You rarely see the words engineering and comedy together in a job résumé. But these stand-up comics found new careers mining old lives in technology. Collectively, they've appeared in movies and television shows, but it's only at corporate events held by the likes of Apple, Genentech, and Intel that they can joke in shorthand. "Engineers have minds that break things into components and see connections between parts," explains comic Wayne Cotter. "Comics apply the same kind of analysis to everyday life."
"In two years, supermarket shopping carts are going to have TV sets in them. I read this. Someone has cracked the problem of getting a TV into a shopping cart. Is that a priority? I'll tell you what. How about we get the fourth wheel to work first, then we start thinking about the TV."
After studying electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, Wayne Cotter worked at a New Jersey computer manufacturer by day and Philadelphia's comedy clubs at night. He hosted Fox's "Comic Strip Live" and Discovery Channel's "Amazing America" before taking his engineering anecdotes to corporate audiences.
"Nuclear fission is the energy source behind atomic weaponry. To start the process, you need a fissile material, such as uranium 235. Uranium is inherently unstable, and it has a certain probability of just breaking down and ejecting a neutron at its neighbor. Which destabilizes the neighbor, causing it to eject multiple neutrons, and the process is propagated in a chain reaction. I've actually seen the same thing happen at a Raiders bar."
Tim Lee holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution and worked as a software engineer for Hewlett-Packard, Borland, and several Silicon Valley start-ups before turning to "PowerPoint comedy" for companies like Microsoft.
"When I applied for the job at Intel, they said, 'You're Indian and Japanese...you don't even have to interview!"
Dan Nainan was a senior technical marketing engineer at Intel when he took a stand-up comedy class to overcome his fear of public speaking. Today, he's likely the world's sole Japanese-Indian comic, appearing in The Last Airbender, an Apple commercial, and nearly 200 gigs a year.
"I ran a red light once. Tried to talk my way out of it by explaining that the light looked green because of the Doppler effect. Now, here's what's wrong with that argument. I would have to be doing 144 million in a 25-mile-per-hour zone."
By day, Norm Goldblatt is a senior optical engineer at OptiMedica Corp., an ophthalmic laser systems designer in Santa Clara, Calif. By night he tackles Silicon Valley and science onstage. He's also written jokes for Jay Leno.
"I'm a recovering engineer now. I had my pants lowered in a series of 12 operations—that was the hardest part. I was slowly disappearing into my trousers. Didn't even wear shirts; there was no point. Turtleneck pants. Had to undo the fly to shake hands."
Don McMillan turned to high-tech comedy after earning a master's in electrical engineering from Stanford and designing chips, first for AT&T Bell Laboratories and then for VLSI Technology (now NXP Semiconductors). He seriously upped his geek cred with stints on "Star Trek: Voyager" and "Babylon 5."
"Galileo did not invent the telescope, but he was the first to turn it skyward and make astronomical observations with it. Before that—like all new technologies—it was mostly used for porn."
A recovering premed who once sold computer accessories, Brian Malow is now a Time magazine science video correspondent and a USA Science and Engineering Festival adviser. He does corporate comedy for science associations and technology giants.