“People were too sad for me,” Tomlinson said now, from her much more grown-up (28-year-old) vantage point. “I always thought it was funny that people were so sad that I was so young. Maybe it would have been worse if I had been 16 and more aware.” Still, for years she couldn’t find a way to put that experience into her stand-up in a way that was funny to anyone else.
But her new Netflix special, “Look At You,” features not one, not two, but six solid minutes of jokes about losing her mom before she’d lost the lisp she didn’t even know she had.
Tomlinson has the strange honor of being one of the breakout stars of the pandemic. Her first stand-up special, “Quarter-Life Crisis,” debuted on Netflix on March 3, 2020. Within weeks, much of the world was under lockdown, and Tomlinson had the most captive audience a comic is likely to find. She had a hit on her hands and nothing to do except sit at home in L.A., trapped inside with her boyfriend and her fears and her mental health issues while she waited to find out if and when she could tour again. What would fans even want from a post-pandemic set, assuming she’d ever have the opportunity to perform one? “Is my job just over?” she wondered.
“I was worried during the lockdown portion of the pandemic that, once everything came back, is nobody going to want to joke about anything serious?” she said. Or would crowds be craving “physical … goofy, light comedy,” which isn’t really her thing? “But I think it’s the opposite. People really want to laugh, and whatever resonates with them is good.”
Tomlinson filmed “Quarter-Life” in November 2019. In that special, she talks about some personal stuff — her extremely religious upbringing, her recently broken engagement — but doesn’t mention her mom, let alone her death. “The dead mom jokes were jokes I did at cool alt rooms in L.A., and they’d work well,” Tomlinson said. “But it wasn’t material that fit into the hour. When I’d do it, people would be like, ‘Whoa, where did that come from?’ ” She considered trying to put in just one joke, as a sign that there would be more on the matter in the future, but she ultimately scrapped that idea.
By the weekend after shooting “Quarter-Life,” Tomlinson was back on the road, trying out new material. She had a new hour by March — you know, that March.
As the pandemic and its various restrictions waxed and waned, Tomlinson performed when she felt it was safe enough to do so. In November 2020, she played a few clubs “that were at 30 to 40 percent capacity, and you had to be masked, very spread out,” she said. “Not a good environment for comedy, but you were so sad and purposeless,” it was better than the alternative (sitting at home, confronting your inner demons, etc.). Then came lockdown No. 2; she canceled more shows, then got back into it the following February, doing limited-capacity clubs and outdoor venues in L.A. She eventually shot “Look At You” at the Wilbur Theater in Boston on Dec. 17, 2021.
“The chunk about losing my mom young, that was something that I’d been trying to work on for years that I was excited to tackle in this hour and excited to get working,” she said. “I had started working on [it] pretty early, but that got so much stronger and so much better as I was doing it in clubs, and figuring out how to weave in and out of sillier bits within it, so it wasn’t just super dark and hard the entire way through.”
For Tomlinson, figuring out how to address the audience’s discomfort with the topic was the key that unlocked that entire segment. In “Look At You,” as Tomlinson approaches the stretch of jokes about her mom, she brings her stool to the lip of the stage and sits on it, like A.C. Slater on “Saved by the Bell” straddling a backward chair, as close to the audience as she can get. “I know dead mom jokes make people uncomfortable,” she says in the special. “I know that. And if you are uncomfortable, I don’t know what to say. You should’ve worked harder, so it was you up here.” Then she basically tells her audience to get over themselves and settle in for “six minutes of dead mom jokes.”
As she road-tested her performance, she found that some of her mom jokes were hitting hard enough that she considered cutting out that preamble altogether. “But then that became its own bit,” she said. Plus it seemed to be something the crowd really needed: an invitation to laugh at Tomlinson’s foundational tragedy.
Belle, Ariel, Jasmine … and Taylor
Tomlinson wasn’t using comedy to cope with her loss when it was still new. But she does remember a middle school classmate thinking she was joking when she told him that her mom was dead. “I was like, ‘Why would I joke about that?’ ” she said. “And he was like, ‘You’re smiling!’ I was like, ‘I’m not laughing, I’m uncomfortable.’ ”
The bit about Disney princesses is a joke now, but it wasn’t back then. It just really is how Tomlinson dealt with that seismic loss. “It is how I sort of got through that. I was so young that you kind of just have to feel like somebody who is in a movie,” she said. “It’s not really happening to me. You don’t process the world in a real way.”
