Wayne Cotter: Why Computer Engineering is Like Standup Comedy at TEDxRainier (Transcript)

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Full transcript of stand-up comedian Wayne Cotter’s TEDx Talk: Why Computer Engineering is Like Standup Comedy at TEDxRainier conference.

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Wayne Cotter – Stand-up comedian

When I was at my twenties, I changed careers from computer engineer to standup comedian. It was the 1980s and I decided that I am a visionary and I can see the future, this whole computer thing is going nowhere.

But you know, for a long time I’ve had to answer to a lot of folks who feel that there’s some kind of inherent contradiction between those two pursuits and I don’t think there is. So, if you’d indulge me I’d like to talk a little bit about why.

I’m going to start with a story from when I was nine years old and my grandmother took me to the New York World’s Fair. Then the exhibit was there that was part of the IBM pavilion that demonstrated the Bell Curve, the Galician distribution. Mechanically, there’s, I have a picture of the machine which is a brilliant thing that was invented by Charles and Ray Eames. It dropped 30 thousand balls from the top through this grid of pegs and each ball at each roll would bounce randomly left or right and when they all collected at the bottom every time they would form a perfect bell curve and match the line you see painted on the front there. And this just blew my little mind. I could not be dragged away.

Here we are the giant fair and there’s rights, and shows, and food and my grandmother was stuck with this creepy obsessed child who will not be torn away from the mass machine. But, honestly, it was like a life-changing thing for me. It really was. And… and I would focus in, you know like one little ball and watch it just be completely random and then I kind of zoom out and see that every time there was this pattern to it and it made me realize that you can make sense out of something by looking at it in a different way. And I think that’s something that engineers and comedians both do.

Okay? Are you with me so far? Okay. The numbers and jokes have always been a part of my life from time that I was a kid. I was memorizing π to fifty places and Bill Cosby albums. You know it’s just… and you can infer from the time commitment that took that I didn’t have a massive social life at that time. I looked up numbers in the dictionary. I just thought numbers were — I just looked up just to see what the dictionary would say. And I found the word fifty, f-i-f-t-y; it’s in there. The definition was three words: five times ten.

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Now, you don’t know what fifty is. What kind of hell is “five times ten?” And I looked up “forty-nine”, it will say “See fifty, subtract one.” Anyway, I did grow up to become an engineer, and I went to work for a Mainframe Manufacturer in New Jersey, and which was fantastic. It was mine… it was like… I got to play with these giant computers and it was like the ultimate mega probability machine. It was fantastic. I was in fact… I have a picture. I think this is from like 1979 or 1980 if we can get there. Let’s see. Yes. That’s it. That’s me and my group. You can kind of play where is Walter with this and try to figure out who I am. The clue is there is no female in that picture.

Little randomness going on with the hair there too, I think. Yeah, it was eh… I was the very early version of the crazy programmer. I was, you know, socially awkward for hyper-caffeinated playing all-night coding marathons. Basically, kind of Mark Zuckerberg without the money, if you want to think of it that way.

But I started moonlighting as a comic. I was going out… uh, let’s get rid of that, oh my god. I started to going out, and I was doing my engineering job by day and going out at night, and trying to tell jokes. And what I discovered is that, and it was surprising to me. It was the same — I couldn’t do both at once — because it was the same creative juice that was fueling both of these things. I’d squeeze those lemons so hard all day doing programming, and I couldn’t get out and be funny at night. So, I quit my day job, became a comedian, and did all the TV shows. Next things, you know, I am touring all over the place. And in every town, I would do these interviews. And every time, they wanted to write the exact same story, which was, you know, nerd, loser, engineer, blossoms into fabulous TV comedian, it’s impossible how can that be, it’s so crazy. It’s ugly darkling, it’s a caterpillar, butterfly, it just couldn’t be.

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And I, having no character at all, play right along. “Well, I looked around the office and I realized that I was the only one with a personality. Hehehe… you know.” Which is a cheap joke, and it’s just not true. The people I worked with were creative, smart, and funny and great, you know. I think, when we pigeon hole people like that, it makes me think about the bell curve again, because you take the distribution of possibility of everything somebody could be. We collapse it down to this one thing that’s average in the middle. We decide that’s our answer and we move on. And more often than not just mathematically, even we are just wrong. And I think it affects the way we see ourselves, and the way we see other people.

There was a study, it was like, I think it was in 2007, and that got a lot of attention about American high school girls and math. They said that girls weren’t pursuing math in United States as much as in other countries and as much as the boys because they felt that being good at math was a masculine quality. It’s that same stereotype. By the way, I would love to have known that because I was in high school, and I was amazing at math. I don’t recall any girl ever expressing any idea that she felt it was a masculine quality, I’ll just say.

But if I could, I would go back to those same reporters and try to give them the real answer to the question that why is an engineer and comedian, and what do they have in common? And the truth is that an engineer, if you think about it, they take a big complicated thing, like an airplane, or a bridge, or a computer, and they break it down into the little parts; and they break down the parts into littler parts. They figure out kind of how everything fits together and mashes and gibes. And when you apply that kind of analysis to life and the world, what falls out is the inconsistencies and contradictions, and paradoxes, and those are the jokes. And much of what I do, I’m often starting off with the science questions.

When my wife was pregnant, we had these M-news and teases, and I asked the doctor how does these work. I have the background in science, explain to me, so we can get some cells and we grow them in the dish when we have the other, and we can have it so our baby is going to be okay. I said how long does that take? And he said, I swear to god, 14 business days. And what kind of a cell takes the weekend off for multiplying. Oh, I’m sorry, it’s veteran’s day and the banks are closed. There’s no my tosses on a day like this.

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And pseudo science stuff is right before this and I’d love to go over after this. The crop circle thing, if you look at that, you know the story, big pattern crunching into the cornfield in England and what people believe is that it’s got to be aliens. They actually believe, if you look at it, and they will say the pattern is so big that you can see it from the space. They are leaving each other messages. This is what they believe: messages! Is this remotely plausible? Do we have to think that much further? What are the chances… This is the race of advanced aliens super beings who have mastered intergalactic hyper-dimensional space travel and communicate by corn. They just cannot get the Blackberry thing together.

So, you know, let me just say this. Those stereotypes that I’m talking about, I think these things are ephemeral and the proof is: look at how it changed, the time that I quit my job to go be a comedian. At that time, being a computer programmer was the dumbest, boring-est. You know the computer, who needs that? Can’t believe why there are some boring and stupid things. You are going to be a comedian? Really? What’s that? How are you going to do that? Where are you going to go? How does that happen? Are you going to be in the Johnny Carson’s show? Tell me more.

Today, Bill Gates is the sexiest man alive! And when you say, “I’m a comedian, people go, “Oh yeah! My sister’s ex-husband did that for a little while.”

So, I’ll leave you with this, what I think that I learned from the probability machines is that if you simplify things, instead of limiting your view, the best way, the fun way, is to find the patterns, and the combinations that naturally occur when you look at all the possibilities.

Thank you very much.