Moses Storm On ‘Trash White,’ Aging Into Empathy, And Making Stand-Up A Visual Medium

I’ve watched Moses Storm’s Trash White comedy special multiple times since its debut on HBO Max earlier this year and a few things continue to stand out. Namely that this is something unique in tone and visual presentation for a comedy special, and that Storm’s portrait of his less than fairytale upbringing might be more resonant than you’d think when listening to tales about family grifts and living in an abandoned bus. Particularly if you had a less than perfect childhood. Or, at least, I know that was my experience as someone that moved something like 20 times in 20 years, never really finding comfort outside of my closed ranked family until it was time to leave.

Around a dozen years into a career that began at 18 — partly as a means of finding an outlet to express himself and some kind of vocation that wouldn’t hold his non-standard education against him — Storm is finally encountering the recognition of a job well done. But it’s not just craft on display here (including some of the skills he learned from his family, like the misdirection he’s applying with his “criticism” of TED Talk comedy specials in the special). It’s perseverance and emotional evolution. A reckoning spread over time that fueled his rise as a storyteller/comedian. As he told me when we spoke a couple of weeks ago about this long journey and his big ambitions for himself and comedy as a visual medium, it wasn’t easy getting people to give him the chance to do something different with inspired set design and audiovisual elements, raising the stakes on what is, essentially, his introduction to comedy fans everywhere. It also wasn’t quick to get to a place of forgiveness. Perhaps you can relate to that too.

I’ve had a few bumps along the road with my family too. So the special really spoke to me. Has there been any blowback for you with your family and you being so open on stage about your upbringing?

There’s always a constant battle with that.

A battle with yourself or battle with them?

With family members, because, I mean, there are things that are omitted that are not in there that are much worse, because I’m not talented enough to say these sad facts and then pull people out. I hope to get there one day. But yeah…there are two arguments, right? There’s one: it’s your story. You should do whatever. [What] I always feel guilty about is I’m talking about people that did not sign up for the public eye. It’s fine if I put something out and whatever publication wants to say whatever about me, but what I am doing is, I’m signing people up that did not sign up to be in this. So yes, there always is this respect for my siblings of, “okay, I know I really want to do this, but how is this going to make them feel?”

Before the special was ever turned in or released, I screened it for just my mom. So she didn’t have to find out at the same time as the general public did. I was like, “This is what this means to me. This is what I’m trying to do. You might not like it, but here’s what it is. And if something really hurts your feelings, I’ll take it out.” And she loved it. Because at the end of the day, it’s not someone bitching about their parents. It’s someone saying they forgive you because of their own mistakes.

I know that, within the context of my family, certain things made sense. But I think a lot of the time we share our stories, people judge those things without really knowing. So to me, there’s an affection woven throughout these stories that you’re telling. Almost like, that’s your tribe. And part of it is also pride of surviving. Is that fair to say?

Yeah. I cringe watching earlier stuff of mine because you just see an angry young man and I think “that’s not ready to be a show yet.” There’s the big mistake of like, if you’re in a really rough spot, you should get on stage and talk about it. And it’s not fully digested. And it was only when I came around to actual forgiveness… And a little bit more forgiveness happened, just putting the show together, because you have to write full, fleshed-out characters. No one’s just a villain in a vacuum who’s wrongdoing for no sake. There’s something behind it. And just trying to justify some of her behavior and some of the things we had to go through, even more forgiveness came from that. So it was only when I felt like I wasn’t complaining or it wasn’t this roast of my family that I felt like these stories were ready for the public to potentially rip apart.

There are other things that are in there that are just not ready. Because I accidentally found out that, oh shit, I am still very angry about that. It never goes away completely. But I don’t know. I’ve always liked watching performers that have fully processed it. I feel like they have something to say. Anyone can say they’re angry, but I think it’s more interesting to say how you got less angry, how you got over it. It is harder.

Is that journey of forgiveness something that happened largely because of your stage work or is it something that’s been happening off to the side?

It’s largely happening because of age. As you get older, you understand how just fallible you are and your own mistakes, how selfish I could be sometimes. I think that’s what the great thing is with age is you’ve finally come around to empathy. You know, I’ve never been one of those anti-PC comedians at all. It’s like if someone said a word that hurts their feelings, well then don’t say that. It’s as simple as that. Your job is to make people feel good, make them laugh. It’s not to push boundaries and be a truth sayer. At the end of the day, if you’re saying this is a comedy show and Netflix has categorized this as stand-up comedy… It’s just supposed to make me feel good and everything else is a bonus. If you can make people feel seen, if I can get something out of it… hearing you connect with it and having a similar experience, that always means more to me than someone just saying, “Oh, it’s funny. I like it. It’s great.” That’s cool, but when someone like you, who’s had a similar past, rough childhood, when they connect with it, that’s really been the most rewarding part.

Well yeah, everyone else’s childhoods were gumdrops and rainbows and Christmas carols. We don’t get enough stories to kind of remind us that kids with not the greatest childhood deserve to feel seen too sometimes.

