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Moses Storm and the Case for Pretentious Modern Stand-up

Surely you’ve heard the grumbles, the sighs and the outright complaints about self-serious comedians making points instead of punch lines …

Moses Storm and the Case for Pretentious Modern Stand-up
28.01.2022 18:39
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Surely you’ve heard the grumbles, the sighs and the outright complaints about self-serious comedians making points instead of punch lines, pandering for applause, creating specials that are more like solo theater shows or, the unkindest cut of all, TED Talks.

Eye-rolling over comedy getting tragically serious started among hard-core fans and comics, migrated to podcasts, and now has made its way to specials themselves. Witness “Trash White” (now streaming on HBO Max), a promising if schematic debut from Moses Storm. After opening with a topic sentence (“Crazy will always beat scary”) and a story about growing up poor, he assures the audience that he’s not making a “modern-day comedy special.”

In case you’re not clued in to this critique, which reached its zenith in the backlash to Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette,” he dismissively mentions TED Talks. “I have nothing of educational value to add to your night,” he says. “I have legitimately no agenda.”

Here’s the funny part: None of this is true.

Storm, whose Timothée Chalamet hair stylishly clashes with his white outfit, has actually made a quintessentially modern comedy special, hitting on every trendy trope, from eccentric camerawork (it opens with a swirling bird’s-eye view of the stage) to documentary elements and theatrical design, including a pointedly cluttered and abstract set. Unless I’m missing the sarcasm, his statement that “The idea of upward mobility in this country is a lie” sure sounds like an agenda.

Storm is trying to have his cake and make fun of those who say “Let them eat cake,” too. But one gets the sense that his anxiety about coming off as smarter than funny is an impediment here. What distinguishes this special is not the quality of its jokes, which range from fair to middling, but how they are woven into a thematically and formally coherent show that has something to say about poverty in America today.

Storm is hardly the first comic to make jokes about being broke. In fact, there may be no more common subject. In his recent Netflix half-hour, Dusty Slay illustrated his level of poverty as a kid by describing the ice cream his mother offered. “My mom would pour milk into a bowl,” Slay explained. “Then when we’d show up, she’d say, ‘You’re too late.’” Storm also has a bit about the ice cream his family could afford.

Dusty Slay talked about growing up poor in his recent special.Credit…Clifton Prescod/Netflix

In a raucous special that comes out next month on Netflix, the stand-up Ms. Pat has some superb material on what her family did to save money, including eating “water sandwiches” and cooking in the fireplace.

There’s an entire other universe of comics who find humor in currently being poor. Kyle Ayers has a great bit about how he drives for Uber to support his stand-up and once took home two of his five audience members. During the ride, one asked, “How’s it going?” and he shot back, “I think we both know ‘how it’s going.’”

And yet class does not seem to be as prominent a subject in stand-up as race or gender. That’s because by the time comics becomes famous enough to make really popular specials, they tend to be too well-off to want to talk about money. (Though an exception might be Gary Gulman’s next special, judging by his current tour.)

Storm, a 31-year-old actor and stand-up, digs into the subject from many angles, telling jokes that pinpoint cultural double standards. (When it comes to dyslexia, he explains, the rich get Adderall and the poor are just considered dumb.) Other bits unpack euphemisms in the tradition of George Carlin. He singles out the term “food insecure household” because it makes a serious issue “sound adorable.”

The most fascinating part of the special is when Storm discusses his mother’s attempts to win $10,000 from “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” the TV series (hosted by the late Bob Saget) that showcased footage of mishaps in the kitchen or someone getting a baseball to the groin in the front yard. His mother was determined to manufacture an accident with her five children that would win the top prize. The plan was for Moses to drop an egg onto his sister’s face. And using videotape from his childhood, he shows what happened. (You’ll have to watch the special to see if they won.)

What begins as a farcical series of mistakes turns into something darker (more “Gypsy” than “Noises Off”) as his mother gets flustered at her small children for botching a comic bit. There’s something uncomfortable about the scene but also poignant. The context of her fury is clarified by Storm’s point that being short of money makes you afraid and desperate. This is the theme Storm works on best, the distorting cycle of poverty, the complex ways being poor keeps you poor.

But the portrait of his mother feels unfinished, as if there’s more to say but he hasn’t figured out how to do it. The nuance of character can be funny and interesting, but too often it’s sacrificed for thin quips. “We were living in this terrible part of Florida called Florida,” he says, before fake laughing and adding, “No one’s ever made that joke before.” If it’s so hack, why keep it?

The difference between solo shows and stand-up sets is not just the number of jokes, but also the expectations for plot and theme. Stand-up can get away with being a disconnected collection of setups and punch lines, but aiming for more should not be considered some kind of gimmick or affectation. It’s evolution. In a healthy comedy scene, there are many kinds of humor, some more dense with punch lines than others. Comedians like Mike Birbiglia have proved that not only do you not need to choose between stories and punch lines, but one can also support the other, although pulling it off isn’t easy. A joke can hit harder if there’s something behind it beyond a clever misdirection.

Unlike Storm, I am happy to admit that I have an agenda. I want comics to make the best versions of the shows they set out to make, and that includes using words with precision. It also means fleshing out ideas without apology and sometimes challenging the audience. There is no one way to do comedy, but complexity, passion and ambition are always welcome. There’s much more to say on this, but for that, you will have to wait for my TED Talk.

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