Broadway interview

Sam Morrison lost his partner — and turned it into comedy smash ‘Sugar Daddy’

The Daily Beast

March 3, 2023

Sam Morrison reveals how the funny, moving “Sugar Daddy” emerged from the death of his boyfriend, and lust for older, bigger men—and his hopes to take the show to TV and Broadway.

In his show Sugar Daddy, Sam Morrison recalls first meeting his boyfriend Jonathan Kreissman after closing time at Spiritus Pizza in Provincetown, Mass. during “Bear Week” in 2018. “People think it’s weird I’m into thighs and bellies,” Morrison tells the audience of his liking for older, larger men. “I think it’s weird you’re into tibulas and fibulas… We skinnies as a people, we’re always shivering or getting kidnapped! I’m not into you if your arch nemesis is the wind.” Instead, he yearns for a man like Jonathan whose belly is the perfect pillow for laying one’s head on while watching Bridgerton.

Sugar Daddy—which premiered at last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival—this week returned for an encore engagement through April 1 at New York City’s SoHo Playhouse. Its title is a multiple play on words, referring to 28-year-old Morrison managing diabetes, his attraction to older, larger men, and the ongoing grief he feels over the death from COVID in February 2021 of 52-year-old Kreissman (who was yes, a “daddy,” but far from rich, Morrison emphasizes). His delightful funeral notice made clear PR executive Kreissman’s love of fun and life.

“People have had such different reactions to this show,” Morrison told The Daily Beast in a recent Zoom call from a hotel room in Los Angeles, dressed in a lovely colorful sweater. “I have learned to let it be whatever people’s experience of it is. It’s such a personal story, whatever people take away from it, I’m thrilled with.”

As the show has gone on its audience has become more mainstream, Morrison said. Bearded and handsome, in person he is both as funny as he is on stage, while also considering his responses to some questions carefully, pausing, then choosing his words with care. Morrison can tell which jokes work for which audiences he said. The “emotion” of the show has evolved too, he added, meaning how he expresses himself in the moment outside the confines of the script.

“Sometimes I feel really connected to Jonathan, and I speak to that more personally and emotionally than others. Other times I don’t and it’s a slightly different show. The show is a reflection of where I am in my grief at that moment, and I think that’s why it’s changing so much. The show lags a little behind where I am now, but it is an amalgamation of all the different stages I have experienced in grief.”

The first jokes Morrison wrote were ones where he made fun of the condolences people gave. “That might seem angsty and defensive, but I really hated talking to people about grieving. It felt very isolating and it felt like people really didn’t know what I was going through.” Attending the “grief group” he goes to supplied a supportive group of listeners.

This reporter asked if doing the show ran the risk of being psychologically unhelpful, dragging Morrison back to states of mind and feeling he may have grown beyond in real time?

“I’m grappling with it right now,” Morrison said. “I sometimes do feel that way, and at other times I don’t. I had a conversation with my agents a couple of weeks ago where I was saying, ‘I don’t know if I want to keep doing this show five nights a week. What are the goals for it? What do I want? What is the life for this show? What are we trying to accomplish with it?’ I don’t want it to say it’s not easy, but it is emotionally exhausting sometimes. But then the show is having this moment.

“Later, after I thought about it, said to my team, ‘I don’t want to stop doing this show.’ It’s not close to being done. It’s a year old; for a comedy show, that’s pretty new. There’s so much want I want to keep doing. But also, as I’m finding more meaning in grief and other people’s reactions to grief, the show is changing in unexpected ways. I am always grateful and excited to do the show before doing it. Doing it is ultimately very helpful for me. It’s exactly what I want and need to be doing in this moment, not just for me in the grief process, but also in terms of the art I want to be putting into the world, and creating something meaningful that people can connect to.”

The show is both hilarious and joltingly moving. Morrison recalls one day crying hard on a beach, and with low blood sugar a risk eats some “gay little raisins.” This leads to a full-on confrontation with a pilfering seagull. Speaking of animals, Sam and Jonathan shared an animal language during quarantine. The problem, later discovered, was that Sam was cawing “I love you,” while Jonathan was calling back “No.”

Confronted by a mugger, Morrison can only think: “I’m an anxious, asthmatic, gay, diabetic Jew. We’re not known to excel in moments of crisis. If you ask me for my phone charger right now, I’d be like, of course, just take the whole phone. If you’re looking for the nudes, they’re under ‘Israel Trip 2012.’”

Sugar Daddy is not upsetting to perform, Morrison insisted, because he has a better understanding of his grief now, and how he reacts to things. “I wouldn’t say it’s damaging even in those moments that are emotional and heartbreaking because even though those moments are painful that’s also the point. That’s the growth. That’s the love, and that’s why I am doing this. I understand how I am processing my grief may not be for everyone, but for some reason this is how I want to process and deal with this.

