NBC’s America’s Got Talent saw its first finale with zero singers. It also saw its first finale with a comedian. New York comic Tom Cotter finished second in America’s largest talent show last night, falling behind the Olate Dogs, an entertaining dog trick act sure to cause a breakout of adorable memes. Cotter, a 23-year comedy veteran battled through five grueling 90-second sets, boasting perfect timing and excellent writing. Following sword swallowers, child dance teams, and incredible singers, comedians do not have a great track record on the NBC summer staple.
In the semi-finals, he presented a board of topics which he dubbed “Comedy On-Demand” and allowed judge Howie Mandel to choose any of eight pre-prepared set lists topics. In the finals, he had a large dice cube with adorned with another set of choices and allowed chance to choose his material. In last night’s finale, he and surprise guest Joan Rivers roasted the judges — Mandel, Howard Stern and Sharon Osbourne — and host Nick Cannon. Cotter defied odds this summer beating out 52 other — Five-Two! — contestants and becoming a favorite to win the whole shebang. I spoke to Tom today about the America’s Got Talent experience, roasting with Joan Rivers, the immensely supportive comedy community and much more. Check it out.
I found out at Broadway Comedy Club last night that you snagged second. I asked someone which act got first. “The dog act,” I was told. I went, “Fucking dogs?!” It killed me.
It crushed me more than it crushed you, I can tell you that. I thought William Close was going to win. I was tweeting that and telling people on Facebook. I was amazed that he was eliminated third. And then when it was the dogs and I, I went, ‘Uh oh,’ and I got a lump in my throat. Britain’s Got Talent was won by a dog act this year and now America’s Got Talent.
What was going through your head when they were playing that highlight reel (watch below) during the Final Two?
You’re standing up there, first of all–it’s an eternity. It’s agonizing. I told my wife last night, ‘It was like getting a colonoscopy and a root canal at the same time.’ You don’t know how to react. You know everyone’s gawking at you and you don’t wanna look like an idiot. ‘Should I have trimmed my nose hair? How does my tie look?’ So all of that’s going on. At the same time you’re going, ‘Holy cow! I could actually win this thing!’ I’m being honest: I didn’t know I would make it out of Vegas. There were six of us in Vegas and they took the oldest and the youngest. I did not predict that. Then coming out of the quarter-finals, I really didn’t think I’d make that. Then for the semis, I was really shocked to make it into the finals.
I said going into the finals, my goal is not to be number six. I do not want to be last place of the finalists. Then when it got down to the final three, I sincerely said, ‘That’s it for me.’ In my head I was preparing my concession speech, ‘I had a great run, blah blah blah.’ Then William Close got eliminated and I was going, ‘What is going on?!’ Now it’s the Olate Dogs. I really wasn’t shocked at all and I think the camera picked that up. I said early on, ‘I don’t mind losing to any of the finalists. But if I lose to the dogs, I’m slashing my wrists and moving to Canada.’ I would like to officially withdraw that statement, now. I am not going to kill myself. They are a great act.
Before the show, I would see you around the comedy clubs in New York a lot. What were you doing before AGT? A lot of road?
Well, you know. In our business, it’s all C’s: corporations, colleges, cruise ships, casinos, and comedy clubs. And Cotter, my son says from the back seat. A lot of comics are just cruise ships. A lot of comics just do corporate work. A lot of guys just do clubs. Because I have three children, I have to do it all. I have to work really hard. I have to wear many hats. I always have. So when you don’t see me at the clubs, it’s because I’m out banging out colleges or I’m on a cruise ship or I’m working a corporate or something. But I’m always working. I always have been–at least for the last 15 years, since I moved to New York. But never making huge money, just making out a living, as I like to call it. Living the dream, but still scrounging for health insurance for my family. Now, because of the show, thank God, I can take a deep breath. They’re going to pay more now for the same things I’ve always done. Basically, that’s all that’s going to change right now.
Where did you start before you came to New York?
