He found himself in the comedy world. Working difficult gigs on land and sea, he was strident and kept doing what he does best. Just last year, he auditioned for America’s Got Talent and made it to the finals as the runner-up. But seeing a dog act walk away with the grand prize hasn’t stopped him.
He’s sharp, and he’s a human. He’s…
David Luna: What was your earliest memory in life?
Tom Cotter: Well, it’s very boring. I remember visiting my dad’s office during the day when I was a little kid. I could describe it to my mother years later, and she was shocked because he moved out of that office when I was about two years old. She thinks I saw pictures of it, and that’s how I could describe it, but I remember walking into the rooms and stuff. So, a two-year-old memory, that’s the first one I remember.
DL: That’s pretty far back. Do you have a good memory, would you say?
TC: Pretty good. I’ve impaired it as best I could in college with a bong, but I think it’s relatively sharp.
DL: Is comedy a prime focus in your life, or do you have other passions?
TC: Well, I have three spawn. My wife and I are breeders. When you have kids—of course I think it sounds trite—but they’re not just my main focus, they are my muse, and they’re on my mind. Because of America’s Got Talent I’m doing a lot more gigs now, better paying gigs, and some of them are difficult, but I’m doing them for the three college educations on the horizon.
DL: Does doing comedy in Vegas prepare you for a wider variety of audiences?
TC: I think Middle America comes to Vegas. I used to work on cruise ships a lot, and that was always a wide swath. It was little kids all the way up to their great-grandparents and everyone in between. So as a comedian it’s daunting because you have to be able to amuse a four-year-old and a 104-year-old, all while being squeaky clean because it’s a family show.
In Vegas I think you can be a little edgier, but our show at the Palazzo is still a family show. My style is innuendo and double entendre, so it goes over a lot of kids’ heads, but I still have to be cognizant of the fact there are little kids there, and when they’re in the front row staring up at me, it’s abundantly clear to me.
DL: What has been your greatest struggle working as a comic?
TC: I’ve been at this for a long time, and it wasn’t until twenty-six years into it that America’s Got Talent hit, which was where I kind of broke through the ceiling finally. I was flying below the radar before that for a long time. I had done some TV, and I was still working a lot, but I was working out on cruise ships where the boat people see you, but the industry doesn’t see you. The agents, managers, TV executives, they don’t see you. You’re in Siberia when you’re on a cruise ship.
The other thing is, all my friends who were not comics, all my college buddies all had these incredible pension plans, and their kids are already all set for college, whereas my wife and I are stand up comedians, because really, who needs health insurance? Who needs financial stability? That’s overrated.
So this is the first time I’ve been able to plan ahead, and fund my grossly underfunded retirement plan and put some money away for my kid’s college. That was always burning in the back of my head that, “Oh God, we’re going to be living in a van down by the river.” And now, thank God, that weight it being slowly lifted off my shoulders.
DL: What drove you to audition for America’s Got Talent in the first place? I understand that most comics don’t make it past the auditions, let alone to second place. And it seems that second place gives you just as much exposure as winning. Look at Susan Boyle, for example.
TC: Susan Boyle has had a great career. Clay Aiken is also a second place finisher. Sometimes the winner fades into obscurity in these things, but let’s not lose sight of the fact, David, that I lost to a dog act.
I’ll tell you what though, for years and years my kids would watch the show, and I was never a loyal watcher because I work at night. But over the years I realized that Piers Morgan, who used to be a judge alongside Howie and Sharon, just did not have an appreciation for American stand ups. And they never really went far. He never championed any comics. Howie would, because Howie was a stand up comic himself, and Sharon, if you were good, she would like you. But Piers would say things not only that wouldn’t help your career, but would actually damage your career. He would say things like “You’re not original. You’re not funny. I didn’t laugh.” And I saw him say this to comics that I thought were pretty good, and I was like, “I’m not gonna get up there and do that. Why would I get up there and have him verbally defecate upon me in front of ten million people? I’m just not gonna do that.” All the while, everyone was telling me that my style was perfect for the show.
And then when he left, this last year, and Howard Stern was announced as a new judge, then I saw a slight window of opportunity. And if you’re a working comic, you don’t have to stand in the line of people who sleep out overnight to audition. So, through an agency, I was set up with an audition, and then you audition for a junior producer, and then he or she deems whether or not you’re worthy to move on to the executive producer. And then his panel decides whether or not you’re worthy to move on in front of the actual judges. So the TV audition, they make it look like it’s the first audition. It’s actually your third audition for the show. We were off and running at that point and I never thought, even though Piers had left and Howard had come in, I really never thought I’d make it out of the quarterfinals.
DL: Do you think fate might have played a part in bringing you this far in your life, or is it just a combination of luck and persistence?
TC: I think I screwed a leprechaun. I think I stepped in unicorn droppings or something. I don’t know what happened, but I got really lucky. I’ve been at this a long time, and for this to happen at this point in my career was really a blessing.
DL: Do you have a religious background, and if so, has it shaped the way you perform?
TC: It’s awkward. My dad’s a Catholic, and my mom’s a Rastafarian. It was weird growing up. My dad would bring home a Christmas tree, and my mom would smoke it. Hello! I’ll be here all week.
I grew up as a Christafarian. No, I didn’t.
I was a Catholic kid. I’m the youngest of six kids, and I have an informal study that I’ve done. If you’re the youngest in a large Catholic family, you go into the arts. I can’t tell you how many of my friends that are comics are the youngest in their family, and if they’re not comics, they’re on Broadway, or in the theatre, or in the arts, somehow, because we have to act out to get attention.
