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For comic Tom Cotter, network TV brought a new level of attention

Virginia Sherwood/NBC

If not for his impressive run on last season’s “America’s Got Talent,” comic Tom Cotter says, he would not be playing the Wilbur Theatre this weekend. The Providence native has played a lot of rooms in Boston, having come up in the scene here in the late 1980s and early ’90s. And his resume includes late-night TV, his own Comedy Central half-hour special, and appearances with his wife and fellow comic, Kerri Louise, on “Last Comic Standing” as well as on their own WE reality show, “Two Funny: Cotter & Louise.” But he hadn’t had that major prime-time exposure to put him over the top until he made it to the final round on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” where he lost to the Olate Dogs, a father-and-son dog-training act. Now he’s playing the biggest room in town, working on a pilot for a kid-themed reality show for NBC, and coaching Louise for her own run at the million-dollar prize on “America’s Got Talent” this summer.

Q. You’d been on TV frequently before. What was different about “America’s Got Talent?”

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A. It’s just an enormous audience. You just don’t get that anywhere else. When you do Leno or any of the late-night shows, there’s . . . just not a lot of eyeballs on you. And the people who are watching you are falling asleep. Prime-time network television is a completely different beast, and it’s almost unfair with “America’s Got Talent” because it’s on during the summer. So the ratings are just through the roof. There’s no other vehicle for comedians to do during prime time except a sitcom to get that kind of exposure.

Q. Were you upset about losing to a dog act?

A. Why do you have to bring that up, Nick? No, to be honest with you, people think I’m bitter and jaded. First of all, I love the Olate Dogs, the winning act, and they are the coolest guys. And in all candor, I never thought I’d make it out of the quarterfinals. Singers had always won the show. I thought, if I can make it to the quarterfinals, that was kind of my goal. But me staying there at the end with just me and the dog act was an anomaly, and as freaky to me as anybody else. I thought the Earth Harp guy was going to win, which is why I showed up with wire cutters.

Q. You did things like asking the judges to give you a subject. Was there any worry that something would come up that you had nothing for?

A. Howie Mandel kept saying you have to step it up. Every round you advance, you have to step up your game. Well, how much can I step it up as a stand-up comic? I kept comparing myself to the Earth Harp guy, William Close, and when he started, he had the Earth Harp. And in the next round, he had the Earth Harp and a drummer. And in the next round, he had the Earth Harp and a whole band. By the end, at the finals, he had an orchestra playing with him, plus he had dancers. Then he had some aerial woman on a wire swinging on top of the Earth Harp. And I thought, how the hell am I competing against this?

‘There’s no other vehicle for comedians to do during prime time except a sitcom to get that kind of exposure.’

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Q. Is it strange to have all of this attention in a rush after plugging away for 25 years?

A. It is bizarre, just because I’m the same comic. Am I dramatically different than I was nine months ago? No. I’m not. I’m the same guy.

Q. Did you have any advice for Kerri when she auditioned?

A. Yes, I did. I gave her tons of advice. Some of it she used and some of it she told me was wrong and ridiculous. She’s an opinionated wife sometimes, and I respect her opinion, but I think she did well with the advice that I gave her. I can’t say if she moved on or not, but it’s a family affair now.

Q. Do you consider Boston your comedy hometown?

A. Oh yeah. That’s where I met Kerri. Kerri’s an Easton, Mass., girl, and I moved up from Providence in the late ’80s. Missed the boom, unfortunately, but still, it was just a great place. And I remember thinking Don Gavin was God. I still think that. But he was the guy I clearly emulated.

Q. What do you think you learned from the Boston scene?

A. You learn how to kill in Boston. Then you go to other cities and people are kind of laid-back, and they do these pregnant pauses between their punch lines. But in Boston, you’re trying to kill. I watched a show at Nick’s one night. Gavin was hosting, [Steve] Sweeney was on the show, [Ken] Rogerson and Knoxie [the late Kevin Knox], and that was the show. You couldn’t breathe, because these guys were all so rapid-fire, hysterical, bang-bang-bang punch lines. I’m not saying it’s a better style. I’m just saying for competition-style things, it’s the dominant style of comedy, I think. It’s maximum punch lines and the maximum amount of laughs in the minimum amount of time.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Nick A. Zaino III
can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.
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