Seldom can one truly own the stage they are on. Size of the stage doesn’t matter. It can be a comedy club that seats maybe 300 or a theater that seats 3,000. If you can learn how to own the stage, you are golden. And audiences can tell when you’re forcing it. So many times do we witness comedians jumping around the stage just because they feel like they ought to. It has to be earned. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you get the person who just wants to be “a comic and a mic” and stand in one place the whole time. Then, comfortably in between both extremes, you get Taylor Tomlinson, who makes it looks effortless as she manages to stake claim on whatever stage she’s on.
In the basement of a rural shopping mall you’ll find the Schaumburg Improv Club (which, as Tomlinson is quick to point out, sounds more like it’s in Germany than it does a suburb or Chicago). The room is not full of your average comedy aficionados. These are the kind of folks who wind up at a comedy show simply because “It’s something to do.” A portion of the relatively small audience may not even be that familiar with Taylor Tomlinson. “Shows like this are fun because I have to get famous now,” she jokes onstage. “Because if I do get famous, you can be like ‘Oh, we were there when there was 11 people.’ But if I don’t, you will just be like ‘Oh, do you remember that one time we made a bad choice?'”
It’s a bit of a weird shift. A week prior to this interview, she had been featured on the Conan O’Brien & Friends tour. This was the tour where he took all of his personal favorite comics on the rise and brought them on tour with him, as his way to say “These are the people that make me laugh.” Every night, you’re playing the biggest venue the city has to offer. “The hardest part is shifting back to Southwest flights,” she tells me while sitting in the lobby of the club before her Thursday night show. “No private plane anymore.” While on tour, he even gifted her an American Girl Doll, something that she had mentioned she always wanted growing up and never got, telling her that “Show business should heal all of your childhood wounds.”
Being on tour with Conan has sort of allowed everything to come full circle, after her Conan debut last spring. “I wanted to do [Conan’s show] for so long and it was my first choice, so that was super surreal for me. That’s the show I grew up watching. I wasn’t watching The Tonight Show, I was watching Conan. So for me that was a huge deal that I was really nervous for.”
In the summer of 2018, Taylor went into the Netflix business, as part of the first season of The Comedy Lineup, which is their new 15 minute showcase. In a world where everybody’s obsessing over their hour special, the thing to remember is, at the end of the day, it’s still Netflix. And additionally, with someone like Taylor who can deliver a long-joke breathlessly (a bit about what a candid photo is proves this) and mixes it in with one-off rapid fire jokes, you can thrive even more in this format, getting a ton of bang for your buck.
“Yeah, it is kind of a weird in between,” she tells me. “But you know, if you do a Comedy Central half hour with commercials and stuff, I think it ends up being closer to 22 or something like that. So when you think about it, it’s not too much of a difference to that. 15 to 22 minutes. But yeah, it’s just such a no-brainer to do anything on Netflix. ‘Sure, I’ll do 12 minutes. I’ll do 4. Whatever you feel like you want us to do, we’re there.’”
“It went good, I think. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback, and the negative feedback they are not tweeting at me directly. So I appreciate it.” That’s not to say she doesn’t get a fair share of negative feedback as well. It unfortunately goes without saying in the age of social media. “They’re like ‘Why aren’t you hotter?’ Sorry about that. You get stuff like that. ‘I’m not trying to be pretty. I’m trying to be funny. Sorry I didn’t do everything for you and your dick.’”
As much as you can try to not care about how people, both audiences and other comics, are going to perceive you, you sometimes can’t escape that voice in the back of your head that does otherwise.
“Oh, I’m still worried about how comedians are going to perceive me,” she admits earnestly, even after nearly a decade in this racket. “And audiences. I feel like I have to talk about what I know, and what I know is being 25 unfortunately. But I also think the tone of my act is very apologetic for my age. Yeah, I’ve always felt not super-connected to people my age at every age I am and as a result, I feel like going into this business and being in it, not that anybody’s been mean to me at all, everybody’s been real nice. But I do feel like there’s an insecurity on my part of ‘Oh, I hope everybody doesn’t assume I’m garbage because I’m young,’ or ‘I hope they don’t think I don’t deserve the opportunities I get.’ But there is a degree of knowing this business likes young people for certain things, so it is an advantage to be younger.”
