TSJ asked comedian Tom Cotter the tough Qs about throwing out one-liners, ditching his cop job to do comedy, and his epic stint on America’s Got Talent.
The Smoking Jacket: What do police work and stand up have in common?
Tom Cotter: Very little. There have been times, on stage, when I wished I carried a firearm (some audiences suck).
TSJ: Why do one-liners work so well?
TC: In the comedy community I’m known for doing a lot of one-liners… mostly cocaine. Shakespeare taught us that “Brevity is the soul of wit.” One liners provide a quick hit of humor to an ADD audience, and if the one-liner bombs, it’s not as devastating as when a long joke bombs.
TSJ: What’s hard about setting up a joke?
TC: Nothing. The set-up is easy. The punch line and tag lines are the difficult part.
Tom Cotter’s Audition for America’s Got Talent
TSJ: You were a pretty smooth operator on America’s Got Talent. Were you freaking out? Or have all these years helped you quell stage fright?
TC: Of course I was nervous. If you are not nervous performing in front of 15 million viewers, than you don’t have a pulse. The years of experience helped as did the adult diapers and the prescription narcotics.
TSJ: Tell me about how you go from making a living to working fifty dollar gigs. How much do you want to do something if you’re willing to take on such low-paying acts? Did you quit your job right away, or after there’d been some momentum going with the comedy?
TC: Stand-up comedy is a dream job, if you dream of poverty. Contrary to popular belief, you never really quit your day job. You just change your day job. I was a private investigator in New England when I started doing stand-up. When I moved to NY in 1996, my day job became acting in commercials. I still audition for commercials when I’m in NY. Commercials (primarily voice-overs… I have a great face for radio) pay really well, and because they are union endeavors (S.A.G/A.F.T.R.A), we get health insurance, and pension contributions. We also write not just for ourselves, but for other comics and radio personalities. Some comics do audience warm up for TV shows. Sure we only work an hour per night on average, but most comics try to earn money during the day light hours as well.
TSJ: Have your dapper good looks helped or hindered your success, do you think?
TC: Did you ever notice that the word “dapper” has the word rape in it? there is also a “tit” in prostitute. The fact is that I’m kind of bland looking. I’m not a pretty boy, and I’m not Danny Devito either. If I had a freakishly huge nose, or dumbo ears, that would probably make me more recognizable.
Tom Cotter at the America’s Got Talent Finals
TSJ: What’s the coolest gig you’ve gotten (or most iconic), where you were telling yourself – WHAT. How did this HAPPEN.
TC: I grew up watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, so when I did The Tonight Show with Leno, I felt that I had fulfilled a dream. That was also the point in my father’s life that he stopped wishing that he had pulled out the night that I was conceived.
The Finals of AGT were also mind-blowing for me, and I still feel very blessed, like I stepped in unicorn poop.
TSJ: What kind of comedy were you into, growing up?
TC: The albums that I snuck into my home and listen to in my room, with a blanket over my head, were George Carlin (Indecent Exposure), and Richard Pryor (Live on the Sunset Strip). Before that I liked The Carol Burnett Show, and sitcoms like Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart, and of course, Welcome Back Kotter.
“Stand-up comedy is a dream job, if you dream of poverty.”
TSJ: How often are you on the road? How does this work with a comedian wife? Are your kids hilarious?
TC: I average two weekends per month, on the road. Sometimes it’s three, and sometimes it’s none. The wife knew what she was getting into when she married me. The boys are somewhat less understanding that the road is how we butter our bread. When we lived in NYC, I would pack the night before, and put my bag by the door so I could just dash to the airport, and the twins would wake up and sit on my luggage crying. That was brutal. I started hiding my luggage. The boys are used to it now, and I often remind them that their uncle (my brother) did three years in Iraq and four in Afghanistan, so in the grand scheme of things it’s not that bad.
That said, I have missed a bunch of Little League games and school plays. The wife, like many women, has made the sacrifice of putting her career on the back burner to stay at home most of the time, to hold down the fort, and keep our three boys in line. She still works, but closer to home. Yes, my children are hilarious. They are genetically predisposed to being humorous. They make me laugh harder than any comedian ever has.
TSJ: Were you a joke-telling kid? I was totally a joke-telling kid. I memorized joke books. I don’t remember any now, though.
TC: I’m the youngest of six kids in an Irish-Catholic family, so I would act out to get attention. I liked the attention, and the behavior that used to get me sent to the principles office now gets me paid.