Tom Cotter pulls the curtain back on comedy

Tom Cotter was the runner-up on season 7 of America's Got Talent. (Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

Tom Cotter was the runner-up on season 7 of America’s Got Talent. (Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

By John Bender   

Watch Tom Cotter do stand-up comedy and you’ll still be laughing at his previous joke while he’s delivering the punch line of the next one. The Rhode Island native, who became a household name as the runner-up on the seventh season of America’s Got Talent, has a fast-paced, energetic delivery that makes him a must-see comic.

He’s equally engaging in regular conversation, as I discovered this week during a post-show interview at Helium Comedy Club in Buffalo.

Here’s a sample of our conversation, with more to come soon:

What was the most unexpected result of America’s Got Talent?

Cotter: Just being in the finals, really. No comic had ever made it past the finals, and I blame that on Piers Morgan. You know, the British guy? Well, he had a stick up his a##. He hated American comics. For six seasons I watched that show. Everybody’s telling me that I had to be on the show because I am fast-paced and you are only working with 90 seconds. Managers, the industry, everyone just kept telling me, “This is just for you.” I said, “I will not go on the show and have this British guy verbally abuse me in front of 20 million people.” So when he left and Howard (Stern) came in, that’s when I auditioned for the show. Now we have three judges that are much more comedy-friendly at this point. So that was the first year a comedian made it into the finals.

What is something about the comedy business that no one ever knows until they’re in it?

Cotter: You want me to pull the curtain back and let you in on some stuff, huh? There are shady people out in the business, like any other business. It is a dream job — if you dream of poverty, because it is horrible when you start; club owners are going to get what they want. For example, in New York City we would we be getting paid the same amount of money in 2004 that we were getting paid in the ‘70s. Drink prices, cab fares, everything was going up in price but we were not getting paid as much because they knew there were a million of us. You are not going to rich off comedy while getting started with it.

Has there been a point in your career or a specific incident where you have felt like just giving up?

Cotter: Just a couple years ago, things get tough. I have three kids, all my friends say, “Tom, I wish I had your life. You tell jokes for an hour a night and that’s your job!” But these guys have the nice house, college tuition paid for their kids, a retirement plan. I married a comedian (Kerri Louise); we didn’t have a 401K until very recently. We didn’t have decent health insurance until recently. I was so lucky to get on the show (AGT) and I think about that all the time. My wife and I said to each other many times that it may just become a hobby, we may have to sell insurance to pay our bills to be more financially stable.

When something negative happens in your personal life, or something brings you down, how difficult is it to get on stage and perform with such enthusiasm?

Cotter: The show must go on. For example, tonight I have a terrible chest cold. I was trying to hide it, but it was there the whole time. That’s nothing; I have performed with horrible toothaches, splitting headaches. And I know other comedians that have gone on stage the day their parent died. The show must go on, you just have to do it. Step out of reality get up there and press play. The audience is there to be entertained.

John Bender is a part of our program at St. Bonaventure University.

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