Rolling Stone


The stand-up comic opens up about hosting After Midnight, conquering her fear of death, and idolizing Taylor Swift


AS ANYONE WHO’S laughed uncomforta­bly at Taylor Tomlinson’s “dead mom” jokes is well aware, her mother died of cancer when she was eight years old. (She used to tell friends her parents were separated — which they were, she argued onstage, “by Jesus.”) Tomlinson’s mom lived to be just 34 years old, a fact that’s always floated on the edge of her daughter’s consciousn­ess as a sort of cosmic deadline, pushing her to hit milestones in her comedy career at a nearly freakish pace. “I’ve done a lot of work on that in therapy, my specific fear of, like, dying at a specific age,” Tomlinson says, a couple of months after her own 30th birthday.

She’s sitting in the lobby of her Manhattan hotel on a Sunday afternoon in January, days before her debut as the only woman hosting a show on latenight television. Last year, she had the seventh-highest-grossing comedy tour in the world, selling nearly 300,000 tickets for 132 shows — far more dates than the other comedians in the top 10, all of whom are middle-aged men. She’s already on her third Netflix special, Have

It All, and has taken over James Corden’s old 12:30 a.m. slot on CBS with the very internet-y variety show After Midnight, built around Tomlinson and revolving panels of comedians riffing on memes and other online detritus. (Choosing her as a host was a no-brainer, says executive producer Stephen Colbert: “Taylor is funny. And a lovely person. And a leader. And a pro. And did I mention she’s fucking funny?”) In her spare time, Tomlinson and her writing partner, Taylor Tetreau, turn out screenplay­s — they’ve sold several, including one based on Tomlinson’s life.

“I was afraid I was gonna die at 34,” she says without noticeable emotion. “OK, well, I did all the things I wanted to do before then. So I think maybe that’s where some of the fear has been alleviated. Because I’m like, ‘Well, I sprinted — and it worked.’ ”

Though she’s gotten a huge career boost from TikTok, where she has 2.6 million followers and what seems to be a steady presence on the FYP’s of millions more, Tomlinson’s comedy has a throwback quality to it. (TikTok fame is weird — young “fans” from the platform tend to approach her, she says, without actually knowing her name.) There’s a nearly vaudevilli­an — or at least Johnny Carsonera — tightness to her sets’ structures and her delivery. She attributes some of that polish to starting off in comedy as a teenager, on a church circuit she’s long since abandoned, along with her family’s religiosit­y. “Starting so young, I felt that I needed to make the audience feel comfortabl­e,” she says. “Because I felt people being nervous for me. I didn’t want people to anticipate being disappoint­ed by someone who was a child.”

She used to spend hours practicing tiny details as a high schooler: “It was very premature. But you had to come at it with a different level of preparatio­n. As opposed to a cool L.A. comedian kid, hanging out and smoking weed and then trying a few ideas in a coffee shop. That wasn’t the way I started. I just wasn’t cool.”

On that level, and many others, Tomlinson feels a commonalit­y with a hero of hers, Taylor Swift. “I know there’s an interview with her where she was like, ‘I’m not cool or edgy, I work really hard.’ And I feel that way, too. At a certain point, you go, ‘Look, I’m not one of the cool kids.’ And I think knowing yourself in that way, and accepting that, and leaning into it is the best way to approach a creative career.”

She was, however, way too edgy for the lucrative church circuit, which she mixed in with standard comedy venues early on. She realized she had to abandon it forever after a church fired her when she tweeted a pretty mild sex joke. (“I’m a wild animal in bed, way more afraid of you than you of me.”) In any case, after growing up in a family so religious that her dad banned Powerpuff Girls because a character looked like Satan, she didn’t even consider herself a Christian. She traces her loss of faith to her mom’s death, when everyone around her who had been promising divine interventi­on in her illness shifted to telling her that God has a reason for everything. ”I didn’t like that answer,” Tomlinson says, deadpan, before sharing her realizatio­n, at age eight, of what you could call the central joke of the universe: “Anything can happen. You’re 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’d never seen anyone being funny onstage who wasn’t a youth pastor. She started doing her own stand-up after taking a comedy class with her dad, and instantly took to it. “I don’t think I felt seen or heard as a kid,” Tomlinson says. “And getting people to see and hear and understand me is a big part of what drew me to comedy.”