But we’re not deeply devout. My family, we are Catholic. One of my kids goes to Catholic school, but that’s just because he needs the discipline.
DL: Can you recall any terrible, even traumatic gigs from your career as a stand up?
TC: Do you have an hour?
When you’re a comic in New York you need to make money, and there’s supply and demand, a million comics, and not so much work, so we’ll do anything. So you’ll get hired to do what they call “prom shows.” When kids go to the prom, afterwards the parents want to make sure they’re not doing something bad, so they give them activities to do. And one of them is to take a comedy cruise on New York Harbor out around the Statue of Liberty. And so all of these kids who have been drinking all night in rented tuxedos and gowns get on the ship, and the boat owner is unscrupulous and wants to make money, so he mixes proms. So there’s all these kids from Westchester who are high end, wealthy kids, and all these kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx. So already they hate each other, and there’s that tension, and then I get up there and there’s two microphones. The DJ has one that has a cord that’s great, and he hands me the cordless one that has horrible batteries that keeps going in an out. It’s worse than the worst Burger King drive-thru microphone in the world. And we’re out in the middle of the harbor, and he introduces me, and they already hate me before I’ve spoken a word, and then I’m trying to talk into a microphone that they can’t hear and it’s not working, and I start dying. And I’m trying to scream my act, because the microphone is not working, and the DJ starts heckling me from the DJ booth saying how much I suck. And there’s nowhere for me to go. I had to stay on this boat with them, because I can’t swim ashore, and I can’t go into the captain’s area. There’s nowhere to hide, and they kept walking by me in their little rented tuxedos going “this dude sucked,” and I really wanted to commit suicide by swimming through New York Harbor back to the shore.
And I did a benefit for a woman who was stricken with cancer. The happy ending to this is she survived this, but at the time she was in the middle of her chemo and stuff. They were trying to raise money for her medical treatments and everything, and so when they brought her up on stage they wheeled her up on stage in her wheelchair. Her hair was shorn, she was emaciated because of the chemo and radiation, and she gave this speech because she didn’t know if she would make it or not. It was just unbelievable. Talking to her children and everything else, and there was not a dry eye in the house. And then at the end of the speech, her husband picks up the microphone and says, “Well, I think we could all use a laugh now,” and introduces me. And now I’ve got to dig out of that hole for twenty minutes, and it was just brutal.
DL: I love a set that kills, it’s brilliant. But a set that’s just a train wreck, even if it’s not the comedian’s fault, it lingers.
TC: [Laughs] You and I are the same. When someone’s dying at a comedy club, all the comics flood into the room to watch it, because you have to see it. If Dave Attell, or Nick DiPaolo, or Artie Langes, or someone’s on the stage killing, we’re all like, “Ah, yeah, I’ve seen that. No big deal.” But when you see the audience starting to walk out, you’ve got to go in there and see what’s happening.
DL: What was your worst job, unrelated to comedy or entertainment?
TC: I was pretty lucky to have good jobs. I was a cop for a while in Nantucket, and then a private investigator, which was fun. Not fun, but it was a means to an end and it let me pick my own hours, so it was pretty good. That was kind of scummy though. Being a private investigator meant I spied on people, and I felt kind of creepy about that.
I removed asbestos from a high school when I was in college. And that was horrible because the work area was 120 degrees, you had to wear a mask, goggles, gloves, a whole hazmat suit, and the guys would just yell at you in these thick Boston accents, “Harda! Scrape harda. You suck! You’re not workin’ hard enough!” And I wanted to kill them. I wanted to take the scraper and just smash them in the head. But it was eighteen bucks an hour when I was in college, and I was a whore, so I did it.
DL: Apart from all these traumatic and discouraging experiences, what’s been your proudest accomplishment?
TC: I have three boys that I’m very proud of, and they’re really good kids (so far). So that’s the trite answer, and the career answer is when I first did The Tonight Show. My Tonight Show was big because my dad had always thought that he spent a ridiculous amount of money putting six kids through private school and college, and I was the youngest, so my college was probably the most expensive. And at the end of that I said “Yeah Dad, I’ll go to law school eventually, but right now I want to tell jokes about my penis in front of strangers.” And he was surprisingly okay with that. And then he couldn’t understand, like he would go play golf with his buddies, and they’d talk about their sons who were investment bankers or doctors or lawyers, and my dad would say, “Ah, yeah, my son tells jokes in bars.” He couldn’t comprehend what I did. I had done some TV early on, for MTV and VH1 and Comedy Central, but that’s not in my dad’s wheelhouse, he doesn’t understand that. But he did know The Tonight Show, and so when I did the Tonight Show, finally, he realized that I was not the wasted sperm that he thought I was. So that was a big moment for me. And then America’s Got Talent was pretty good too.
DL: I’ve always been fascinated with mortality, and I’m endlessly interested in knowing how other people feel about death. After all, how we feel about it tends to shape the way we behave, and perhaps even influences the trajectory of our lives. If you could choose your death, how would you go?
TC: Ah, Wow. If I could choose my own death, I would like to die in my sleep. Not screaming in horrible agony like the other three passengers in my carpool, because, that would be horrible. I don’t know. But when I do die, I would want to be put in a Superman outfit and thrown out of a plane. I think that would be pretty cool.
DL: After you die, what do you want to be remembered for, or what do you hope to leave behind?
TC: Well, I want my body stuffed with marijuana, and I want it incinerated, and I want the whole town to get high. Well, I want my legacy that I entertained people and I left three, that I know of, three children who grow up to be good citizens. They don’t have to be ultra successful, but they have to be happy and enjoy what they do.