“You never feel like you’re out of poverty”: comedian Moses Storm suppresses his shock for a laugh

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

“I have the equivalent of maybe a second grade education,” he said. For most of his childhood, he lived on a bus with his single mother and five siblings, not knowing where he would wake up the next day.

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

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

However, his own is largely about the stubbornness of the past, especially poverty.

CNBC recently spoke with Moses about how comedy has evolved from a diversion about his traumatic experiences to the way he now chooses to talk about them.

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

Annie Nova: How did you get the confidence to try and make it as a comic?

Musa storm: There was nothing I was walking away from. There was no education. There was no father to please him. But I knew this was something I would love, and that it would probably make me more money than minimum wage.

AN: Financial pressure was constant throughout your childhood. What does it feel like not to worry about money as an adult?

the lady: Never feel that you are out of poverty. The idea that you could end up there again, that you never have enough, that all of this could just go away—these feelings don’t change.

AN: The fear you’re talking about about being difficult to get rid of is about the location and the house. You’ve never been in one place since you were a kid. How does this fact continue to affect you?

the lady: I have subconsciously chosen a life where I am always on the road. I don’t know how to live any other way. I’m starting to get real worried if I don’t always move.

AN: Why do you think so?

the lady: There is a sense of impermanence that comes at a young age of not knowing where we are going to be. How long are we going to stay in this camp before we get expelled? And now, if I’m moving, I feel like I’m one step ahead of everything. I can’t be fired.

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

the lady: If I live it actively, I will not have enough distance to move it to the entertainment of people. And if you say you want the very special job of being a comedian, you owe it to your audience to get some perspective. We don’t just share our lives. People use Netflix, binge on HBO, to be entertained and to forget their troubles. And so I have to take these things that I’ve been through, process them and then deliver them in a humorous way. This is where the art form comes in.

Anne: You seem to have a lot of perspective on your experiences. Did you go to treatment?

the lady: In trying to connect with the audience, you must have empathy for everyone in that room. You have to ask: Where does everyone come from? I can’t just go up there and express anger. This is not interesting to anyone. They come with their anger and their own lives. Well, then, what’s the year between us? What is something we can all relate to? Finding these touch points made me feel less angry. It wasn’t the cure. He was just coming to these common human experiences.

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AN: In your comedy, you talk about how your mom robbed a lot of stores. Once she was caught stealing vitamins. I found this detail surprising. Why vitamins?

the lady: The stories of her being kicked out of the Winn-Dixie supermarket and the cops showing up are less hilarious. I don’t think there’s a theme in comedy that’s off limits because it’s so sad. But you better have a joke to draw this audience away from the ominous fact I just presented because everyone had walked into that room, thousands of people that night, with their own traumas and fears. I chose the multivitamin because it was the funniest thing i ever stole.

AN: What is difficult about doing a comedy special about poverty?

the lady: If I go to like, “I’m going to do a fun comedy special about economic poverty and generational poverty in this country,” people are like, “Boo.” But what you can do is make people laugh. And in between those giggling moments, what you really do is open them up. It’s kind of a magic trick in that they’re vulnerable. Then you can sneak into those details.

Anne: You say you have a problem with the way poverty is talked about. In your own letter, you express your frustration with the term “food insecurity.” You say, “I need carbs, not confidence.” Why does this wording bother you?

the lady: Humans have reduced us to these stats and terms of treatment, and what that does is absolves us of any responsibility or guilt for not going into our wallet and personally giving that poor person $5. We can say, “Poverty: It must be tackled through social programmes! We have to vote in November!” We want these reforms that take nothing from us.

AN: You confirm that your story is very lucky and that we focus a lot on “rags to riches” stories. Why do you think we romanticize these plots?

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

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