Tom Cotter: "If a Woman Gets on Stage and Talks About Her Vagina, You Can Hear Sphincters Shut"

Tom Cotter isn't the most famous comedian of 2012, but he did end up being watched by most of this fine nation's couch potatoes last year via America's Got Talent.  Cotter made it all the way to the finals with the confidence to take home the gold, only to lose to a group of dogs doing tricks.  

Seriously, puppies. 

The not-so-bitter stand up vet keeps a positive outlook, riding the AGT wave with gigs around the country.  Before his string of shows in Ft. Lauderdale at the end of the month, Cotter chatted with us about everything from showing off his goods in Cosmo to Piers Morgan's missing sense of humor.

New Times: I'm one of those people that has decided against cable so although I didn't see you on America's Got Talent, I did a YouTube search to get to know your material. How has the fact that videos of your act are so easily accessible affected your standup career?

Tom Cotter: I'm OK with my material being available online because they're just teasers. On the show, every spot was just 90 seconds, but I just did a gig the other night for an hour.  So I'll show people 90 seconds all day and hope that they come see an hour. And really, I hope a lot of people don't have television, like you, so they weren't one of the 29 million people that saw me lose to a dog act.

Are you aware that literally thousands of women in airports have seen you using your finger to mimic a penis in the latest issue of Cosmo?

Yes, my niece texted me the photo two days ago! I am on the "Sexy vs. Skanky" section being skanky by putting my finger through my fly. I do this quite often because it is in fact the actual size of my penis. Any PR is good PR, Madonna taught us that back in the '80s. My parents had to listen to me and my wife on The Howard Stern Show and he was asking us horrible personal questions; So a pic of me with my finger sticking out my fly is not my worst fear. 

Do you think Howard is a good fit for the show?

From a comedian's point of view, yes Howard is a great fit for the show. Friends of mine had asked me to audition for AGT every year because my style of comedy lends itself well to a short amount of time. I can do a lot of punch lines in 90 seconds because I'm ADD, whereas a lot of comics take three minutes just so say "hi." I was always afraid of Piers Morgan who had his sense of humor surgically removed as a child. He just never liked the comedians. This show can set you back your career as much as it can advance it. You could get ruined if you aren't funny or original and I didn't want to subject myself to that.  

When Howard came on board, I knew he was fan of comedy so I thought: "This is the year." He ended up being a hit! NBC didn't know what to do when Piers was leaving. They wanted Howard, but the religious right started a letter writing campaign about boycotting the show because of him. NBC responded by saying that's a risk they were willing to take because we will get Howard's fans. By the second episode, he was showing a kinder, gentler Howard and the religious right came back and NBC ended up winning on both ends. And Howard just re-signed for a ridiculous boatload of money.

Not to toot my own horn, but people tell me sometimes I should give stand up a shot. If I wanted to dive in, how do I start?  What is the first step?

Make sure you are OK with handling rejection. For me, stage fright was a huge deal in the beginning. You have to write and get stage time. If you write 10 jokes and go on stage, two will work and eight will crash and burn. But you have to come back the next week with 10 more jokes. Then you have two from the first week and two from the second. Keep slowly building up that material. Then you become an opener, a feature, and eventually a headliner. Write, write, write. Perform, perform, perform. You don't want to get to be middle aged and think, "Shit, I should tried that." I wish I would have started earlier. 

Do you have a moment when you realized could handle it and dove into stand up? Or did you start in improv troupes like lots of people do?

I never did improv, but I really wish I had in retrospect. I went to a tiny school called Denison University in Ohio, there was one improv group, and I secretly wanted to try out. Steve Carell was in the group, he graduated two years ahead of me. When I was senior in college, I got up at a talent show and just made fun of everyone, fraternities, faculty, the administration. I got disqualified from the competition, but all the students came up and were praising the set and that's what gave me the bug to give it a real shot after I graduated college.

How much truth do you think there is to the old adages that the best comedians come from a troubled or dark past?

I sadly believe that that is very accurate. If you are in comedy, you are doing it because you want instant approval. This is not normal behavior. I can't tell you how many comics I know that are in and out of rehab or on their third marriage and still cheating on their wife. A lot of them just drug themselves to death, it happens way too often.
I'm married to a comedian who is from a good home, we have been married for 11 years and dated for a long time before. I'm very tuned into the female comedian world, it's sexist and it's unfortunate, a lot of comedy clubs don't even want to use women. When a woman is on stage people get freaked out. I can get on stage and talk about my penis and people laugh, if a woman gets on stage and talks about her vagina, you can hear sphincters shut. 

You have received your fair share of press and stand up achievements. But what does "making it" mean to you? What is your idea of success in the comedy world? Did you achieve it already?

I'm pretty blessed right now, last year was incredible. But even before that, I was just below the radar. I own a home and have three kids -- it sounds trite, but it means a lot to me to have a house in 'burbs and put bread on the table just by working one hour a night doing what I love. I was successful before AGT, but it put me in spotlight, and I will forever be indebted to the show.  I'm the same comic, no funnier than I was a year ago. Now I have a vehicle to get in front of more people.  

Doing The Tonight Show with Jay Leno 10 years ago was something I think back on. It made my father feel like I wasn't a waste of sperm. When I did The Tonight Show, he realized that I didn't suck. Being able to support family by doing the same thing that got me sent to principal's office 30 years ago... That's success in my business.

What goes through your mind when you book a show in South Florida? Do you like coming down to get a break from the cold up north?

I love Florida! I've been telling my wife for years that I want to move to Florida. My dad is in Stuart and my in-laws are in Naples. We were just down there freeloading and going to Disney World. I just got home to Rhode Island and there is snow on my front lawn. I'm too old to be excited about snow, I know my kids are excited, but they are starting to think that maybe we could do without it. I've done gigs at the Chuckle Hut in Des Moines, Iowa, in January. If I could choose the Ft. Lauderdale Improv instead, it's an easy decision. 

Catch Tom Cotter right where he wants to be, at the Ft Lauderdale Improv, 5700 Seminole Way, Hollywood, January 25 to 27. Cotter will also be headlining "Laugh with the Library," a fundraiser to support library program in Del Ray. Call the Del Ray Beach Public Library for more information at 561-266-0775.

Follow Tom Cotter on Twitter and 'like' him on Facebook.

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Dana Krangel