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Neal Weinberg
Contributing writer, Foundry

Networking is a joke

News
Mar 29, 20046 mins
Enterprise Applications

The geekier the audience the better for comedian Don McMillan, whose bits have bite.

Don McMillan beta-tests his jokes. He uses PowerPoint in his act. His repertoire includes gags about DRAM, SSL and ASCII.The more obscure the reference, the better McMillan likes it.

Don McMillan beta-tests his jokes.

He uses PowerPoint in his act.

His repertoire includes gags about DRAM, SSL and ASCII.The more obscure the reference, the better McMillan likes it. The 44-year-old former chip designer has carved out a successful comedy career that includes both high-tech comedy and a somewhat more mainstream act. But get McMillan in front of a bunch of geeks, and he’s in his element.

“I tell jokes nobody can even get near, jokes about error correction, jokes that have never been told before,” he says. “My big thing was physics. So I tell jokes about pi mesons [subatomic particles].”

McMillan is one of a small band of high-tech comedians – others include Wayne Cotter and Dan St. Paul – who use their knowledge of IT to delve into the lighter side of technology. McMillan, with a master’s degree in engineering from Stanford University and a résumé that includes Bell Labs and VLSI Technology, certainly has the tech credentials.

He has some pretty impressive comedy credits as well – he won the $100,000 grand championship on Star Search in 1993 and has appeared on television, in movies and in comedy clubs across the country. You also might recognize him as the “skunky beer” guy from that series of Budweiser commercials.

He concedes that making a corporate audience laugh these days is tougher than it was before the Internet boom went bust.

“My task has changed. From 1995 to 1999, I was brought in to help celebrate. The shows were like walking on air, people were in such a good mood,” he says. After the bubble burst, McMillan’s role shifted to boosting morale, cheering up the troops. “It’s more difficult. You’re pushing a big rock up a steep hill,” he says.

But at the same time, he feels that it’s more important. When people are going through tough times, “you need to find some humor, and hopefully I supply that. I’m filling a void,” he says.

And McMillan, who charges $12,500 per appearance, says he’s seeing high-tech companies start to bounce back. He was at InfoSec World last week in Orlando and at a Cisco event the week before, where he not only told jokes, but true to his geek heritage, sat through a couple of sessions on routing technology.

McMillan says he went from computer bits to comedy bits in the late 1980s, when clubs were booming in the Bay Area. Bitten by the comedy bug, McMillan wrote 5 minutes of material and showed up at open mic night at Captain Cook’s Seafood and Comedy Club in San Jose. But he didn’t go on stage right away.

“As any good engineer would, I watched and studied for a month,” he says. He saw that about one-quarter of the comics were funny, which meant three-quarters weren’t. He figured, “I can at least be as unfunny as they are,” so he took his 5 minutes of material and went on.

“It was kind of surreal,” McMillan says. “But actually I was pretty funny. I told original jokes, and half of them worked.”

Most comics take a skewed view of the world in one fashion or another. McMillan’s observations are based on his tech background: “I have the advantage of being an engineer and looking at the world logically. For example, why does Bill Gates, who is worth $40 billion, still have eyeglasses? He has so much money, he can make the rest of the world out of focus.”

Speaking of Gates, McMillan is often asked to write material for corporate executives. On one occasion, Dell asked McMillan to write a skit for CEO Michael Dell and Gates, who was appearing at an event for the computer maker. McMillan had Dell sitting behind a desk, interviewing job candidates. Gates was supposed to come on stage as the job applicant, and Dell was supposed to examine Gates’ résumé and says things like, “Oh, I see you dropped out of college . . .” But Gates decided not to play along, McMillan says.

He has another connection to Gates, because his act relies on about 25 PowerPoint slides that graph everything from his drinking habits over time to the different paths he and his wife take when shopping at a mall. (McMillan goes straight in and out; his wife zigzags all over the place.)

Geeky giggles

A sampling of Don McMillan’s material from his performance at last week’s InfoSec World show in Orlando.
He looked out into his audience scattered through the room and said, “You look like an undefragmented drive.”
“I’m wearing a tie with the chemical elements on it. I only wear it periodically.”
He gave the audience a binary high-five by holding up one finger, then none, then one.
His definition of a nanosecond: “The amount of time to say ‘no,’ when your wife asks, ‘Do I look fat?’”
His definition of an IP address: the location of your bathroom.
Proof of relativity: “When you’re with your wife’s relatives, time slows down.”
What’s an enterprise server? “A waiter on Star Trek.”

McMillan says he’s weathered one or two glitches over the years. “Just last week at the Improv in San Jose in the middle of my act Norton Anti-Virus fires up,” he says.

A few months ago, McMillan was performing at a Documentum conference. His slides were written in an Office 2000 version of PowerPoint that for some reason wasn’t totally compatible with the Office version running at the show. “The builds were in all the wrong places, I was getting half a sentence at a time,” he says. Luckily, it wasn’t a Microsoft audience, and the laughs only got bigger.

McMillan appears regularly at places such as the Improv in San Jose and J.R.’s Comedy Club in Valencia, Calif.

Randy Lubas, the manager at J.R.’s, says, “Don draws a mixed crowd. He does get a lot of geeks and nerds. He does some of his nerdiest material at J.R.’s, and it always goes over very well. We enjoy getting the nerds that Don brings in because they very seldom start fights, and most of them earn more than $100,000 a year. That is a nice combination.”

Lubas adds that he admires the comedian for keeping his act clean.

McMillan, whose comic heroes are Bill Cosby, Steve Martin and Johnny Carson, is proud of the fact that he works clean. But there is one subject area that’s taboo. “You don’t say the words ‘dot.com’ anymore. You just don’t.”