Well, really my first time ever on stage was in college at a talent show. Then I kind of went away from it for awhile. My friends all said, ‘No dude, that was funny.’ It was in the back of my mind, burning. I went to an open mic night in Providence, Rhode Island, a few months after I graduated college. Then I went away again and stuck my head in the sand. It wasn’t until I got to Boston that I really started going to open mikes and trying stuff out. After Boston, I won the Seattle Comedy Competition in 1996. At the time, I was doing a fair amount of voice-over work up in Boston. I was a big fish in a smaller pond. So then I made the decision to move to New York and become a tiny fish in a giant pond. I moved to New York with my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Kerri Louise, and started the whole New York thing.
And Kerri’s a comedian, too.
She is! The lovely and talented Kerri Louise. We do a lot more anchored at home. We have nine-year old twins, who are awesome. And a five-year old, same. He demands a lot of attention. So she’s kind of tethered to him. She does the tri-state area and will occasionally bang out a corporate or a college far away. But she’s more of a homebody now.
Not to label you, but you’re kind of a ‘traditional’ stand-up comedian. You don’t have any gimmicks: you’re just funny. That show is the worst place for a traditional comic, I thought, because you only have 90 seconds at a time.
That 90 seconds go by so quickly. Then you rehearse your 90 seconds and you go, ‘Wow, I can go only get this many jokes in,’ so you move stuff around. In the finals, I had a giant dice cube (below) with different topics on it. The one that came up was a decent one but it wasn’t the one that was filled with the most punch lines. I kind of wish a different topic came up. It’s fine; I made that bed and I sleep in it. But yea, you want to do the maximum amount of punch lines in the smallest amount of time. And that particular 90 seconds could have had a few more decent punch lines in it.
Well, you shattered the excuse that every comic has with that show: ‘Oh, it’s only 90 seconds!’
The producers said to me, ‘We never get good comics on because they’re all intimidated by the 90 seconds.’ People used to whine about Last Comic Standing, but that was two minutes. Even though people whined about two minutes, that extra 30 seconds was gold. Ninety seconds is intimidating, but there are guys out there that are all set-up/punch line. Those are the guys that do really well in that format. I benefited from that and the addition of Howard Stern. Piers [Morgan], the old judge that Howard replaced, hated comedians. He hated everything. So it was much tougher back then. But now with the addition of Howard, it’s much easier to get passed the judges. And once you get passed the judges, then it’s in America’s hands.
Where did you get the idea to do the random selection of material?
There were two comedians that made it to the semi-finals, and that had never happened before. That was unchartered territory. I kept hearing Howie [Mandel] say to the other acts, ‘You gotta step it up.’ And in Vegas he’d say to them, ‘You’re going to have to step it up in the quarters.’ So I saw these other acts add other things. William, the harp guy, started with just the harp. Then he added a band. Then he added singers. Then in the last act he had an aerial act flying around above the harp with the band, and the singers, and the dancers. I watched all these other acts add things to make their acts stand out. I thought, ‘How am I going to make myself shine?’ Especially against the other kid, the 23-year old, Jacob [Williams, who was eliminated in the semi-finals]. I wanted to show that I’ve been at it awhile, and I’ve had a long time to accumulate material. I wanted to show that I’m versatile in that way.
I thought Jacob is a great kid, but I felt he was running out of steam with his material. He didn’t have a lot left to choose from. And when you’ve been at it for 25 years, you tend to over time get a huge arsenal of material. I think the dice in the finals did nothing. I wish I had just done a straight set: picked the set I wanted and hit it out of the park. The other part of my mind was going, ‘Well you did Comedy On-Demand last time. This time, if you do just straight stand-up, you’ll look like you’re regressing.’ The producers were saying, ‘No you won’t.’ They wanted me to do all this travel material so they were going to make the stage look like a runway with search lights and all this cool stuff. They showed it to me on the computer and it looked pretty cool, but at the same time I could just hear Howie in the back of my mind going, ‘Well you did Comedy On-Demand last time and we were impressed and this time you just came out and told jokes.’ So I didn’t know what to do.
That roast during the finale turned out great, by the way.
