Don McMillan: Old School Lucky Charm


McMillan-DonHere at SUSC we have a thing for Bay Area comics from the late 80s and early 90s. Don McMillan was definitely a golden boy. His background was Electrical Engineering, where he was instrumental in designing early Microprocessors. He broke away from his day job when he won the 1991 SF International Comedy Competition. Next came dominating on the extremely popular Star Search, securing the $100,000 Grand Championship in 1993. Multiple television appearances, sold out shows around the country and starring in 15 national commercials for Budeweiser, McMillan has stories to tell.


SUSC: Where do you have a show tonight?

Don: University of West Virginia, it’s engineers week. So I’m here tonight, tomorrow in Vermont and then Thursday at Roosters in Sunnyvale. I’m on road this week.

Hectic. I was wondering if we could talk about the early years?

Sure, I love talking about the early years. Me and my comedy buddies are always doing that, so cool.

Where did you get started?

The first place I was ever on stage was a restaurant, that’s no loner around. But it was right on the border of San Jose and Sunnyvale, it was called Captain Cooks. It was a seafood restaurant and in the basement they had a bar and on Wednesday and Thursdays they had open mic and improv comedy night. I went down to check it out once and there was an improv group performing there and I met the director of the improv group, his name was Dan Schow. He became one of my best friends in the world and he taught me how to do improv, and I did only that for six months. One day he told me he signed me up to do stand-up on the following Thursday, so I had a week to get ready and that was 1986. I did 5 minutes.

Did you get over to Holy City Zoo?

After I did the South Bay a couple of times over the course of a month I went to SF to The Other Café. They would do open mics on Mondays and Tuesdays and that was located in the Haight Ashbury. I did that a couple of times and then I went and did the Zoo. They basically had open mics every night of the week besides Friday and Saturday. You get on there 2 or 3 nights a week. Then I would do The Other Café on Mondays and Tuesdays, Captain Cooks on Wednesday and Thursdays, so I found open mics every night of the week in those days. Comedy was booming in the late 80s.

Did you arrive at the Holy City Zoo the same time as Margaret Cho or Patton Oswalt?

They came around a little bit later. I started off with Ellen (DeGeneres), Paula Poundstone and David Feldman and Bob Rubin. Patton and those guys came a few years later. I already had been doing it for four or five years when they popped up. There used to be an Improv Comedy Club right downtown in the theatre district and that’s where I met Margaret. I would see her there all the time. We both would do Mondays there. I remember her doing an open mic competition and doing really well. I saw her really shine back in ‘90, ‘91.

Who were you working with back then?

Dana Carvy and Tom Kennedy and all those guys. They were big in the late ‘80s. They would do open mics all week and then headline the big clubs. Back then there were 13 fulltime comedy clubs within an hour and a half of San Francisco. You could work Wednesday through Sunday or Tuesday through Saturday. If you played each club twice a year, you had 26 weeks of work. You could earn a living as a headliner or a middle act in those days and never leave the Bay Area. It was amazing. So I kept my day job in San Jose and go out every night to a comedy club.

It’s coming back, at least in terms of open mics.

I’m glad it’s coming back, because for a lot of years it was hard to get stage time for a lot of young comics. That’s the key to getting good, getting on stage as much as possible.

It was amazing to see that the year you took first in the SF International Comedy Competition that Louis C.K. took fifth.

I know, isn’t that amazing? We always thought he was the funniest. He made us laugh more than anybody. I think he was only 21 or 22 at the time. He was fearless, even then. He wasn’t as dark back then, he was more goofy. I remember he did one bit that I always loved. It makes no sense whatsoever, which is ahta I loved. He said, “Here’s an impression of John F. Kennedy if he were a hooker in Saigon. ‘Me so horny, love you long time, ass fuckie suckie.’” He did a really good Kennedy. I laughed every time I heard him do it. Finally I asked him, “Louie, that’s a really funny joke how did you think of that?” And he goes, “Well I used to do it as James Mason, but not enough people knew who James Mason was.” He was very cool to work with, very supportive and he got along with all the comics.

