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Moses Storm Doesn’t Want You to ‘Awwwwwwww’ at His Stories About Growing Up Poor

The creator of the acclaimed HBO Max stand-up special talks about living with a poverty mindset, what liberals get wrong about homelessness and why he’s comfortable admitting that he’s not that great of a comic, yet

Ever since 2018’s Nanette, stand-up specials have undergone a bit of an evolution, deviating from the traditional string-of-jokes format that we’ve known for decades. It’s hardly like Hannah Gadsby invented the concept of combining a personal narrative with commentary — comics such as Mike Birbiglia have been crafting one-man shows that are about more than punchlines for a while now — but her revolutionary set popularized the subgenre, which can feel like a TED Talk, except a whole lot funnier. 

The latest example is Trash White, which premiered on HBO Max a few weeks ago and continues to build buzz. In the hour-long special, Moses Storm, 31, has stories to tell, and they’re doozies. Growing up as one of six siblings, he was born into a family whose parents started their own religious cult, homeschooling the children and living below the poverty line. Storm was homeless — they camped out in a van — and dumpster-dived for food. In addition, he has dyslexia and was often mistaken for a girl because his mother dyed his and his siblings’ hair blonde and dressed him in such a way that he presented as a young woman. That any of this could be hilarious is miraculous, and although Storm definitely has points he’s trying to make about how we as a society shun the poor, the special is mostly focused on comedy, not teachable moments.

Still, with its striking set consisting of trash all spray-painted white that he stands atop, sometimes incorporating audio/visual elements to supplement his anecdotes — there’s a whole bit about how the family tried to win $10,000 by sending in clips to America’s Funniest Home VideosTrash White is an unapologetically theatrical and personal project for Storm, and he’s very anxious about viewers’ reaction to it. “There’s no one to blame if people don’t like it or if it doesn’t do well,” says Storm from his apartment in L.A. “I’m overly obsessively involved in every single step of it.” Indeed, beyond writing and performing the special, he also co-directed and co-edited it. “I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s my kid.’”

Storm’s journey from poverty to stand-up sensation was aided by some well-placed admirers. Conan O’Brien, who produced Trash White, was an early champion, and Storm has acted in sitcoms and films, including the comedies Plan B and The Lovebirds. But Trash White will be the first time most have heard of him, learning how his mom made him go into cheerleading — hey, she was taking his sisters to the camp anyway, so why not? — and what happened at a private pool the family snuck into after eating some bad ice cream. (Spoiler alert: It’s not a pretty picture.)

I recently spoke to Storm about the stories that didn’t make the special — and how he’s coping with viewers who are reaching out to share their own fraught experiences about difficult childhoods. He also revealed the one thing he hates to hear from audiences when he performs — and, no, it’s not booing. 

Stand-up comics talk about all kinds of embarrassing, self-deprecating things, but poverty has such a stigma attached to it. How did you get comfortable enough about your past to make a show about growing up poor?

The hardest thing wasn’t the fact that it’s embarrassing — if anything, especially in the industry, you’re rewarded for digging yourself out. What was hard is trying to express [what] I think is funny about poverty. Also, this isn’t someone [who’s] drug-addicted [and that’s] why we were poor, which happens a lot, or [from] a marginalized group — this is someone that was a different kind of poor, my mom. 

The challenge was to make it not sound like propaganda for any one side — to make it not sound like a speech, to make it not sound like, “You’re doing your homework on poverty by watching this,” to actually make it an enjoyable show. The problem with those shows sometimes is if you actually grew up poor — or you grew up not going to school, like I did — it’s very hard to enjoy something that feels overly intellectual. It should be about the experience and not what you’re going to learn — or how smart I can be on stage.

In Trash White, you describe how poverty detrimentally affects a person’s physical and mental health. Even though you’ve had some success professionally, do you still catch yourself thinking in a poverty mindset?

So, I’m currently calling you from my studio apartment that I’ve lived in for 10 years. Now, while I have all this acting work and, obviously, was paid for the special, I’m still afraid to spend any of that money. Like, this could be the “gotcha” interview that sinks me, and I would be back tomorrow [to being poor].