There’s also anger bubbling under the tautness of Tomlinson’s comedy, especially her earlier work. “I think I have less anger now,” she says. “Because I’ve been really lucky. And the more grateful you are, the less angry you are. Plus, mood stabilizer­s.” She hasn’t hesitated to share details of her mental-health issues, from anxiety to a relatively recent diagnosis of bipolar disorder. (She mused onstage about trying to look on the bright side of the latter developmen­t: “Am I hot and/or talented enough to be an inspiratio­n?”)

Her jokes about her dad have gotten increasing­ly dark. “If someone called me a whore in bed, I’d be like, ‘Excuse me, that’s what my father calls me,’ ” she says in her new special. On After Midnight, she’s joked that the comedians are competing for an impossible-to-obtain prize: “My father’s approval.” In fact, Tomlinson and her three siblings have stopped speaking to him, though she doesn’t want to go into the details.

All of her siblings identify as queer, and Tomlinson, who’s dated only men, acknowledg­es in her new special that she’s starting to have some doubts about her own sexuality. Other than that, though, she’s feeling pretty “settled” as her thirties begin. “Thirty feels like, ‘OK, I’m me now,’ which is what everyone told me 30 would be like. And I’m happy to report that it is the case.”

The CBS show is the first time in her life that she’s had an actual job, which she’s still getting used to. “I have a badge,” she says. “I’ve never gone into a [studio] lot with a badge. It’s just been like, ‘Hi, it’s me. Last name is Tomlinson.’ And they’re like, ‘We don’t have you in the system.’” She also has a writers’ room, which feels like pure luxury. “It’s so funny to me when everybody’s like, ‘You’re so good at reading prompters,’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘Great people wrote me great jokes that I just have to deliver.’ I’ve been writing my own hour and a half of material that I have to do from memory. Like, this is awesome! What a sweet gig.”

She’s wary of overhyping her onlywoman-in-late-night status, especially when people act like it’s never happened before, or that all previous women somehow failed in that slot. “I mean, Chelsea Handler was very popular,” she says. “Like, what are you talking about? Samantha Bee went for seven seasons. I don’t get [how] everyone’s like, ‘Oh, it hasn’t gone well.’ I don’t think that’s true. I struggle with the right balance of being like, ‘It’s very cool.’ And also being like, ‘Let’s not make this such a thing.’ ” In any case, After Midnight isn’t even a talk show, so Tomlinson feels somewhat apart from the conversati­on.

She was hesitant about taking on the job until she learned the show would only tape three days a week, which would leave room to continue her relentless touring schedule. “That’s never going to be a thing where I’m just like, ‘I don’t tour anymore,’” she says. “Because the only reason anybody cares about me is that I do stand-up, that I got good at stand-up. And that has gotten me every opportunit­y I’ve ever had. And it’s the thing I like more than anything else.”

Plus, a show like After Midnight, even if it’s wildly successful, isn’t necessaril­y a decades-long commitment. “I have no idea how long this will go,” Tomlinson says.

“I’m trying to predict the future less, because I figured out I can’t. And this opportunit­y coming up was something I was surprised that I really wanted.”

Another obvious direction for a wildly popular young comedian would be a semi-autobiogra­phical sitcom — but Tomlinson already tried that. When she was in her early twenties, a developmen­t deal at ABC led to a pilot script that the network didn’t end up giving her a chance to make. “Thank God, we didn’t,” she says, “because I would have been off the road.” She’s more interested in movies, though she finds the developmen­t process maddeningl­y slow.

There’s another obvious possibilit­y, though. Holding down the 12:30 a.m. slot, even if it’s not a standard talk show, inevitably opens the door for someday taking over one of the network shows an hour earlier. Tomlinson seems genuinely shocked at the idea. “I have no idea,” she says. “I have not thought about any of that.” She pauses, and it’s hard not to see a gleam of possibilit­y in her eyes — maybe there are still some career milestones left to hit. “I truly have not thought about that at all — until you said it.”


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