Rockland County comedian Tom Cotter lost NBC's "America's Got Talent" and its $1 million prize to a trained canine act in September, but he and his wife, fellow comic Kerri Louise, told Newsday Westchester at their Stony Point home that the reality-TV competition's exposure is priceless.
"I didn't win a penny," Cotter said. "I didn't win $1 million. But I feel like I did."
That's not to say he isn't mobilizing in its aftermath to take advantage of the momentum.
"This is great right now, but you don't know when it's going to stop," Louise said while sitting next to Cotter on their living room couch. "He got his 15 minutes of fame, really. Literally, 15 minutes. And that's how long it might last. We don't know."
"Nice," Cotter quipped. "Nice. Yeah, that's great."
"We're hoping!" Louise replied with a laugh. "I'm praying! Look, I want it to last. So, we're working hard at making it last."
"She says that in the bedroom, too," added Cotter, deadpan. "All the time."
'America's Got Talent' as 'opportunity'
It's been a whirlwind year for Cotter, a journeyman comedian who auditioned for the seventh season of "AGT" after learning that one of the show's judges, Piers Morgan, was leaving the panel and would be replaced by shock jock Howard Stern.
"Piers didn't like comedians; I didn't want to be in front of him," said Cotter, who has performed stand-up for about 25 years. "I didn't want some British guy telling me I was garbage. And, so, when Howard came aboard, I thought, 'Well, now we've got Howie [Mandel] and Howard [on the panel], and there's two comedy guys, and Sharon [Osbourne] is along for the ride.' So, I said, 'If I'm going to do it, now, this is the year.' "
That's not to say he and his wife hadn't tried the reality-TV route. Both auditioned for NBC's "Last Comic Standing," with Louise advancing further in that competition. Before "AGT," Cotter had scored his own Comedy Central special and a "Tonight Show" appearance, and he and Louise appeared on "Two Funny," a show they'd developed for the WE cable network, but neither snagged that elusive big break.
"There are a lot of comics out there, my wife included, that are kind of below the radar," Cotter said. "And there are so many of us out there -- some, dear friends of ours -- that just haven't had that opportunity. The key is the opportunity, and the show gave me an opportunity."
But that would change last summer on a weekly basis as Cotter advanced from the qualifying rounds to the live shows in Newark. After he advanced to the semifinals, Cotter found himself biding his time with local gigs, including an Aug. 17 show at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford with Louise and four more comedians. Backstage, those other comics were asking Cotter about the show. On stage, it was a different story.
"Some people recognized me from the show, but most of the people did not," said Cotter, who added that he and his wife had performed there for years. "It was just this weird dynamic."
Louise recalled the night differently. "When I got on stage, I was semi-funny till I mentioned that I was Tom Cotter's wife," she said, "and then, all of a sudden, I'm hilarious."
Support from Stony Point, A-list comics
Five years ago, Cotter, Louise and their three children moved to Stony Point, whose residents rallied around Cotter's "AGT" run, scrambling en masse to snag tickets to see him in the final rounds of the competition.
"All those people were unbelievably supportive: voting, tweeting, texting -- doing everything they could," Cotter said. "And our neighbors came to every single show [in Newark], and they could not have been nicer through the whole ordeal. We're blessed to have really great neighbors."
He was also shocked at the support he received from fellow comedians, who can be a notoriously jealous bunch. Among those to show their support via Twitter were Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan, two of the most respected stand-ups in the industry.
"There's a lot of back-stabbing in my business -- tons," Cotter said. "I've had friends that have made it, and then everybody back-stabs them and says, 'Oh, they're a hack' or, 'They're stealing,' [but] everyone has been so cool to me on this journey. And I don't think that it's because they like me; I think it's because they like the fact that I was the comedian [in the finals]. I was carrying the comedian banner, and no comedian had gone this far in the competition, and they wanted to see the comedian do well. They didn't want the comedian to lose to the guy who got shot out of a cannon, or worse, a dog act."
True, this season's runner-up and self-described "top human finisher" can't help but make a few jokes at Olate Dogs' expense, but when he's not on stage, Cotter counterbalances those jabs with praise. Cotter has often commended father-and-son trainers Richard and Nicholas Olate for their talent, kindness, love of dogs and embodiment of the American Dream.
Life after 'AGT'
Given his slew of comedy gigs, TV appearances and network meetings after "America's Got Talent," catching up with Cotter these days is no small feat.
Fulfilling performance obligations that he made before and after his "AGT" run has been particularly adventurous: During one recent Saturday-to-Monday span, he performed at a comedy club in New Hampshire, a private event in California and another club in Maine, requiring cross-country red-eyes on consecutive nights to make everything work. And all of this happened after he was master of ceremonies of the "AGT" variety show with Olate Dogs, musician William Close, sand artist Joe Castillo and other acts at The Venetian in Las Vegas from Sept. 26 to Nov. 17.
That kind of prestige means he's more recognizable these days, but that's not always a good thing. Especially if he's at a urinal.
"I want to wait until we're out in the hallway to discuss, and some people want to talk when they want to talk," Cotter said. "And that's kind of weird. ... [A] woman recognized me last week, and I'll never forget what she said. She said, 'That's him, officer. Third from the left.'"
His more public interactions include appearances on TV and radio, including "Today" on NBC, Joy Behar's "Say Anything" talk show on Current and -- thanks to Louise's candid stories about their love lives -- a memorable on-air reunion with Stern.
TV talks inspire hopes, dreams
Amid reports that NBC is eyeing Cotter for potential TV projects, Stern suggested that both Cotter and Louise appear on the same show, citing their chemistry. Although Cotter didn't want to comment on specifics, he confirmed that he has met with industry executives and was slated to tape related content in mid-December at the Friars Club in Manhattan.
If Cotter lands a New York City-based TV show, that would be ideal for Louise, who says she misses him at home when he's touring.
"[I'm hoping for] something stable, like a 9-to-5 type thing, so he's not on the road all the time," said Louise, who has sacrificed part of her comedy career to raise their kids. "He's worked so hard on the road, all the time, doing cruises just to pay the bills. We don't see him that much, and it takes a toll on the kids, on me."
Their sons, however, were able to get a better appreciation for Cotter's craft when he was an "America's Got Talent" contestant, close to home.
"For years, I was just the absentee dad for two weekends out of the month," he said. "So, I missed a lot of Little League games. I missed a lot of school plays. So, this summer, they got to go on the ride with me. ... It was something we could all do as a family, together."
Whether Cotter signs a lucrative TV deal, he says he's appreciative of fans' support -- even when he's not satisfied with his own performance.
"[Recently], I had a not-so-great show," he said. "Before ["AGT"], when I had a not-so-great show, I would just lick my wounds and try to get back in the saddle for the next day. [That night], people still wanted to take pictures with me and still wanted my autograph. And I'm like, 'Were you in the same room I was in, when I was dying in there?' "