We kind of put that together. I had met Joan 6:15 last night. The show started at 8:00. We had all of these roast lines approved and then NBC came in last minute, apparently somewhere someone screwed up on an e-mail, and they had to kabash a bunch of the lines we were going to do. So we had to change our lines at the last second. And Joan was just a pro. I mean, this woman’s in her seventies and she is sharp as a tack. She is so funny and just a joy to work with– and an honor for me because I’ve always looked up to her. For her to make the time to do this was great because I know they paid her squat to do it and she got off the bench at the last second. They were going to go with Lisa Lampanelli, but that fell through. They’ve never had a comedian in the finals before, so they didn’t know what to do. They’ve always done duets the night of the finale. They always team up one of the competitors with a big name, so it’s usually music. This year they had a comedian and thought maybe a roast would be good. So I gave them a list of names of people I would want to roast with. At the last minute they got Joan and I was thrilled. She’s just a legend.
What was your favorite line that they censored?
Oh, we had a lot! We had some ones that were so outrageous, we knew they weren’t going to get on the air. We had a line about Don Imus, but apparently Howard Stern hates Don Imus. So Howard’s handlers said, ‘You can say Howard’s ugly, you just can’t compare him to Don Imus.’ We didn’t get a lot of explanations for some of them, even if we didn’t think they were that bad. They just put a lot of X’s on them. Some came from Joan’s writers. Some came from me and the comics who helped me write them: [Juston] McKinney; Jimmy Dunn, out of Boston, gave me some great lines; Mike Vecchione; Lenny Marcus; Joe Bolster called me; Al Ducharme from the West Coast; Greg Fitzsimmons. A lot of guys offered.
Well, when you do the show, you make a deal with the devil. I’m not saying AGT‘s the devil– they’ve done a lot for my career and my price is up there now and it’s going to be good. But the deal with the devil is when you sign on the dotted line you’re saying that you are available for them to do a show in Vegas after the last episode airs. The last episode aired last night, so for the next six months I’m theirs if they want me. I have to go to Vegas now and do two months with William Close and Joe Castillo, the sand artist, and Spencer Horsman, the escape artist. And now I think they’re adding the Olate Dogs after last night. We’re going to do a 90-minute variety show out there and I’ll host it, I’ll MC.
Unfortunately I’ve had to take an 80 percent pay cut. Because of the show, I’ve gotten a lot of work for October and November, which was certainly enhanced by the show, and unfortunately I’ve had to cancel it all. So not only have I pissed off those people, I’m taking a big pay cut because they’re not paying me a lot to go out there to Las Vegas. So I’m going out there to meet my contractual obligation and do that for two months, then come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas and hopefully they’ll let me out of it at that point. We’ll see. I just don’t want to be away from my kids and my wife. I’ve never been away that long. They’re actually agreeing to fly them out on their dime to visit me in Las Vegas while I’m out there for two months. After that, who knows?
You making it to not just the final two, but even just to the finals, helped bring stand-up comedy into the national eye in a positive way. There’s been a lot of negative associations with stand-up recently with ‘joke controversies’ with Daniel Tosh and Dane Cook and such. Although you didn’t win, I think it’s great for you and your career, but also great for comedy in general. Every week at Broadway [Comedy Club] and open mikes, we would say, “Yea, I really think Tom is the comic who can actually win this thing for once.”
I’m unbelievably touched by how supportive the comedy community was. They really were great. I didn’t even ask Jim Gaffigan or Louis C.K. to tweet for me, and they did that really all on their own. Those guys have millions of followers so those votes came in handy to get me through to the finals. And people like Sarah Silverman and Jeffrey Ross and Greg Fitzsimmons. Usually when a comedian gets a little recognition, there’s a lot of backstabbing. I’ve been at this a long time. I was around with Dane Cook in Boston.
So when he blew up, I just heard a lot of comics stabbing him in the back and calling him nasty things. And I just expected the same thing. I really was touched that I didn’t encounter much of that, if any. I was really just humbled how cool people were being on social media. I think some of that had to do not so much with Tom Cotter but the fact that I was a comedian and they didn’t want the comedian to lose to the guy getting shot out of a cannon. I was really touched how bookers to open mikers and everyone in between were saying such nice things. I was blown away by how cool everyone was.