Fifteen minutes before our interview, I had chaos. Mice roamed a bombed-out bathroom. A contractor spent ten minutes yelling at me over the phone. Another ran in and out picking up equipment with moments to spare. “I have a call at noon. Could you please make it before then?” Then my usual pre-interview jitters (shhhh, that’s just between us). All this against the truly serious, permeating terror and sadness of the daily news. There’s no break from life’s stress. Or is there?
If you are looking for a blessed oasis in a bleak and parched landscape, a space to laugh and be uplifted, Tom Cotter’s comedy will take you there. And if things are already going well, you will still be happily entranced by his singular style of multi-layered rapid-fire misdirection. It’s this unique style that made Tom the first comedian to reach the finals of America’s Got Talent.
That history-making appearance was in 2012. During his audition, he captivated the audience and got a standing ovation, judges included. Howie Mandel told him, “Now I am a big fan of yours!” Backstage, the father of three and husband of fellow comedian Kerri Louise, was speechless with emotion.
But that was just the beginning. As the season progressed, he would continue to wow by inviting the judges to choose his topic then delivering a perfect set, by dueling with Joan Rivers, and by drawing in the audience within seconds of taking the stage.
America’s Got Talent is only one of many credits. He previously won the Seattle International Stand-Up Comedy Competition and the Boston Comedy Festival, “winning by the largest margin of victory in the history of the event,” as reported by The Boston Herald.
He has his own special, Comedy Central Presents … Tom Cotter and has appeared on Last Comic Standing, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Inside Amy Schumer and as the celebrity host of Gotham Comedy Live. You’ll find his albums Wise Ass and Flying High on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify.
This year, he published the tongue-in-cheek badass parenting guide, Bad Dad. Example: “When your toddler is having a temper tantrum, a nap may be in order. He will calm down way before you wake up.”
Something you’ll notice about Tom is that it takes just seconds before he’s changed your inner landscape from scary, weary, bleary to sunny, funny, on the money. As Howard Stern said to Tom during the AGT semi-finals, “You're the man to beat. You know how to take a crowd and win them over in ninety seconds. You're phenomenal."
And so went our interview. Tom shared insights about his career in comedy, what happens backstage at the world’s biggest talent show, Joan Rivers, and life in a two-comedian marriage. In a split-second I went from reverberating with stress to on-vacation when a genuinely warm, cheerful voice picked up the phone and said …
Tom Cotter: Tom Cotter loves ChicagoNow.
Teme: Thank you. That's the nicest greeting I ever had.
Tom: I say it every time I answer the phone. I knew if I said it enough times, eventually ...
Teme: At some point it had to be me.
Tom [singing] It had to be you … don’t worry. I won’t sing!
Teme: Thank you for that nice greeting and thank you for your comedy. I've enjoyed it since I first saw you years ago, but the past two weeks with all the terrible news on top of all manner of household disaster, your comedy has been an oasis of joy and remembering to laugh. Thank you for that.
Tom: I'm honored to chat with you, first of all. Second of all, thank you for the kind words because laughter is the best medicine. I'm glad that in any way, shape, or form, it helped you escape reality for a moment.
Teme: It does, to a far, far better reality that I forgot exists, so thank you.
Tom: A lot of comedians have messages, and are kind of soapboxy, but my act really has no socially redeeming value other than to make you laugh. There's no message. I'm not shoving my politics down anyone's throat. That's just the way I prefer to do it. I commend other people who do have a message, but I prefer to be a levity and mirth provider, not a politician.
Teme: It's a kind of salvation we all need to survive lest we die. When did you decide on a career in comedy?
Tom: I knew in college I wanted to try it as a hobby at least. My senior year of college there was a Muscular Dystrophy Association weekend which included a talent show. I figured I was a senior and I was going to get my diploma, so I might as well have fun before I leave.
So I went up on stage and made fun of faculty members, the Greek system, the fraternities and sororities, certain high profile students and the university. I was disqualified, but I got high-fives around the campus and it got me thinking, "Wow, this might be fun."
After college, I told my dad I was going to put law school on the back burner for a little while and get this comedy thing out of my system and here we are twenty-seven years later, and I still haven't gotten it out of my system and I still haven't gone to law school.
Teme: How did you develop your style with the rapid-fire pace combined with the misdirection? There's laughter every few seconds and it's so absorbing. It really is a vacation for the audience.
Tom: I'm kind of neurotic and I'm also ADD, so my comedy is kind of ADD. I get nervous when there's no laughter. A lot of comedians are so comfortable on stage that they can have a huge pregnant pause between jokes and walk over to the table and pick up their drink and take a sip and look out at the audience.
