By: Michael Gilhooley
I sat down with long time comedian and America’s Got Talent’s finalist Tom Cotter at The Stress Factory in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The audience was not only graced by the comedy styles of Tom Cotter, but by Tom’s hysterical wife and comedian Kerri Louise as well. After a terrific show, meeting his fans, and signing autographs, Tom and I went to the green room, which was painted blue, for an interview.
BCT: How do you think your set went tonight at the Stress Factory?
Tom Cotter: I thought it was decent. I don’t think, you know, I’d give it a B. Not an A, but not a D. Which is good.
BCT: When it comes to crowds, have you’ve had any hecklers in the past? Any funny stories?
Tom Cotter: I love hecklers! I welcome hecklers. I know some comics hate it. I love it. It is live comedy. It should be interaction and not just be a monologue. So that is why I engage the crowd, as I do many times in my set. Whether I do it though the parasailing joke or the dog stuff, I always try to engage them. And then I will ask several times through the act if anyone has any questions. The audience is usually too scared, but sometimes someone will jump in and I love that. Then it is kind of spontaneous. You never know what is going to happen. With my material I kind of know what is going to happen because I’ve done it a lot. With a conversation with someone in the crowd you never know what is going to happen. So that is what I really look forward to.
BCT: What brought you into the comedy world and stand-up?
Tom Cotter: Class clown. It really was. The youngest of six kids. Being the youngest in the family, especially in an Irish Catholic family, I had to act out to get attention and that is how I got attention. When I rolled around I was a mistake. My middle name is OOPS. My parents were just like, “Been there, done that. There is nothing you can do that is cute enough for us to acknowledge, we’ve seen it all.” So I really had to go above and beyond to get attention and positive feedback from my family, and that is why I did that.
BCT: So, you were one of six?
Tom Cotter: One of six.
BCT: Are you the only comedian in your family?
Tom Cotter: The rest of my family has no sense of humor. They all had their senses of humor surgically removed as a joke.
BCT: With your material you talk a lot about your family. Where does the rest of it come from?
Tom Cotter: Now I do a lot [about my family] but I didn’t do a lot tonight. I did some tonight, but I didn’t do all of it. I talk about my wife and kids. It is hard because my wife Kerri goes up before me. And she kind of does a lot and I don’t want to over do one topic between the two of us. You know, I want to make it a one trick pony, so I kind of pull back on the family stuff. But my kids are my muses now. They say the funniest things that I’ve ever heard in my life and the really make me laugh. More than anything else!
BCT: Being married to Kerri, a stand-up comedian as well, what’s that like?
Tom Cotter: It’s like not having health insurance or job security.
BCT: You’ve won several Comedy Festivals in the past.
Tom Cotter: Yes, I have. I’m lucky in the sense that my style is rapid fire and I can do a lot of punch lines in a short amount of time. Where as Kerri is kind of more of a story teller and it takes her two minutes to say “hello”. Now she’s adorable when she does it and the audience loves it. But I don’t have time for that. I have to go bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. So whenever there is a comedy competition there is a time restraint. I’m able to do a lot more of material in that time than other people. That gives me a little of an unfair advantage. It doesn’t mean I’m funnier than anyone else. I just have more punch lines to deliver in the short amount of time.
BCT: When did you realize that was your best delivery, your best way of getting on stage?
Tom Cotter: Early on you look up to people like George Carlin, Richard Prior, when I first started, and Eddie Murphy, people like that. But then you kind of gravitate towards your own thing. You look at people and you emulate them, but you know, it’s kind of organically more of whoever you are. And the stuff that I like to write is more of the sick twisted left turns and that’s what I think is fun to write. It’s kind of a game of puzzle. It’s fun to do that.
BCT: You are really good with word play. It is very, very good. Very impressed with that.
Tom Cotter: Oh you’re very kind, thank you.
BCT: At what point did stand-up comedy turn into a career for you?
