‘Moses Storm: Trash White’ Is a Thrilling Example of Where Stand-Up May be Headed

A swirling collection of colors and angles and levels bring an extra visual strength to an already sharp hour of stories from an eventful childhood.
Moses Storm Trash White HBO Max Standup Special
"Moses Storm: Trash White"
Adam Rose/HBO Max

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch ‘Moses Storm: Trash White’: HBO Max

The best part of “Moses Storm: Trash White” — and an early high bar for the funniest on-screen sequence of 2022 — centers on a swimming pool. It involves a lot of gyrating arms, colors shown and imagined, one spectacular set of metaphors, and plenty of different camera angles. It’s the kind of sensory experience you might not expect from a stand-up special. Still, with Storm as a guide, it’s a window into how a series of tweaks to the traditional appearance of an hourlong set can enrich an already exciting performance.

Most of “Trash White” centers on Storm’s upbringing. He starts out explaining how growing up poor doesn’t match with his more trust fund-y appearance. From there, he weaves through a series of stories from toddler to young adulthood, ones that cover homelessness, troubles with access to affordable food, and decisions made in an effort to save money.

All of this plays out for cameras that aren’t as much built to move as they’re able to capture a dome of perspective around Storm and the barricade of white items set up around stage. (That Storm has to climb up to the platform in the middle of LA’s Montalban Theatre is the first hint that this won’t exactly play out in a familiar way.) Without a mic to hold, Storm crawls, collapses, crouches, and moves his way around the stage in plenty of other ways that don’t start with “c.” Rather than stay fixed in Storm’s eyeline, “Trash White” becomes a way to experience all of these stories on different literal levels. The blank monochrome canvas Storm is standing on gets drenched in a spectrum of light and shadows that shift when circumstances call for it.

The ultimate goal of so many stand-up specials is to recreate the energy of a room, to give someone sitting on a couch as much of the electric experience of laughter in a room. Some recent specials have toyed with the standard visual language of the straightforward, multi-cam setup to better capture the storytelling patterns of the person at the center. You can see it in Maria Bamford switching venues, Joe Mande sneaking in sketch bookends, Jerrod Carmichael adjusting to an in-the-round approach, or Drew Michael removing an in-person audience altogether. “Moses Storm: Trash White” is a synthesis of a few of those ideas, with a dusting of “Patriot Act” on top.

Storm spends the hour on a stage that doubles as a projector screen, a handy tool to have when making references to photos and videos and incidents from the past. Sure, there’s power in painting a mental picture of all of these — which Storm does well — but why not cut to an overhead shot for a visual aid if you can do that too? Storm and co-director Lance Bangs have a solid instinct of when to punctuate jokes and when to complement them, all without these sensory changes feeling like a gimmick.

Of course, all of this visual flair would be wasted without an hour of material that earns this special presentation style. Early on, when Storm makes a reference to shifting stand-up conventions, it’s not done in a derisive way. When he compares “modern comedy” to a TED Talk, it’s more self-deprecation on behalf of his profession, looking more at how what some people expect out of a show has changed. That he gives a thoughtful snippet of what that theoretical version of his set would look and sound like shows that he’s not dismissive of how some audiences use comedy to absorb what they’ve never experienced firsthand.

And “Trash White” is a really effective showcase for Storm’s writing and timing. There’s a specificity and enthusiasm for the way he describes the necklines of his childhood clothes that has all the catharsis of ideas slowly being built up and turned over for decades. When Storm turns his attention to the general American attitudes toward poor communities, he does so with the acknowledgment that there’s misunderstanding stemming from the perceptions of both the malicious and the well-intentioned.

All of that care and precision is only highlighted by the unconventional ways that “Trash White” unfolds. As the world of stand-up continues to reinvent itself, it’ll be interesting to see whether this approach is part of a trend or more of an outlier. Either way, if this the kind of energy that more 2022 specials will bring, comedy is in for a fascinating year.

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