For me that's like fingernails on a chalkboard. I can't stand that silence. I'm slinging punchlines and you may not like every one of them, but by sheer volume you're going to get caught up in it. If you like every third joke you're still laughing pretty frequently.
It's a style that I developed in Boston. There are a lot of Boston comedians who have that style. Don Gavin is the God of Boston comedy. He was the king of misdirection in Boston and he did it better than anybody. There are others like Brian Kiley, who's the head writer for Conan, who came out of Boston with that same style. Wendy Liebman, she's a New Yorker originally, but she went to college in Boston, so she developed that style.
It's the style I enjoy writing. It's hard to write. It's a puzzle. Intertwined in all those one-liners and misdirections are a bunch of taglines. There're stupid puns, there's innuendo, there's double entendre. There are all these pieces that you have to form and chisel. Many times the pieces don't fit together, so it's a lot of trial and error to build the flow. It's a crossword puzzle kind-of-deal for me, or like a Sudoku. It's fun.
Teme: That was actually my next question. You make it look effortless, but I know there's no way it could be effortless.
Tom: Right. I'd have to be a complete psycho if I thought that way all the time. My wife is also a stand-up comic. She's a storyteller. She's kind of the Bill Cosby style, the long-story teller. My style is diametrically opposed to that in that it's the rapid-fire one-liner. Usually, a joke has a setup and a punchline. Mine don’t have a setup and just a punchline. They have three punchlines, or three taglines and each one takes the joke in a little different direction.
Teme: What is your writing process?
Tom: First, I come up with a premise or a one-liner. Then everything builds off of that. I'll write a one-liner, then I'll write a tag for that one-liner, then I'll tag the tagline. Now I've got a three punchline bit. Then I'll think of something that would be a great lead-in for that original one-liner and I put that piece into the beginning. I may also sew in today's news or a current event so it’s fresh.
It's always in flux. I used to have volumes of notebooks, would just scribble in them. Now I dictate into my iPhone and listen to it back. My dad was a doctor and he used to dictate his medical reports. I would hear him dictate and put in all the punctuation. He would say a line and then say “period” or “question mark.” My wife mocks me when she hears me dictating. But that’s what I do. Write it down, or I say it into my iPhone, then I keep visiting it and looking at it, then adding and taking away, editing and chiseling it to where I want it.
That style, by the way, lent itself very well to America's Got Talent, because you only have ninety seconds. Everybody in the industry kept saying to me, "You've got to go on that show. Your style is made for that show" because I can fit a lot of punchlines into ninety seconds.
Teme: How did you decide it was the right time?
Tom: I was always a fan. It's such a great show. It harkens back to Vaudeville. It's a variety show is basically what it is. There was one in New England that I watched as a kid called Community Auditions which was very popular. I loved the whole concept of someone showing off talent, and being judged and voted for.
I had always watched America’s Got Talent, but Piers Morgan was a judge and he, for whatever reason, I found to be hostile to the comedians on the show. I don't feel alone on that. A lot of comics felt that way.
Not only wouldn't he be kind to comedians, he would eviscerate them in some cases and verbally defecate on them in front of twenty million viewers, so when agents and managers and other comedians and some comedy club owners said, "Tom, you’ve got to get on this show," I'd say, "I'm not going to go up there and let this British guy beat me to death in front of all these people."
When he left and Howard Stern came in, then the table was set perfectly for a comedian. You had Sharon Osbourne, who's the wife of the “Prince of Darkness,” and you had Howie Mandel and Howard Stern, two comics. I figured it was much less hostile and much more inviting an environment, and that's why I chose to go on season 7.
Teme: I'd forgotten about Piers Morgan. Now that you mention it, I absolutely remember that. What is the most memorable or craziest thing that happened at America's Got Talent?
Tom: The whole thing was a whirlwind. I lost fifteen pounds without even trying. I had acne at the age of forty-eight because it was messing with my head. Backstage it's almost like a fraternity hazing program. When they interview you, you can't even see the interviewer. You're in a dark room with these lights in your eyes. It's almost like a Gestapo interrogation. They go out of their way to try to make you cry. They do all this research on you.
I had never said in my back story that my mother passed away when I was pretty young. It had never come up. I had never written it in any of the voluminous documentation I had to fill out for them, but somehow they found out and they tried to get me to cry over my mother. After forty-five minutes of that, I'm like, "It happened so long ago. It's sad, but I'm over it, and I'm not going to give you the tears you want for your reality television," but they mess with you a lot. That was difficult.
