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Opinion: Taylor Tomlinson’s sweet and sour moment

Opinion by Gene Seymour

(CNN) — Whether you’re noticing it or not, a Millennial woman whose first name is Taylor is staking a claim on being a leading spokesperson for her generation. And it’s probable — indeed, likely — that it’s not the “Taylor” that first comes to your mind.

So, welcome to the era of Taylor Tomlinson.

And yes, we’re aware that the year is not yet three months old, but Tomlinson, a stand-up comedian from Orange County, California who turned 30 last November, is having what pop culture mavens would deem a “moment,” or “Moment.” She brings a radiant combination of empathy and raunch to audiences in desperate need of both, carrying the tradition of dirty comics who defined their own generations (from Lenny Bruce to George Carlin to Richard Pryor) and establishing on her own terms how another young, blonde female Taylor, being vulnerable and going blue, can revolutionize comedy.

“Have It All,” the third of Tomlinson’s Netflix stand-up specials, dropped earlier this month. It shows Tomlinson at peak performance for a Washington, D.C.-area audience last fall at the conclusion of her recent nationwide tour.

The month before, Tomlinson debuted as host of CBS’s “After Midnight,” or, as it’s officially titled, “@fter midnight,” which replaces the way-past-prime time slot that once belonged to “The Late Late Show with James Corden.” Produced by CBS’s “Late Show” host Stephen Colbert, the show is a revival of a Comedy Central series, “@midnight” that ran between 2013 and 2017 in which guests, most of them comedians like Tomlinson, competed in games devised to provoke quips and epigrams about memes, hashtags, social media clips and sundry online oddities. In short, paraphrasing Tomlinson herself, it’s a smart show about dumb stuff on the Internet.

Maybe reviving this show acknowledges some need on our part for regular TV screens to mediate, if not explain (and certainly not excuse) so much of the visual bilge that’s been cluttering our social media feeds, whether through TikTok or Facebook Reels or any other platform that’ll attach a YouTube video.

If so, then who better to have at this sludge pile than a parade of hipster quipsters? And who better to preside over these festivities than a Millennial smarty-pants like Tomlinson? She’s quick on her feet, knows her way around stuff like TikTok, and seems impervious to embarrassment from any quadrant of the digital universe. Why? Because her whole career up to this point has been about telling you all the bad stuff about her life before trolls or other pests get to it.

Her first Netflix special, 2020’s “Quarter Life Crisis,” began by announcing to her audience and the world-at-large that she was “done” with being in her 20s. (She was 27 that year.) To those older folks who insist on looking back on those years with rosy nostalgia, Tomlinson replied, flatly: “You were garbage! Thinner garbage, but you were garbage! You have no intuition! No instincts! You can’t make decisions, only mistakes! That’s why you’re thin in your 20s. You don’t have a gut to listen to yet. There’s no mystic bad feeling under your ribs going, ‘Hey, maybe don’t date a DJ!…Again!”

You figured: either she had great insight beyond her years, or she REALLY hates herself! Either way, there was nothing wrong with her instincts for delivering punch lines and laying out the whole panoply of feelings, conflicted or otherwise, over being single. At times, she was so fiercely detailed about past boyfriends and other rueful memories that she gave off mean-girl vibes, but you soon realized that she couldn’t be one of them because, as far as she was concerned, they were lame, too.

But the true revelations came with her second special, 2022’s “Look At You!” Tomlinson’s comedic chops were sharper and better honed. She was also far more candid, revealing, among other things, that she discovered during therapy that she had bipolar disorder. Tomlinson managed to bring not only wit and self-reflection to what in some circumstances would be an unsettling disclosure, but also offered her experience as a way of helping others. “I don’t think anybody should feel bad if they get diagnosed with a mental illness because it’s just information about you that helps you know how to take better care of yourself.”

“Being bipolar,” she went on, “is like not knowing how to swim. It might be embarrassing to tell people and it might be hard to take you certain places. But they have arm floaties,” she added as a metaphor for medication. “And if you just take your arm floaties, you can go wherever the hell you want. And I know some of you are like, ‘But, Taylor, what if people judge me for taking arm floaties?’ Well, those people don’t care if you live or die, so maybe who cares? Maybe, f— those people… a little.” Even if you don’t need “arm floaties” yourself, you can’t help applauding Tomlinson for her courage and generosity of spirit.

Still, we’re not used to TV hosts being so open and honest about their lives. From Johnny Carson and David Letterman to Colbert and the Jimmys Kimmel and Fallon, late night hosts have tended to lean towards those who keep their inner selves at a cool, dry distance. So far in her “After Midnight” stint, Tomlinson hasn’t been as forthcoming about her own grievances with relationships or her religious upbringing as she has in her stand-up routines.

Tomlinson’s grudges with religion are especially rife in “Look at You” as when she confesses to the audience that a youth pastor’s admonitions against “the lust in your heart” when she was a child caused her to “masturbate wrong” as a grownup. (As long as she didn’t think about anything at all while masturbating, she says, “I could still get to Heaven.”)

Yet she can still call upon her Biblical lessons to fire some cogent barbs as when, in “Look at You,” she refers to the Old Testament as her “favorite Taylor Swift album.” It is, she says, “banger after banger” with a vengeful God saying, “You don’t believe in me?…Ha Ha!…Snakes! Look what you made me do!” Almost as an afterthought: “I’m a 20-something-year-old White woman. Obviously, I’m going to compare T. Swift to the Lord. She is the only God I still believe in, all right? I don’t see God God revamping his old s–t and let’s be honest, He probably should, because the people who own it now suck!”

Her latest Netflix special, “Have It All” ramps up this nervy candor in her most confident and commanding recital thus far, filled with more of her personal discoveries from therapy sessions and seasoned with anecdotes such as swooning over Hugh Jackman while bidding on a “sweaty glove” he wore during a Broadway performance of “The Music Man.” The encounter leaves her convinced that Jackman may well be the only human being anywhere who can be said to “have it all” — and no one else.

“If someone has their dream job, they don’t get to be in love on top of that,” she explains to her audience. “If someone has their dream and their soul mate, bare minimum, their parents better be divorced.” Beat. “I’d prefer they were an orphan.”

Sounds harsh, but it also sounds like someone who, as with many reaching their 30s about now, is coming to grips with who they’ve become and what they do with it. After all, she begins this show by observing, correctly, that her career is going great right now, with or without a soulmate.

If this is her moment, it’s a sweet (and sour) one. And though it’s still too early to tell whether her show will become a long-term franchise, it’s going to be fun watching her work at it.

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