I [still] feel those feelings of being poor and not having enough. To a fault, I save everything — that fear has never gone away. It doesn’t matter that I’m surrounded in L.A. by people that are incredibly wealthy, and there’s all this encouragement like, “Spend money to make money.” There is this real fear that I’ll be there tomorrow and have to feel like that — or if I ever have kids, they will feel that. So, yeah, that’s something that’s not really rational that I still hold onto.

Artists talk all the time about suffering from imposter syndrome — is that something you feel more acutely growing up poor?  

I don’t think that’ll ever go away. I feel like there’s a healthy amount of imposter syndrome that makes you grateful. But there was a lot of imposter syndrome in setting up the special, as far as doing a theatrical show — just because of the level of my career I’m at, I’m only able to perform at comedy clubs. The first time I ever did [Trash White] was when it was being recorded for the world. It was the first thing I ever directed — there’s very much an imposter syndrome there. 

There’s got to be a healthy amount, where you know you’re not incredible. But, yeah, there is leaning on the toxic side of it too much: “Hey, why don’t you believe in yourself and get out of the way? Just stop shitting on yourself.” Because when people say they enjoy [the special] and your next sentence is, “Yeah, it could’ve been better,” it’s like you’re basically saying, “You shouldn’t like it.”

That’s funny, because I’ve read and listened to other interviews you’ve given for Trash White, and you often talk about how you can’t watch the special without seeing its flaws. You’re very open about the fact that you don’t think you’re good enough to pull off certain subject matter yet. It’s refreshing how honest you are about how far you still feel you have to go as a comedian. 

I don’t know what else to do. [Laughs] Where I’m at today, and everything I have, is just from people’s kindness and help. If you really get down to it, and you did all the math on who I am — jokes per minute and word structure, story structure — I’m not anything special at all. And I think that outside of trying to sound incredibly grateful, that is just so important for people to hear — and is something that I wish I would’ve heard. 

That’s why I talk about luck in this special. Yeah, I’ve worked my ass off — the number one comment I get is, “Well, [your] work ethic,” great — but you still have to be lucky on top of that. You still have to have people go out of their way and be kind to you, to be your mentor, or something as small as an audience member being like, “You know what? We’ll check out this show.” That is something that… It never goes away. So then I feel like I owe it to them — it would feel insane to not be open about the process. Like, “Yeah, this is messy sometimes. And I miss the mark, and there’s things I wish I was better at, and I’m trying to get better, but thank you.” I don’t know how else to do it.

In the special, you also riff on being confused for a girl because your mom dyed your hair blonde, and made you do cheerleading with your sisters. As a straight man, did you struggle with masculinity and sexuality as a kid? I’m sure strangers thought, “Oh, maybe he’s gay.” 

The messed-up thing is a lot of that is coming from my parents. It was growing up in the religion that we did — this cult, a spinoff of Christianity and Judaism that they helped create. “Boys do not cry.” There’s a lot of F-words that we’re not allowed to say anymore that we were called as kids. Anything that was considered girl-like behavior was strictly not tolerated: “You’re supposed to be a man. You’re supposed to be stoic.” 

I looked very female-presenting, so when people in the grocery store are saying, “You look like a girl,” it carries this extra weight. It’s like, “No, I’m going to get in trouble for that — don’t say I’m acting like a girl or look like a girl.” That’s much more than just like, “I don’t fit in at the lunch table!” It’s like, “You’re getting me in trouble with my parents by saying that.”

But your mom dressed you and had your hair that way. Didn’t she realize she was contributing to the problem?

It took her too long to realize that, but we weren’t in a position to really complain about it. If I had to answer honestly about what it was, she dressed us and made us wear our hair in the way of the guys that she was attracted to, which are these very buff construction worker types, Jason Momoa types. They have long hair and pretty eyes. And she would do the hair, too — she teased the hair up, hair spray and a comb. [Laughs] I think Hanson was popular then, but even they had grungier long hair — ours was always very smooth, blonde hair. 

In her head, that’s what an attractive man looks like, and out of love [she] was like, “This is what you should look like.” But I don’t think the execution worked out. The problem is, if you have very soft features, like I do, the hair on top of that, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, now that’s just someone that’s female-presenting.”