It’s something that I wish I would’ve seen when I was going through it or when I was just angry about these things. I wish someone would’ve said “hey, some people just get lucky. They didn’t do anything. You didn’t do anything bad. It’s not that you’re not working hard enough. It’s not that your parents are some evil monsters. It’s just some people are born into a lucky situation.” It’s something that I wish I would’ve heard. I wish one of these performers would’ve said it.

Trash White

With the response to this special, do you feel any internal pressure to quickly release the next one [which is teased at the end of this] and capitalize on people’s interest? A need to strike while it’s hot and get this out within the next year and then another one, another one. Is that something that’s weighing on your mind right now?

Not the time. It being good is the other thing. I think going through the past two years of not being able to perform has given me a lot more patience. So no, the worst thing I would do, because I took a huge gamble with the first one as far as “this is not a TED Talk, now here’s a TED Talk”… if it [the next one] wasn’t good, if it didn’t properly pay off, that would hurt worse to me than people saying, like, “What? We don’t remember that one.” I think these are meant to be watched back-to-back, in hindsight. It might be a bad idea, but it’s exciting and it scares the shit out of me. I’m not the best performer. I don’t know anything about the industry. There are no hard and fast rules. I just know that the things that have absolutely scared the shit out of me are the things that have worked out for me.

The goal for me is to make something that’s authentic for me next. Now that I have a piece of work, it’s like, here’s what I want to be doing. I built the set. Usually, when they say here, you should be doing a special, you get a red curtain, three purple lights and a jib crane to scoop in on your “dating be weird” jokes. I wanted to do more with mine because of the career I wanted. It was dressing for the job I want. So it was like, well, let me make a theatrical show that has visual elements and it has video and a set, a wardrobe that’s purposely chosen, every inch of the set is used or it’s relevant to the story because that’s the job I want.

You’re leaving out the large letters to spell out your name.

Yeah. Oh, how could I forget? What a great one, because if anyone was confused about who they’re seeing, there are big block letters with your name. You come out with that swoop shot. Why I want to direct specials… and that’s why I co-directed this one. Because I personally, like you, have a lot of pet peeves about stand-up specials, the block letters being one of them. The unnecessary jib shots that don’t match the performer’s pace, energy, and material.

I want to direct specials because I think the crutch is sometimes comedians want to just be rock stars in their special. So they shoot it like a concert and it’s not conducive to every performer. Nate Bargatze shouldn’t be shot with drone shots and smoke machines and big black letters. But someone like Kevin Hart should be. So it’s just about tailoring angles, lenses, and set and tone to each performer and making standup a more visual medium because that is what it has evolved into. Stand-up, outside of my show, is relatively cheap to produce. So it’s become more and more visual. But a lot of us comedians, we have not kept up with the pace. We just focus on the material because that’s all we’ve ever had to do. And you got to look at the way you watch standup. For me, I’m the demo for standup. I love it. I do it. I have a vested interest. And even when I’m watching a special I really care about, I’m still loading the dishwasher. I’m on my phone, texting. There’s no reason to really look.

I agree. It’s an art form that is stuck in neutral visually. Not just visually, topically too. I like Aziz’s comedy, but I’ve seen the fucking special where somebody walks down the stairs of the Comedy Cellar, “and this is where I got started” and then they sit on the stool.

It’s called Louis on FX. Yeah. It’s called every episode of Louis. Yeah.

I’ve seen that thing before. And why would you use the same delivery system?

Even something like the apology special is now a trope because there’s so much standup where you have to be on the stool because you’re so sorry. The fact that you and I both know what big block letters were means that this is something that’s been drilled into us and done over and over again. Now, the complicated thing is that’s authentic to Aziz and I’m sure a lot of people like that. And a lot of people like the big block letters, but I think if you’re a newer comedian, to cut through any noise, you have to do something different. They’re very fortunate because they’re talented and they have multiple specials that are great that people love. As you get later in your career, you can do things that are considered tropes or that have been done before. But if you’re trying to break through, if you’re no one, like I am, then you got to figure out your own lane because you’re never going to pass those other guys.

Was that difficult to get that level of artistic control and budget?

Yes, it’s been difficult at every single step and at things that you’d think wouldn’t be a fight were a fight. Not with HBO. It’s just the people that you hire and work with are used to doing the set it and forget it specials. So this is why I stepped up, because I was asking for a lot. So if you are going to ask for a lot, you better be prepared to do a lot. So me helping build the actual set, physically painting things, driving around the streets of LA, and picking up garbage [to construct the set]… In After Effects, editing ink and water. These are things I did, not because I’m this auteur that needs to control every step. It’s just we didn’t have the money to hire someone to do that. And we didn’t have people that are trained to do that. So we all just learned, and thank God a lot of people from Team Coco [the special is produced by Conan O’Brien’s company] just came down and volunteered their time to help me out. Our production company was great, even helping me find someone to edit it with because I did the initial first pass. I’ve been in every single step of this and I can’t wait till I’m successful enough where I don’t have to be. [Laughs]

Moses Storm’s ‘Trash White’ is streaming now on HBO Max