Taylor Tomlinson started performing stand-up at church shows when she was just 16 years old. Now, at 27, she is one of the fastest-rising stars in the comedy scene, with a popular hour-long special on Netflix called Quarter-Life Crisis and a new nationwide theater tour this fall.
As Tomlinson shares on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, she had to make a hard break from her religious upbringing to be accepted into the mainstream comedy world, trading in her “clean” material for jokes with a “darker” edge.
When I connect with Tomlinson on Zoom, she’s just returned to New York City after the first weekend of her biggest headlining tour ever.
“I did my first show in Minneapolis on Thursday and I was just floating over my body the whole time, because I was like, ‘This has been in my head for so long,’” she tells me. “This is just something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time. So it’s bizarre to be inside your dream. It’s like having a crush on somebody for years and then they ask you to prom and you’re just slow-dancing, like, ‘Am I going to wake up? Is this a prank?’ It just doesn't feel real.”
Tomlinson was already 10 years into her stand-up career when she broke through in a big way with Quarter-Life Crisis. It just so happened, however, that the special premiered on Netflix the first week of March 2020, which made it harder than she ever could have anticipated to capitalize on the exposure it brought.
“On the one hand you had my agent going, ‘It’s a great time to have a special right now. People are just watching literally anything,’” Tomlinson jokes. She’s sure it “helped to be a new thing on Netflix a week before quarantine hit,” but as the pandemic dragged on and on, she adds, “I started to feel like, well, I probably missed my window because people are going to forget this even came out. I thought I was going to be comedy Tiger King.”
A year and a half later, however, Tomlinson is selling out theaters for the first time in her career, with a second Netflix hour on the horizon. She’s come a long way from the stand-up comedy class that her dad dragged her to in a church basement back when she was still in high school.
“I don’t think he thought I was going to be a comedian,” Tomlinson says of her father. “He just thought, ‘This’ll be fun!’” When I joke that he never could have imagined she would take comedy this far, Tomlinson adds, “He probably wishes I didn’t!”
In those early days, her material was very “self-deprecating.” She explains, “I had very low self-esteem and was obviously very clean. I joked about my appearance and the fact that I was so young doing it and how people probably didn’t expect me to be good. I watch old clips sometimes and I’m like, I think I’m making people sad.”
By the time she was a few years out of high school, Tomlinson was “trying to figure out” whether she was religious or not. “And the truth is, I didn’t feel like I was for a really long time, but my entire family is very Christian,” she says. “So I didn’t feel like I could exit Christianity without losing my family. I was kind of hanging onto it for a long time, but I felt a lot of guilt because I wasn’t who I said I was. And I didn’t believe what everyone else did. I just didn’t have that same conviction. But then once I kind of just accepted it, it got a lot easier.”
“Once I got to be 21, I was like, I don’t want to do this anymore,” she adds. “I don’t want to be shackled to this. And then by the time I was 22, I got fired from a church gig for something I tweeted. And I was like, this is ridiculous. What did that church person think they were, like SNL?”
The joke that got her “canceled” by church ultimately ended up in her first set on Conan in 2017 and then later in her 15-minute special as part of Netflix’s The Comedy Lineup a year later. It goes like this: “I’ll have you know, in bed I am a wild animal—way more afraid of you than you are of me.”
“I think that joke that I got fired for was a big moment,” Tomlinson says. “And the fact that it ended up on Conan and Netflix, I was like, all right, I’m going in the right direction.”
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