is anyone who laughed uncomfortably at Taylor Tomlinson's “dead mom” jokes, her mother died of cancer when she was eight. (She used to tell friends that her parents were separated-what did they they were, she argued on stage, “for Jesus.”) Tomlinson's mother lived to be 34, a fact that always floated at the edge of her daughter's consciousness like some kind of cosmic deadline, leading her to reach milestones in her career. of comedy at an almost bizarre pace. “I worked on this a lot in therapy, my specific fear of dying at a specific age,” says Tomlinson, a few months after his 30th birthday.
She sits in the lobby of her Manhattan hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January, days before her debut as the only woman hosting a late-night television show. Last year, she had the seventh highest-grossing comedy tour in the world, selling almost 300,000 tickets for 132 shows – many more dates than the other comedians in the top 10, all of whom are middle-aged men. She is already in her third Netflix special, Have it all (which debuts today), and took over James Corden's former 12:30 pm slot on CBS with the Internet variety show After midnight, built around Tomlinson and rotating panels of comedians riffing on memes and other online detritus. (Choosing her as host was a no-brainer, says executive producer Stephen Colbert: “Taylor is funny. And a lovely person. And a leader. And a professional. And did I mention she’s funny as hell?”) In her spare time , Tomlinson and his writing partner, Taylor Tetreau, produce screenplays — they've sold several, including one based on Tomlinson's life.
“I was afraid of dying at 34,” she says, without discernible emotion. “OK, well, I did all the things I wanted to do before this. So I think maybe that's where some of the fear was alleviated. Because I think, 'Well, I ran — and it worked.'”
Though she's gotten a huge career boost from TikTok, where she has 2.6 million followers and what appears to be a constant presence in the FYPs of millions more, Tomlinson's comedy has a throwback quality. (TikTok fame is weird, anyway — young “fans” of the platform tend to approach it without actually knowing its name.) There’s an almost vaudevillian — or at least Johnny Carson-era — rigidity to the structures of its sets and on your delivery. She attributes some of that polish to the fact that she got her start in comedy as a teenager, on a religious circuit she long ago abandoned, along with her family's religiosity. “Starting so young, I felt like I needed to make the audience feel comfortable,” she says. “Because I felt like people were nervous for me. I didn’t want people to imagine they would be disappointed in someone who was a child.”
She used to spend hours practicing small details — how she greeted the audience, how she moved the microphone stand away — that seemed necessary to face an audience of hundreds as a high school student. “It was very premature,” she says. “But you had to get there with a different level of preparation. As opposed to a cool kid comedian from L.A. going out and smoking weed and then trying out some ideas in a coffee shop. That's not how I started. I just wasn’t nice.”
On this level, and many others, Tomlinson feels something in common with a hero of hers, Taylor Swift. “I know there was an interview with her where she said, 'I'm not cool or nervous, I work really hard.' And I feel that way too. At a certain point, you think, 'Look, I'm not one of the cool kids.' And I think knowing yourself in that way, accepting that and leaning into that is the best way to approach a creative career.”
She was, however, too nervous for the lucrative church circuit, which she mixed with standard comedy venues from the start. She realized she would have to leave him for good after a church fired her when she tweeted a rather mild sexual joke. (“I'm a wild animal in bed, I'm much more afraid of you than you are of me.”) Anyway, after growing up in a family so religious that her father forbade Super powerful girls because a character looked like Satan, she didn't even consider herself Christian. She attributes her loss of faith to her mother's death, when everyone around her who promised divine intervention in her illness started telling her that God has a reason for everything. “I didn’t like that answer,” Tomlinson deadpans, before sharing his eight-year-old realization of what you might call the central joke of the universe: “Anything can happen. You are not special or safe.”
Tomlinson was so sheltered that she had to Google “stand-up comedy” to find out what it was after seeing a random comedian in a YouTube clip — she had never seen anyone being funny on stage other than a youth pastor. She started doing her own stand-up after taking a comedy class with her father and immediately started doing it. “I don’t think I felt seen or heard as a kid,” Tomlinson says. “And getting people to see me and hear me and understand me is a big part of what drew me to comedy.”
