Maybe the line “a retired cop walks into a nightclub” isn’t the best opening for a bit of comedy, but real life has its own zingers. And as retired cop turned nightclub comedian Eric Potts, 50, puts it, it was mostly by accident or inertia or attention seeking that got him into the funny business.
The youngest of three kids in Jackson Township, New Jersey, Potts served as an Army military police officer in Germany and Virginia during the 1980s, and then as a police officer and detective in Plainsboro for 25 years, before retiring four years ago.
Then he got himself a new act and started working with a radio station at the Jersey shore, doing commercial voice-overs. “I’d be hired by smaller radio stations — commercials, corporate training videos,” Potts says. “It’s fun. There’s a lot of acting involved in it because you sort of have to become the character in the ad. I’ve always been a ham. I enjoyed being on the radio. But I also love comedy,” he says.
Now Potts has a steady gig at Catch a Rising Star at the Hyatt Regency in Princeton’s Carnegie Center off Route 1, warming up the crowd with a brand of humor that — as his Youtube videos show — is both R-rated and self-deprecating.
There is a temptation to think that the police in the course of their work are supplied with enough material for unending novels about the human condition. They’re seen it all, right? And Potts starts with the many creative attempts to get out of moving violations by certain drivers who are not bashful at all about their willingness to do absolutely anything to avoid getting a ticket.
But for Potts, his experience as a policeman is a minor part of his comic routines. “In the beginning of my set I may talk about it. But I don’t dwell on it. I write about my life in general. There’s a lot of inside stuff that cops would understand, but not the general public,” he says.
“I talk about mainly my wife, my kids, life in general. I’m a hypochondriac so I talk about that. My kids get on my nerves sometimes, so I talk about that. Plenty of comics talk about their kids and marriage, but it’s how you spin it and talk about it that makes it funny.”
Growing up the youngest, he says he felt compelled to be heard. His late father was a police chief in Manalpan, and his mother is a supervisor at a company in Egg Harbor that makes flower arrangements. His brother works as a medical equipment salesman in Florida and his sister lives in Delanco and works for a medical billing company. Potts’ wife is a receptionist for an association management company in Hamilton.
“I guess I was an attention seeker,” he says. “My parents got separated early on when I was eight, and between my brother, sister, and me, I always tried to get attention. I remember I always told my mother I wanted to be a stunt man. I’d ride my bike over things, tried to impress everybody.”
He remembers listening to Richard Pryor records with his brother when they were boys. “My father didn’t appreciate the language,” he says. Potts also counts Steve Martin as an early influence.
Today Potts commands attention on stage. His voice will definitely reach the back row of a theater, and his style can be easily described as voluble as it is blue. “My whole life I was told I was funny. I was a jokester in high school. I went in the Army and people told me I was funny. You can be funny in front of your friends all you want, but when you step on the stage it’s completely different. It’s about getting your stories out there to the audience in a way they can relate to,” he says.
Indeed, Potts does not spare his next of kin when searching for a laugh. One of his YouTube clips is a bit where he depicts his kids (a son, 20, attending Mercer County Community College, a daughter graduating from Ewing High School and bound for Montclair State University in the fall, and another son who is finishing his junior year at Ewing High School) telling him his father’s day gift was in the garage. Next, he says, he went into the garage and found a huge box with a bow on it. “Go ahead, open it,” they told him, and he did, only to find it empty. “That’s your retirement home,” they said. The bit goes on, with him coming home the next day driving a new Corvette. “What’s that?” his kids ask. He replies, “Your college fund.”
Lately, he has been giving a boost to new comics who are trying to get a start. He hosts trivia nights at area bars, which lends itself to its own brand of comic charm. But Monday nights, he says, he emcees a “Comedy Gym” at the Ewing Elks Lodge 105 in West Trenton.
“We have good attendance,” he says. “We get comics from Philadelphia, North Jersey. It’s not just an open mic. We have comics there who will critique. I’ve had national touring comics come there. It’s a group of comics who help each other get better. Signups are at 7:30 we start taking the stage at 8. It’s a good place for anyone interested in getting into comedy.”
Potts says he appears regularly at Catch a Rising Star, but that he also gets booked in other clubs in the New York-Philadelphia metro area. He also writes regularly and posts his work on his blog.
Things haven’t always been a barrel of laughs for Potts. On the force his own demons left him depressed and suicidal and eventually led him to become a police suicide counselor and trainer, where he worked to recognize signs in people who might be suicidal. He says he did that for 12 years.
“That’s just part of the job,” he says. “Police officers are trained to help everyone else, but if you’re a cop and ask for help you’re perceived as weak, so cops don’t do it. I don’t want to get dark here, but most comics have a dark side. Being onstage is a form of psychotherapy. You ask if I write about my police officer work. That’s why I don’t.
“There are a lot of things people see as a police officer that affect you,” he says. PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — affects police and military personnel alike, Potts says.
“I would tell any police officer that you can get out of it,” he says.
Leoncavallo wrote an entire opera about the leader of a comedy troupe who has his heart broken and then is driven to madness. The subject was plumbed through a much more superficial allusion in the timeless song by Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, “The Tears of a Clown.”
Can we call this one, “Tears of a Comic?”
“I think so,” Potts says. “When you do this job for a long time you realize there are issues that make people a better comic. It’s there. The demons are there. I’m an old man, but I’m a young comic. I’ve definitely learned from some great people. I’m like a sponge. I listen to whatever someone wants to tell me about comedy. The best thing about comedy is when you get offstage and are talking to other comics — there’s the stories, and you’re laughing with other comics.”
Potts notes that his entry into standup was gradual. “I was in a uniform for 32 years. I was managing a club where I was able to do material 10 minutes here and there while still a police officer. I did all the stuff you have to do when you’re starting out. You have to learn to perform, how to tell a story so it doesn’t sound like it’s rehearsed. Open mics.
“I just happen to be lucky. I’ve been put in touch with the right people. I do a lot of private shows, a lot of fund-raisers. There has to be some talent, but I’ve been lucky. And definitely thankful.”
Eric Potts, Catch a Rising Star, Hyatt Regency, West Windsor. Saturday, May 30, with Orlando Baxter, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., and Saturday, June 6, with James Goff, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.
Comedy Works, 1320 Newport Road, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Saturday and Sunday, June 12 and 13.
Uncle Vinnies Comedy Club, 518 Arnold Avenue Point Pleasant Beach. Wednesday and Thursday, June 17 and 18.
Tavern Trivia, Wildflowers Too, 255 Route 156, Yardville, Tuesdays, 7 p.m.
Tavern Trivia, Firkin Tavern, 1400 Parkway Avenue, Ewing, Thursdays, 6:30 p.m.
For more information, visit www.ericpotts.com.