The Off-Trend Comedian

Taylor Tomlinson’s old-school act is a hit onstage and on TikTok. And she’s only getting bigger.

Photo: Sara Messinger for New York Magazine
Photo: Sara Messinger for New York Magazine

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Taylor Tomlinson came to comedy through church. She grew up in an intensely Christian conservative family in Temecula, California — the kind that forbids kids from seeing Harry Potter movies because the Dementors were too close to biblical devils. Taylor was 8 when her mother died, and her faith in the Lord began to wane. At 16, as a bonding activity, her father signed them up for a six-week stand-up-comedy class led by a family-friendly, church-crowd-approved comedian named Nazareth. Taylor barely knew what stand-up was, but it came naturally to her. She told jokes about her family, her body, and how much prettier she thought all her sisters were with a sarcasm that took her teacher aback. “I told her dad, ‘Listen, this young lady has a career,’ ” says Nazareth (whose full name, he insists, is Nazareth). After that first course, she signed up for another one, and by the end of it, Nazareth had asked her to start opening for him — mostly church crowds, some of them numbering in the thousands.

“My goal was to have a Netflix special by the time I was 30,” says Tomlinson, 28, whose second special on the platform, Look at You, debuted this month. Tomlinson works with the intensity of someone who learned early that life can be short. Once she decided to have a performing career, she went into it full tilt. In college, she moved away from family-friendly comedy, chafing against “staying clean.” (Her breaking point came when someone asked her to cut a joke about how she is a “wild animal” in bed, even though the sexually tame punch line is: “I’m way more afraid of you than you are of me.”) “She was coming up in the churches, and none of us had ever heard of her,” recalls comedian Brian Simpson, who befriended Tomlinson while doing open mics in San Diego. “No one is surprised that out of our group of friends, she blew up first.” Eventually, she dropped out of school to do a series of gigs at colleges around the country. By 21, she had been cast on the TV series Last Comic Standing, and by 23, ABC had developed an unaired pilot for a sitcom based on her life. As a touring comedian, Tomlinson now sells out theaters with an audience she has cultivated onstage and online, particularly through her hugely popular TikTok presence.

Her stand-up can feel a bit like watching a multi-cam sitcom right at the moment single-cam comedies have become the trend. Comedians like Bo Burnham, Hannah Gadsby, and James Acaster have made it cool to spit the audience’s approval back in its face, to lace performance with screeds against performativity. Specials like Natalie Palamides’s Nate or Drew Michael’s Red Green Blue are deconstructions of the form. Tomlinson’s work, by contrast, is an old-school hour presented by a person happy to be putting on a show, like the coolest youth pastor on the fellowship team. It is the grown version of theater-kid showmanship, full of well-practiced act-outs and written with a tightness that the comedian Whitney Cummings, her friend and collaborator, calls “Catskills precision.” It’s a defiantly traditionalist approach to stand-up, but Tomlinson’s openness about mental health, grief, and sexuality gives her work the weightiness of the current strain of comedy, which values truth and vulnerability.

Tomlinson has the type of face that leads people to underestimate her, to react with surprise when a sharp section about suicidal ideation sneaks in amid material about dating these days. Onstage, her look is aggressively casual yet smoothed to within an inch of its life with her big lashes, bouncy blonde ponytail, skinny jeans, and short, feminine leather jacket. Cummings variously describes her as “cherubic,” “a Mad Men secretary,” “like one of the wives in Cold Mountain,” and “like an actual angel painted on the Sistine Chapel.” When we meet in person, she is sporting a toned-down version of her usual look: the same ponytail and skinny jeans, but adapted for a day wandering around Manhattan in February. She splits her time between Los Angeles and New York, and she is still trying to figure out how to dress here, she tells me. She is still trying to figure out New York, period—we end up wandering the gilded bookcases at the Morgan Library in part out of the touristy impulse to see a real New York place.

Tomlinson jokingly compares herself to Taylor Swift — her extensive material on ex-boyfriends, she suggests, sounds like a Swift set list. In her new special, she compares the Old Testament to a Swift album. “ ‘You don’t believe in me?’ ” she asks, as Swift/God, before cursing humanity with snakes, capping it off with coy Swiftian dance choreography to the line “Look what you made me do.” “I’m a 20-something white woman,” Tomlinson concludes. “Obviously, I’m gonna compare T. Swift to the Lord.” The parallels between Tomlinson and Swift are obvious. They are try-hards, both of them, whose material speaks to 20-somethings living through the trials of young adulthood. Watching Tomlinson gives you the same comfort as a Swift concert or a Broadway show that’s been on for years. This is a professional. This performance will be ultraproduced. You do not need to be anxious.

