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Taylor Tomlinson: A Comic With the Confidence of a Star

The moment I knew that the stand-up comic Taylor Tomlinson was going to be a star was not after she made the precociously funny debut special, “Quarter-Life Crisis,” at the age of 25. Or her assured follow-up, “Look at You,” which premiered on Netflix this week. Or even after the news that she’s writing and starring in a movie about her own life (directed by Paul Weitz).

It was the minute after the comic Whitney Cummings insulted her bangs.

This took place on Cummings’s podcast, one of two freewheeling episodes that Tomlinson, now 28, appeared on during the pandemic that were also filmed and released on YouTube. For most of their chummy conversations, Tomlinson appeared polite, deferential, even in awe of her friend and mentor, a more seasoned stand-up, writer and television star. But when Cummings offhandedly suggested her protégé might need help from a stylist with her new haircut, the temperature in the room plummeted.

“Are you serious?” Tomlinson asked, shooting a look that jarred the voluble Cummings into juddering paralysis. Tomlinson diagnosed the insult as a disingenuous play for content and calmly told Cummings to stop. Then came the counterpunch. Shifting from her friend to the camera, she told a story of pitching a television show with Cummings that described her, brutally, as an underminer. Tomlinson wrapped up this entertaining story with a compliment, saying she learned how to stand up to Cummings from Cummings. Along with teaching a lesson that it’s always best to tread carefully when commenting on a new hairstyle, Tomlinson displayed steel, poise, showmanship and a willingness to get tensely uncomfortable, which can help turn a good joke into a great one. More than anything, she showed a commanding ability to quickly pivot without fluster. Small talk can reveal big things.

The bangs were gone by the time Tomlinson shot “Look at You,” but it did not escape my notice that after an arty opening shot of her all alone in the audience, she began her set with jokes about them. “It’s been a rough couple years,” she said, setting up expectations of talk about the pandemic. “I got bangs at one point.”

This new hour has the confidence to start slowly but build, anchored by three or four superb extended bits. Tomlinson has emerged as one of the youngest comics with multiple Netflix hours because of tight joke writing, carefully honed act-outs and a ruthless appetite for laughs. With a quick smile and wide, alert eyes, her comic persona leans into a wholesome, cheerful affect, a Christian upbringing and impeccably basic cultural references (Harry Potter, Taylor Swift). This provides a solid backdrop for incongruously dark swivels, sometimes accompanied by the kind of shimmies Steph Curry does after hitting a shot near half court.

Her gift is making weighty subjects come off as breezy. There’s no way a special that covers night terrors, panic attacks, bipolar disorder, a dead mother and a disturbingly blunt father, along with suicidal thoughts, should seem this delightful. That requires skill and savvy. Take her six-minute chunk on her mother dying young. These jokes are carefully massaged, contextualized and accented to work for any crowd, and among her strategies to lighten the mood is arguing that it’s OK to laugh because the death of her mother helped her career.

“Do you think I’d be this successful at my age if I had a live mom?” she asks, flashing the kind of condescending disappointment given to someone ordering lobster at a diner. “She’s in heaven. I’m on Netflix. It all worked out.”

Tomlinson has a people pleaser’s ability to ingratiate. In her new special, she says she looks like someone who would be better at meeting your mother than at sex. “I’ll meet your mom all night long,” she boasts. But to get a laugh, she’s just as happy to play the jerk. “Lot of my friends are settling down,” she says. “Some are just settling.”

Tomlinson taped her first special after a breakup with her fiancé. Since then, she has clearly spent many hours with a therapist, which makes its way into many jokes. Ever since Maria Bamford dug into the subject of mental health, it has been explored thoroughly in stand-up, particularly in the last year or two, and we may be reaching the point of exhaustion. And Tomlinson occasionally risks veering into a kind of comedy that doesn’t fully digest and transform therapy into jokes.

And yet, the strength of her best bits is the specificity and depth of her analysis of her own psychology. There are few jokes with the classical structure breaking down the difference between men and women, but more investigation into her own eccentric personality. She attributes her tendency to rush into relationships as a reaction to her mother’s dying so early in her life, and builds many jokes out of her trust issues, including a wonderfully performed series of punch lines about how she interprets any kindness from a boyfriend as a tactic. “Oh, is this your move?” is her refrain, about everything from opening the car door to staying together for six decades.

Her first special was a portrait of a young fogy, but this new one zeros in on her self-protective cynicism and exaggerates it until it’s an absurd cartoon. The funniest parts of these jokes are in the subtext, how Tomlinson performs knowingness in a way that can be truly clueless. But unlike many comics who find laughs in saying the wrong thing, her act never comes off as character comedy. It’s a testament to her acting ability that even when you know she’s presenting a deluded version of herself, you buy it.

For a comic her age, Tomlinson is remarkably nimble, able to pivot from light to dark, innocent to dirty, chummy to aggressive. Whatever gets the laugh. If there is something missing from her comic tool kit, it might be a certain vulnerability. She can push right past that, and understandably so. She’s dealing with grave issues, like a parent’s death or a wounding comment, and her emotional armor needs to be thick. Notably, she allows it to get a little thinner when it comes to more modest concerns like, well, her bangs. It’s in that bit that she sits in insecurity.

“Having bangs is exactly like being on mushrooms,” she says. “The whole time you’re like: Do I look weird?”

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