The spotlit silhouette of a moth was projected like the Bat Signal against the gilded wall of New York’s Capitale last night, shining down on a motley assemblage of storytellers, fans and one-night-only superheroes. It’s a far cry from the Georgia porch where George Dawes Green used to hang out with friends and swap tales — what would eventually transform into The Moth, the storytelling series that the writer founded in 1997. Nearly two decades later, his gatherings of likeminded raconteurs and authors has become a multicity institution, one that raises funds annually at the literary-star-studded Moth Ball.
And though this year’s ball theme was superheroes, the honoree was the decidedly earthbound comic genius Louis C.K. Batman he ain’t, and in his opening remarks, Green avowed that it’s precisely this everyman quality that makes the stand-up so great: “We are certain that he is us. This is what gives him his power.” After comparing him to no one less than Mark Twain and dubbing him “maybe the greatest American humorist alive,” Green invited C.K. to the stage to accept the 2015 Moth Award honoring “excellence in storytelling” — and, of course, to spin a yarn.
The comedian accepted the fist-shaped award with kind words for the institution and its mission. “It’s nice to know that you can reliably cry by listening to something, you know?” C.K. said of the Moth’s podcast. In both his stand-up comedy and his show Louie, C.K. has demonstrated an uncanny knack for simultaneously cracking up and quietly gutting viewers with his take on the mundane, and his comments got right to the heart of what’s so powerful about sharing one’s life experiences. “Your stories…you’re the only one who has them,” he said. “And just by telling them, then everybody else has them.”
C.K. shared a melancholy tale from his own past, edging it with his trademark smirk in the face of despair. The story (which he says his daughter helped him pick) was about the time he visited Russia on a whim in 1994, when he was 25 years old and writing for Late Night With Conan O’Brien. The experience was bleak — as you might expect when you’re alone in Moscow in the dead of winter and don’t speak the language. C.K. recalled standing in a subway tunnel and watching a violinist play a sad tune while a gang of little kids huffed glue nearby. He soon came to a realization: “This is why I came here,” he remarked. “To find out how bad life gets — and even when it’s this bad, it’s still fucking funny.”
The vibe of the evening was something akin to upscale cosplay. Though some guests were in formalwear, others were decked out as glamorous versions of characters ranging from Spider-Man’s Mary Jane Watson to Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. The evening’s M.C., host of the Ask Me Another podcast Ophira Eisenberg, explained that, even though she didn’t appear to be dressed as a superhero, she secretly was: “I am Wonder Woman’s best friend who also lives on Paradise Island.”
Aside from C.K., the other long-form storyteller of the night was erudite author and Moth regular Andrew Solomon. The author recounted a near-death experience he had while scuba diving off the Australian coast in the Great Barrier Reef. As he floated in the ocean totally alone with the boat he took to get there receding toward the horizon, Solomon thought back on his life and those of his husband and son. “It was as though I noticed for the first time the vastness of the world,” he said. It was a fitting takeaway for the night: The world’s a big place, and storytelling brings it in right up close.