Gay man tragically lost his boyfriend to COVID. So he turned his grief and pain into comedy
In February 2021, something terrifying and devastating in equal measure happened to Sam Morrison – his boyfriend Jonathan died after contracting COVID-19.
Most people will remember the pandemic as being particularly painful. There was talk of long COVID, of death, sadness, grief, pain. It was in that context that Jonathan passed away.
And Sam Morrison, a comedian based in New York, experienced a grief he describes as “all-consuming”. He quickly grew tired of standing up in New York clubs and telling jokes about “how annoying tops are” when all he was able to think about was Jonathan and the chasm he had left behind.
“It was just such an elephant in the room,” Morrison tells PinkNews. “Obviously the audience didn’t know it – other comedians did, but even just for myself, it felt ridiculous to not talk about it.”
That’s how he came to create the show Sugar Daddy, due to run at the Edinburgh Fringe throughout the month of August. In the show, Morrison makes grief funny – because the reality is that, even when grief feels all-consuming, there are sometimes moments of hilarity too. Writing the show forced him to “move along” in his grieving process, and it enabled him to talk about things he hadn’t been able to before.
“I guess it’s trying to share my experience and hopefully other people can take something out of it. I gravitated towards it as a comedian because it’s such a taboo topic but it’s so ever-present, and we really don’t talk about it. People get so uncomfortable, and it’s really difficult to do – especially in a club environment.”
Comedian Sam Morrison met Jonathan at a bear festival in 2018
Sam’s journey with Jonathan began in 2018 when they both went to gay bear festival ‘Spooky Bear’ in Provincetown.
“I had just bombed – I had a bad show, and I went out and I met him in a pizza shop,” Sam recalls. “We hooked up and we both found out we were from New York City. I immediately was like, ‘I don’t want a boyfriend, I don’t want a boyfriend!’ But that was a lie. I asked him out on a date a couple of weeks later, but he was difficult to get ahold of because he was travelling. He didn’t respond to one of my messages and I was like, ‘Oh f**k, this is not going to work out.’”
A couple of weeks later, Jonathan returned to New York City and responded to his message. They fell into each other’s worlds almost immediately.
My journey is very specific – being widowed from COVID – but the experience of grief is universal, and that’s comedy.
“We went out on a date and then we went to dinner and I stayed over the night, and then we went for breakfast the next morning, so it was quite a first date,” Sam says. “I still resisted a relationship for a couple more months.”
Sam wasn’t able to resist a relationship for too long. Before long, he found himself falling in love. The relationship continued to go from strength to strength.
Less than three years later, Jonathan passed away at the age of 52, shattering Sam’s world in the process. Sam became a widower at just 26 years old.
Grief is perfect for a comedy show because it’s ‘universal’
Some might say comedy isn’t the right place to talk about grief, but Morrison disagrees.
“Comedy is great for it because it’s funny,” he says. “It’s really funny! I mean, anything that’s so taboo that people don’t talk about is funny.” He just wrote a joke about scattering Jonathan’s ashes, for example. It’s all about “tension and release” when performed for an audience.
“I really think you can use comedy to talk about whatever you want,” Morrison says. Grief presents fertile ground for comedy because it’s a universal experience – most people are grieving somebody at any given time, but nobody is talking about it.
“We’ve all kind of been through it,” he says. “My journey is very specific – being widowed from COVID – but the experience of grief is universal, and that’s comedy. That’s the reason there are so many hack comedians that are like, ‘aren’t you annoyed by your wife?!’. Those are both universal topics. I’m just like a hack road comedian that’s making sexist jokes – that’s my goal.”
The show is called Sugar Daddy, which alludes to the age gap between Sam and Jonathan – but it also alludes to Sam’s experience of being diagnosed with diabetes shortly after Jonathan died.
“It’s the combination of diabetes and daddies – I’m into daddies. People would always call me a gold digger and say he was my sugar daddy. I mean, the joke is, people say he was my sugar daddy but I joke that I like to think of him as my glucose monitor since I got diagnosed for all these different reasons. Now he literally is my sugar daddy. It’s a stupid pun and I didn’t know what to name the show,” he laughs.
He’s excited to talk about his experience of diabetes because it’s “so easy to talk about” compared to talking about Jonathan’s death.
“I got diagnosed almost exactly one year ago and type one, it’s just so annoying – it’s so annoying. It’s a lot of math and carbs and panicking, eating sugar, not eating things. It just sucks. I have a glucose monitor and an insulin pump – still, [I’m] writing jokes about it.”
Diabetes helped me kind of snap out of the grief because it forced me to take care of myself.
Being diagnosed with diabetes was a shock to the system, he says. The fact that it came just four months after Jonathan died didn’t help.
“In some ways it did help me kind of snap out of the grief because it forced me to take care of myself and focus on my health, and I really was not doing that,” Sam says. “It was shocking, it was a lot. Overall it’s just the relentlessness of it – you never get a break from it. You never get to eat ice-cream without consequences.”
He can talk about grief on stage because he holds the power
All of those experiences converged to help Sam create Sugar Daddy. He’s performed at the Edinburgh Fringe before, and he believes it’s the perfect place to showcase a one-man act about grief and diabetes.
“The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is where the world does comedy. I always knew I wanted to do solo shows, but then one day I figured out that the rest of the world basically does solo shows and that they love theme and narrative. I realised I fit in better with that world, and also, getting to do an hour every night for 30 nights? I don’t get to do that anywhere else. It’s an opportunity to grow as an artist and get stage time like I would never get in New York City. And then of course there’s the appeal of the festival, of the cultural experience of going to Scotland, of meeting all these different artists.”
One thing he’s not a fan of is the reviews system, where reams of critics turn up to shows to assess what they’re seeing on stage.
“The reviews are terrible,” he says. “They put a numerical value on art. It’s funny how many times you have that conversation in Edinburgh. The good thing about it is you will be seen if you really go for it and you really try. Sometimes in the New York City stand-up scene, you’ll get auditions, but to get people to see your full hour where you can be like, ‘this is who I am as an artist’ and to get them to watch it can be really difficult. So it is nice to know your work is going to be seen.”
I think it’s just that when I’m on stage I have the power, so I’m the only one that’s speaking.
There’s also a personal benefit – exploring his own experience of grief on stage is a cathartic one for Sam. He finds it easier to talk about these issues on stage than in everyday life.
Edinburgh Fringe has begun!! See you at gilded balloon girlies ? https://t.co/hwUkWIeVl4
— S A M M Y (@samuelhmorrison) August 3, 2022
“I think it’s just that when I’m on stage I have the power, so I’m the only one that’s speaking. I have the microphone and I can sort of manipulate the audience into feeling and doing what I want them to. In everyday conversations you have to think about the other person. An audience is a very different beast than an individual, and individuals can hurt me. Audiences can’t. I’ve bombed a million times – if an audience doesn’t like me that’s easier.”
Ultimately, Sam hopes his show can play a part in destigmatising conversations about death. He’s struck by how difficult people find it to talk about loss.
“The first time someone tells you, ‘he’s in a better place,’ you’re like, ‘what the f**k is wrong with you?’ But the fifth time you’re like, ‘yeah, OK’,” he laughs.
Sam Morrison’s new stand up show Sugar Daddy will be at the Gilded Balloon Balcony at 6.20pm for the month of August. For tickets go to www.edfringe.com.
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