When you won that in ’91 it was a very prestigious competition. How competitive was it behind the scenes?

There were different levels. David Cross was in the 1990 competition, the year before I won. I was in that one as well, and I had a chance to get into the finals on the last day, I needed to hang on to fifth place to make it to the finals. Right before I went on at Paul Masson Winery, David Cross is on the stage and Cross was mad. He was pissed. He was a little too hip for a lot of the rooms and he wasn’t doing well. By that time he was fed up with the competition and he was disgusted by it. So he walks onstage and he drops his pants and lectured the crowd on how stupid they were and how stupid the competition was. He wasn’t getting any laughs and they couldn’t get him offstage. They cut his mic and had to carry him off the stage. And, I was up next. I don’t hate David for it, but that certainly didn’t help me at the time. It was horrible luck to have that happen. I didn’t make the finals and dropped down to sixth. That’s how competitive it was and how emotional it was. There were comics who were cut throat and would mess with your head before you went on and tell you not to do certain jokes. Then other comics were great and supportive.

Will Durst?

Will Durst was great. He was the host and he was always supportive of all the comics. My friends in comedy those days were Carlos Alazraqui and Steve Bruner, we came up together and supported each other. Carlos ended up winning two years after me. We hung out with Johnny Steele a lot. Then were comics that were just nasty and competitive. There was also comics who thought it was wrong to do a competition. David Cross and Janeane Garofalo thought comedy was an art and should not be a competition and they were totally against it. Very different camps.

I would imagine by the time you got to Star Search, and won, your skin was pretty thick.

That was nothing! Everyone around me was falling apart, and I was like, “We just got to do 2 minutes and 30 seconds in front of a good crowd. It’s easy!” One of the reasons I won is I had gone through the comedy gauntlet. There was nothing harder the San Francisco Comedy Competition. I lost eight pounds one year. It was so nerve wracking. You never knew what the crowd was going to be like, or who you went after, or what order you went up.

What was Jon Fox (promoter/creator of the competition) like back in 1991?

God bless him, it’s a great thing the competition. He had an air about him. He wandered around like he was the Francis Ford Coppola of comedy competitions. I asked him a question and he’d say things like, “I’ve noticed that taller guys do better at the competition.” I had no idea what that meant. He was like Loren Michaels, he’d sit back and you had to kiss the ring, kind of thing. He was always nice to me. A real character.

There must have been a lot of characters in the late 80s.

There was a guy named Bob Moore. He used to book a lot of one-nighters. Bob was renowned for never paying you. You would do the gig and there were rumors the he had drug problems, or money problems. You would still do the gigs, but never get paid. Benjamin Stewart was a comic, an amazing guy. He was in a wheelchair, had birth defects, had stubs for legs and could work one hand. He was a big guy at the Holy City Zoo and he would do the raunchiest, darkest comedy. Fearless. Probably weighed 30 pounds. Super supportive. He passed away around ’94. They had a ceremony for him at the Holy City Zoo and people were crying and telling Benjamin Stewart stories. Everyone was there. The community then was really strong. The late ‘80s was a great time in San Francisco comedy, it changed in the ‘90s. People moved to LA, the clubs shut down and it really lost a lot.

Was moving to LA a big push back then?

Yeah. As soon as you would be headlining, people would say you have to move to LA and get in movies. I just saw the movie with Bubbles and Steele and Durst.

Three Still Standing.

They stayed. They didn’t move to LA. They stayed for their art. I respect them as comics and I respect their choice. I thought about not moving and I think perhaps maybe I shouldn’t have. I miss San Francisco a lot.

See Don McMillian live at Rooster T. Feathers in Sunnyvale, CA February 26- March 1, 2015  with local Santa Cruz comedian Chad Opitz hosting- Click here to buy tickets  





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