Moses Storm. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by HBO
By the time an audience sees a joke in a special, it feels inevitable. But most jokes start with a comedian just trying something for the first time. And sometimes that first attempt bombs, but something — or someone — tells them to keep going.
That was the case with Moses Storm’s story about dumpster diving and throwing up at a country-club pool. The story — which became the centerpiece of Trash White, his debut special that premiered on HBO Max earlier this year — might not have been, if it wasn’t for a well-timed bit of support from Roy Wood Jr., the brilliant stand-up whose third Comedy Central special, Imperfect Messenger, was released late last year.
On Vulture’s Good One podcast, which features Wood as guest host, Storm talks about how Wood influenced the special, why it isn’t not a TED Talk special, and why he wishes he could reshoot it. Below, you can read an excerpt from the transcript or listen to the full episode. Tune in to Good One every Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Roy Wood Jr.: I am happy for you, and it’s this weird moment of like, Fuck yeah. Someone who deserves it got it, and now he gets to bask in it. I’m like a weird older cousin or some shit.
Moses Storm:That’s great to hear. I think we should preface this by saying that you are the first comedian that I ever met in person. In 2008 we were making … I wouldn’t say quality videos, I would say topical videos?
Moses: It had some viral success, but it was very burnable content. Like “Susan Boyle’s in the news!” and we would do a bit about that. And secretly, I was always too embarrassed and insecure to ever do stand-up. So when I found out that you were a stand-up comedian, I endlessly picked your brain as much as I could as an 18-year-old, and you were the first person that said, “If you want to do it, you just have to go to open mics and do it.” And now it’s ten years later, and now we’re here.
Roy: I am very curious about you finding [your voice] at a younger age. Like, I started at 19, and I feel like I did not find my North Star until about 37. At 35, maybe, I was starting to show inklings of the type of performer I would be in my hour special.
Moses: Is that when I met you? At 35?
Roy: No, no. I was younger. I’d say maybe 28-ish, 30-ish? Somewhere in there. I’m 43 now, so you do the math.
Moses: In my head, you were like a fully-formed person of like, Oh, this guy knows what he wants. So as an 18-year-old, I was like, This is the oldest person I’ve ever met.
Moses: Based on just your ability to communicate ideas on set of like, “This is what a joke is. It’s funnier if we do this.”
Roy: Walk me through the genesis of this bit, because I feel like what we’re talking about right now really ties into that. Because you’re speaking to a bigger issue, which is poverty and what poverty really is like — the truth of poverty, but using your own experiences to tie in to a national conversation. So the first thing you have to be comfortable with as a performer is getting onstage and going, All right, I’m going to tell a joke and risk failure. But you chose to go onstage and literally put the imperfections of not only yourself but your family on Front Street for the greater sacrifice of informing people in a way that did not feel like you were beating me over the head. It just felt like a story. And then, lo and behold, it’s connected to everything in the world. So walk me through this bit in how you made the decision — like, This story. This is the one.
Moses:So in a no-bullshit way — because I think you’d call me out immediately if it was bullshit — is I was talking to you at the Team Coco House all-star game. Team Coco was doing shows …
Roy:That was right before COVID!
Moses:We got COVID there. Like, COVID was spread at the shows that you and I were doing.
Roy: Valentine’s weekend 2020.
Moses: Yes. So it was just now coming to America — or it had already been — and any public event is responsible for where we are today. So we were the last irresponsible event. Thank you for those free tickets, Conan. Chris Redd and I were hosting a show and then I came out, and I did this story that kind of didn’t go that well. It’s about eating from the trash and then breaking into a country club, and — this completely spoils it — we throw up everywhere, and we get kicked out of the country club. And I was talking to you about, “I don’t like the aws that I hear from the audience. It’s worse than ‘Fuck you idiot!’ or complete silence is when you hear ‘Awww!’ from the audience. That means I fundamentally have not done my job as a comedian.
Roy: Because they feel sorry for you.
Moses:Yes! To fulfill the job as a comedian, you go to this room and you have chicken wings, so you can make people feel this feeling of Ha-ha hee-hee ha-ha, I forgot about my life. And as I was investing in my own life and sharing things, I noticed that some of the facts [I shared], it’d get an “Awww” from people or people coming up to you after like “Thank you so much for sharing that.” So I talked to you backstage right before your show of wanting to cut that and not feel that feeling of, Could I just talk about poverty, or talk about dating apps? And as someone whose opinion is … You could tell me to do anything and I would do it. You said, “Do not cut that. That is you. If you’re uncomfortable with it, that’s exactly what you should be leaning into. There’s enough jokes in there. Just, you buy it, and you stop selling yourself short and trying to bail on it and try to take care of that. Just say that this is you.” Because initially I had a bunch of stuff in there that was kind of bailing on it: “I know it sucks, but you know, whatever, what are you gonna do?!” So you’re the reason that that’s in that special. That’s why I chose it for this.