Tomlinson is more subdued than the presence she projects onstage. She is noticeably cautious and chooses her words carefully. “I wish I were better at observational or political or social commentary, and I’m just not,” she says when I ask why she hasn’t branched out more into political comedy. “I’m just very like — what’s going on in my life right now? What, in my experience and personally, do I feel like I have some authority to talk about?” It’s not that she’s worried about alienating an audience. “Especially with the internet now,” she says, “there is no such thing as being unrelatable.” Tomlinson has 1.5 million followers on TikTok. Within the world of that app, which pushes videos into your feed based on its algorithmic pre-assessment of what you’ll like, she is absolutely correct: There is no such thing as being unrelatable. It is a feed defined by what you’re most drawn to in the world, as long as it’s already being created or shared by others. “The people who work hard and write polished jokes are shining,” Cummings tells me. “You can be more conversational in a club or live venue but not on socials. Everyone’s attention span is so short that you need tight jokes.”

Tomlinson has a distinctive enough voice that her work does not feel like a hacky retread of TikTok bits: Her audience cares about her and wants to know what’s happening in her life. At the same time, she is shaped by the language and ideas she finds online. There is a line in her new special about thinking about yourself as the main character, which is a common TikTok idea (“main-character syndrome”) that toggles between aspiration and mockery. The line was cut from the special’s final edit, but it seems key to how Tomlinson thinks about herself. “It’s this idea that you have to walk around picturing yourself as the main character in a movie. And act like you are. And approach life that way,” she says. It is easy to make fun of, but it appeals to her. “This is an obstacle I, the main character, am overcoming.

Onstage, she is arch about that level of intense self-consideration; in person, she comes off as anxious and sincere. As we circle the museum, peering at exhibits and paging through coffee-table books in the gift shop, I wait for the kind of self-deprecating wisecracks she often uses defensively when she’s performing. I ask, for instance, if there are things she’d say no to in her career. “Probably dating Ariana Grande,” Tomlinson says, which makes me chuckle — I assume she’s about to make a joke about Pete Davidson, one of the few comedians Tomlinson’s age who is even more famous than she is. But her face is serious: It seems scary, she says, to become a celebrity that fast.

Her ascent to fame may have been more controlled, but Tomlinson is clearly on the way up. She recently co-wrote and sold a movie based on her life to Village Roadshow centering on her relationships with her siblings and their shared experience of grief. The movie, she says, is a side project, as is the podcast and her TikTok presence. The only thing she really cares about has been getting to a point where she can sell out theaters and keep touring. Theaters are another space where relatability is not an issue — it gives her the freedom to speak to an audience that came to see her and is already invested in her work. She’s been working to build an audience that will be open to the material she includes in Look at You. Much of her new special is about her bipolar diagnosis, her mother’s death, and her ongoing experiences with therapy and medication. “I tried to do jokes about my mom dying much earlier,” Tomlinson says. There’s one joke about how she used to lie and tell people her parents were separated. (“Well, they were!” the joke continues. “By Jesus.”) She wrote it at 21 or 22, but it’s only been in the past few years that she could make it work for an audience: “I wasn’t mature enough as a performer, and I wasn’t comfortable with myself.”

There is one line in Look At You that stands out for how it reflects back on Tomlinson. She is building up to her run of material about her mother’s death, and she slips out of relatable, Everywoman mode. “I know dead-mom jokes make people uncomfortable. And if you are uncomfortable … I don’t know what to say. You should’ve worked harder so it was you up here.” The punch line gets a huge laugh, but it’s also Tomlinson at her most serious. She has worked her entire adult life for this, and she demands her fans see her as good at it; great, even. Something that nakedly ambitious could have a girlboss emptiness to it if it weren’t also true. For a brief second, she is defiantly inaccessible. Then she pivots back. “No,” she says, “I would never want you to be uncomfortable.”

Taylor Tomlinson’s Off-Trend Comedy