Wayne Cotter may have an engineering degree, but these days when he works, he sharpens his wit instead of his pencils.
Funnyman Cotter, who appears on TV's "Comic Strip Live" and is a roving reporter for "The Tonight Show," will be the featured comedian for the "Go All in for Autism" benefit for Milestones Autism Organization on Mon., Dec. 5, at Pickwick & Frolic.
Cotter, who is a close personal friend of Clevelanders Karen and Marc Jaffe, was recently in town to appear in the Jaffes' "Shaking with Laughter" benefit for Parkinson's research. He's returning to Cleveland for the Milestones Autism Organization benefit because it "feels great to help whenever I can," he said.
The comedian and his family also have a close friend whose son has autism. "We have gone through their journey with them and understand the value of a resource and educational organization like Milestones," he said.
The Bronx-born Cotter was drawn to comedy as a 6-year-old. A self-described shy child, he spent hours listening to recordings by comics Alan King, Mel Brooks, Bob Newhart and Carl Reiner until he could repeat their routines word-for-word.
"When I watched Alan King on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,' I thought it was the greatest thing I ever saw," Cotter told the CJN. "I ran into Mel Brooks a few years ago and told him I became a comedian because of him. Mel said, ‘I'm sorry I did that to you.'"
Cotter said his parents were not particularly funny, "My father told elephant jokes," he noted. His sense of humor may have come from his grandmother, with whom Cotter said he was "very close. She was sort of a dragon lady, because she drove everyone crazy, but she had a fantastic, sardonic sense of humor I adored."
Cotter's love of comedy followed him after he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. He soon gave up his day job in a computer company to try his luck as a comedian.
Making the career transition was natural, said Cotter. "An engineer needs an analytical mind to break things down into their components," he explained. "When you break up the components of everyday life and look at their inconsistencies, that is where you find comedy. But if you overanalyze it, you'll kill it."
The comedian, 56, rose to national fame after appearing on David Letterman's show. "A guy I knew took a video of my routine while I was performing in a Jersey club and unbeknownst to me, sent it to the Letterman show," he said. "I was shocked when I got the call to appear - or that I got past security."
Letterman and Cotter hit it off, and Cotter soon became a regular on the show. Soon he was also a frequent guest of Jay Leno's. He was one of the last new comedians to debut on "The Tonight Show" with host Johnny Carson and appeared in two Carson anniversary specials. After several cable specials, Cotter was nominated for "Best Standup" in the American Comedy Awards.
The key to being a successful comedian, said Cotter, is to enter the mindset of the audience. "I was born co-dependent; if I'm in a room with 300 strangers, I'm totally attuned to what they need from me," he said. "I've seen comedians who are clever, funny, smart and original, but if they don't have the ability to judge how the audience reacts to what they are doing, they're toast."
Cotter now lives in Los Angeles with his wife and teenage son. He met his wife on an Amtrak train when they were both returning to New York after the first night of seder. "We waited a long time before we had our son, and after he was born, friends gave us advice about how to choose a nanny," said Cotter. "Living in Los Angeles, I understand - because one day I may marry our nanny."
WHAT: "Go All in for Milestones Autism Organization" casino, comedy, canapés and auction
WHEN: Mon., Dec. 5, at 6
WHERE: Pickwick & Frolic, 2035 E. 4th St., Cleveland
TICKETS: www.milestones.org or 216-464-7600