Dan Nainan’s comedy career happened as something of an accident. While working as a senior engineer for Intel, his job was to travel the world and demonstrate the company’s latest technology with CEO Andy Grove. As the audiences grew in size, he began to develop stage fright, and took a comedy class to help him get more comfortable in front of a crowd. It was during that class that he developed a passion for comedy, and before long he decided to quit his job to pursue it full time.
Dan has since performed all over the world, for people including President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Steve Wozniak. He’s also performed with some of the biggest names in comedy, including Bob Saget, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan, and Garry Shandling.
His book, The Best Book on How To Become A Full-time Stand-up Comedian, is available on Amazon, and be sure to check out his tour dates to catch him live.
Dan was gracious enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about who he is, what he does, and why he loves to do it. He also has some great advice for anyone who dreams of turning their passion into something more. Our conversation is below.
Kevin Spence: First of all, you have such a fascinating story. As an engineer at Intel, you took a comedy class to help get over your fear of public speaking. Incredibly, that experience put you on a path to becoming a professional comedian and performing all over the world. That’s such an amazing turn of events — can you tell me about how you realized your passion for standup comedy?
Dan Nainan: My first performance was the “final exam” for the comedy class at the Punchline club in San Francisco. It was a packed club, and I had a great spot, and I absolutely demolished the room. Every joke got a laugh. I couldn’t believe it. Thank goodness I got a video of that show.
A couple of weeks later, I was out in Las Vegas for a convention with Intel, and I happened to mention that I had taken a comedy class and that I had my video with me, and some of my coworkers asked to see it. They absolutely loved it, and they asked me to perform at the team dinner that very night. It was kind of the wrapup event for the week of the convention. I performed for about 250 Intel employees, doing impressions of Bill Clinton and Andy Grove and some inside Intel jokes, and they absolutely loved it. Immediately thereafter, somebody came up to me and asked me if I could perform the same act at the annual sales convention a few months later, for 2500 people. Of course I said yes.
So on a Monday morning at eight o’clock, when nobody had been drinking, in a giant ballroom at the San Francisco Hilton, I did my comedy act for the third time in my life. The audience was composed of 2500 Intel salespeople from around the world, from places like Pakistan, Argentina, Poland, you name it. We set things up so it looked like one of my technical demonstrations had a glitch, then I said I would tell some jokes while we got it fixed. I was so terrified that my left leg was actually shaking behind the podium. I couldn’t believe the reaction. The crowd was rolling in the aisles, pounding on tables; it was the most incredible rush imaginable.
KS: When you left Intel, you were the Strategic Relations Manager for the East Coast. That’s a pretty high-profile position with one of America’s top companies – how did you get up the courage to leave it behind so you could follow your dreams?
DN: I loved my first job with Intel. I was traveling the world, staying in the finest hotels, and speaking on stage with Intel’s top executives. I heard that the Strategic Relations Manager job, two levels higher, was available, based in New York City. I knew I had to be in New York or Los Angeles to be serious about comedy, and I didn’t want to do the car thing anymore, so New York was the obvious choice.
I applied for the promotion, and because I knew the senior vice president of sales, I got the job with no problem. I moved to New York, but I really didn’t like the new job at all. Before, I was geeking out with the latest technology, traveling the world, and working in the Intel headquarters building with hundreds of people who were friends. In New York, I was home-based, not traveling at all, and it was sales, not technology. I couldn’t stand it.
I lasted a year, and finally, against the advice of everyone I knew, I left my job to pursue comedy full-time. People thought I was insane. Maybe I was. I was making six figures, with stock options, full benefits, and I walked away.
KS: When you look back on your comedy career, was there a specific moment when you realized ‘wow, this is actually going to work?’
DN: After that performance I mentioned for 2500 Intel employees at the sales conference, a number of employees who didn’t know me came up to me and said that they knew that I wasn’t really an Intel employee, that I had been hired as a professional comedian for the event. That blew me away. That was the first time when I thought that perhaps I could do this for a living.
KS: One of the reasons you left Intel was that you were feeling unfulfilled. What advice would you offer to other creative people who feel restless and frustrated with their desk jobs?
DN: Of course it’s easy to say well, make the most of it, but there are some people who just are not going to find satisfaction in their jobs. Obviously, the best thing to do is to try to get out and do something else. Many people I talk to have what they consider to be a boring job, but they also have an artistic passion of some kind, whether it’s singing, comedy, making movies, dance, entrepreneurship, whatever. At the same time, they’ll tell me that they want to pursue their other passion, but they don’t have time to do so.
