Taylor Tomlinson was originally booked for this cover for her almost unthinkable rise from teen on the Christian comedy circuit to multiple theater show headliner-on-the-verge-of-arenas. Two Netflix specials – “Quarter-Life Crisis” and “Look At You” – during the pandemic lockdown lobbed the pony-tailed comedian to a level of awareness through an Every(young)woman connection that crossed generations. But, still …
“Until I got ‘Quarter-Life Crisis,’ which came out and then COVID hit, it was hard to say what would’ve happened without the lockdown,” Tomlinson mused on a Saturday afternoon from somewhere on the road. “I’d started wondering. ‘Should I go back to school?’ Because you just never know.”
Never knowing, indeed. Never mind that the singular Judi Marmel, a manager who cut her teeth as an HBO comedy scout and aggressively career-building artist advocate, signed on to help navigate her trajectory and create opportunities.
Tomlinson was talking about, “I’ve been lucky. I’ve had a lot of opportunities early. Getting signed by someone like Judi was a real stroke of luck … and I know it.”
And then the news broke…
Taylor Tomlinson, with her bright, shiny “best Christmas present ever” face, was going to host CBS’ “After Midnight,” a late night show to follow “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Replacing “The Late, Late Show with James Corden,” she becomes the only woman hosting a major network program, as well as at 30 years old, the youngest host by almost two decades.
But on this Saturday afternoon, Tomlinson is blithely tracking her comedy evolution, audience identification and the dreams that came true well ahead of schedule. There’s no mention of “the big TV moment,” because she doesn’t believe that’s part of her future. Or she’s not one to gossip and jinx her shot.
It doesn’t matter. With or without “After Midnight,” Tomlinson is the kind of comic who embodies a certain zeitgeist, voicing the inner turmoil, doubts or rage of the unseen and unrecognized in a way that’s personal and dynamic. Yes, she’s a headliner, who’s sold out two Radio City Music Halls, with a 2024 Madison Square Garden play on the books, but she could just as easily be one of the young women who’ve come to have a cathartic laugh at their shared foibles, or one of the young men trying to navigate a world where the definitions are changing rapidly.
“I’ve had girls tell me they’ve shown my special to guys on a date as a test,” she confesses, “which I think is awesome.”
Tomlinson was raised in Temecula, California, best described as conservative. Her mother died when she was 8, a tough age. For the extraordinarily buoyant comedian, that loss hit hard. By her mid-teens, her father signed her up for a comedy workshop – run by a family-friendly, Christian-based comic – and a star was hatched.
At 16, she was opening for Christian comics – “basically there’s a church circuit of seven or so men in their 40s and 50s” – learning the craft. Along the way, she also picked up corporate gigs, cruises, and colleges, all places that need the jokes clean.
“I grew up so Christian, I had a lot of fear of disappointing my family. I was sheltered and hadn’t casually dated. Even when I went into (mainstream) clubs, I sounded way more fun than I was.”
A relatively innocent tweet – “I’m like a wild animal in bed: I promise I am more afraid of you than you are of me” – saw her removed from a gig. It was a turning point. At 22, she drew a line in the sand. “I didn’t feel honest. I wanted to talk about other things.”
With the religious shackles removed, Tomlinson’s uncensored and uproarious humor has gone places even few secular comedians dare tread, including:
A bad haircut and psilocybin:
“Here’s what I did. I got bangs and then two days later, I did mushrooms for the first time. And as soon as I did those mushrooms, I was like, ‘I should’ve done these first. Probably wouldn’t have gotten these bangs if I forgave myself, huh?’”
Her mental health:
“So after a really bad breakup a few years ago, I finally took a long hard look at myself and said, ‘Okay, Taylor, five out of five dudes all think that in fights, you behave like a raccoon trapped in a trash bag.’ So maybe it’s time to get some Klonopin or a rabies shot.”
Her family-friendly appearance:
“I’m trying to have a fun, sexy fling, which usually doesn’t go great for me because I have this round, wholesome face that people think they should build a life with. Every time I’m like, ‘We could bone or whatever,’ guys are like, ‘No, I’m alright, but you can meet my mom. Do you want to do that? You seem better at meeting my mom than having sex.’ They are not wrong.”
It’s that candor and her unique twist on things that’s propelled her up the comedy ladder.
Between her stint on “Last Comic Standing” and 15 minutes that killed on “The Comedy Line-Up,” Marmel’s sense there was something going on and UTA’s Nick Nuciforo strategically moving her through clubs and small theaters, her self-effacing quips with enough zingers to poke even the most stone-faced among us delivered on every opportunity created.
If going from 15 minutes to an hour seems impossible, the manager believes in matching the moment instead of the convention. Marmel, the co-founder and president of Levity Live, explains, “She was so wildly talented, such well-written material and she has this amazing presence about her…
“We were talking about what comes next, what should she do. She was thinking about going for a 30 (minute)…”
Tomlinson continues, “And Judi said, ‘Let’s send Netflix your hour. We’ll see what they do.’ She’s so very thoughtful, and respected, she’s the reason people would look at 60 minutes.”
