Rockland County, N.Y. comic Tom Cotter knew comedians didn’t have a great track record on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” when his managers and agents encouraged him to audition in 2012.
In six seasons, no comedian had ever made it to the quarter-finals.
But when Cotter found out that anti-comedian judge Piers Morgan would be replaced by comedy-friendly radio personality Howard Stern, he knew it was time to go for it.
That year, Cotter proved his managers and agents right. His rapid-fire, one-liner, misdirection comedy style was perfect for the show’s 90-second auditions, and he became the first comedian not only to make the finals, but to finish runner-up on the show.
Since “AGT,” Cotter said he’s performed all over the world, spending about two weekends a month on the road and the other two doing gigs close to home so he can spend time with his wife and three children.
But this weekend, he’ll be spending time with the people of Lancaster as he brings his jokes to Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre Nov. 1.
In between making breakfast for his kids and driving them to school on a recent Thursday, Cotter talked about his upcoming Lancaster show, life after “AGT” and his thoughts on Simon Cowell taking Howard Stern’s place next season.
Q: How did Howard Stern influence your decision to audition for “AGT”?
A: Up until (my season), the main judges were Howie Mandel, who I knew was comedy-friendly, Sharon Osbourne, who’s married to the Prince of Darkness so I knew she’d be up for a laugh, but the guy who sat in the seat before was Piers Morgan. And Piers Morgan hated American comics. And he would always, not just not advance their career, he would belittle them and send their career back. I watched him say things to very funny comics, like ‘You’re not funny, you’re not original, I didn’t laugh once.’ I said I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let this guy throw me under the bus in front of 20 million viewers … So, when he exits that seat and Howard Stern sits in that seat, now you’ve got Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne and Howard Stern, and I thought I’m not getting any younger. If I’m going to do this, this is the time to do it … Sometimes these reality shows can bury you, and I got very, very, very, very lucky.
Q: After your season, comedians Taylor Williamson and Drew Lynch both finished runner-up on season eight and 10, respectively. Do you think you paved the way for comics to do well on the show?
A: I don’t credit myself with that. I say Howard Stern. Howard Stern really wanted a rock band or a comedian to do well in this thing. So, he turned it up a notch. But, the proof is in the math. Piers is there for a number of years, and I was the first comedian to make it to the finals, and that’s because he was gone and Howard was in that seat. There’s nothing magical about it. And then the very next year, again a comic not only reaches the finals but becomes runner-up. Now, they have new judges Mel B and Heid Klum, but the two bookends are Howard and Howie, and I think it’s better set up now for comedians … I think a comic will win it sometime soon, and I’m glad that I was part of that whole pioneer process of it.
Q: How do you feel about Simon Cowell replacing Howard Stern on “AGT”?
A: I think it’s good. Howard was a great judge. And I don’t just say that because he was supportive of me … I think Howard calls it like it is. I think he’s much more pragmatic about the whole thing and I agree with his opinions. So, you need that kind of stern, honest judge, and from what I’ve seen in the past of Simon Cowell on “Idol,” he’s kind of the same way, brutally honest, and I agree with him more often than I don’t, so I think it’s going to be good. I hope, even though he’s British like Piers Morgan, I hope he gets comedy the way Howard did.
Q: Now that you’ve been off the show for three years, how has “AGT” impacted your career?
A: I’ve been at this for a long time (27 or 28 years now), so we’ve all done Leno, The Tonight Show or Letterman or Ferguson or Conan. But the audience that sees you is minute compared to the people who watch primetime network television … When you do the No. 1 rated show during the summer, and it’s the seventh season of it and it’s the first year for Howard Stern and it’s up against reruns because everything else in the summer is reruns, it’s just a ratings juggernaut. Our worst viewership, I believe, was 11 million people on that season. And I wasn’t on that episode. But, our best was over 20 million people, easily. And now, here we are, I was on season 7, and we just finished season 10, and I’m still able to keep this going, which is just great.
Q: Since season seven, how has life changed for you?
A: I’ve been doing a lot of acting. The other night, my wife told me I was acting like an idiot. And writing, mostly suicide notes, because if you don’t know, I lost to a dog act on “America’s Got Talent.” I came in second to non-humans my season, creatures who had no idea they were even in a competition. But, besides that, it’s been great. That kicked open so many doors, it was incredible. Especially in the corporate world, which doesn’t make you famous, but those gigs pay the best, and now suddenly, my kids will be able to go to college, whereas before that was iffy and my wife and I will not be living in a van down by the river when we retire.
Q: You’ve done gigs all over the world from London to Hong Kong. Why come to Lancaster?
A: It’s not brutal travel for me. That’ll be a weekend I can see the kids play ball in the afternoon and I can go tell jokes at night … When I get to work close to home and have a nice venue, which as I understand, that theater is, that was a gimme.
Q: Do you have any plans to do anything in the area?
A: I’m very familiar with Lancaster because I’ve done a million colleges. Pennsylvania has way more colleges than people know … When I go there, I’m sure I’ll pick up a pumpkin or too because there aren’t that many around here, and I will just breathe in the fresh air and enjoy it.
Q: What can people expect at your Lancaster show?
A: I’m not going to show up and not mention the Amish, but I’m not going to throw them under the bus. I will mention the Amish because you can always joke about the Amish because they’ll never know … A lot of my act is double entendre and innuendo and you kind of draw your own conclusions, but I don’t hit you over the head with anything filthy. I’ll be on the edge but not too edgy for that particular venue, and I can guarantee that people will laugh. If have to follow them home and tickle them, I will make them laugh.
Q: Anything new in the works for you?
A: We’re working on an hour special now, and I have a book to be out by Christmas called “The Bad Dad.” It’s bogus fatherhood advice, old clichés turned upside down about parenting. And I have another book I’m coming out with soon called “Pitiful Poetry.” I’m killing the other 23 hours a day I’m not on stage in a productive manner.
If you go
What: “America’s Got Talent” runner-up Tom Cotter
When: Sunday, Nov. 1. Doors open at 6:15 p.m., show starts at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, 510 Centerville Road, Lancaster
More information: Visit dutchapple.com.