By day, she studies and teaches chemistry, but by night, Robin Higgins commands the audiences of bars and clubs with her humor.
Robin Higgins said she chose to attend graduate school at UCLA because of its appealing chemistry program.
But she said a different factor also weighed heavily on her decision: Los Angeles’ reputation as one of the biggest stand-up comedy cities in the country.
Despite the over-40-hour work week as a first-year graduate student and organic chemistry teaching assistant, Higgins spends four nights out of seven frequenting open mic nights in the city, including in neighborhoods like Westwood and Hollywood.
Higgins said science intrigues her because of the need to think both critically and outside the box. But hours spent memorizing textbook facts grow dry. That’s where comedy comes in.
“It’s good to have a breath of fresh air,” she said. “It feels like each one is a break from the other.”
Mainly comedians attend the open mic nights, which allows her to practice in front of them before doing a comedy show.
“Comedians are jaded and not going to laugh easily,” she said. “But if a joke still works, you know it’s good.”
In between previous performances at open mic nights, Higgins met other comedians from UCLA and proposed a way for them to continue performing back on campus.
In the fall, she founded the Stand-Up at UCLA club, which hosts regular shows in the Kerckhoff Coffeehouse. The comedy shows have grown popular enough that Los Angeles comedians now ask for stage time, Higgins said.
With an index finger and thumb pressed against her chin, Higgins seemed thoughtful, even when describing fellow comedians.
She said Chris Rock impresses her with his ability to infuse serious opinions into his routines, and she hopes to hone the same skill when blending science and comedy.
Higgins tackles comedy in the analytical way she approaches everything in life, said Sharon Higgins, her mother.
Sharon Higgins added that even though her daughter showed interest in creativity and humor from a young age, it took a very long time for her to enter the field.
“I didn’t view myself as a funny person,” Robin Higgins said about her younger years. “I viewed myself as a person who liked funny things.”
She dipped her toes in the world of comedy by editing a humor magazine as an undergraduate at Emory University.
And now, some of her stand-up performances are available on YouTube.
In her videos, Higgins plays the ukulele and asserts her nerdiness by explaining how she once spotted a spider in lab and considered allowing it to bite her. She also dissects the appeal of male superheroes as potential lovers in her act.
“I can spot a crier from a mile away,” she said about Batman.
She much prefers Ironman.
As Higgins alternates between the stage and the classroom, her jokes adjust accordingly.
On the first day of chemistry discussion, she usually hints at her humor and tells her students the only type of dog allowed in a lab is a Labrador.
“She is different on YouTube than she is in classes,” said Steven Hardinger, a UCLA organic chemistry professor. “I couldn’t repeat her jokes on BruinCast.”
Sitting in his office, Hardinger said Higgins, his teaching assistant, feels tempted to steal his jokes about Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
“It occurred to me the other day that their alarm system doesn’t work very well,” he said as Higgins laughed.
The pair discussed the bears’ marital problems as indicated by their separate beds before moving on to criticize “The Simpsons” and praise “The Big Bang Theory.”
Higgins said she would love to create her own comedy television program similar to “The Big Bang Theory,” but her geniuses would be slacker scientists.
From his swivel chair, Hardinger said she should call it Slackers, or USC, with the S standing for “slackers.”
Higgins said she needs more time to decide what her specific goals will be after graduating from the chemistry program. Lecturing like Hardinger has great appeal, but so does finding unconventional ways of mixing science and comedy.
“There are a lot of options in the future,” Higgins said.