A common misconception with televised reality competitions is that they create overnight sensations, but the reality is that the competitors have spent months, or even years, preparing for the opportunity in front of a national audience.
Then there's stand-up comedian Tom Cotter, who took second place in the most recent season of the hit NBC show America's Got Talent. Although he lost to a dog act (the forgettable Olate Dogs), Cotter's skills impressed judge Howard Stern to the point that Stern professed repeatedly throughout the season that he believed Cotter should win. (A fan vote determines the winner.)
Even though he only performed 90 seconds each week, Cotter -- who comes to the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury on Sunday night -- had spent decades honing his craft in preparation for a shot at the big time that it seemed would never come.
"I didn't think I would get out of the quarterfinals. Anything beyond that was gravy," Cotter told me last week in an early morning phone interview from Las Vegas, where he was performing with the America's Got Talent live show.
Appearing on the Newark, N.J., stage marked the biggest leap in a career that began in the late 1980s when Cotter would attend weekly open-mike nights at a Rhode Island comedy club (Cotter grew up in Rhode Island and still has siblings living there).
"Stage fright was my enemy. The first few weeks, I went with friends, but when they bailed, I sat alone in the back of the room. I watched for about three or four weeks until one night the club owner came up to me and said, 'I know you're not here for entertainment. If you don't go up tonight, you're not allowed in this room next week.' If he hadn't lit a fire under me, I probably would have sat around for several more weeks."
That first night wasn't a success -- "I told 10 jokes. Two worked and eight crashed and burned, but the two that worked got me to come back. There were other shows where all 10 jokes crashed and burned. There were nights I wanted to give up, but something always brought me back."
He improved his act and now he's primed to clean up at the box office, thanks to the success he had on America's Got Talent.
"There's no secret (to his success on America's Got Talent). I've been doing this a quarter century. I have hours of material but the challenge was getting a five-minute bit I've done for 20 years down to 90 seconds of my best stuff."
He's grateful that his children got to watch him every week on television after missing so many of their Little League games and school plays while he was doing stand-up all over the country. "My career has been a series of peaks and valleys, but the show was Mount Everest."
He's excited to come to Salisbury. "I've heard so many people tell me that it's a great venue." Find out first-hand what America was talking about when Cotter comes to Salisbury.
Tom Cotter performs at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury on Sunday, Nov. 25, at 7 p.m. with special guest Jimmy Dunn. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at www.blueoceanhall.com.
Ed Hannan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his For the Record blog at blogs.lowellsun.com/fortherecord. You can also follow him on Twitter @SunFTRblog or like our For the Record blog page on Facebook.