I’ve always been a little more interested in the topic than most, professionally and personally, and having the opportunity to pursue my interests in an academic setting was the best thing for me.
A lot of my peers would refer to themselves as “Sexologists”. I never liked that term. I was a psychologist studying sex. Sexuality may have driven the bulk of my research, but I also did work on adult development, aging, stereotypes, cognitive abilities, and a number of other topics. My training is in psychology.
Did you get a formal psychology education in college? If so, where and what sort of formal education? Talk a little bit about the psychology education process and the program you were in…ups and downs…things you liked, things you didn’t?
I did, I think I touched on this in the first two questions.
All of my degrees have been in psychology, but It was a struggle. The same characteristics that kept me as an undecided major for so long in college, also created challenges for me in graduate school. My interests weren’t focused enough to be a good neuroscientist, success in that field generally involved finding a tiny area of the brain and studying the hell out of it. I liked animal research, but I found out that I was allergic to lab rats. A lot of researchers are, but my work required spending the majority of my time in a windowless room as I ran them through mazes and observed them having sex. This became too much to handle, and I was more interested in generalizing the work to humans anyway.
I went to two PhD programs, (I had to transfer after my Master’s due to my advisor leaving the faculty) one was less known but much more intensive than the other. To this day, I still think that the higher standards and greater number of hoops to jump through were probably a means to compensate for what the department lacked in reputation. Expectations were high, and difficult to predict, which led to a lot of stress. I had an oral comprehensive exam after my first year that covered “anything in the field of psychology”. It worked, I found out that my statistics training was superior to that of some other schools when I transferred to the other institution, I was the first incoming transfer student to be allowed to skip their statistics class. The more rigorous program may have taught me more, but the focus was narrow. I was being groomed to be a professor, which was great for me, but I didn’t really see a lot of alternatives. The other school had a more applied focus, and open my eyes to alternatives to the ivory tower. Ultimately, a good thing.
Once you graduated from college, where did your career go? What sort of work did you first start doing and why did you choose that particular job?
When I graduated I had two things that have influenced my life ever since: A PhD in psychology and a mountain of student loan debt. Seriously, a mountain, doctorates aren’t cheap. Originally I wanted to be a professor, and that lifestyle still has a tremendous amount of apeal to me, but there was no way I was going to be able to make loan payments on a postdoctoral salary. Academic positions are paradoxically the most highly sought after poorly compensated jobs out there and the few openings available were not in desirable locations. Economics, and a desire to live in a city with a pulse, drove my career choices after graduating.
I mentioned that my second department had a more applied focus. I knew plenty of graduates that went to work in industry as consultants that were making truckloads of money straight out of school. More than I ever expected to make as a professor, and definitely more than i’d make at a post-doc somewhere. Student loan payments pushed me into the world of market research. When I first started my neuroscience program, i would sometimes joke that after graduation I would be willing to sell out to the highest bidder, that I’d do research for the evilest companies out there if they paid me enough. That turned out to be somewhat true, my market research work included clients in industries that aren’t well liked. But it was great! This was the early 2000s and I was just happy to have a job, let alone be able to keep my head above water with those loan payments.
If it isn’t obvious yet, I’m not a very typical psychologist. I wasn’t a typical student, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I wasn’t a good fit for market research either. For years I tried to force myself into that role, that world, and it never felt comfortable. Round peg, square hole. Or triangular hole, or business casual hole. I changed companies, clients, locations but it didn’t matter, I just don’t have the disposition for that type of work and I have a strong dislike for corporate environments. For my sanity, I took part-time teaching positions which i really enjoyed.
You mention on your website you have written papers, conducted research projects, and spoke at national conferences about your research. Can you describe in a bit more detail what your psychology career was like?
Unfortunately my scientific publication history ended when I started working in market research. I was a very prolific graduate student and had 3 first authored journal articles published by the time I graduated. Like anyone, I presented research results at conferences. This was mostly from my pain sensitivity and sexual arousal studies. At one conference, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality regional meeting, my talk was really popular. Even at a sex conference, there are some topics that are more eye catching than others and I remember introducing myself to people and having them respond with, “Oh, you’re the pain guy!” It’s good to be memorable.
As I mentioned, I had several lines of research going but when I made the jump to market research I lost the external incentive to publish. I have data from a bunch of studies still sitting in my “to do” folder. I doubt any of that research will see the light of a journal article, but it might end up in a book or some other form. Never say never.
