Comedian Taylor Tomlinson opens up about the joys and pitfalls of sharing her true self onstage.

PHOTO COURTESY LEVITY TALENT

Taylor Tomlinson thinks it’d be difficult to be an ultra-successful comedian. Plenty of people, however, would argue she already is.

Tomlinson’s first full-length Netflix special, Quarter-Life Crisis, dropped in 2020 when she was just 26. Her sophomore effort, 2022’s Look at You, cemented the Orange County–born performer’s place among the 21st century’s best and boldest young comics. Simultaneously sardonic and exuberant, steely and accessible, she takes on weighty topics, from mental health to her own relational trust issues, with an airiness that makes it easy to laugh with (and sometimes at) her. The result is an hour of comedy that feels like sharing cocktails with a particularly hilarious friend.

Of course, building that kind of relationship with audience members requires letting them in — a lot — and Tomlinson’s gift for creating kinship comes with its own challenges. We spoke with Tomlinson, who performs Feb. 18 at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, about the realities of her radical honesty and life on tour.

What are the best and worst parts of being on tour?

The best part is being in different places, getting to perform for different types of audiences, different crowds. I’ve been trying really hard to be more present and spend more time in the cities I go to — as opposed to just flying in, doing the show, and leaving. My opener, Dustin Nickerson, is one of my closest friends, so we try to do fun stuff in whatever city we’re in.

The worst part is irregular sleep patterns. Travel is hard on your body, so it [requires] a lot of self-awareness and making sure you’re taking care of yourself physically and mentally.

You grew up in Southern California. Were there any culture shocks when you began traveling for comedy?

I think the biggest shock was [the] weather. I’m a baby when it comes to snow. That took some getting used to and some learning how to dress appropriately, because the jackets they sell in Southern California are not real winter coats.

You’re currently working on a movie based on your life. How does writing for the screen differ from developing bits for the stage?

[The movie script] is based on certain parts of my life, but it’s not me. It’s like a version of me. It takes inspiration from my family, but it’s its own thing. Onstage is me, my life, directly where I’m at. The type of standup I do comes from a more raw, vulnerable place. It’s not an interpretation of themes in my life. That’s what the script is.

How do you prepare to get that vulnerable before a show?

I don’t know. I don’t know how to do it another way. Something I’ve been sort of struggling with recently is how to keep some stuff for myself and not put everything out there, but it’s just how I write. The jokes I write are generally what I’m going through.

So if anything, I’ve been trying to walk it back a bit as I get older, so I’m still telling the truth, but it’s not too raw. There’s a little bit of self-protection in it, and protection for the people in your life. You can write a joke about your family and make it about a friend, or you can write a joke about a friend and make it, like, “I dated someone once.” I think it gets slippery for personal relationships if people are always afraid you’re going to take what they said and put it onstage, so I try to be careful about that.

I had a writing professor who would tell me, “You decide how much to open the door.” The wider you open it, the more comfortable people are going to feel walking through it. And sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes that’s like, “Whoa, you’re all in my house now.”

It’s totally like that. There were jokes I didn’t put in the last two specials because I didn’t like that people would come up to me after shows and go, “Oh, so you like this in bed?”

I’m like, “How did you know that? Oh, because I told you, because I wrote something that got a laugh about it. But now you know that thing about me, and that feels weird.”

Or I’ve had things happen in relationships, and I write jokes about it right away, and then later on, I go, “I’m not going to put all of that out there, because I wouldn’t want someone to make fun of my mistakes in relationships in a very one-sided way.” So if I do write jokes involving other people, I try to make it clear that I’m poking more fun at myself than anybody else, hopefully.

If you open the door too wide, people get really comfortable, and then they feel sort of entitled to knowing everything about you, especially with podcasts. I’ve done a few podcasts, and now I don’t know if I can. It requires you to open that door so far every week. People feel really connected to you, which is great, but it felt a little like what you said: “Wow, everyone’s in my house now.”

You mentioned not putting certain jokes in Look At You that you have previously said onstage. Do you feel different workshopping material when you know you are not going to be recorded, as opposed to very public-facing forums like a Netflix special or podcast?

I think so. Now, it’s hard because people aren’t supposed to record shows, but that is always a possibility. When I was younger, that wasn’t so much of a thing. You just said whatever you wanted, and you were like, “That’s never going to leave this room.” And also, “Nobody cares. I’m not a well-known comedian.”

That’s the responsibility that comes with being more successful. It looks hard to me to be a really famous comic and to work material out and know that people are very interested in it. Even if they don’t record it, they might write it down, might put it online. It’s tough because, to get to the good stuff — the best jokes and the most vulnerable places — you do have to slog through those rough-draft sets, and your rough drafts are in front of people.

It’s tough, but it is really special to feel like you’re in a room of people where you’re like, “Oh, this isn’t going to happen again.” Like if you have a cool crowd-work moment or something, you’re like, “Oh, this was just for us. This was just for this collection of people, at this time, this night.” That feels really cool.

Specials feel more polished, like, “Okay, this is all the stuff that I want to live somewhere forever.”