When comics have television sets to prepare for, they’ll often run the jokes they plan on doing over and over in front of audiences a week or so prior to their appearance. Every comic is different in their anxiety over this, and it’s a rare instance in which the audience can see how comics adjust or take note of the success of a joke in real time. To watch Sarah Tollemache prepare for a set is to watch her scrutinize each joke, as if it were an object hanging in the air, and with surgeon-like precision, pick out the word that needs to be dialed up or the extra language that needs to be cut for the next audience to respond better. Her meticulousness is what makes her such a successful joke writer, and Voluptuous Boy is a bravura performance in a stealth use of funny language.
Sarah Tollemache’s careful choice of familiar words helps her succeed over and over.
Early on in the special, Tollemache brings up her colitis, saying “Not to brag or anything, it’s one of the more expensive diarrheas.” Here, she uses a move she’ll return to again and again to wild success, which is the slight adjustment of a simple phrase that warps it into comedy gold. Realizing colitis might not be familiar to everyone, Tollemache clarifies it with a line that clarifies what it is, while also trying to turn something embarrassing into a status symbol. In another joke, she explains milkmen, saying “There was a time period where these guys would come to your house and deliver milk, and then you would have sex with them.” Here, the joke plays with stereotyped portrayals of milkmen, but wrapped in the simple language and matter-of-fact delivery of an explanation, the line leads to raucous laughter from the audience.
Tollemache’s low-energy persona can be confused for nonchalance. It isn’t.
Compounded by her commitment to precise wording, Tollemache’s cool delivery might run the risk of seeming arch or ironic, but it’s quite the opposite. A more accurate interpretation would be that her persona functions as a sort of armor that allows Tollemache to discuss socio-economic issues that irritate, devastate, or outright upset her. For example, she has this bit about debt:
“I don’t have a lot of debt. It’s just enough where I think about it all day long. Do you guys have that debt? One time I did get out of debt, and then I was like, ‘now what’? Like, I didn’t feel anything, and then I got sad because I had nothing to live for anymore, so I just put myself back into debt again. It feels good to have goals, you know? Like, if you pay your debt off, that;s great, but if you don’t and then die, that’s pretty great too.”
Tollemache’s delivery of this allows her to pack a lot of critique into something that feels conversational, off-the-cuff, even warm. The joke moves from feeling paralyzed by debt (something incredibly relatable to millions of folks), getting out of debt only to miss the negative experience of being crushed by it, and reentering it with a nod to “rise and grind” upspeak about chasing dreams and crushing goals most often used by the privileged.
Elsewhere, Tollemache mentions how she loves using the words “narrative” and “gaslighting” in conversation, commenting on our overuse of those terms post 2018. At another point, she discusses getting married later in life, saying ““For a moment I thought I was going to have to be one of those women that doesn’t believe in marriage,” which soberly skewers the bitterness and resentment that often seems part-and-parcel with that philosophy. Tollemache manages all of this with a smirk, and her ability to take stock of this in a way that engages the audience is an incredible demonstration of talent.
By rooting her set in ordinary struggles, Tollemache’s set becomes universally relatable, even if it’s drawn from life in New York.
The first joke in the special is about avocados and their very specific time-frame for being ripe and edible. There’s a joke about landlords procrastinating, and their interpretation of ASAP meaning “actually, sorry, aaaaaaaah, pfff.” At one point, people crying in public comes up (“It’s getting really nice out so people are gonna start doing it a lot more.”), as does not wanting a baby (“I thought I wanted a baby recently, but then I had to carry around an umbrella all day when it wasn’t raining.”). All of these could read as jokes specific to New York, curated stock-taking of coastal elite woes. However, the overarching ideas of vegetables going bad, bad supers, public embarrassment, and being unsure about parenthood are universal enough to work nearly anywhere.
Earlier, it was mentioned that Tollemache is an expert at revising language to polish her jokes into diamonds. In doing so, there is the added benefit of making her comedy region-proof, allowing her to kill on any stage she can get time on. Jokes that deal with lack of motivation (“What I really need is more of a dominatrix instead of a therapist. Not to make me do sex stuff. I just need a lady to step on my back and make me do my errands I’ve been putting off.”) or any other topic Tollemache wants to explode out showcase her as someone who is more than just a New York comic.
Sarah Tollemache's special Voluptuous Boy will be available to watch for free on YouTube tonight at 7 PM CT!
Stream & download the audio from the special here.