Interviewed by Evelyn Frolking
Tom Cotter ’86, comedian
As a political science major, Tom Cotter had his sights on a law career. But numbing stage fright struck anytime he spoke to a group, and his only coping strategy was to be funny. Through laughter, Cotter relaxed and excelled. After Denison, he was a police officer, private investigator, and law clerk. He eventually realized that his happiness came primarily from making others laugh. So he committed himself to the happily brutal realm of stand-up comedy. He has since appeared on the The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Late Show, Last Comic Standing, his own half-hour program on Comedy Central, and in venues around the country. Cotter lives in New York City with his wife, Kerri Louise, also a comedian, and their twin 2-year-old boys.
You know who really inspired me? When I was at Denison, there was a family called the Bolsters. Thirteen kids. Charlie Bolster ’86 was in my class and his brother Jim Bolster ’77 was the swim team coach. Another brother, Joe Bolster ’75, was a stand-up comedian. Joe would come to Denison once a year and do two shows a night. I would sit through both shows. Joe showed me what good stand-up comedy could be. To this day, he’s a friend. And he blushes when I tell him that he was the inspiration, a major influence.
My style is fast paced one-liners. I’m not a Bill Cosby storyteller. One night I just showed up at open mike night at a comedy club. I crashed and burned. Two of the ten jokes I told were relatively successful. The other eight were horrible failures. So I ran away and put my head in the sand for about six months and then got the nerve to try it again. I came back and had ten new jokes and two of those worked, so now I had four jokes. That was the foundation on which I built my career.
Kerri and I just filmed six episodes of a new television program, Two Funny. It’s about two comedians, married and on the road together. We’ll see what happens. We’re bringing our two-year-olds along with us so we can be around them and still pursue our careers. Because I am on the road so much, I felt like I was missing important developmental parts of my boys’ growth. That’s why Kerri and I decided to do this together. Women’s Entertainment network saw us on Last Comic Standing, a reality show on NBC. We were the only married comedy couple. They thought it might catch on. So we did it. It airs in February.
For me, it’s been all Cs. I work comedy clubs, colleges, cruise ships, corporations, and country clubs. Everyday I’m coming back from one and enroute to another. People love to laugh, and I feed off of that. I really do.
With comedy, you just hope that eventually something good happens. The Tonight Show was great for me. That pumped up my stock. Last Comic Standing was good. That got me lots of exposure; and then my special on the Comedy Channel. Every time something like that happens you move up a little. Now this new series on WE will help. As long as you’re not going backwards, you’re going forwards. I’m very lucky. I must have been nice to a leprechaun in another life.
You can read a crowd in the first 30 seconds. You try to adjust, you have to. When I do a cruise ship, I have to work squeaky clean because it’s all senior citizens and kids. Some crowds, you can just tell by their body language–they’ll have their arms folded across their chest and have this look on their face—like make me laugh, Monkey Boy, let’s see what you can do.
I still get nervous. I kick myself almost on a daily basis. I never took an acting class [at Denison] and I never got into Burpee’s Seedy. I never did any of those things. I was so intimidated by stage fright. I’d get acne two days before I had to speak. I’d get sick to my stomach.
Comedy is a brutal business. At first it’s such poverty. Driving six hours to earn $50 at a club that’s not going to give you a hotel room that night so you have to turn around and drive six hours back or sleep in your rental car. Just because I wanted the stage time, I was eager to do it.
This has been tough on my dad. He’d be on the golf course and his friends would be talking about their sons who were investment bankers or lawyers. And he would have to say he just put his son through a prep school and a good college, and now his son is telling jokes. It wasn’t until I did The Tonight Show that he finally said, “Alright this isn’t just a stupid hobby. He’s actually good.” My dad is one of my biggest fans now.
You know, it’s the tears of a clown thing. If I’m in a bad mood or have a headache, I can’t let the audience know that. They just want to laugh. I can be in a bad mood before the show and after the show, but when I’m on stage I’m a cheerleader; I’m a clown; I’m an entertainer. It’s my job.