There's also anger bubbling beneath the tension of Tomlinson's comedy, especially in his earlier work. “I think I have less anger now,” she says. “Because I was very lucky. And the more grateful you are, the less angry you become. Also, mood stabilizers.” In recent years, she hasn't hesitated to share details of her mental health issues on stage, from anxiety to a relatively recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder. (In her latest special, she reflected on trying to see the positive side of this latest development: “Am I hot and/or talented enough to be an inspiration?”)
His dad jokes are getting darker and darker. “If someone called me a whore in bed, I'd say, 'Excuse me, that's what my dad calls me,'” she says in her new special. About After midnight, she joked that comedians are competing for an unobtainable prize: “My dad’s approval.” In fact, Tomlinson and her three brothers have stopped speaking to him, although she doesn't want to go into details.
All of his brothers identify as gay, and Tomlinson, who has only dated men, acknowledges in his new special that he is beginning to have some doubts about his own sexuality. Other than that, though, she's feeling pretty “settled” as her thirties begin. “Thirty feels like, 'OK, that's me now,' which is what everyone told me 30 would be. And I am happy to report that this is the case.”
The CBS show is the first time in her life that she has had a real job, which she is still getting used to. “I have a badge,” she says. “I never walked into a studio with a badge. It was like, 'Hi, it's me. Last name is Tomlinson. And they say, 'We don't have you in the system.'” She also has a writers' room, which seems like pure luxury. “It's so funny to me when everyone says, 'You're so good at reading prompts,'” she says. “And I say, 'Great people have written me great jokes that I just have to tell.' I've been writing my own hour and a half worth of material that I have to do from memory. Like, this is amazing! What a cool show.
I think I'm less angry now… and the more grateful you are, the less angry you become. Also, mood stabilizers.
She is afraid of exaggerating her status as the only woman late at night, especially when people act as if this has never happened before, or that all previous women have somehow failed in this position. “I mean, Chelsea Handler was very popular,” she says. “Like, what are you talking about? Samantha Bee lasted seven seasons. I don't understand how everyone thinks, 'Oh, it didn't go well.' I don't think this is true. I struggle with the right balance of saying, 'It's really cool.' And also saying, 'Let's not make this into something like that.'” In any case, After midnight It's not even a talk show, so Tomlinson feels somewhat removed from the conversation.
She was hesitant to take the job until she learned that the show would only be taped three days a week, which would leave room to continue her relentless touring schedule. “This will never be something where I'm like, 'I don't tour anymore,'” she says. “Because the only reason anyone cares about me is that I do stand-up, that I got good at stand-up. And it gave me every opportunity I've ever had. And that’s what I like more than anything else.”
Plus, a show like After midnight, even if it is a huge success, it is no longer necessarily a decades-long commitment. “I have no idea how long this will last,” says Tomlinson. “I'm trying to predict the future less, because I've discovered that I can't. And this opportunity that came up was something that I was surprised I actually wanted.”
Another obvious direction for a hugely popular young comedian would be a semi-autobiographical comedy – but Tomlinson has already tried that. When she was in her early twenties, a development deal with ABC led to a pilot script that the network ended up not giving her the chance to do. “Thank God we didn’t,” she says, “because I would have run off the road.” She is most interested in films, although she finds the development process annoyingly slow.
There is another obvious possibility, however. Holding down the 12:30 time slot, even if it's not a standard talk show, inevitably opens the door to someday taking over one of the network's programs an hour earlier. Tomlinson seems genuinely shocked at the prospect. “I have no idea,” she says. “I didn’t think anything of it.” She pauses, and it's hard not to see a gleam of possibility in her blue eyes – maybe there are still some career milestones left to be achieved. “I didn’t really think about it – until you said that.”
Hair by KIKI HEITLOTTER at the THE WALL GROUP. Makeup by AMBER DREADON at the A BOARD. Styled by TARA SWENNEN at the WITH FALCON. Photographic assistance by ALEX MADEIRA. Photographed in THE ASTER, HOLLYWOOD.