So when did you rebel?

I knew I was going to get in a lot of trouble, but I went into the bathroom and I cut my hair off. And I got in a lot of trouble for that, but I was like, “I’d rather feel the pain — whatever the spanking is going to be or this trouble I’m going to be in — than people in the grocery store being like, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t say this often, but your daughters are beautiful. They look just like the Olsen twins.’” I carried all this weight of just not looking like the gender that you feel. I weighed it in my head, and I was like, “Yeah, I’d rather get in trouble.” So I cut it off myself. 

What happened?

My mom had to kind of lean into it and be like, “Okay, well, I guess this is what you’re going to do — I guess you’re going to have short hair now.” And since then, I’ve [had] short hair.

Lots of straight young men go through that panic of thinking, “I don’t want anyone to think I’m gay,” which is all about masculine insecurities. But in Trash White, you reprise your old cheerleading routines and talk about how guys would make fun of you and call you homophobic slurs. Is that something that still hurts?  

I think I processed it and moved on. I don’t know how you can’t look back on it and still have anger and at least remember what that anger feels like. Just as an acting exercise, I’m always in touch with that, so I can actually perform it like I’m there. My style of comedy is like you’re experiencing it with the character, the exact emotions I would have and how I feel — you should see that in my face, you should feel that in my body. So, yeah, it’s a thread I keep close to me: “Oh, yeah, remember how that feels.” 

But at this point, yeah, I’ve processed it. I think just being an adult is so much harder — way worse things have happened since then. So in the grand scheme of this very painful universe, yeah, a couple boys saying that [I] shouldn’t do cheerleading… I omitted some things [from the real story] — they got a little more physical with me. But again, I’m not good enough to dig the audience out of that yet, so I just kept with the taunting part.

It’s interesting to hear you say that about adulthood being harder, because I think most people would argue that childhood traumas are the ones that still hurt the most. 

They’ve got to be tied together — how you process things today is all from that very mushy time in your brain of [being a kid]. So, in that way, yes, absolutely, your childhood is more painful. 

But I don’t know, when you’re forced to look at everyone else’s pain… A weird thing that’s been happening to me, just in the last two weeks, is people reaching out with their own stories of trauma and pain. You start to feel a little luckier. People don’t mean it to bum me out, but I’m not famous enough to have a social media manager — I just will read these DMs. And when you’re open on stage, and people can tell that you’re actually open, they will divulge their own trauma, their own stories, whether it’s sexual, physical or mental abuse that happened to them as a kid — they will open up about that. And even they’re self-aware about it: “This is weird, I’m sorry, but I just want to share this with you.” 

Do you feel pressure to respond? Obviously, you’re not a therapist, so how do you handle the messages you get?

Just try to receive it. This is a very weird sentence, but in 2014, I lived in an art exhibit that was open to the public 24/7 called Modern Millennial. I started it as a joke: Everyone was abusing crowdfunding, so what if I called my mundane day-to-day life “performance art”? What could I get for free? So I lived in this art exhibit in downtown L.A. for two months. Everything was crowdfunded. It was this giant empty loft. And I put up all these art pieces everywhere, making fun of performance art. And one of those was a Marina Abramović piece, The Artist Is Present, where she [sits across from] someone, and she doesn’t say a word. 

So I was making fun of that. But I noticed that, in that process of just sitting, people would get very uncomfortable, just trying to keep the conversation going. And then there would be this other layer: “What can I say to you that would make you crack?” And then they’d just start admitting things about their day. The thing I learned from that is that people just want to be listened to. Most of the tools, you have already — everything you need, you have already. Your breakup or an attempt on your own life, which is what someone told me in that exhibit, there’s nothing you can really say [to that person]. We’re so quick to parrot back the canned responses — “Things get better!” — that we don’t just listen. I think a lot of times we just need someone to listen to our pain — or we just need to say it out loud. 