You have some teaching experience. What sort of subjects did you teach? Do you enjoy being a professor or a teacher? In what ways is being a teacher similar to being a stand-up comedian? Did the two job descriptions ever blend together?
I taught part-time throughout my career in market research. I like to say I did it for my sanity, which is true, but I also taught to maintain ties with academic psychology. As a non-practitioner, it was a great opportunity to still feel like part of the club. As I moved around, I taught whatever class a local college was willing to throw my way. Mostly introductory or general psychology classes, social psychology, personality, educational psych, I/O psych, the kinds of classes you might take in the first year of an undergraduate program. The highlight of all this adjuncting was when I had the opportunity to teach “Human Sexuality” at Portland State University for several quarters. I was living in Portland for another market research job so this was a real treat.
I love teaching, I always have, and I am really appreciative of the opportunities I’ve had to continue doing so despite my departure from academia. Teaching is performing, and looking back I think that is one of the things I enjoyed the most, being the center of attention. It didn’t matter if I was in front of 300 students or presenting research findings in front of a room of my peers, I loved working a crowd. When I first started comedy, literally my first experience at an open mic, I was amazed at how much it felt like being a professor - only there were fewer people taking notes. It draws upon the same skill set. A lot of performers have day job as teachers, instructors, presenters, attorneys, etc.. it makes perfect sense to me now but at the time the similarities were really unexpected.
As a student, my favorite and most memorable professors were those that used humor to convey their messages. Devendra Singh, mentioned above, was very funny. Humor is a natural part of my personality and when I began teaching, it was incorporated into my teaching style. Stand-up comedy is basically the best moments of teaching without all the pesky facts and knowledge. I used to say that professors, particularly those driven by the love of teaching, are just ugly rock stars. Not attractive enough or musically gifted enough to make it, but still having the drive to be in front of an audience. The same is true for a lot of stand-up comedians.
Now, your career path has taken a sharp turn and you are performing stand-up comedy? Why did you feel like making a career change? What was it about stand-up comedy that got you interested? What were some of the first things you did after deciding to make the move into comedy?
As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a comedian. I started thinking about it while in college in Austin, so I guess that’s as far back as I can remember. A comedy club called The Velveeta Room opened up on 6th street and I would pop in on a regular basis, even became familiar with some of the local comedians. They urged me to give it a shot, and I wanted to, but something held me back. Then I moved, and moved again, and again, and a few more times in pursuit of my PhD and later my struggling career. Finally, I was living in San Francisco when I had come to terms with the fact that a career in market research wasn’t for me. On a night out, I walked past a sign for the “San Francisco Comedy College” and a light bulb went off. I had no idea such a place existed, and although I don’t believe in fate, I felt that I was definitely in the right place at the right time of my life. I signed up for the very next class I could, and was hooked from that moment on. I never thought I’d make a living as a comedian, and I still have my doubts about that, but I knew I needed to make a change.
Comedy felt right. Looking back on my life, the only thing I have ever consistently been able to do well is make people laugh. I was a class clown, I entertained my family, I made friends through laughter, filmed comedy skits in graduate school to relieve stress, and was a decent professor mainly because my students enjoyed my sense of humor. In fact, one reason why I believe market research didn’t work out so well for me is probably because there are few outlets for humor. It’s a very dry industry that takes itself very seriously.
Being a comedian is kind of like being a musician, or a writer, or any kind of artist. You just have to start doing it. The comedy college helped me get over whatever hurdle had been holding me back, taught me the basics of stage presence, joke structure, and gave me some insight into what to expect trying to market myself in the real world. After I “graduated” I started hitting the open mics, thankfully San Francisco is a great place to train as a comedian and there are lots of them. I realized that I wasn’t going to grow as fast as I’d like relying on open mic opportunities, so I started my own. I held a monthly comedy night at a restaurant in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of the city. A heavily touristed neighborhood, our shows were well attended and it grew to 4-5 nights a week. I kept the shows booked with local comedians, offering them quality stage time in front of good audiences, and was able to grow as a performer myself. That ran for just under 3 years, and I took on a few side projects too. It was a labor of love, and I kept it running as long as I could but ultimately our shows did not earn enough for the restaurant to justify our existence.
Comedian and psychologist don’t seem to fit well together, at least not on the surface, so how difficult was it to transition from working in a more serious and formal field like psychology, to working in comedy? Were there any particular obstacles that were difficult to overcome? What were some of the major parts of your experience?