“I am not that good at talking about this stuff off-stage and in therapy as you may think. It has been 100% helpful doing this show. It has changed me fundamentally. I wouldn’t talk about nay of this stuff, except with my sister, my friend Ashley (Gavin, also his professional collaborator), and my therapist. I know it’s not normal to do this with an audience, and it’s definitely indicative of larger issues. But I have been able to open up to audiences, and that has opened me up. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the pressure of the audience. I feel confident and in control up there. Also, I am a very anxious person. I over-analyze everything, and on stage I can’t do that. The show pushes me forward. I don’t think I would be able to have this conversation without doing the show.”

Morrison has been back to Provincetown several times since Kreissman’s death, including to spread his partner’s ashes off the town’s main pier. Asked how Jonathan would feel about his death and Morrison’s grief being crafted into a show, Morrison said, “Jonathan supported my comedy so much. I’m very hard on myself. He encouraged me, and would say, ‘Stop being so hard on yourself.’ He was just proud and so supportive of all I did. I know he’s so proud of me.

“My humor is raunchy, it pushes the envelope. He would push back on some jokes about me being into older guys. Sometimes he’d be like, ‘That one’s not funny Sam,’ and sometimes I’d take it out. I do think about that a lot. Would Jonathan want this joke in the show?’ And I’ve cut out a lot of jokes because I don’t think he’d want that.

“When I wrote the line about turning around at Spiritus Pizza and seeing this cute guy with cherubic cheeks, salt-and-pepper beard and Bridgerton belly, I thought, ‘I don’t think he would like ‘Bridgerton belly.’ But I think he would have said that, and I would have said, ‘But babe, it’s such a good joke,’ and he’d have given in. I have to have this dialog with him in my head. I feel his presence all the time. I feel lucky when I feel him. He’s present in so many different ways in my dreams, all the time. In my subconscious I think about what he’d think about things all the time.”

Morrison says if he himself saw his show this time last year he wouldn’t like it. He “hated” things that turned grief into a positive. But now his story has a hopeful ending. What makes sense to him—performing and structuring jokes—has charted a journey through his own grief. He and Lavin would speak every day, and the jokes would “just come out. We’re very open with each other. Comics in general are callous sociopaths. We’ve heard all the jokes. It’s very hard to shock a comic. If you go to an open mic night, you will hear really vulgar language. That’s the language we speak. A lot of the jokes I never write down because I didn’t think I’d tell them on stage.”

After some performances, Morrison heads off immediately to do a stand-up set at New York Comedy Club. “I love it. It’s great as a performer to give my heart and soul, and then go tell dick jokes that are meaningless. Not many artists or comedians have access to both. I feel very lucky.”

Whenever someone knows Jonathan, Morrison is always careful to tell them what the show is, so they are not shocked or upset. “As much as is helpful for me to perform I don’t want it to trigger anyone in a way they are not ready for.” It’s also “special” for Morrison to have people who are closest to him see the show, who knows him offstage “and then see this thing that you’ve precisely crafted to tell a narrative and to see that and see you as authentic and be proud of you for being who you are. It’s a really special feeling when people like that come to the show.”

How Morrison feels and what he does post-performance has changed over time. When he first started performing Sugar Daddy he would not stick around and talk to folks. Now he can “turn off,” and go out with friends for drinks, and then process the show alone at home later. “Having a bit more control over my reaction and my involvement in the show every night is part of the reason why I want to keep doing it,” Morrison told The Daily Beast. “Right now, I feel as if I am in artistic dream and also contributing to my personal growth.”

The bear community has been very supportive of the show, Morrison said. A young queer grief counselor who had also dealt with the loss of a partner was also helpful as their situation echoed so closely with Morrison’s. “There was a comfort with each other because we both knew how devastating and world-breaking this kind of experience is. Because we both knew that we laughed about it a lot. We laughed more than we cried.”


‘I was closeted all through high school’

Morrison grew up in Sarasota, Fl. His parents—his mom was a social worker, his dad owned an eye-glasses store—divorced when he was young. high school didn’t have a theater, but he partook in speech and debate, “which was basically theater. I always wanted attention and stage time, Looking back on it, I was looking for that. I loved group projects, I played in the orchestra for a minute. I was a total class clown, loud and annoying. I was pretty nerdy—my group was the board game nerds. I played soccer in high school pretty competitively, and basketball in middle school, which I still play.”

His parents were “very supportive of my performing, but always made it clear I should be a lawyer. They wanted me to be a lawyer. They were supportive of me being artsy and doing my passion, but were like, ‘Don’t quit your day job, and study for your LSATs (Law School Admission Tests). Now, with the show, I think maybe my mom may stop asking me to go to law school. We’ll see.” His mother has seen Sugar Daddy three times. “She’s really coming around. The show was reviewed in the New York Times,” he laughed. “That’s when a Jewish mother becomes really proud of you for some reason.”

