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'America's Got Talent' runner-up Tom Cotter tells all
Rockland County comic Tom Cotter may have been runner-up to the cunning canines of Olate Dogs on this season of "America's Got Talent," but, in an exclusive interview with Newsday Westchester, the Stony Point resident says he has a lot for which to be thankful.
For starters, Cotter says his family — his wife, Kerri Louise, a fellow comedian, and their three sons — as well as their Rockland neighbors were incredibly supportive during his run on the reality show. The Rhode Island native moved with his family from a sixth-floor walkup in Harlem to a house in Stony Point five years ago.
"We really, really, really like it here," says Cotter, who leaves Thursday to prepare to emcee the "AGT" variety show at The Venetian in Las Vegas from Sept. 26 to Nov. 17. "We have the coolest neighbors on the planet. The way they rallied around me for 'America's Got Talent' was just sick. They came down to all the quarterfinals, all the semifinals, the finals. They scratched to get tickets. It was unbelievable."
Like millions of other Americans, his neighbors watched as Cotter finished in second place — just missing out on the $1 million grand prize — but beating out stiff competition in the larger-than-life music theatrics of William Close and his Earth Harp (who finished third), the splashy, art-dance fusion of David Garibaldi and his CMYK's (fourth), the choreographed sand art of Joe Castillo (fifth) and the child dancers of the Untouchables (sixth).
Cotter describes his "AGT" finale experience as a "roller-coaster ride" and says that although he would have loved to win the whole thing, he was shocked he was able to advance as far as he did, given the level of competition.
"Right before me, William Close was eliminated, and from my point of view, and from everything I'd seen on Facebook and social media, I really thought he was the guy to beat, so when he got eliminated, I was like, 'Wow. What is goin' on?' And then when it was down to the dogs and I, y'know, that's an eternity between when [host Nick Cannon] says, 'The winner is....' It lasts longer than puberty when you're standing up there. It's excruciating: It's like having a root canal and a colonoscopy at the same time."
He also said he realized that, in addition to being talented, Olate Dogs had a legitimate shot to win, because the winner from the most recent season of "Britain's Got Talent" is also a dog act.
"They're really a great act, and they're really good guys," Cotter said of Olate Dogs' trainers, Richard and Nicholas Olate, who are father and son. "I love their back story: [Richard] lived in poverty and came to the United States with the great American Dream, and here he is, about to win a million bucks."
The last thought he had before Cannon's announcement of the winner? "Don't look like an idiot, no matter what," he said. "Don't look like an idiot if you win; don't cry like a baby, and don't look like a sore loser or a poor sport, because your children are watching, if you lose."
He said he was pleased about how he did on the show but wishes he could have had another roll of the dice — or the die, to be more specific — when it came to his routine before the final vote. Cannon rolled an oversized die with six topics on it, and when it landed it on "poor examples," Cotter cringed.
"I wish it had come up on a different topic," said Cotter, who'd have preferred to do his material on airplanes or teenagers. "The problem with the one I [had to do] was that the first 30 seconds of it is all setup. So, there's no big laughs on the front end — the big laughs are at the end, which I guess is OK — but some of the other sets were [bigger laughs] from the first joke. I wish the dice had come up different, but in retrospect, hindsight is 20/20, but I'm really pleased with how the whole thing went."
Earlier in the Wednesday finale, Cotter teamed up with Larchmont native Joan Rivers to roast the judges. He says he also got a little help from another stand-up comedian with Westchester County roots, Tarrytown native Greg Fitzsimmons, for some of his roast material.
Although he didn't win the $1 million, Cotter acknowledges that the publicity and exposure from "America's Got Talent" have potentially even more value, especially in a post-Johnny Carson era, when no one late-night host can offer a blessing upon a rising comedian.
"It's amazing what this thing has done; it's just crazy," he said. "You couldn't ask for any more exposure that prime-time network competition. ... I have thousands of Facebook messages I still haven't gone through, and that's not an exaggeration — my wife got over 1,000 — so the reach of it is ridiculous. It's a different world right now for me, and I couldn't be more appreciative. So, not making the million bucks, perfectly OK with me, and I'm forever indebted to 'AGT,' the judges and NBC."
Cotter, who has won his share of national comedy-festival contests in his 25-year career, also credits the rave reviews from the show's judges — Howard Stern, Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel — as another reason he's thankful for the experience.
"There was not one negative syllable uttered by them [to me] the entire season," he said. "They were really, really nice to me from the very first audition till the end — even when the cameras weren't rolling, especially after I lost on Thursday night. Howard, in particular, was just unbelievably supportive and wonderful to me, and it meant the world to me."
Before the finale, Cotter was frustrated he couldn't weigh in on a controversy over his representation. When the New York Post reportedly planned to run a story about a supposed conflict of interest because he and Cotter are represented by the same agency (Don Buchwald and Associates), Stern lashed out, saying "AGT" knew about the situation from the start and that the shock jock didn't stand to gain anything if Cotter won.
Cotter said NBC issued a gag order until the season came to a close.
"It's a completely nonstory, and the nonstory is this: It's like ICM or 3Arts or CAA — it's one of those big agencies that has thousands of clients. I've been with Don Buchwald and Associates, in their commercial department, for about 12 years. ... I had never met Howard in my entire life until after the first live audition [for this season of 'AGT']. ... Then the [New York] Post says, 'We're going to run a story that it's inappropriate that you have the same agent.' Well, Don Buchwald only handles one guy, and that's Howard Stern. And all of his other agents are the guys who handle us, the guys who are way down on the totem pole, and those are the guys I deal with."
For Cotter to even make it to the finale, he had to advance past the semifinals, which he did during an "AGT" episode that was bumped regionally to a cable affiliate by preseason football. Although that made it tough for his fans in the Hudson Valley to root for him, Cotter wasn't very upset about it.
"It was a little disheartening, but the most important of that was that I moved on [to the finals]," he said. "I was so shocked by that that I couldn't be annoyed about the schedule."
During his run on "America's Got Talent," Cotter continued to perform regional stand-up, including a "Battle of the Sexes" show with his wife and four additional comedians at Elmsford's Westchester Broadway Theatre in August. He said those gigs were fun because of the support he received from his colleagues and from fans of the show.
"I've done shows in the Catskills for maybe 15 years, and I've done the Broadway Theatre for maybe 10 years, and I've never been as well-received," he said. "People just approach you and say really nice things."
Comedians can be a notoriously jealous bunch, but Cotter said his wife was "supportive from the get-go" of his run on "America's Got Talent."
"We're a team," he said. "When we did 'Last Comic Standing' together, she made it further than I did, and I was supportive of her at the end. Of course, when you're a comedian, you're competitors, and all those things, but if it's not her, it's someone else that I don't know, so of course I want her to succeed, and maybe I'll grab onto her coattail. So, that's how she handled this."
For now, Cotter is enjoying his last few days in the Hudson Valley before heading off to Vegas, where he'll join Olate Dogs, William Close, Joe Castillo and others for the show at the Venetian. "It's a 90-minute show," he said. "They're great acts. And NBC is still being nice to me. They put me on the 'Today' show this morning, and my first time on late-night TV was on Leno, and I'm very loyal to NBC."
Check out Cotter's Monday appearance on the "Today" show below: