Tom Cotter, master of the one-liner from America’s Got Talent, performs tonight at Penguin’s

Comedian Tom Cotter

Penguin’s Comedy Club — Thursday, Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m.

“The morning of my sixteenth birthday, my whole family tried to surprise me with a car. But they missed.”

With sharp one-liners like this, the kind that sneak up on an audience until everyone is engulfed in laughter, Tom Cotter made it all the way to the 2012 final round of America’s Got Talent. Tonight at 7:30 p.m., he brings his act to Penguin’s Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids.

Cotter’s subtle, detached delivery might, at first, seem like a risky approach for a reality TV show known for its over-the-top acts, but he recognized from the outset how his comedic technique would pay of.

“I could get in more jokes in 90 seconds than other people. It was all rapid-fire,” Cotter said.

However, he acknowledges the style is not without it’s challenges.

“It is more fun to write,” Cotter said. “Unfortunately, it is more difficult to put together sets that way because it is kind of a puzzle piece. Puns and misdirection, double entendres, you got to sew that altogether in a story, and that’s a challenge. But it’s a fun challenge.”

Though he can hold his own as a storyteller comic, Cotter sets himself apart when he takes on everyday speech head-on, teasing out all the unintended hilarity that lies just beneath the surface.

“I just love language,” Cotter said. “My signature bit for a long time has been all about cliches. [‘There is more than one way to skin a cat.’ Skin a cat? How many ways do you need, you psychopath?] Now, I do a version of where we make fun of the vernacular of the young people. [This other kid said, ‘You my dog.’ Really, then why don’t I mount your leg and pee on the rug.]”

Cotter is originally from Providence, Rhode Island (well, “originally, from my mother’s uterus,” he clarified), and started performing stand up in Boston before moving on to New York. He cites Johnny Carson and George Carlin as broad comedy influences, but credits Boston comics for nudging him toward his current style of misdirection-based humor.

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“I had always liked Steven Wright who does a lot one-liners based on misdirection and, then when I moved out there, I saw Don Gavin, a real master of misdirection. Gavin is the kind of the guy I focused on. Everybody, when you start off, you try to emulate someone. He is just a really a clever writer,” he said.

Among the highlights of his appearance on America’s Got Talent was getting to roast the judges with the recently departed Joan Rivers. Cotter explained that he was originally going to be partnered with comedian Lisa Lampanelli, someone he knew well from the New York comedy scene, but due to network decisions, couldn’t be scheduled for show. Finally, it was announced to him that Rivers would fill in and he was nothing short of shocked.

“She just came into save the day. I was just like ‘Are you kidding me? Joan Rivers?” Cotter said.

Likening her admiringly to “a female Don Rickles,” Cotter appreciated her daring sense of humor and felt very lucky to be able to share the stage with the late comedian. As he lamented in a recent tweet on her passing “Dear God, please stop taking the good ones.”

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