Onstage with a mic in her hand, Taylor Tomlinson is shameless. She jokes confidently about her sex life, mental illness and her mother’s death from cancer when she was 8. What might seem unremarkable — a stand-up comedian making light of the dark and dirty — is anything but for someone who was raised in a shame-based religious culture.
“Growing up that way, you do become such a people pleaser,” Tomlinson said, “because all of your self-worth is derived from being, like, a good kid, and being somebody God’s going to be proud of. I am still uncomfortable with it, and I am so, so scared of disappointing people, and I’m so scared of people disapproving of me. I’m working on it.”
She works a lot of her internal discomforts out in her new Netflix special, “Look at You,” which premieres Tuesday and doubles down on material that would have disqualified her from her early gigs on the Christian comedy circuit. But at 28, she’s still much the same “old” Taylor: a little sarcastic, a little jaded, empathetically in tune with her audience — and wise beyond her years.
“When I was writing comedy in my 20s, I hadn’t yet figured out what was interesting about myself,” said comedian Pete Holmes. “But Taylor does it in real time. She’s like a streaming service — like, how is it coming in so quickly? Why are you able to live your life and be the narrator of your life simultaneously?”
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Tomlinson has been performing stand-up since she was 16, when her dad signed up for a class with her near their home in Temecula as a bonding experience. After several years honing her skills in the Christian world, she started doing clubs, and before long she was opening for Brian Regan, earning a featured slot on “Last Comic Standing” and doing late-night sets.
In a 2017 appearance on “Conan,” she joked about her dad’s unprogressive views on gay marriage and his strict emphasis on “abstaining from drugs and alcohol and sex and enjoyment.” As an adult, she went on, she’s still sexually conservative: “Not that I’m bad at sex, OK? I’ll have you know, in bed I am a wild animal. Way more afraid of you than you are of me.”
Tame stuff for most comics, but the third rail for a kid from an evangelical Christian home.
“The first six years,” Tomlinson said, “I was, like, squeaky clean — I could still perform in churches very easily. And then about six years ago I was like: I don’t want to be boxed into this anymore.”
Her friend Dustin Nickerson, who opens for Tomlinson on the road and has known her for a decade, also hails from the Christian comedy scene.
“You ever have a couple friend, and they’re in a relationship, and you know it’s going to end pretty soon?” Nickerson said. “That’s how I felt with Taylor and church gigs. I was like: They’re going to break up soon. This doesn’t have a long-term trajectory.”
Remaining a Christian comic would have been a safer and potentially lucrative choice, Nickerson explained. “Christians can be a bit of a judgy group and are quick to tell you,” he said. “So I know it’s been hard. But it is very admirable that she decided ‘this is who I want to be on and off stage,’ and her comedy is better for it because it’s genuine.”
Tomlinson is the oldest of four girls. She jokes in her special that she was “an ugly kid with honest parents” and says she became an emotional eater — probably because she was in the middle of a bagel when she found out her mother died. She’s been slowly folding in bits about that formative trauma over the years, but she surfs a full six-minute wave of “dead mom jokes” in “Look at You.”
“Do you think I’d be this successful, at my age, with a live mom?” she says while assuring the audience it’s OK for them to laugh during this portion of the show. “She’s in heaven, I’m on Netflix — it all worked out.”
“That is a real thing I said in therapy,” she adds as the applause dies down.
Therapy plays a major role in the special. Tomlinson destigmatizes mental illness as just another human trait, like not being able to swim, and equates taking medication to wearing arm floaties in the pool. She recounts her history with depression — doing a very funny impression of her brain during panic attacks — and reveals that she recently discovered she has bipolar disorder.
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“People are tackling harder subjects now on stage,” she said, “in part because, with the internet, everything’s been done. So if you’re just doing observational comedy or political comedy, it is really hard to come up with a take or an angle that nobody else has done.”
Still, she’s nervous to reveal her diagnosis to the world.
“I’m like: Oh, you can’t take that back afterward,” she said. “I’m embarrassed that I feel that way, because it feels very judgmental, and if I’m judging myself then how is that not judging other people?”
Growing up, nobody in her life talked about getting professional help for depression.
“You’re like, ‘I have a chemical imbalance in my brain,’” she said, “and they’re like, ‘No, Satan has your brain in a cage.’”
That internalized shame still rears its head, but Tomlinson finally has a good therapist and the right mood stabilizers to feel some calm and stability.
Less stable is her relationship with her father. Cracks had been forming since the time around that “Conan” set and broke wider after her first Netflix special, “Quarter-Life Crisis,” which came out in March 2020 just as the pandemic hit.
Sitting in a booth at the Hollywood Improv before a recent set, Tomlinson got quiet and chose her words carefully.
“I think that if you are a very conservative Christian parent, and your kid deviates from what is so important to you, that is very painful,” she said. “And then it’s probably 100 times more painful when they are a public figure, for lack of a better term. I hate referring to myself as a public figure, but, you know ... we got the blue checkmark.”
Even when she’s navigating painful waters, she can’t help but find the humor.
“My extended family was very cool and nice and supportive,” she continued, “and so were my siblings, who I’m very close to. My dad, as far as I know, did not watch it. And we, at this point in our lives, do not really have a relationship. It’s something that makes me very sad.”
Comedy is all about getting as close to crossing “the line” as possible, Nickerson said, and “the line she dances on is, ‘How much sad part of my story can I share with you, and you not start to feel sorry for me? But understand that I’m on the other side of this, and I’m working through it, and we can laugh about it.’”
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Tomlinson is developing a film with Depth of Field, the production company behind “The Farewell.” It’s mostly about the death of her mother and how she’s processed that grief, and although not a literal biopic, it will be emotionally true to her story.
In it, she’ll play a version of herself. Slipping into a mock under-her-breath voice, she said: “You have to say that so they’ll let you play yourself. Because otherwise they’re like, ‘We should get a real actor.’”
It’s not all sadness in her act, where her wit and pinpoint delivery reveal both an incisive writer and also a talented actor. But her fast-growing fan base — she headlines theaters now — clearly resonates with how she’s metabolized the shame of Christian purity culture and other painful legacies of her past into a new, hilarious energy.
“If there’s anything I can tell you from being an ex-vangelical comedian with a podcast,” said Holmes, who had a similar upbringing, “thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people in my career have been like, ‘You’re talking about my life.’”
“I want there to be reconciliation with her and her father,” Holmes added, “but while there isn’t and she’s in those gritty, prodigal son years, we’re going to benefit from that, and there’s going to be a lot more healing and more love from that than there is from this two-person conflict. And that sort of seems to be how the universe works. I mean, that’s what resurrection is.”
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