by Martha Michael
Don McMillan mixing technology and comedy
An average, everyday 6-foot 5-inch card-carrying PTA member, golf lover, Silicon Valley engineer out of Stanford, married with a kid at Sulphur Springs, stand-up comedian…what?!? (This is where “Sesame Street” would ask, “Which one is not like the others?”).
But it’s true. Canyon Country resident Don McMillan is actually a former engineer, a husband of 16 years to Laura, and father to nine-year-old Garrett, who is a Sulphur Springs fourth-grader, and spends his nights delivering such lines as:
“We moved here from Stevenson Ranch and one thing I’ve noticed is that we have all the same kinds of stores on this side of the valley, just with different names. For example, here we have ‘Canyon Car Wash.’ The other side of the valley has ‘The Auto Spa.’ (Like, on the other side of town your car will be getting a massage with the wash.) Other side of town: ‘Victoria’s Secret.’ Canyon Country: ‘The Fun Zone.’ See what I mean?”
Canyon Country Magazine’s Martha Michael attended two of Don McMillan’s shows, one at Robinson Ranch, a fundraiser for Heads Up Horse Therapy, and the other at J.R.’s Comedy Club at Marie Callender’s in Valencia. She saw how cleverly he marries his engineering background with his passion for comedy by delivering clean, intelligent humor with the use of power point presentation. She probed a little bit more about McMillan by catching up with him recently.
MM: What year did you first begin doing stand-up? What was the catalyst?
DM: I won Star Search in 1993. For those who don’t remember the show, it was hosted by Ed McMahon. It was a precursor to American Idol, but included singers, dancers, comedians, actors, and spokesmodels. The winner in each category received $100,000. Before you ask: that money is all gone – although I still have the huge, fake 6-foot by 3-foot check they gave me.
And more mixing technology and comedy!
I started doing stand-up in 1987 in San Jose, Calif. At the time I was working in Silicon Valley at a company called VLSI Technology. I designed integrated circuit chips and later managed a group of 15 engineers before “retiring” in 1991. As for why I started doing stand-up, my standard answer is, “My boss used to look at my work and ask, ‘Are you some kind of comedian?”” But in truth, I was always a comedy fan and my friends thought I was funny. We were at a local comedy club one night and the emcee mentioned an “Open Mic Night.” A friend said, “You’re funny – you should try it.” To his surprise, I took him seriously. I tried it and immediately loved it. I continued being an engineer by day and comedian by night for four years. I didn’t sleep much in those days.
MM: Where are you from? What did your parents feel about you switching careers?
DM: I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey – a suburb of Philadelphia. I was one of four children (I have 3 sisters) of Harry and Jane McMillan. My Dad was a mechanical engineer. My mom was a chemist and later a computer systems analyst at a major insurance company. My parents were in shock about my change of careers for many years (especially after earning a master’s degree from Stanford). My dad came around when I won $100,000 on “Star Search.” Mom never fully recovered. She has always hinted about wanting me to return to the high tech world. I think she always wanted me to be the next Albert Einstein, scientist – not the comedian (Albert Brooks’ real name is Albert Lawrence Einstein).
MM: What comedians have influenced you?
DM: I grew up listening to and watching Bill Cosby. I owned three of his albums – back in the days when there were comedy albums. I also loved Steve
Martin. Starting about age 10, I used to stay up late and watch Johnny Carson every night. I loved Johnny and I particularly enjoyed it when he had comedians on the show. Rodney Dangerfield was great. Steven Wright is fantastic – smart and funny. I dreamed of being on the show with Johnny, but he retired before I had a chance to audition.
MM: What is the most difficult aspect of doing comedy? What do you miss about engineering?
DM: Since I love performing and writing comedy, the hardest part is the business. You have to work hard to book shows, deal with club owners, promote yourself, and build a following. The creative part is a joy. The hardest part of performing is going on stage the very first time. They say that public speaking is the number one fear of most people, so getting up that first time is harrowing. If you tell a joke and no one laughs – you know; the audience knows it; everyone knows it. It’s the worst feeling in the world – that’s why they call it “dying.” Every comedian has experienced it at some point. But you survive, you go on, and the laughs come again.
As far as engineering goes, the only thing I really miss is the people. I loved the folks I worked with. We were a team. There is no “office” that a stand-up comedian goes to every day. In a normal job, you see the people you work with every day. You share their lives; you trade stories; you talk about the news. I miss that camaraderie.
MM: How often does your wife get to see you work?
DM: I could say, “Every day! I am a laugh a minute at home!” But that would be a lie. People always say to my wife, “It must be so fun being married to a comedian,” to which she answers, “You have
no idea.” Don’t be fooled, people! Most comedians are as boring as anybody else at home. I can be very unfunny (ask my son), especially when I get new technology – I’m a nerd after all! I get grumpy and crabby and sometimes I’m not any fun to be around. No one pays to see that side of me. But my wife and son see it and they still love me. My wife manages to see me perform a few times a year when friends or family come to a show. She’s seen all my “standard” material, so she finds it funniest when I mess up and I’m forced to make something funny out of my mistakes or a heckler or a weird audience member. To tell you the truth, that’s fun for me, too. I’ve always loved doing improv.
MM: Is there anything that’s off-limits for you to use as far as comedy material?
DM: I am considered a clean comedian. I’ve never relied on vulgarity or dirty words or adult situations. I leave that to other comics. I find that clean comedy can be used in so many more situations – why limit myself to only “R-rated” comedy. Plus, the majority of my shows these days are for corporate audiences, so keeping it clean and politically correct is essential. Other than that, I avoid anything TRULY personal about my wife or son. I talk about men and women and relationships in general, but my family’s personal lives are private and I respect that. Also, I never ever joke about the Amish. No particular reason – I just don’t find them funny.
MM: Where are you from? And your family members?
DM: I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Laura is from St. Louis, MO – Lindbergh High School (everyone in St. Louis says what high school they went to – what is that about?). My son is from my wife – but he was delivered at Henry Mayo in 2003.
MM: Do you like Sulphur Springs? Canyon Country? Why did you relocate?
DM: We love Sulphur Springs. We are Mustangs at heart! Although my son has commented that in four years he has still not smelled the sulphur. We love Canyon Country, especially when the
thunder echoes down the canyons. That is so cool! I also love the SCHOA (Sand Canyon Homeowner’s Association) e-mails. Every day there’s at least a few stray animals, and occasionally you’ll see a runaway turtle, an escaped parrot, or a lost goat. If you don’t receive the SCHOA e-mails, get on the list. It’s very entertaining. Why did we move here? Saugus would not take us.
MM: What are some of your hobbies?
DM: I am a golfer and I have been so since age 12. I was a member at Robinson Ranch for several years until back surgery slowed me down. I still play once a week or so. I also love to play with technology. I networked our TiVo’s together and added network storage. Now we can watch thousands of hours of television from anywhere in the house – instantly. I am very proud of that!
You can see a Don McMillan power point show for yourself on his website, www.technicallyfunny.com. You will also find his show schedule and learn more about the comedian on the site.