She remembers talking about her mom all the time, or trying to. “When I was really young, it felt like something I should tell everybody,” Tomlinson said. “It felt like something everyone should know about me. And as I noticed that was making people uncomfortable, I felt, maybe I should not say this.” Sometimes in college, she’d refer to her parents as “separated” when she was talking to people with whom she didn’t expect to stay friendly. In “Look At You,” she describes an old friend learning the truth years later and being horrified with Tomlinson’s lie. Tomlinson’s response: “Well, they were. By Jesus.”
Once Tomlinson was in her 20s and breaking through as a comedian — leaving college to tour full-time, performing on “Conan” — she started workshopping her mom jokes again. “I think I was just trying to find it,” she said, though she wasn’t convinced that she would. “It wasn’t like every joke I ever tried about this topic needed to be ironed out and polished up. It’s like with anything else: You just keep what works and dump what doesn’t.”
‘People can sense if you’re not in control’
Tomlinson believes that one of the reasons her mom jokes weren’t working, say, five years ago, is because she just wasn’t ready to tell them, and audiences could feel her unease. “I think as I got more confident and comfortable with it, it worked better, because people can sense if you’re not in control,” she said. “They get worried for you.” As an audience member, she’d feel the same way. “I kind of don’t care how good your jokes are, because if you seem insanely nervous, it’s not going to work. And if you joke about something you’re not ready to talk about yet, it’s not going to land.”
Tomlinson said she didn’t feel obligated to include any mom material in “Look At You.” “I wasn’t trying to force anybody to listen to it,” she said. “I was like, maybe this won’t work in Arkansas. But if I can get this stuff to work everywhere, I can feel good about putting it out in the special.”
Still, even all the confidence in the world sometimes can’t save a joke that just isn’t landing. Tomlinson has one that she’s pretty content to retire, or at least bench. The joke in question: “You can’t really kill yourself after your mom dies, because that would be like calling in sick to work after somebody already asked for time off.” Tomlinson already had jokes about having suicidal thoughts before she went on medication. (Much of the new special delves into her bipolar disorder diagnosis and her experiences in therapy.) As much as she herself liked it, she knew when to abandon it. “It just did not work any of the times I tried it,” she said. “It was too sad.”
‘She’s in heaven, I’m on Netflix’
Tomlinson is certain that she would not be where she is — a successful stand-up with two Netflix specials to her name before she even turns 30 — if her mom were still alive. Had her mom survived, Tomlinson tells the audience in “Look At You,” “I’d be a creative writing teacher who loved myself, and I’d be sitting in the dark with you peasants.”
Tomlinson admits to harboring a feeling common among those who lose parents at a young age: this belief that she, too, will die young, which drives her to live her life at hyper-speed. She knows it’s part of what pushes her to achieve so much so quickly. “That’s really how I’ve felt at times in my life: You wouldn’t be where you are, because this is such a big part of your identity, and this is so much of why you operate the way you do, and why you turned out the way you did.” Or, as Tomlinson put it in “Look At You”: “She’s in heaven, I’m on Netflix. It all worked out.”
Before Tomlinson said that on stage, she said it in therapy. Both Tomlinson’s therapist and psychiatrist have suggested to her a separation of couch and stage. “Maybe keep some of what we talk about in here just between us. You don’t have to tell everybody everything about you,” she recalled them saying. The thing is, Tomlinson said: “I feel like I do! That’s just how I write.”
On her latest tour, “Deal With It,” Tomlinson would sometimes include a line about how her stand-up was not, in fact, her “dealing with it,” because the real dealing-with-it happened in therapy. “This is me monetizing my trauma,” she’d say. “I’m doing a show. There are T-shirts in the lobby. I’m aware that this is not where it’s happening. … I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that you’re actually working through this stuff. It’s not happening up here, but I’m talking about it up here because I’m working through it behind the scenes.”
Now, Tomlinson feels like she can be more deliberate about what she shares and what she needs to keep to herself. “There are certain things that I wrote jokes about that didn’t make various specials because I was like, you know what? I don’t want to actually put this out there,” she says. “Or I processed it fully and realized I felt a different way about it.”
With “Look At You,” she’s feeling “a little nervous” about how much of her personal life she’s sharing publicly, but ultimately she thinks that it’s worth talking about the stuff that she’s scared to admit. “Maybe other people are scared to share that about themselves, and they shouldn’t feel that way,” she said. “And this might help.”