Fat cell lipolysis, the cleavage of triglycerides and release of fatty acids and glycerol, evolved to enable survival during prolonged food deprivation but is paradoxically increased in obesity, in which a surfeit of all energy metabolites is found. Essential, previously-unsuspected components have been discovered in the lipolytic machinery, at the protective interface of the lipid droplet surface and in the signaling pathways that control lipolysis. At least two adipocyte lipases are important for controlling lipolysis, hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL) and adipocyte triglyceride lipase (ATGL). Perilipin (PLIN) and possibly other proteins of the lipid droplet surface are master regulators of lipolysis, protecting or exposing the triglyceride core of the droplet to lipases. The prototypes for hormonal lipolytic control are beta adrenergic stimulation and suppression by insulin, both of which affect cyclic AMP levels and hence the protein kinase A-mediated phosphorylation of HSL and PLIN. Newly-recognized mediators of lipolysis include atrial natriuretic peptide, cyclic GMP, the ketone body 3-hydroxybutyrate, AMP kinase and mitogen-activated kinases. Lipolysis must be interpreted in its physiological context since similar rates of basal or stimulated lipolysis occur under different conditions and by different mechanisms. Age, sex, anatomical site, genotype and species differences are each important variables. Manipulation of lipolysis has therapeutic potential in several inborn errors and in the metabolic syndrome that frequently complicates obesity.