The whole concept of performing in front of that many people [was crazy]. Millions and millions of people watch that show because it's up against reruns and it's such a huge ratings juggernaut. Plus you had Howard Stern. It was his first year. That year was through the roof, so I’m not sure I can single out one crazy event.
I will tell you that in the Vegas round, because it's reality TV, they want to add shock and awe, wanted the comedians to bash each other. We all got together because many of us had already done Last Comic Standing. We knew that they try to get you to crap on each other because it makes for good TV. So we all said, "You know what? Let's not play that." We agreed as a group not to verbally besmirch each other in these interviews.
That pissed them off because the magicians were throwing each other under the bus and the jugglers were like, "No, he's a hack. He stole that bit from me. I used to do the juggling chainsaw years ago," and all the singers were playing their game. We just wouldn't, so they got annoyed with the comedians in the Vegas round, but I don't know if that's the most shocking thing that happened.
Teme: It says a lot about comedians.
Tom: You want a shocking thing? That's the shocking thing, how cool comedians were to me. The amount of support I got from the comedy community was overwhelming. Gaffigan, he and I know each other from years ago, but we've never been best friends. He called me at home and said, "Look, dude. I have like 2 million followers on Twitter. You tell me when to tweet and I will tweet, and I'll get my people to vote for you." He didn't need to do that.
Teme: That's awesome.
Tom: I've never done anything to deserve that kind of niceness from him. Other people like Sarah Silverman, who I've met maybe once in my life, she tweeted for me. The comedy community could not have been nicer through the whole thing. I think it's not because it was Tom Cotter. They could give a shit if it was Tom Cotter, pardon my language, but they didn't want the comedian to lose to the guy getting shot out of a cannon. They knew comedians didn't fare well on that TV show. I was carrying the flag of comedy, so they all rallied behind me.
Colin Quinn and people who are acquaintances, but not by any stretch of the imagination dear friends, were really cool to me and people on the radio were really cool. That part was so heartwarming, and so wonderful. That is probably the most shocking thing that happened on that show.
Teme: Yeah, that's so cool. That's something I’ve seen in the Chicago comedy community, too. What was it like to perform with Joan Rivers?
Tom: That was unbelievable. During the finale they had what they called duets. It was always singers who won the show in the past. Even the ventriloquist act that won was a singer. So they always did duets. They'd have the contestant sing with one of their idols.
But a comic had never made it to the finals before. They didn't know what to do, so they had this great idea that we would roast the judges. They lined up Lisa Lampanelli to do it with me. I know Lisa from years and years ago. We started out together. Then at the last minute she couldn't do it through no fault of her own.
So it's a day out and I'm already practicing roast lines, and I need someone to do it with, so at the last minute like a white knight, Joan Rivers says, "Yeah, I'll come in and do this." First I get a call from Joan Rivers' writer, saying, "Joan's thinking about doing this for you, but we want to make sure we don't step on each other's lines, so send me what you have so far and I'll make sure that we don't do any."
I thought, "Wow. She's really thinking about doing this." A couple hours later I get a phone call saying, "Yes. She's locked and loaded."
Tom: We did a conference call with her a day before we're going to do it. She comes in the day of and we rehearse all day, she and I, and she could not have been more wonderful. She kept saying to me, "Now, you understand this is about you. I'm just here to support you and I want to make you look good. I need you to shine."
I kept saying, "Please. I'm going to get a sunburn from the glow of Joan Rivers just being on stage with you. It should be really all about you." She could not have been more generous and giving.
During rehearsal, she's teaching me how to roast and she pushes me out of the way. She says, "This is how you have to roast" and pushes me away from the podium. She said, "Now you push me back and get me out of the way at the end, then you deliver your last line which will kill and we'll be done."
I'm like, "Uh, I'm not comfortable pushing you." She's like, "Push me! Push me!" I said to my producer, "She's an eighty-something year-old woman. I'm not going to push her." They said, "Just play along," so when we did the live show, she pushed me out of the way and I fell down. Then she delivered her line and said, "Now you try it," and I get up, and I'm supposed to push her and she's standing there and I refused to push her. My parents would have killed me.
Afterwards she said, "You're a pussy! You should have pushed me."
Shortly after, we lost her, so I'll go to my grave knowing it was a magical time in my life and how blessed I was to have that happen to me.
Teme: Do you have a favorite or most memorable "green room" story?
Tom: The funniest one was at the Comedy Connection in Boston. Back in the day, before I started, cocaine was king in the Boston comedy scene.
The green room had a TV. On the top of the TV was where everyone would lay out their rails of cocaine. Tony V, a famous comedian, in Boston he walks on water, took a bottle of whiteout, and he drew a line on the top of the TV to make it look like cocaine. He sat there all night and watched all the comedians come in and lunge at the TV thinking someone had left a rail on top of the television. Then he would laugh, because it went from ecstasy to agony when they realized.
