‘After Midnight’ Needs to Let Taylor Tomlinson Be Taylor Tomlinson
It’s finally here — After Midnight, the late-night replacement for that show featuring cringey James Corden crooning with celebrities in cars, made its debut last night with host Taylor Tomlinson. It’s been a fast rise for the comedian, from teen Christian comic to breakout Netflix star to the only woman headlining a late-night show. Is Tomlinson ready for the spotlight? If she can move past the opening week jitters, Magic Eight Ball says, “Signs point to yes.”
After Midnight is a reboot/reimagining of @midnight with Chris Hardwick, featuring three comedians playing (sort of) improv games for the chance to win Tomlinson’s approval and arbitrary points. Last night’s episode featured Whitney Cummings, Kurt Braunohler and Aparna Nancherla, three comedians with varying stages of fame and chutzpah. The “spontaneous” answers feel a little written (if After Midnight is anything like @midnight, the comics do get a chance to prepare material ahead of time), but there are plenty of serviceable punchlines.
The panelists will presumably rotate, but Cummings makes a good case for installing herself as a semi-regular. She brings a welcome “no effs to give” attitude to the show — she just had a baby, so this is like vacation — and she earns points from me simply by not trying too hard. (Take a note, Braunohler.) While CBS will no doubt want to lean into young comics to boost the show’s online appeal, having an established pro around helps.
As a host, Tomlinson is anything but. She’s confessed in interviews to being an introvert, so the job of socializing with other comics doesn’t come naturally. The premiere’s open was strained, with the comedian delivering scripted jokes that come off like bad awards-show patter rather than Tomlinson’s signature conversational comedy. In the early going, she seems too eager to award points for so-so jokes and “Taylor rocks!” ploys from the panelists. But as the show goes on, it’s clear what CBS saw in her — her offhand asides and sarcastic comebacks are way better than anything the show’s writers have prepared for her. Over the next few months, the show needs to lean away from scripts and into Tomlinson’s natural snark. Just let her riff.
Is After Midnight funny? Like any joke-joke-joke show, the first night was hit or miss. The good news is that it moves fast — any groan-inducing moment is over before we have time to click over to something else. The set is distracting, a familiar look to anyone with older relatives who park in front of Game Show Network all day — lots of neon lights, swooshing graphics and monstrous video screens. At one point, Tomlinson joked that she’s just the big screen’s sidekick, and if she’s not careful, she might be right. After Midnight would be better served by turning off half the lights and going lo-fi with Tomlinson’s surroundings.
After Midnight’s best quality is that it doesn’t feature a guy named Jimmy following the tired monologue-celebrity-guest-wacky-bit-musical-number-goodnight template. Let’s not give CBS too much credit, though — remaking an old show with an obvious eye to spending less money isn’t exactly a daring risk. But it’s not too late for audacity. Give Tomlinson a couple of years to make After Midnight her own, no matter the ratings, and let’s see what happens. Invite weirder comics to the panel. Get stupid with the games. More than anything else, let the acerbic Tomlinson be Tomlinson. She’s already a far more welcome sight than James Corden.