YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

COMEDY : LAUGHS? THEY COMPUTE : But Wayne Cotter Fears He Still May Be a Geek, Even After Giving Up Life as Programmer

November 17, 1994|GLENN DOGGRELL | Glenn Doggrell writes about comedy for The Times Orange County Edition.

When hip, TV-savvy comic Wayne Cotter recently broke a bone in his foot while running across a bed and then landing wrong on the floor, the mishap confirmed a nagging suspicion. He might be a lifelong geek after all.

How many other people, he reasoned, end up on crutches and in a walking cast because they couldn't execute a simple landing? And, he admitted in an interview from his Beverly Hills home earlier this week, the crutches and cast opened his eyes:

"It makes me realize how sedate my life really is. This hasn't been too much of a hindrance."

To save a little face after the tumble, he has prepared alternate explanations, ranging from saving the President from an assassin's bullet to tripping over a hooker.

But there is an upside to all of this. He finds his new footwear an impressive piece of equipment.

"It's a boot thing with Velcro all over it and a pump, like a Reebok or something. I wear this walking cast with extreme panache."

The former host of Fox's "Comic Strip Live" first suspected he might be geek material when, as a student (good in math and science, of course), his goal was to own a house in the suburbs and hold a solid job. He got his wish.

In 1977, he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, where he had received a full academic scholarship. ("I had really good test scores. I'm not sure why. All the answers must've been A or something.")

The New York City native parlayed that into a job as a computer programmer for a New Jersey company. He stayed four years, but he never forgot about being a kid who would sneak a peek at the old "Tonight Show" with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson and then recite the comics' monologues the next day.

His nest egg from four years' gainful employment afforded him a chance to try stand-up full-time. In February of 1981, he swapped his bytes for bits.

"I don't miss the 9 to 5," said Cotter, who plays the Irvine Improv on Saturday and Sunday. "I still enjoy the technology stuff, but I don't have time to keep up with it. I'd love to be able to take the time to read the proceedings in all the computer journals, but I'd be spread too thin. I like the cool math stuff. I really am a geek. One day some black-frame glasses will sprout out of my head."

Cotter couldn't have programmed his entry into comedy any better. (And most of his career since, for that matter.) The Comedy Works in Philadelphia had just opened and the fledgling funnyman finagled his way into an emcee's role.

After watching performers such as Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Eddie Murphy work there, Cotter in 1985 headed to New York, where he plied the clubs before landing a spot two years later on "Late Night With David Letterman," his first of several gigs with Letterman. In 1989, he cracked "The Tonight Show," when Leno was a guest host. To this day, he works both shows.

His initial Letterman spot, however, took a little longer than expected to make the airwaves. Cotter got bumped twice because the show ran long. The third time proved a charm, and led Letterman to quip: "This man's become a regular on our show without actually having been on it. He was supposed to be on Tuesday, then Wednesday, and he'll definitely be on tonight, maybe."

At first blush, going from computers to comedy might seem a stretch, but Cotter, 39, explains the two are quite compatible, sort of.

"The verbal stuff is also left-brain like the computer stuff is. I don't know where the sense of humor lies, if anywhere. Programming was sort of a creative job in a funny way. In my mind, there's a connection between a computer weenie and comedian. A weird off-kilter perspective helps you look at things the way people haven't looked at them before. It gives you something to offer."

What Cotter offers is a wry and intelligent look at life's illogical side--wondering, for instance, why hot dogs come 12 to a pack while buns come 10 to a pack. Or why a cat will suddenly jump up and speed from a room.

He does this without the raunch dressing too.

"It's interesting, the clean thing," the easygoing comic said, almost defensively. "People get the wrong idea, (they think) it's like Bambi, G-rated. I thought things were funny in the world so I became a comedian. My particular way hasn't been to use a lot of foul language. I probably use those words with the same frequency as anyone offstage.

"My goal was to get on Carson. So why not think in terms of what can get me there? Doing 'Comic Strip Live,' we were always looking for comedians we could use. It was often just a question of picking the guys who had five clean minutes.

"I don't want people to get the idea it's a church situation," continued Cotter, who has added a little blue to his act on occasion. "At a fraternity party they were just nuts, screaming and yelling. I just stayed with them. Dirty jokes come pretty easy. It's like stuff you hear in the third grade. Who want's that from a professional comedian?"

Los Angeles Times Articles