“Quarter-Life Crisis,” the 2020 special taped when Tomlinson was 25, saw the young woman who came of age, finding herself “around all kinds of people” in America’s comedy clubs creating a startling truthful package of comedy that was confessional, brash but gobsmacked. What might be vulgar for someone else was kind of sweet coming from her mouth.
And even though people were in lockdown, between TikTok and the year leading up to the release, she forged a relationship with her audience. She remembers, “After the first special, it was a lot of young women, a lot of girls nights out. I tend to keep the house pretty dark, because if I see too many people, I tend to freak out.
“But with ‘Look At You,’ the audience is a little more mixed, more men and definitely more introverted, introspective and nervous. My Instagram analytics say it’s pretty even now.”
Part of “Look at You” delves into her diagnosis as bipolar, something she at first found shame in. Knowing she wouldn’t judge a friend with that diagnosis, she began working the material around mental health into her sets.
“I am fully medicated now. Anybody else? Antidepressants? Medication? Yeah. Nice. What are we on? Shout it out,” she says during 2022’s “Look At You.” “Zoloft, Lexapro. Oh! Look at us. Gang’s all here!”
The impact was powerful. Beyond destigmatizing what many Americans think you should snap out of, the sparkling eyed comic created a place where people laughed about – instead of at – something that can have a devastating life impact.
“I don’t know any other artist who asks her audience, ‘What meds are you on?’ And they all shout them out. You hear ’em all. She’s very honest about her mental health and putting it out there,” Marmel says. “Those pieces about her mental health are funny, so it helps people cope.”
Nuciforo concurs about the power of her punchline-based truth-telling. “Taylor has a genuine message to convey, and her willingness to be candid about her own challenges is contributing to the normalization of mental health issues for countless individuals. It’s an act of courage and empowerment. Taylor’s perspective is both authentic and rooted in her own unique experiences. She’s a true original – no one else can replicate what she’s accomplishing.”
Wide-eyed, with the face of a ’30s screen siren, Tomlinson is more concerned with not letting people down. As a writer, she intends to write what she knows. As an entertainer, she’s committed to making sure people go home feeling connected and seen, but also lighter.
“All comedy is releasing tension,” she explains, “which we’re all walking around with. What I am experiencing is just reality. Losing a parent, a mental health diagnosis, those are complicated feelings. That’s what I’m talking about, things I’ve been working through for me – and a lot of other people are, too.”
Nuciforo finds that passion almost uncanny: “Her devoted fans consistently return, often bringing friends along, because they deeply connect with her as an artist. Taylor’s performances provide a safe haven for her audience, especially for those who may feel voiceless in their own struggles. Watching her show, they not only burst into laughter but also experience being part of a greater community. Her comedy provides the audience a platform to express and understand themselves.”
To that end, her touring schedule, while rigorous, is also designed to support her mental health and self-care. The strategy of multiple nights in a single market “to shield her from the rigors of constant travel,” Nuciforo explains is giving way to arena-centric touring in 2024 “to alleviate the strain of performing two shows nightly for so many days in a row, because of her ability to sell out four or more large theaters in each markets.”
Marmel, too, is impressed by Tomlinson’s growth. “She’s sold out two Radio City Music Halls, a 2024 Red Rocks, a Madison Square Garden – and that’s not from a TV show or a film. Nobody’s doing this kind of business off two Netflix specials, they’re not.
“But with Taylor, people feel seen and accepted, even understood. That was an audience who was out there, and they were very underserved for this moment in time. No one was speaking about these things, and watching her (evolve) I walked away saying ‘She could be the voice of her generation.’ She’s very much her own person, from a place of ‘this is what I’m thinking, what this made me feel.’
“She’s very revealing without making it about her.”
“I was really introverted and scared, but I liked performing,” Tomlinson says. “I couldn’t really sing or dance, but I liked acting and didn’t really know how to do it. I was someone growing up in the suburbs, going, ‘I don’t know.’”
She found podcasts, and her future. “I remember going, ‘Holy shit! They’re telling me everything I need to know. There are lots of ways to do stand-up!’ When I want to do something, I need to feel really prepared; I want to know the steps.
“When I was younger, nobody was really watching. My mid-20s, I was really scared, ‘Is this what I want? Can I handle the pressure of all the stuff that comes with it?’ Because (with the specials) I’m laying it all out there.
“I felt great about the material. I felt great about the show. But then there’s that six weeks between when you shoot and it debuts, the uncertainty of it all creeps in …”
She laughs. At this point, the reality of how much her confessional seeming stream-of-consciousness self-probing impacts the audience is something she’s aware of. She’s grateful to be able to help, to make people feel better, less isolated or able to seek help.
Not that she’s on a mission.
“Having It All,” which drops in 2024, seems to be truer than anyone could’ve reckoned six months ago. Between being a rallying point for Millennials and Gen Z as a top comedy draw and night-time host, Tomlinson has blown so far past her dream of having a special by 30, she’d get whiplash lookin back.
“Taylor is exactly who she presents to be,” Marmel explains of the response. “She doesn’t have to shove (a persona) down your throat. She presents as she is, and a lot of people find someone they can see themselves in as well.”