So I stopped making fun of that in the art exhibit, because it became just too heavy — like you said, I’m not a trained therapist or anything. I’m probably the worst person to receive it, but I just received it — I just listened to them, just looked in their eyes, didn’t say a word. So I think what I’ve taken away from that — and this hasn’t happened since that 2014 art exhibit — is that people reaching out now [with] their own pain, I’m not trying to give any advice or say that it’s all okay or not as big of a deal. I just listen to them, try to say something back to them that’s like, “I hear you, and I’m sorry that that happened to you,” but don’t give them the canned response.

This reminds me of what happens a couple times in the special: You’re talking about your life and the realizations you’ve had, and a few audience members clap. As a performer, do you feel like they’re doing that to make you feel better? Like what you’re saying about canned responses, clapping at a comedy show sometimes seems like, “We don’t know how to react to what we’ve just heard, so we’ll just clap.”

As a comedian, it’s one of the worst things you can hear: clapping. When I originally set out to do stand-up 10 years ago, I was like, “I just want to make people laugh. If that means talking about a dating app, that’s fine.” But then I noticed that my perspective on things was a little messed-up because of my past, so I had to put these disclaimers in — like, “Oh, yeah, actually, I’ve never been to school.” So then I just had to keep investing in this personal material, and as I did that, I could get to the very hacky dating joke that I was trying to get to. But in the process of that, you get clapping.

And then the worst sound that a comedian can hear: “Awwwwww.” A compassionate “Awwwwww” — while that might be nice in a Broadway show or in a one-man show, I think as a comedian, if you hear that, you haven’t done your job. The social contract is, you show up to this room in Syracuse, New York, and you order some chicken wings, and you yourself have had a very stressful day, and now you just want to sit in a room and not talk to your wife and laugh — if [the comedian] makes you sympathize with them too much, or bums you out, then you haven’t done the job of a comedian, which is you can talk about painful things but, my god, you better have a joke at the end. You better be able to dig them out. 

So the hardest thing has been finding that line with this show — to not make it sound like a political speech, to not just bum people out with facts about my life. If that means admitting certain physical-abuse things that happened to me, then sure. Just fulfilling the job of a comedian, because at the end that’s what I want to do. I just want to make people laugh.

You talk about your mom a lot in the special, but we don’t hear much about your dad. What’s that relationship like? 

It’s a very complicated scenario where I haven’t fully processed it. There is so much indifference to this person that was not there for [heavy] moments in my life, was not there when things were really tough when we needed him. And then, when he did come back around — he was sorry, he was apologizing — I was already an adult. I was already a full person — I had figured out mechanisms as to how to get myself out of a depression or how to keep pushing. 

I feel really bad about this, but [he] was just this guy. I think that’s too reductive — of course, there’s a parent there, and I think that’s a very special relationship that’ll never go away, and I do love him and care about him. But as far as a parent and the effect he’s had in my life, it hasn’t been a lot, or at least I haven’t seen it yet. So maybe there’s still some anger there. 

I wasn’t going to talk about my mom until I actually came to a point of genuine forgiveness, because I don’t think anyone wants to go to a show and watch someone bitch about their childhood. It’s like, “Oh, you had a rough childhood. Guess what? So did everyone.” So there’s a lot of unprocessed feelings about my dad, where I feel guilty about feeling so indifferent about someone that… I think he loves me, he really cares. But he’s just a guy to me right now. And under that, [there’s] probably some anger and some calluses that I’ve built up because I’ve been hurt or felt these feelings of abandonment. So, yeah, I’m processing, and hopefully I can pull it off in the next show, in Part Two.

You grew up in a family that started an unsuccessful religious cult. How are you feeling about religion these days?

Incredibly lost. I have a very healthy amount of respect for every religion. The only thing I don’t agree with is with someone who’s absolute: “There is no God. There is no religion. There’s nothing beyond this.” I really cringe at the Bill Maher takes on that — it’s very reductive for something that does actually enrich people’s lives and makes communities. It’s like, “How can you believe in a man in the sky?” Well, these people do because it works for them. 

So I don’t think anyone is wrong, and I don’t think anyone has figured it out yet — or at least in my experience of what I’ve heard of different religions. Now, that’s very inconvenient — it’s so complicated being an adult. I wish The Power of Now worked for me. 

