The former Patriots running back traded in his playbook for a notebook and is now an aspiring comedy writer who has taken classes at Boston’s Improv Asylum. He starred in a video sketch that was produced by Above Average Productions (Broadway Video’s YouTube channel), started a Twitter account in May that features rapid-fire one-liners and has talked to fellow retired Patriot Matt Light about starring in a video that Morris will write.
Is this the beginning of Morris’ path to becoming the next Terry Crews (who went from the NFL to "The Newsroom," among other things) or Rick Fox (NBA player-turned-actor)? Not quite. Though Morris has taken both improv and sketch-writing classes, he hopes to break into show business with writing rather than acting.
"I'm the typical guy where you're having a conversation and you think of something funny to say like 10 minutes too late. I'm that guy,” Morris told WEEI.com recently. “Writing, you can come back and edit, whereas in [improv], every time I was like, 'Aw man, I should have said this!' or 'I should have said that!' In improv, it's too late."
Morris recalls not being the loudest guy in the Patriots’ locker room, but his love for comedy -- "Dumb and Dumber," "Anchorman," etc. (“The silly stuff that isn't too far-fetched, I guess, but it is at the same time,” Morris says) – and his sharp wit make writing a logical fit.
"A lot of people will think I'm shy, and I guess I am kind of shy or reserved, but my family knows the real silliness that I do,” Morris said. “That's another reason why I like writing. I'm not really vocally loud or boisterous, but I think of this stuff and writing is the outlet."
FROM THE FIELD TO THE CLASSROOM
Morris, now 35, has been out of the league since playing three games for the Cowboys in 2011 and was spending his time out of football with his wife, Leslie, and three children. The 12-year NFL veteran had always enjoyed comedy and writing, and his wife tried time and time again to convince him that he had the chops to do something with his sense of humor.
“My wife had been telling me forever that I'm funny, that I should be writing more,” Morris recalled. “I would listen to her, but at the same time you can only hear your wife say it so much, because it's like when your mom [compliments you]. She's supposed to say it.”
Finally taking Leslie’s advice, Morris signed up for classes at Improv Asylum earlier this year, though he accidentally registered for improv rather than sketch writing.
Morris remembers being more nervous in his improv classes than he was in any high-pressure situation in the NFL. It wasn’t something he’d been doing since he was a kid, and it wasn’t something he’d been paid millions to do. It was new.
“You play in front of 70,000, 80,000 fans, and when you practice you've got media and all the cameras in your face all the time,” Morris said of his playing days. “Doing improv with like 20 people in the class to me was more nerve-racking than [the attention that came with football], kind of being out of my element.”
After following through with the improv class he had mistakenly taken, Morris took Level 1 and Level 2 sketch writing.
Such classes have different students from different walks of life – an instructor described Level 1 improv especially as being “such a crazy mix,” from adults looking for something fun to aspiring young actors and everything in between – but it isn’t every day someone with an established celebrity in another profession shows up.
Morris wasn’t there to be recognized, though. Evan Kaufman, who taught Morris’ Level 2 sketch writing class, recalls talking to Trevor Livingston, Morris’ Level 1 improv teacher, when Morris was first taking classes. A Patriots fan, Livingston himself didn’t realize who his student was.
"He was kind of like, 'This guy in my improv class is in good shape,'" Kaufman said, "and then after the final class was over, he realized, because Trevor's a big Patriots fan, who he was. I think somebody said his full name or something and Trevor realized it.”
Perhaps that was by design on Morris’ part. Morris said he purposely didn’t force the pro-athlete card down anybody’s throat, choosing to “go in as me as opposed to going in as a football player.”
“I think the wonderful thing about comedy is that it levels the playing field,” Kaufman said. “I think Sammy probably came into it like everybody else did, which is, 'Comedy is hard. How can I try and figure this out with everybody else?'”
The proof was in the pudding when Morris was attending a show at Improv Asylum featuring Livingston and Kaufman. A plan on Lingston’s part to reveal a celebrity in the audience backfired due to Morris being more self-effacing than they’d hoped.
“We had a part in our show where we asked people what they did for a living and Trevor saw Sammy, so he thought, 'Great, I'll ask Sammy what he does and then he'll reveal that he's a football player and it's going to be awesome,’" Kaufman recalled. "So he screams at Sammy and is like, 'You sir, what do you do for a living?' and Sammy goes, 'Oh me? I'm a father.'"
