Taylor Tomlinson slips into her new stand-up special, Quarter-Life Crisis, with the ease of someone sliding into a comfortable pair of shoes. She appears at home on stage, commanding a crowd, and the confidence of her delivery, along with the mastery of the material, is palpable. Here’s someone who seems born to do this, and eager to pull the audience into her comic sensibility and sharp worldview.
If the title gives the air of someone new to mass audiences—an adult barely halfway through their twenties and too young to have built up a solid background in stand-up—appearances can be deceiving. Tomlinson has been doing this a long time: Starting at 16, the comedian has already built up the kind of résumé many stand-ups twice her age would kill for. She finished in the top 10 of Last Comic Standing’s final season; has appeared on Fallon, Conan, Comedy Central, and more; toured with Conan O’Brien; and spent the past couple of years as one of the youngest stand-ups booking their own headlining tours, after years of performances in colleges, small bars, and—in the first few years of her act, as a teenager raised by conservative Christian parents—church basements.
Not all of that history comes into play in her new special, her first for Netflix, but enough of her past and personality gets illuminated, and it soon becomes clear she’s still figuring out who she is, both as a person and a performer. Quarter-Life Crisis is Tomlinson at a crossroads, torn between several competing stage identities, all of which overlap but don’t yet blend into a smooth comic identity. A lot of her humor is based on her view of herself as an introverted killjoy. “Like, I’m not a good time,” she says, following up a joke about sex by admitting she’s only done it with two people, and repeating bits about her general demeanor as the anti-life of the party. It’s self-deprecation with such a forward intensity that at times it feels like she’s almost daring the audience to contradict her. (She has a wide-eyed glare she directs outward after provocative punchlines that rivals Chris Rock.)
But dressed in her signature leather jacket, hair pulled back, Tomlinson presents an alternative persona: the mean best friend, someone capable of delivering incredibly cruel and biting remarks that are nonetheless so on-point and lacerating that you want to keep hanging out just to hear what she says next. It runs the gamut from the difficulty of choosing Hallmark cards for family members (“‘You’ve always been there for me’... NOPE”) to attending weddings just to brutally assess the appearance of the bride (“Huh, that’s your best? Interesting,” she casually says, with the perfect amount of breezily concealed disdain). These cutting comments are often the funniest bits in the show, but they sit uneasily alongside her self-proclaimed status as the uncool, therapy-driven shrinking violet.
There aren’t many gut-busting howls to be had here, but what Tomlinson does have is a talent for classically smart observational humor, relatable and funny, delivered with a laughs-per-minute ratio that suggests she’s only beginning to mine the true extent of her talent. She embodies the traditionalist stand-up act: Unlike contemporaries playing with the boundaries of the form (Jerrod Carmichael, Julio Torres), Tomlinson is more interested in mastering the old-school template, with exactingly crafted bits on everything from her failed engagement (discussing what it felt like to wear the engagement ring, she would marvel, “Am I... better than everyone?”) to the sometimes fraught relationship with her religious and conservative family members (her dad managed to somehow denounce homosexuality while spending more than a decade in charge of a show choir, a choice she describes as biting the jazz hand that feeds you).
Quarter-Life Crisis may lack consistency in its perspectives, but Tomlinson is in no rush to shut off potential avenues of her identity to mine for comedic pathos. To be such a commanding stage presence at this point in her career suggests a talent that is only now starting to come into its own. By the time her next special rolls around, Tomlinson may become a truly great stand-up. In the meantime, this is a more than satisfying stop along the way.