When you’ve actually tried [religion], and you’ve believed in something so strong, and then that’s ripped out from under you… I believed I was going to hell until I was 16. And when that just went away, it’s a very scary feeling because it’s like, “Well, if I believe in something again, what are the odds there’s not going to be another rug-pull?” So it’s very hard to invest in something else as “the one way.” I do wish I had something.

I was struck by an interview you gave where you said that your parents’ religion believed that the end was imminent. It must be so strange to not have that weighing on you anymore — that there’s a whole life ahead of you.

I’m so grateful that the God that I was told about doesn’t exist — very hateful, vengeful, selfish. As far as that person not existing, that was a huge relief. But what has really messed with my psyche is that there is a seed still in there. One of the tenets of the religion is that God’s going to give three signs and then going to end the world with destruction. And one of the signs was going to be a holy war in the Middle East. And then there’s going to be civil unrest, riots, protests in the street. And then there’s going to be a plague, a disease that wipes everyone out. So when 2020 rolled around, [I thought,] “Wait, were they right?” 

That was scary that [thought] even came up, that that’s still in there. I was still like, “Okay, well, what would I do to get back in if that’s the truth?” I don’t think you can ever be fully deprogrammed. There’s at least two percent of that still in there.

The special deals with the new terminology we’ve come up with to describe the homeless, and how you hate these touchy-feely terms. On the one hand, I appreciate the inclination by some to want to remove the stigma of “being homeless.” But because you’ve had the experience, I was curious to hear more about why these new terms irritate you.

So the term “unhoused” is a relatively new thing that’s happening. But what I’m actually saying with that is not a dusty middle-aged-man argument about the culture — it’s this reductive attitude toward poor people, where we do these half-measures. 

When we were kids, early 2000s, it was these things that didn’t actually help — or they thought that changing one thing was going to fix everything for you. “Oh, Christmas rolls around, we’ll take you on as a family. Here’s two Foot Locker gift cards!” You shouldn’t be angry at them — you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth — but people would eventually treat you like you were so lucky for these two gift cards, and that they had “fixed” poverty. It was appreciated that they helped us out. We would not eat unless we were able to flip those gift cards at a yard sale that we would have — we would sell the gift cards and then buy food with that. But it was just that attitude of, “Here’s this small thing, we fixed it for you.” And that was probably the most painful part about being poor. It wasn’t “I’m hungry” or not having shoes at school — it was just that attitude that, “Yeah, you are so lucky for this thing that kind of helps.” 

And I think that’s come up now with “unhoused,” where it’s like, yeah, it’s nice — especially if someone that is homeless is saying, “Oh, don’t call me homeless, could you just call me unhoused?” Then, absolutely, treat them with that dignity. But to have these culture wars is distracting you from the actual time that you could be investing in low-income housing or a food bank. It’s like, “Oh, I did my thing — I argued with someone on Twitter and said not to use ‘homeless.’” [I’m] like, “Well, yeah, that’s an hour you could have actually done something that helped.”

This societal notion of “Oh, the poor are just lazy” — that’s just bullshit, right?

The problem is they cherry-pick those things. Yes, there are deadbeat dads. Yes, there are lazy parents. But it’s like, “Well, what came first, the chicken or the egg?” Do they not get a job, and then they got addicted to drugs? Were they lazy because they never had a father figure around? So, yes, there are lazy people and there are people that squander opportunities and are selfish. But it’s not why poor people are poor. 

That’s the nuance of the conversation. It’s either “Everyone is Will Smith, hustling for a job,” or “Everyone is a crack-addicted, lazy scammer.” I think there’s a healthy mix of both. And I just wanted to tell a story [in Trash White]: “Here’s someone that did try, and has these shortcomings and is selfish, but they still try.” So, yeah, it’s a very Republican [mindset] sometimes to be like, “All poor people are lazy. They’re mooching off the state.” And then it’s a very Democratic thing to be like, “No, everyone’s an angel! Just by being poor, they’re a flawless angel! You can’t say anything about them.” 

I just think more stories about individual people help people see things better and not look at things as a monolith. If you could sneak that in with humor — and an entertaining show with a bunch of lights and some fancy trash painted and a slightly effeminate boy prancing around — and you get that message in, then you might have done something. But still not much as going to a food bank and volunteering.