Tom Cotter: Well when they say don’t quit you day job. We always, comics, always have a day job. Whether we act, some of us are actors. I use to do a lot of commercials. I did a lot of voice-overs for commercials. Not a lot of on camera commercial because I have a face for radio. But I use to do a lot of voice-over stuff and that paid bills a lot better than stand-up comedy did. But it aloud me to do stand-up comedy because that was my health insurance, my dental, my pension, and that’s all through the unions of the Screen Actors Guild and that’s from my commercial work. I never really quit my day job, but the comedy kind of surpassed the voice-over commercial work. Which became harder and hard because so many more people, I’m a much smaller fish in a bigger pond now because now anyone can do it. You can do it on [an iPhone] now. The technology’s to the point now that you don’t have to go to a studio and do it, you can do it in your walk-in closet with your laptop. Where as before I was auditioning against a hundred guys, now I’m auditioning against a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand. And it’s just not worth it to take the time to audition for that stuff any more. So I do a little of it when I’m requested and I don’t have to audition and they just know me from the past and they’ll just say to come read for this and I’ll read for it. But I never really quit the day job.
BCT: You spoke about the “radio face”. I heard your suppose to be working with Howard Stern.
Tom Cotter: I’m doing his show on Mondays.
BCT: How did you like it?
Tom Cotter: Well I haven’t done it yet. I’m doing it on the 26th. Because of Hurricane Sandy I got rained out at the airport. But I will be doing it the twenty-sixth.
BCT: America’s Got talent. What made you take that leap to audition?
Tom Cotter: Everyone had told me all six years before that I should go for it. And they say that your style wins competitions because it’s rapid fire and this is only 90 seconds, its perfect for you. I did Best Comic Standing, that was two minutes, and I thought that was tight. And I thought 90 seconds, that’s 30 seconds less than that. So that always intimidated me. Plus, these shows can either make you or break you. I’ve seen great comics go on these shows, the judges just hate you, and they burry you on national television. They say we didn’t find you funny, your stuffs not original, and they throw you under the bus. And then it’s harder for your career. Where as this time, I’ve been at it long enough, that I felt confident enough this year. I knew Peirce [Morgan] was gone and Peirce didn’t like comedians, he had a stick up his ass. He was replaced by Howard [Stern], who I knew was a kind of a closet comic. So now you have Howie [Mandel], who does full time stand-up. Howard, closet stand-up, and Sharon [Osborne] who loves funny. So I figured if I was going to go for it this is the year. And I didn’t even know they came to town until someone from the Friars Club, I belong to the Friars Club, one of the matradee there, called me up and said, “Hey I heard [America’s Got Talent] is in town looking at people. It’s the last chance you have to audition. You want to go?” So I said I’m not going to stand in line with ten thousand people, I just can’t do it. He said, “What if I could make a phone call and get you in? And you would only be there for an hour for the audition.” I would blow an hour, I wouldn’t blow all day. So I said go ahead and I went. The rest is history.
BCT: What was your experience like on the show?
Tom Cotter: It was a blast, an absolute blast! It blew be away, it really did. It was really humbling, the whole thing. I never thought, because of seasons past. Comics never do well on this show, never. I never thought I would make it out of the quarterfinals. My goal was to make it to the quarterfinals. And then when I had it on to the quarters I wondered if I could make it out of the semis. And then when I made it out of the Semis I wondered what was going to happen in the finals. It was just a great ride. And the other thing is that I was home, I was in New York. Normally I am on the road a lot. I miss a lot of Little League game and stuff like that. My kids got to be apart of it this time. Rather than me going away, I was around all summer. They knew the show and liked the show. It was one of our family shows the last couple of years. So they were one of the first people I told that I got it and I was sworn to secrecy and I told my sons and I said that you got to keep a secret, can you keep a secret? Yes Daddy. And the next day their teacher called and said, “I heard you are going to be on America’s Got Talent. But it was great; the kids got to come along. They couldn’t understand what I did for a living. They equated what I do to a circus clown. And so instead of me disappearing two weekends out of a month, they got to be there with me and watch the whole process and realize that their Dad is not just an absentee Dad. That was kind of cool. It was the best part.
BCT: What was going through your mind. The Finals, you’re standing there with the possibility of getting your name called. Which sadly didn’t happen. What’s going through your mind at that moment?