Morrison didn’t come out as gay until college. “I was closeted all through high school. There were really no positive models of coming out in my youth. The state is very Trump-y. There was a conservative underbelly to my town—it was just was something you didn’t talk about. I obsessed over Modern Family and Glee, and Nathan Lane in The Birdcage. I had my moments…” Morrison paused and sighed faux-dramatically, “That’s my tragic story.”

He grew up in a time of shows like the one he mentions—and other bits of pop culture—full of positive images and messaging. Were they not helpful in encouraging him to come out? “I think it was a fear of a lot of different things, and coming to terms with it myself. It’s hard to tell looking back. You paint your childhood with a broad brush. I certainly don’t think if I had come out the next day I would have been fag-bashed in soccer practice. I was just afraid. It certainly would have changed the dynamic of my friend groups and my success…”

Morrison paused. “As a ninth grader… I know how that sounds. I was just as annoying as a 13-year-old. But I did well in debate, and I wanted to get into a good college, and I thought I wouldn’t get into a good college if I was gay. Yes, Modern Family was on TV, but no one talked about it, especially not among my circles. If they did, it was the butt of a joke. It really took a while for that to change. By the time I came out it felt long overdue. I told friends in college, then it sort of spread. I downloaded Grindr, uploaded a face pic, and that’s one way to come out right?”

As for his family, “I told my sister, she told my brother. I didn’t want to sit them all down, and do the ‘I have something to say’ thing—as much as I love stage time.”

At college—his mom’s caution ringing in his ears—Morrison majored in theater and government, with “one foot in, one foot out” of each at different times. He first performed at an open mic night at college. He did a couple more in New York, “but nothing that made me realize you could be a comedian.” Eventually, after enough practice runs, he knew he wanted to do stand-up professionally, although when he moved to New York—with a desire to affect social change in mind—he entered the world of small community theater ensembles. He did a TV-based internship. “I was thinking maybe I would go into entertainment, maybe law school.”

The world of arts seeming “gatekeeper-y”—having to take classes, do auditions, getting to know the right people—Morrison found progressing in stand-up, via open mic nights, more democratic and speedy. “They’re addictive, whether you bum or do well. When you get that first laugh from an audience, it doesn’t matter how it comes—from shock humor or politics—it’s like, ‘I got them to do something.’

“Finding your voice takes a long time. When I first started, I was doing way too complicated political jokes, and things I did not have the skillset to pull off yet. A lot of comics, me included, try out something more shocking or controversial first, maybe because it gets a response. When you don’t know how to write a joke and everything you are doing is poorly executed, at least a shocking and controversial joke might be entertaining.”

Natural ability plays a part in successful joke-telling, “but writing a joke is like playing piano or any instrument,” Morrison said. “When it comes to joke structure and understanding how audiences react to you, tightening punchlines and making them as concise and effective as possible is just a process you have to do over and over again.”

Morrison himself teaches a class at the Brooklyn Comedy Collective; such tuition can be effective when you’re starting out, he says, “but if you want to be a professional, there’s no other way than just doing stage time.”

Other comedians can be helpful too, he said, giving a newbie stage time, taking them on the road, and booking and producing a show. “Ashley helps me so much by looking at my jokes, and once told me, ‘You have a tendency with premises to do A to C. If you did A to B to C, the audience will laugh because they don’t have to take an extra second to make that missing connection.’ Those things are super-helpful.”

Morrison’s own comic inspirations are Mike Birbiglia, Jerrod Carmichael, Hannah Gadsby, Sarah Silverman, and Bo Burnham. “All bring different elements to their stand-up, they all push the envelope in different ways,” he said. “I watched one of Jerrod Carmichael’s comedy specials. He does so few jokes, it’s so interesting. I didn’t look away from the screen the whole time. It changed my attitude towards my own comedy. He was just authentic in a way comedians rarely pull off. He takes a lot of risks.”

That group of comics also base their comedy, like Morrison, on personal pain or difficulty. “Yeah, that’s a great point. Comedy doesn’t have to do that, but it does inspire me. I want to create meaningful things.”


‘I was scared of having to tell people my type’

Being diagnosed with diabetes almost a year and a half ago has changed Morrison’s life “in almost every aspect in every way every day. I have to check my blood sugar constantly. Any time I eat food I calculate how many carbs there are, how much insulin to give myself. I watch how much exercise I get, my stress levels, and sleep. I rarely get the measuring correct. Then there are all the prescriptions, and having to replace everything every three days. I have to carry insulin. There’s a lot to complain about—and that I am good at on stage and off stage!” Morrison roared with laughter.

