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 much of his childhood, he lived on a bus with his single mother and five siblings, not knowing where he’d 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’d watch Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Comedy was a distraction from the fact that he often didn’t have enough to eat and that his father had left.
Storm’s life has come a long way since then. He’s been an actor on a long list of films and shows, including “This is Us” and “Arrested Development.” Most recently, he debuted in his own comedy special on HBO Max, “Trash White,” produced by his childhood icon, Conan O’Brien.
Yet his special is largely about the persistence of the past, and especially of poverty.
CNBC recently spoke with Moses about how comedy has evolved from a diversion from his painful experiences to the way he now chooses to talk about them.
(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)
Annie Nova: How did you get the confidence to try to make it as a comedian?
Moses Storm: There was nothing I was walking away from. There was no education; there was no parent to please. But I knew that this was something I loved, and that it could probably make me more money than a minimum wage job.
AN: Financial stress was a constant throughout your childhood. What is it like to worry less about money as an adult?
MS: It never feels like you’re out of poverty. The idea that you could end up there again, that you never have enough, that this could all go away — those feelings don’t change.
AN: A fear you talk about being hard to shake is around location and home. You were never in one place for long as a kid. How does that fact continue to impact you?
MS: I’ve subconsciously chosen a life where I’m always on the road. I don’t know how to live any other way. I start to get a real restlessness if I’m not always moving.
AN: Why do you think that is?
MS: There is a feeling of impermanence that comes at an early age from not knowing where we’re going to be. How long are we going to be at this campground before we’re evicted? And so now, if I’m moving, 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?
MS: If I was actively living it, I wouldn’t have enough distance to transmit it into entertainment for people. And if you’re saying you want the very privileged job of being a comedian, you owe it to your audience to have some perspective. We’re not just sharing about our lives. People are putting on Netflix, they’re putting on HBO, to be entertained and to forget about their problems. And so I have to take these things I’ve gone through, and process them and then deliver them in a humorous way. That’s where the art form comes in.
AN: You seem to have so much perspective on your experiences. Have you been to therapy?
MS: In an effort to connect with an audience, you have to have empathy for everyone in that room. You have to ask: Where is everyone coming from? I can’t just go up there and express anger; that’s not interesting to anyone. They’re coming in with their own anger and their own life. Well, then, what is the universal between us? What is the thing that we can all connect on? It is finding these touchpoints that made me less angry. It was not therapy. It was just coming to these shared human experiences.
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AN: In your comedy special, you talk about how your mom shoplifted a lot. Once she was caught stealing vitamins. I found this a surprising detail. Why vitamins?
MS: The stories of her getting kicked out of a Winn-Dixie supermarket and the cops coming are less funny. I don’t think there’s a topic in comedy that’s off limits because it’s too sad. But you better have a joke to pull that audience out of the bummer fact you just delivered because everyone’s coming into that room, the thousands of people that night, with their own trauma and their own fears. I chose vitamins because it was the funniest thing she stole.
AN: How hard is it to pitch a comedy special about poverty?
MS: If you go in like, ‘I’m going to do a hilarious comedy special about the economic and generational poverty in this country,’ people are like, ‘Boooo.’ But what you can do is make people laugh. And in between those moments they’re laughing, what you’re really doing is opening them up. It’s sort of a magic trick in that they’re vulnerable. Then you can sneak those details in.
AN: You say you have a problem with the way poverty is talked about. In your special, you express frustration with the term “food insecure.” You say, “I need carbs and not confidence.” Why does this wording bother you?
MS: We’ve reduced human beings to these statistics and therapy terms, and what that does is relieve us of any responsibility or guilt for not going into our wallet and personally giving that poor person $5. We can say, ‘Poverty: that’s got to be addressed through social programs! We have to vote in November!’ We want these fixes that take nothing on our part.
AN: You stress that your story is a highly lucky one and that we put too much emphasis on the “rags to riches” stories. Why do you think we romanticize these plots?
MS: It’s awkward to help people out. 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’re mentally ill? And so the rags to riches stories are comforting to us because we don’t do anything in that story. We watch someone else work. We watch someone else help themselves.