For me, the craziest green room experience was at the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach (California) on a Sunday night, sitting there with Jay Leno, Garry Shandling and Chris Rock. We're all comics waiting to go on stage, so they’re being very gracious and trying to involve everyone in the conversation.
Jay was talking about how his car had died on the way to the club and Garry Shandling was saying, "I'll give you a ride home in mine." Jay was like, "I can't fit in your Porsche."
I'm thinking, "Where do I jump in on this conversation?" You just sit there like a wallflower. You don't want to make an ass out of yourself in front of these legends. That's awkward, but other than that, I don't have any freaky green room story where strippers came in or anything like that. All that, unfortunately, like the cocaine days, preceded me.
Teme: What is it like to be in a two-comedian marriage? I'm thinking comedians know how to communicate, how to laugh, how to find the humor and make things a little lighter, so maybe comedians are better at marriage.
Tom: Kerri and I, it was a workplace romance. We met in Boston doing comedy and we moved to New York together. On June 30th, we celebrated fifteen years of marriage, but we've been together twenty years.
Teme: Happy anniversary!
Tom: Thank you. I think we do diffuse a lot of conflict with humor. We can go from being angry at each other to laughing in a pretty short period of time. We used to look at show business couples as role models. We used to say, "You know? We can make this work. Look at Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman." Then shortly thereafter they split up.
We'd say, "Look at Bruce Willis and Demi Moore!" Then they split up. All our role models ended up crashing and burning, but we're still at it. There aren't many of us. We're an endangered species. There's Rich Vos and Bonnie McFarlane who are married and Al Ducharme and Bernadette Pauly.
Because we're an endangered species, people want us to work for them more. We keep getting asked to do a comedy team thing that we've worked on and we've been on NickMom Night Out and a couple of other TV venues.
Kerri writes stories, and I write one-liners, so to merge into a comedy team is difficult. But I think our marriage is pretty solid right now. Now she'll walk away and divorce me tomorrow for the pool guy, if we had a pool. Right now I'm very content, and levity is alive and well in our family. I think that helps.
Teme: I definitely have to remember that. What was your inspiration for writing Bad Dad and how did you come up with all those great Bad Dad tips?
Tom: I've been compiling stuff for twenty-seven years. I had a lot of one-liners that are parenting-related. I work an hour a night, so I have twenty-three hours during the day to kill time. I have this stuff and I thought, "Why don't I just put these parenting things into a book?"
The other thing is, the book’s introduction is about my dad. My dad is ninety-three. Every breath is a cliffhanger at this point. I wanted to give a little tip of my cap to my dad because I know that we're on borrowed time. He's a cancer survivor and he should have been dead a long time ago, but we still have him. I wanted to give him a little nod because I know my time with him is short. That's really what the inspiration was.
Teme: How would you describe yourself as a dad for real?
Tom: I don't pat myself on the back unless I'm choking on a chicken bone, but I think I've kind of fallen right into it. I have three sons. I don't know what I'd be like with a daughter. We tried to get the daughter and God said no, but we're delighted with our three.
The worst part about my job is that I have to be away from them as much as I am because I'm on the road a fair amount. That part stings, but I really think that parenting is the most rewarding part of my life. I know that sounds so trite and cliché, but I live and breathe those guys. I got up this morning with them and made their lunch and drove them to camp. I'm killing time here on Cape Cod, which is where we are for the summer, until I get to pick them up.
After camp, I’ll hang out with them for the rest of the evening until I leave tomorrow for the Nantucket Comedy Festival. We're going to take them out and they’ll each get 150 bucks to go shopping because all of them got incredible report cards. We're really thrilled about that because mom and dad are comedians, so I don't know where the hell that came from.
My wife, who does most of the heavy lifting, is really the black belt at parenting because I'm on the road more than she is. But at the risk of sounding cocky, I think our kids are great and I think we work really hard at that.
Teme: What's your take on this Pokemon Go thing?
Tom: I tweeted and I'm paraphrasing, but I think what I wrote is, "My apologies to the nerds of the world, but at this point I'd like to chokemon Pokemon." My children aren't into it, so I'm not into it. I would be dragged into it kicking and screaming if my boys were into it, but thank God they're not. It's making Nintendo billions of dollars and I know it's ruffling some feathers because people are going into graveyards for clues or whatever the hell they're doing. But you know what? It's like comedy. Any diversion from these horrible police shootings and horrible things that are going on in the world, I can't throw stones at that. Anything that makes people happy, God bless them.
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