Is he getting better at managing it?

“No.” Morrison laughed again. “I’m pretty bad at it. I’ll get better. In diabetes terms it’s not been a long time. I’m in something called a ‘honeymoon phase.’ My body still gives me a little bit of insulin, it just throws things off every once in while. It’s getting easier.”

His experiences of diabetes and grief carry some echoes. “Grief is non-linear,” Morrison said. “I have weeks where I can’t figure it out. And I have weeks where my average glucose is nearly perfect. You have got to learn to ride with it and not be too hard on yourself.”

Morrison’s sex life has changed too. “For me, sex has had an interesting relationship with my grief—how sex can be a coping mechanism, healthy or unhealthy, and how it can be a distraction. Sexual desire for me has gone in waves. I’ve had periods of wanting it, maybe even more than usual. Other times, especially when I’ve been depressed, I haven’t had much of a libido.” The possibility of loving someone else “doesn’t seem that far away, but I have not found it yet.”

“When it comes to sex and love, I feel like it’s about listening to myself and my mind and my heart, and where honestly both are taking me in that moment. There hasn’t been much serious dating, although that’s not necessarily a conscious decision. I’m not against it, it just rhythmically isn’t where I am at. It hasn’t really happened. I have dated around.”

Suddenly, Morrison excused himself; a friend had arrived. When he returned, shakily in focus on his cellphone camera, he was in his hotel bathroom looking very much as if he’d been taken hostage. (He hadn’t, he just very kindly has ceded his main hotel room to his buddy.)

“There are a bunch of daddy bears in the bedroom doing cocaine,” he deadpanned.

Morrison was always “100% into older guys, always into bellies. It’s been a very strict sexual preference that has not changed really much at all. I had crush on Nathan Lane growing up. I had crushes on friends’ parents and teachers. Everyone says to me that I must have had ‘daddy issues’ growing up, which isn’t the case for me, but it certainly can be for others. I think sexuality works on a lot of different spectrums. Traditional society is over there, I’m over here.

“I think my specific preference is one reason I didn’t come out for a long time. I was scared of having to tell people my type. It felt like having to come out twice—like people would be supportive and loving about me being gay, and then I’d say ‘My partners have to be very fat and very old,’ and I would have to say that 17 more times before they got it. This is not a cultural thing, it’s a naturally occurring dimension of my sexuality. The more I’ve talked about it, and the more followers I have on social media, the more comments I get about it from people saying, ‘Me too!’ It’s more prevalent that people may think, and we don’t talk about it because of how fat-phobic society is.”

28 is still young, but how does Morrison feel about aging himself. “I’m now in my late 20s, and I did think that I had my first Edinburgh show at 23, the next year I was the ‘new young kid’ there with my second solo show. Then it was the pandemic, and so the next time I was there was last summer when I was 27 with Sugar Daddy. Three years had passed, and I still want to audition for high school characters.” He laughed, and mulled progressing through the gay-aging categories of twink to otter to daddy, the notion of “always being somebody’s type,” and being comfortable with that, while also being aware of working within the entertainment industry’s own confines of ageism.


“This show doesn’t feel done”

Morrison and his team are currently trying to sell and make a screen version of Sugar Daddy. “Nobody’s bought it yet, but there’s been a lot of interest,” he told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know how the process works, or if people are blowing smoke up my ass, or how something like this sells. I’m pretty naïve to the process. I’ve been telling jokes in basements for the last five years. I don’t know this side of the industry.”

Morrison is also trying to sell the pilot of a comedy inspired by the experience of his grief group. Going through bereavement so young was “a really isolating, irrational experience,” Morrison said. In Sugar Daddy there is a zinger about being the youngest, hottest widower in his group. It’s a joke, but the pilot/series he hopes to sell mines more comedy from the age gap, and “in finding comedy in playing the narcissistic young widower.”

Right now though, Morrison is mostly focused on strategizing the right lifespan of Sugar Daddy on stage. Other solo shows and ideas are percolating in Morrison’s head. “I will be creating shows for the rest of my career. Sugar Daddy isn’t the only one or the last one, but this is my story right now, and it doesn’t feel close to being over. This show doesn’t feel done.”

Morrison feels Sugar Daddy could play on Broadway, in the tradition of solo shows by Birbiglia, John Leguizamo, Whoopi Goldberg, and Lily Tomlin. “I am learning a lot about the Broadway and off-Broadway worlds—the audiences, money, and people behind them. There are so many variables, and so much I don’t understand. I can’t say with 100 percent certainty that is what I want, or if it is best for the show, but I do have aspirations for it. Right now I am enjoying it, and I want to carry on enjoying it.” Even if now, when he takes out his “gay little raisins,” one imagines his eyes immediately scan skywards. Not this time, seagulls, not this time.