Tom Cotter: You know, on Television is an eternity. If its 20 seconds, it’s the longest twenty seconds of your life. It feels like an hour. It’s brutal. I swear the things that were going through my head were don’t make an ass out of your self. If you win, don’t cry like a little girl and if you loose don’t make an ass out of yourself. Be
Gracious and be a good sport. Because I got to bang [those thought] out pretty quickly, and being that there is still ‘an hour’ left before they announce the winner, I was thinking, did I trim my nostril hairs? I have a deviated septum, where one nostril is bigger than the other, I was thinking to look down, not look up. Don’t let the camera catch that. Don’t look down too much then they will see that you’re balding. The whole time you’re just so in your head and my Dad’s in the crowd, my kids are in the crowd. I was blown away that I was just still standing there. Because I thought William Close, the earth harpists, was going to win the whole thing. So the fact that he got eliminated in the third part, you can see on the tape, if you watch the tape, my face go white. And I thought what just happened there? It’s just me and the Olates. I never would have called that. Never, never, never! I was just freaked.
BCT: If you weren’t doing stand-up comedy, what would you do as a job?
Tom Cotter: A bikini waxier. I always wanted to be a professional bikini waxier. I was pre-law. I was going to be a lawyer. That was my whole thing. I even took the law school admission test. I said to my dad that I got to get this comedy thing out of my system before I apply to law school. And that was twenty-five years ago. But I was a cop, a clerk for a lawyer, a judge. I did all that stuff. It was all pre-law and political science. The whole thing, from maybe junior year of high school, was that I was going to be a lawyer. I want to be an attorney and my Dad was fire up. Since he was a doctor and he thought that an attorney would be a nice and safe thing to do. Then I broke the sad news to him that I was going to do stand-up comedy for a while. After he spent a ton of money on a private school and college. Now he’s completely understanding and understands that I’m not the waste of sperm as he thought I might be.
BCT: On America’s Got Talent, you did this awesome thing where you had Howie Madel pick a topic off a board. I think the topic was “college”. Where did that idea come from?
Tom Cotter: Well, because Howie said all along, to all the contestants, you have to raise your game. You got to step it up. He kept saying that you got to step it up every episode. He didn’t say it to individuals, he said it to all of us. He said, “You know this week if you want to move on you got to step it up. “ I didn’t know what to do to step it up. I’m a monologist. I don’t have a puppet, I’m not a ventriloquist, I don’t’ juggle, I don’t have a guitar, so how do I step it up? I just tell jokes. William Close, who was my friend through all of this started with the earth harp. Then the next round he didn’t just have the earth harp. He added a drummer. Then the next round he added a whole band. Then the next round he added dancers along with a band. Then by the final episode he had an orchestra, singers, dancers, and a girl flying around in an aerial act above the earth harp. And how do I compete with this? So I decided to do comedy-on-demand. Just to set me from the other comic that made the semis. And she was kind of new and I wanted to show that I was a seasoned pro and that I could react and I had all this material and no matter what you pick, I’m confident with it. So that’s why I did that.
BCT: Really very creative.
Tom Cotter: I rolled the dice and it worked out.
BCT: Being that tomorrow is Thanksgiving. What is Thanksgiving like at the Cotter house?
Tom Cotter: It’s a funny Thanksgiving. It’s going to be great. My wife has been literally brining the turkey all day. I’m taking the boys into see the Thanksgiving Day Parade just to get them out of the house so she can get her act together. And we have all of her family visiting us. We are both from New England, but we couldn’t go up in New England because of this, the shows at The Stress Factory. I’m here Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday so we are sticking around. Thanksgiving is my first day off I moved all my shows from October and November to later because I had to do the Las Vegas shows. Which I was contractually obligated to do. People had me for days. So now I don’t have a day off. This is my only day off from now until two weeks after New Years. I don’t have a single day off. It’s great, I’m making decent money and I’m working really hard. But, it’s the one night that I will get to sit in and watch the Jets vs. the Patriots, which I’m looking forward to, and hang out with my family and relax.
BCT: Thank you to Tom Cotter for a terrific show and interview!