I like to think that comedy and psychology are highly related to one another. For example, as a psychologist I make observations on human behavior. As a comedian, I make fun of it. Psychologists like to point out that everyone, by virtue of being a member of this species, is an amateur psychologist. This is especially true of comedians, who observe behavioral phenomena that the rest of us might miss and come up with commentary or an explanation; hopefully a funny one. Comedians are master communicators, and are very sensitive to body language, nonverbal cues, and other subtleties in the same way a good therapist is in tune to their clients. Writing good comedy requires insight into the human experience, not just in the mining of material, but in being relatable to an audience. So yes, I think the two fields definitely draw from the same fundamental skill set.
The biggest obstacle for me was finding a voice. This isn’t unique to my situation, all comedians need to find their voice when they develop. I perform as “Dr Brian King” and this is about the only time I ever use my formal title. I started doing so because it helps separate me from the rest of the pack. I tried working material about psychology into my act, but I found that large, general audiences didn’t find it that relatable (or funny) and my stage act went in a different direction. I won’t say that I’ve had to dumb down my act, because it was always pretty dumb, but I stick with topics that get the greatest response. Maybe someday, I’ll be able to write an hour long special full of jokes only people with a scientific background would get (although I imagine it would be horrible), but for now I keep it light.
Making a living is a pretty big obstacle. I hinted at this earlier, but I don’t expect stand-up to pay much, at least not for a while, so I found another path. After I had been doing stand-up for a few years, I got a call from someone who organizes continuing education courses. They had heard about my experience in comedy and my background in psychology and thought marketing seminars as being taught by a psychologist / comedian might generate additional interest. I agreed and started touring as a comedic public speaker and it’s proven to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
How often does your psychology background and expertise leak into your comedy? Do you write and craft jokes particularly around psychology because you know the subject? Or do you prefer to stay away from the subject because people expect a psychologist-turned-comedian to make jokes about their former profession?
A lot of people that haven't seen me perform assume that I’m on stage drawing from my experiences as a therapist, making fun of patients. I’m not a therapist, and if I were I would never use my patients as a source of material, so it’s probably a good thing I never went that route. As far as I’m concerned, there are no subjects that are off limits for comedy, the only requirement is that it’s funny. I’m not an envelope pusher, i’m not controversial, but i’ve been known to offend. It’s an occupational hazard. As a comic, my material is observational. It’s unique to me, but not necessarily stemming from my background as a psychologist. I’ve tried that with audiences and it just doesn’t hit as well as some of my other stuff does. I used to do a bit where I “diagnosed” members of the audience, and that generally went over well. Occasionally I open with a play on my name and how I’m not comfortable calling myself “Dr. King”, because, well, it’s been taken.
However, I do write lots of jokes that are catered to my seminar audiences. Seminar jokes and comedy club jokes rarely overlap, the audiences are too different for that to be the case, but every once in awhile I can work an established bit into my seminar. When I do, it’s usually in an altered format, but I love when i can get away with that. There’s a development process with jokes: we write them, we test them in front of audiences, and we revise as needed. There are no “open mics” for seminars, so any joke I write specifically for that context is hard to predict the audience reaction.
My teaching style has been influenced quite a bit by my experiences in comedy. I’m less formal, very open and relatable. I treat seminar audiences as if I’m working the room and that seems to have worked to my advantage; audience response has been very positive. Occasionally, I’ll have attendees that were unaware they were coming to listen to a comedian speak come up to me during the breaks to tell me I should try stand up sometime. I love the irony of being told I should try my hand at comedy after making a room full of people laugh.
You may have taken on another career path but you still teach psychology, so what advice would you give to students who are thinking about psychology careers? Is there anything they should know or any advice you think will be important in helping them make a choice?
The advice that I’d offer students of psychology is the same advice I’d offer anyone: follow your passions. If you are one of those lucky people that doesn’t seem to have any clear passions, then study business. Earn some practical skills and adapt to any environment, I envy your ability to do that and hope that you might offer me a job someday.
I’ve had a lot of missteps in my career, but my most successful moments, from studying sexuality to my current role as a comedic instructor, came from being true to my interests. I had some life situations steer my decisions, and I did what I had to do at the time, but in the long run my happiest moments came from pursuing my own interests. Unfortunately, psychology doesn’t offer students a very clear career path so I’d also advise anyone interested in the field to really be sure of their interests, and be prepared to pursue an advanced degree.
That said, I think training in psychology is a wonderful thing and can be very beneficial regardless of the career a student ultimately pursues. I know people with a background in psychology that work in a variety of industries, and are very successful at what they do. Having a better understanding of human behavior and cultivating the skills we develop can come in handy anywhere, even stand up comedy.