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An engineer walks into a comedy club...

Electrical engineer Don McMillan has turned his love of comedy into a career

3 min read

Don McMillan likes to say that the only time people laugh at ­engineers is when they mess up at work. But he’s the exception. He’s a trained ­electrical engineer, and people laugh at him every day—unless he messes up. That’s because he tells jokes for a living.

He had his first big success in 1993, when he won US $100 000 on ”Star Search,” the TV talent show. Now he tours the country doing gigs for corporate audiences, for which he tailors specific acts. He calls himself an ASICC: an Application-Specific Integrated Comedy Consultant.

McMillan may be the only comic in the world who uses PowerPoint. He got the idea when his ­improvised riff on a presentation marked by mind-numbing technical slides killed the audience. So he went home and designed slides with titles like ”Baby Directional Falling Probability” and ”Don’s Chances of Winning an Argument.”

In fact, he says his act now is less like traditional standâ''up and more like a ­multimedia performance. His favorite show took place at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C., where he projected his presentation onto an enormous IMAX movie screen. ”I’m in the little corner of the slide,” he recalls. ”I felt like the paper-clip guy in Microsoft Office that pops up and goes, ’Hey, there’s a faster way to do this.’ I was the size of the font!”

As a kid, McMillan excelled at science and math, and ­engineering seemed to be the logical career path. ”Nobody ever looks at your SAT scores and says, ’You should be a ­comedian,’ ” he jokes. So he earned bachelor’s and ­master’s degrees in ­electrical ­engineering and joined AT&T Bell Laboratories, where he was part of the team that designed the world’s first 32-bit microprocessor, the BellMac-32. Then he spent six years at VLSI Technology, in San Jose, Calif., designing integrated circuits.

After work, he ­frequented comedy clubs. ”In a typical engineering approach, I watched and noted mentally what worked and what didn’t work and how comics did things,” he says. He first performed at an open-mike night in 1986, and then for three years he led a double life—chip designer by day, standâ''up comic by night.

McMillan performed frequently at a club in Sunnyvale, Calif., that got patrons from nearby companies like Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, and Apple. Drawing on his engineering ­background, McMillan began telling jokes for his techie audience (”Silicon Valley, it’s very unusual. It’s the only place I’ve gone to a wedding and the ­couple was registered at Fry’s Electronics”). The ­corporate gigs followed.

McMillan’s humor transcends cultural borders, says Don Maulsby, senior vice president of sales at Mentor Graphics, who has hired McMillan to ­entertain at ­several ­worldwide sales ­meetings and ­customer events. ”We have ­people from offices in 47 places around the world,” Maulsby says. ”His humor really ­resonates with our entire company. He really appeals to the high-tech crowds, but he can relate to just about anybody.”

McMillan says his non-nerdy audiences are catching up with him. ”I never used to be able to do any of my technical jokes in ­regular comedy clubs,” he says, ”but now everybody knows what a broadband line or wireless ­service is.”

About the Author

CORINNA WU interviewed Don McMillan, an electrical engineer�turned�comedian, for Careers [p. 23]. McMillan is perhaps the only comic around who uses PowerPoint in his routine. For Tools & Toys last month, Wu wrote about the GigaPan, a robotic photographer that weaves successive shots into a single panoramic view.

To Probe Further

For those of you expecting to see a video of Don MacMillan, our apologies for a misprint in Spectrum magazine. Instead, please listen to Don McMillan wow an audience in Irvine, California in this audio report [mp3].

See a related video of Don McMillan.

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