Don’t blink, cough or stop to think when you’re watching Tom Cotter.
Even the briefest diversion will make you miss the joke. That’s because Cotter, 51, practices a style of stand-up called “misdirection.” He sets up the joke, delivers the punchline, and then tags it with puns, innuendo and double entendres. And his delivery is rapid-fire, which gave Cotter a great advantage when he competed in 2012 on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” (see video after the interview).
Cotter’s laugh-packed 90-second routines in front of comedy-friendly judges Howard Stern and Howie Mandel carried him all the way to the “AGT” finals, where he finished in second place.
Cotter, a New England native who has three young sons with his wife, stand-up comic Kerri Louise, is the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival’s headliner on Aug. 8. (Louise is his opener.) Here’s our conversation, about “AGT,” the current state of comedy, and the impact Lucy and her husband Desi Arnaz had on him.
Question: A couple of years ago you decided to do “America’s Got Talent.” It worked out really well for you, but as a veteran comic, you were taking a risk by putting yourself up for judgment on national television. Why did you do it?
Cotter: Comedy is a dream job if you dream of poverty. We don’t make a lot of money — and I married a comedian, because who needs health insurance? We weren’t living high on the hog by any means. I have three tuitions coming down the pike at me, and my retirement plan is a metal detector and a beach. So I just don’t have a whole lot stashed away. I thought, I’m not getting younger. Howard Stern is now in the seat. It’s now or never. I threw caution to the wind. I just wanted some prime-time network exposure to put a few more in the seats when I worked on the road.
Q: With “AGT” having comedy-friendly judges like Howard Stern and Howie Mandel, and then the resurgence of NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” is the media becoming more comedy-friendly?
Cotter: It’s an odd time right now. The guys with a very hot social media presence, who don’t have a whole lot to support it with their act, are getting more attention. The guys who really have substantive material, great writing, great delivery, are getting passed over. It kills me that, for example, on “Last Comic Standing” this year, two out of the last three are rookies. They’re brand new. Which is great. God bless the newcomers. But these are guys who might open for the guys they’ve already eliminated. Reality is rarely real.
Q: How do you balance managing your social media with actually taking the time to develop new material?
Cotter: That’s a slippery slope. I really am having trouble finding that balance. Last night I did a show called “Red Eye” on Fox, which airs at 3 in the morning. I stayed up to watch it, but instead of going to bed at 4, I had my laptop and I’m cruising around on Facebook. I spent so much time reading other people’s posts on Facebook and trying to come up with witty retorts, if I took that much time and worked on my act I’d have a whole new 10 minutes. Which is hard to chisel out. You’re catching me on a weekend when my wife and kids are up in Boston, and I’ll finally have a few minutes to myself at the house. I’m going to try to bang out a new fives minutes they need for “The Tonight Show” and then an hour for Netflix.
I’m moderately funny but horribly organized. I have to get my act together and do that.
Q: If we could get inside your head when you’re writing, what would we see?
Cotter: You would see ADD way before it was diagnosed. And insecurity. Writing, for me, is a lot of left turns. I like the audience to have to pay attention and know there will be a curveball coming. The insecure part is I hate lulls in my act, so I cram two hours of material into a 45-minute set. If you hated the last joke, then you’ve already forgotten about it because I’m doing the set up for the next one.
Q: You’re headlining the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. Did you love Lucy?
Cotter: My mom had six kids, so parking in front of the TV was a common occurrence. I loved watching that show. I thought Lucy was great. She was silly and slapsticky, and I loved the Three Stooges back then, because I was a kid. I really loved Desi. I thought Desi was so funny. I grew up upper middle-class, white, affluent, inner-city suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, and just didn’t know any Spanish people. I didn’t know any people with that accent. He used to make me howl.
Who: Tom Cotter, part of the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival
When: 8 p.m. Aug. 8
Where: The Reg Lenna Center for the Arts