It’s a weird line to tow. If she didn’t talk about being 25 onstage, or ever admit her age, you would have no idea. She’s so polished, having done it since she was 16, that she is an old pro by now, having already put in her 10,000 hours certainly. But, on the flipside, as she admits, that’s what she knows. So to not talk about it would be to not paint the entire portrait for the audience.
“I usually have to find a way to package it that makes it seem like you’re talking about them. Everybody knows somebody in their 20’s or was in their 20’s at some point or will be. So it’s still relatable, but you just have to frame it that way, as opposed to sounding like you’re talking about yourself for an hour. Which is what I’m doing.”
As I sat amongst both the crowd of The Chicago Theater and the Schaumburg Improv two weeks later, I found that to be true. She has found a way to take the experiences that come with being in your 20’s and make them relatable to everyone, no matter what your age is. The older couple in front of me was laughing along with the 20-somethings to my left. Whether it is talking about friends getting married, her newfound sobriety from dating a loser, what it means to be an old soul or why it bugs her to be in her 20’s. You don’t get that sense that you have to be in a certain demographic to appreciate it. It’s an old cliché that remains true, but funny is funny. Period. That’s certainly the case with Taylor Tomlinson, who has carved out this unique blend onstage of being confident and uncertain at the same time. That kind of stuff is timeless.
A large part that the majority of people doesn’t seem to understand that it’s not just about how funny you are. There’s this weird intricate process that every comedian has to go through, when they have to figure out “What voice am I going to use? How am I going to be onstage?” “Once I started doing stand up,” Taylor tells me, “it was like the first time that I felt comfortable with myself I guess. And for a while it was like ‘The person I am onstage is who I want to be all the time.’ And over the years that gap has closed whereas I feel like I’m the same person all the time now. Except I’m in a Lyft at 5 A.M. and they won’t stop talking to me. But for the most part, I feel like I’m the same person all the time. But for a while I had this weird relationship with myself onstage. Where it’s just like ‘Well that’s who I really am. And who I am the rest of the time is someone who’s just nervous about being me.’”
Having come from a religious background and upbringing, getting your start in comedy by playing religious functions, it’s no surprise that it may lead to some tension as you begin to branch beyond that. “There’s been a couple dicey moments in my family for sure but we’re all figuring it out together,” she admits. “They are very proud and they think it’s pretty cool, but every once in a while they won’t be happy with a certain joke or material or even my Netflix special. My parents didn’t care for the Netflix special.”
Additionally, with any rising career in stand-up comes the branching out period. Where you will be asked to figure out a way to take what you do onstage and expand it into other mediums, such as T.V., film, and even podcast, like Taylor does every week with her podcast Selfhelpless. In 2017, it was reported that Taylor was creating a pilot for ABC that didn’t ultimately get picked up.
“If the show had gotten made,” she says, “I think it would’ve been too fast. I love the writers I got to work with and it was a really great learning experience for me. And we had a great time writing a show for a few months based on their notes. And they ultimately decided not to pick it up. And it was kind of the best case scenario for me because I was like ‘If this gets made then I’m not going to be able to keep getting better at stand-up.’ And I’m still a new headliner. So I was really focused on that before anything else.”
“Because the only reason I want a T.V. show or something,” Taylor continues, “is so when I do stand up, people will come see me. So it’s not the same as being an actor where it’s ‘Oh, I hope this works out.’ It’s like ‘I hope this works out, but if it does I’m going to have to be good enough to not disappoint people when they come to see me.’”
At the end of the day, there only appears to be one ultimate thing to be obtained. “I just want to be honest and creative and funny and make people feel like heard and seen and related to. That’s all.”