I would have to disagree. The average American watches over 30 hours of television a week. Also, on Friday night, there’s tremendous societal pressure to go out and party and drink, because that’s what everyone else is doing. Then they are hung over Saturday, and not really able to do anything worthwhile, then they rinse and repeat Saturday night and then they are hung over Sunday, and barely struggle in to work Monday morning. If they cut out the television, the partying and the drinking, well, I’ve just found them 60 hours a week! (32 hours of television, 12 hours of partying and drinking from 9 PM to 3 AM on Friday and Saturday, 16 hours on Saturday and Sunday hung over doing nothing.
Instead numbing their minds with alcohol, and instead of watching television (and passively watching others do what they love for a living and making big money doing it), why not use that time to write the jokes, compose the music, learn filmmaking or start a business?
KS: You pride yourself on being a clean comedian, which I think is great. How has that conviction helped shape your career?
DN: That’s a great question! Almost every show I do is a corporate function, charity gala, cruise ship, private function, etc., where dirty comedy would not work. When I performed for president Obama, there was considerable pushback from his staff, because of what happened in 2008, when Bernie Mac did one of Obama’s campaign events and did so much profanity that everyone was disgusted. Fortunately, I did my usual 100% clean comedy, and the president was quite pleased. You can see him compliment me on my website.
KS: What is the best career or business advice you’ve ever received?
DN: I met Jerry Seinfeld early in my career, and got up the nerve to ask him for his advice. He told me that I should do clean comedy, and that if I did, I could work anywhere. He turned out to be quite prophetic.
KS: You have a book coming out that talks about how you made the transition from an engineer to a standup comedian. How did that book come about happening, and what have you learned from the process?
DN: The book is out! And although it’s not a bestseller by any means, the royalties are nice, and the best part is I get to buy the paper edition really cheap and sell them at my shows for a nice profit.
I know that there are many people who have a book partially written, but have the hardest time finishing it. That’s precisely the situation in which I found myself. I hired a cowriter, and I learned that having one is critically important – that’s the greatest thing I ever did. Since a cowriter is much more incentivized to finish the book (because they are being paid), it will get done in no time. I don’t think I would have ever finished the book on my own. The fee I paid the cowriter paid for itself many, many times over.
To be truthful, I don’t think the book is that great, but it is selling, and as my friend Darren Lacroix, the great motivational speaker says, “Done is better than perfect!”
KS: What is the most rewarding part of your job?
DN: I think the most rewarding part of my job is the fact that I get to travel the world first-class and five-star on someone else’s dime. In the last couple of years, I have performed in Hong Kong, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Trinidad, Tanzania, Turkey, the Bahamas, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, England, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and of course all over the States. I have a tour coming up in Australia in April. As my friend Robin Sharma, author of “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari” told me, I’m essentially a paid tourist. Since I travel so much, I’m always upgraded to first class. I like to say that I’m like George Clooney in “Up in the Air”, just without the sex. The best part is that all I had to do to get here was just write a few jokes!
KS: Aside from comedy, one of your biggest passions is reducing your carbon footprint. What are some of the ways that you’ve been able to do that?
DN: I’m glad you asked, because this is one of the most important things to me. Certainly I have a huge footprint from all the travel, but that’s something that I can’t do anything about.
When I travel, though, I take public transportation as much as possible. Many of my friends drive or take cabs to the airport – the subway comes right under my building, so I take that instead.
When I’m staying in hotels, I never, ever get maid service or have my sheets and towels changed (that might sound gross, but how often do you you change your sheets and towels at home?) I’m one of those people that is insane about turning off lights when I’m not in a room, or when I go out. I live in a 750 square foot apartment in Manhattan, and my electric bill is $35 a month. I also religiously use the backs of paper when possible.
I almost never buy books – I get them from the library. I’ve been offered a private jet to come pick me up to go do a show, but on principle I refused and flew commercial. (To me, the biggest hypocrites in the world are Al Gore, John Travolta and Robert Kennedy Jr., who tell us we should help the environment and yet fly private jets everywhere! Also, I find it quite ironic that Kennedy claims to be such an environmentalist, and yet violently opposed the Cape Wind offshore windmill project only because it would be visible from the Kennedy compound.)
Honestly if I told you everything that I do to help the environment, I think it would put your readers to sleep, but I am happy to tell you everything if you’d like! As a matter of fact, my next book is about what we can do to help the environment.
KS: Thank you so much for your time!
DN: Thank you so kindly in turn for your time, and for this opportunity; I appreciate it very much!