Comedian Moses Storm digs up his trauma for a laugh

Comedian Moses Storm was 16 when he first learned to read and write.

“I might have the equivalent of second grade,” he said. He spent much of his childhood on a bus with his single mother and five siblings, not knowing where he would wake up the next day.

During those tumultuous years, Moses, 32, became obsessed with the art of making people laugh. Whenever his family had access to a television, he would watch Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Comedy was a distraction from the fact that he often didn’t have enough to eat and his father was gone.

Storm’s life has come a long way since then. He has been an actor in a long list of films and shows including This is Us and Arrested Development. He most recently debuted in his own comedy special on HBO Max, “Trash White,” produced by childhood icon Conan O’Brien.

His specialty, however, is largely the persistence of the past, and poverty in particular.

CNBC recently spoke to Moses about how comedy has gone from being a distraction from his painful experiences to the way he now talks about it.

(This interview has been slightly edited and abridged for clarity.)

Annie Nova: How did you get the confidence to try comedy?

Moses Storm: There was nothing I walked away from. There was no education; there was no parent who could please it. But I knew this was something I loved and could probably make me more money than a minimum wage job.

AN: Financial stress was a constant throughout your childhood. What’s it like worrying less about money as an adult?

MRS: It never feels like you’re out of poverty. The idea that you could end up there again, that you could never have enough, that this could all go away – these feelings don’t change.

AN: One fear you speak of that is difficult to shake is one of location and home. As a child, you were never in one place for long. How does this fact continue to affect you?

MRS: I have subconsciously chosen a life in which I am always on the go. I don’t know how to live any other way. I’m starting to get a real restlessness if I’m not moving all the time.

AN: Why do you think that?

MRS: There’s a sense of impermanence that comes at a young age because we don’t know where we’re going to be. How long will we be at this campsite before we are vacated? And now when I move it feels like I’m one step ahead of everything. I can’t be kicked out.

AN: Do you think you could have written this special if you were still living in poverty?

MRS: If I lived it actively, I wouldn’t have enough distance to translate it into entertainment for people. And if you say you want the very privileged job of comedian, then you owe it to your audience to have perspective. We don’t just share our lives. People turn on Netflix, they turn on HBO to be entertained and to forget their problems. And so I have to take these things that I’ve been through and process them and then convey them in a humorous way. This is where the art form comes into play.

AN: You seem to have so much perspective on your experiences. have you been in therapy

MRS: To connect with an audience, you need to have empathy for everyone in that room. You have to ask yourself: where does everyone come from? I can’t just go up there and express regret; nobody cares. They come with their own anger and their own lives. Now what is the universal between us? What can we all connect with? Finding these touchpoints made me less angry. It wasn’t therapy. These shared human experiences just happened.

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AN: In your comedy special you talk about how your mother stole a lot. Once she was caught stealing vitamins. I found this a surprising detail. Why vitamins?

MRS: The stories that she was kicked out of a Winn Dixie and the cops came are less funny. I don’t think there’s a subject in comedy that’s taboo because it’s too sad. But you better have a joke to pull this audience out of the stupid fact you just provided, because everyone comes into this room, the thousands of people that night, with their own trauma and fears. I chose vitamins because it was the funniest thing she stole.

AN: How difficult is it to pitch a comedy special about poverty?

MRS: If you walk in and say, “I’m going to make a hilarious comedy about the economic and generational poverty in this country,” people say, “Boooo.” But what you can do is make people laugh. And between those moments of them laughing, you really open them up. It’s kind of a magic trick that they’re vulnerable. Then you can inject those details.

AN: You say you have a problem with the way poverty is talked about. In your special you express your frustration with the term “food insecurity”. You say, “I need carbs and I don’t need confidence.” Why does this wording bother you?

MRS: We’ve reduced people to these statistic and therapy terms and that absolves us of any responsibility or blame for not going into our wallet and personally giving that poor person $5. We can say: “Poverty: this must be fought through social programs! We have to vote in November!’ We want those fixes that don’t require anything on our part.

AN: You stress that your story is very happy and that we place too much value on the rags to riches stories. Why do you think we’re romanticizing these plans?

MRS: It’s awkward to help people. It’s uncomfortable. If we give money, what if we don’t have enough ourselves? If we let this poor person into our neighborhood, are we inviting danger into our lives? What if they are mentally ill? And so the rags to riches stories comfort us because we don’t do anything in that story. We watch someone else at work. We watch someone help themselves.

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