Roy: Wow. Well, I’m honored. I’ll say that, as a comedian, I’ve always felt a bit of respectful envy of you. I wish I was that courageous that early. I’ll be 44 this year, and I’m just now starting to unpack, Oh, I should be talking about the weird relationship with my father and how it informs my relationship with my son. And you had already had that, and I’m watching from the side like, “Yes, the pain! Give them more pain!”
Moses: Which doesn’t always go well, and it really goes against what we want to do, you and I, at the end of the day, which is what makes people laugh. Right?
Roy: But you want them to feel. That’s the differentiation between the comedians that we remember in our lives. It’s the feeling that also comes along with the joke, especially if you’re talking about stuff that’s introspective. What I love about the special — and it was very slick how you did it — is this is the story of fucking poverty. You talk about dumpster diving, and you go from there into food stamps and the whole broken system of it.
Moses: Honestly, I wish I could reshoot the special. I watch it and there’s so many things that I hate, and I feel like what I was trying to do does not come across. The biggest thing that I have to address is the phrase “TED Talk special.” I say I’m not going to do a TED Talk special and then in the very next sentence start talking about the cerebral cortex and how poverty affects the brain. Then I literally pull out a PowerPoint remote and start doing, essentially, a TED Talk. So, the whole special in my head — I only feel comfortable saying this to you because I feel like you know all the devices in comedy — was setting up part two, which is about growing up in the cult and how the cult is a grift that you get people involved in.
We grew up grifting. What my mom would do in a grift is you say what you’re not going to do in the grift and then you do that exact same thing. You call a radio station around Christmas and say, “I know a lot of people take advantage of you guys around Christmas, but I just want to let you know that we are not one of those families, and your show has gotten us through a very rough time where our house just burned down.” It did not. “And we just want to let you know we don’t want anything from you, but your show has gotten us through it.” Then that was the way that the radio station or people would call in and provide for her. So, the whole special is about forgiveness. I forgive my mom as I make my own mistakes as an adult, and rather than just say, “I forgive you,” what if I say everything that you taught me, everything I was running from? What if I did that? What if it worked to my advantage?
The whole special is a grift. I used everything you taught me, all the mistakes. So I’m saying I’m not going to do a TED Talk special and I start doing a TED Talk special, which is the grift. That’s what I don’t know comes across, but that’s at least what I’m trying to do.
Roy: That’s brilliant, man, because it didn’t come across as that to me, but I think part of that was because of the set decoration. You had a lot of great choices in terms of the camera angles. Even playing directly overhead and using the floor as a display instead of a back-wall monitor — those things are very specific choices. Embedding the visuals to the left third of the screen or overlaying the visuals over you, the way that you would infuse media into it, it didn’t feel like that.
Moses: Okay, because when you’re holding a remote, it can feel like a TED Talk.
Roy: And you’re wearing a lav mic, too. I understand.
Moses: The whole thing is reacting not to — and I’ve gotten messages about this — people being like, [doing a voice of a dumb guy] “Yeah, fuck yeah, take down Nanette! Nanette was boring!” And it’s just the opposite. Nanette was great. “It’s not stand-up” — who gives a shit? It’s better than stand-up. What I’m saying when I say “Ted Talk” is the response to Nanette. So many mainly male comedians got upset that it went well for her and that she pulled off something different.
Roy: “People liked that!? Grrrrrrrrr.”
Moses: She pulled it off, and it was authentic to her. Then men tried to do this thing of, like, “Nanette, but for boys!” Like, “Here’s how she should have done it.” And then it was not authentic. It was mainly an article that they had pulled from that was like, “This is the psychology of the brain.” This is a very weird, aggro move. So when I say “TED Talk,” it was referencing the response to that.
The problem was that I had to cut the longer part of that joke. So I go, “I’m not doing a TED Talk special that’s more important than it is funny.” This was the part that was cut: “You know those comedians that come onstage? They have got big, fucking fat Jordans on, they’re woker than thou, and they’re all nice onstage and a real piece of shit offstage? You know, those guys?” In the process of editing, in those two months, “woke” had become an alt-right dog whistle. And I did it in good faith at the time, but then I knew what it meant now, in the edit, so then pulled that out. But now it’s just reading like I’m shitting on any special that has an authentic moment. That’s why I wish I could reshoot.