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Moses Storm and the Case for Pretentious Modern Stand-up

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.

Circassia News

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