‘SHUT THE [EXPLETIVE] UP, CLARENCE’
Local Improv Asylum veterans Matt Catanzano and Richie Moriarty were fresh off of getting a web series they had come up with titled, “Portrait STUdio,” approved for production by Above Average in June. They had met Morris at shows, and saw an opportunity to use the running back for one of the episodes.
The series stars Catanzano and Moriarty as two guys running a portrait studio that only seems to get the most difficult and uncomfortable of patrons, and when the two began writing episodes, they made incorporating Morris a priority.
“We wrote one for a football player to play with Sammy in mind, hoping -- kind of fingers crossed -- that when we could get him into the studio to shoot, he'd have some acting chops,” Catanzano said.
The episode, titled “Portrait STUdio: Ray Jackson Book Cover,” features Morris as fictional football player Ray Jackson, a terrifyingly impatient athlete who is getting his headshot taking for the cover of a book he’s written – er, co-written – with the help of his unfortunate ghostwriter Clarence.
Those who have worked with Morris in his comedy ventures unanimously described the former Patriot as “a very smiley person” and “just so friendly,” among other things, so it came as no surprise that though Morris came into the shooting for the sketch on his game, he had difficulty getting the meanest line of the sketch – “Man, shut the [expletive] up, Clarence!” – out with a straight face.
“He came in completely prepared, he had all of his lines memorized, and we just went,” Catanzano, a main stage performer at IA, said. “We have so much outtake footage from that episode because he did have to be so intimidating, and he would basically do some of those more intimidating lines and then immediately break and just burst out laughing.”
Kaufman played the role of Clarence and admittedly tried to make Morris break by staring into his eyes as he delivered the line.
“We could not get him to even look at Evan without breaking,” Catanzano recalled. “To get him to yell, 'Shut the [expletive] up, Clarence,' there's just so many takes of him yelling it, and as 'Clarence' is coming out, he bursts into laughter, which then makes everybody else burst into laughter, so everybody's laughing.
“The take that we have is the only [usable] one, and the reason it's cut so short is because he starts to laugh. So he says, 'Shut the [expletive] up, Clarence' and almost immediately it cuts to us, and then it cuts back to him. The cut back to him is actually the same footage put back in there again because we didn't have him holding a straight face long enough.”
Said Kaufman: “I really think he had a hard time being mean. It was hard not to be like, 'Just imagine I'm on the Steelers or something and you really want to break my face.' I guess that's not where Sammy pulls his motivation from.”
Morris found his inner bully for the video, so much so that when Morris grabbed Catanzano’s character’s arm 27 seconds into the video (pictured above), no embellishing was required on Catanzano’s part.
“When he grabs me, you can see that's not acting. I'm terrified,” Catanzano said. “That guy's hand on my little wrist, I'm like, 'Oh man, I'm going to die.'”
For all the uncertainty going in – Could Morris act? How was he going to respond to being asked to portray professional athletes as the type who would glorify “Shaving cream stuff, drinking, rampant sexual assault” (the names of the chapters in the fictional book)? – the end result was both very funny and very frightening.
“Here's this super nice guy and we're trying to get him to drop a huge F-bomb, not to mention that episode is about -- we weren't quite sure if there would any sports players that would be really excited to do a locker room shenanigans episode,” Catanzano said. “He couldn't have been a better sport about that. He didn't care. He was like, 'Oh, are you kidding me? I've been calling my kids writer monkeys as they've helped me learn my lines.'”
The video was posted on Above Average’s YouTube page and with just under 25,000 views is the most popular of the six-episode series. Morris helped spread the word by tweeting the link, which was then retweeted by Deion Branch (86,000+ followers), Zoltan Mesko (38,000+) and Kevin Faulk (8,000+), among others.
“We were seeing these retweets from people and we were like, 'Holy [expletive]. This is awesome,'” said Catanzano. “Throughout the whole thing, he was great.”
A LIGHT-HEARTED PLAN
Morris recalls first being proud of his written work when it came time for he and his classmates to assign one another to read each other’s sketches.
“That was my favorite part, seeing your work come to life,” Morris said. “You assign people to read it, and then you hear your classmates laughing [as it's read]. That kind of makes you realize that [other people] get the humor.”
While Morris’ classmates did a fine job reading his work – which Kaufman described as family-oriented sketches, perhaps inspired by his kids, with “great premises” – the former Patriot says his experience with the Ray Jackson video has inspired him to write a sketch for Light to star in.
"It gave me more insight into the way things work and the way things go from being written to being on the screen,” Morris said. “I told Matt about it and said, 'I've got ideas for some sketches. If I can get a camera guy, we've got to film one.’"
The quick-witted Light was on board with the idea, and Morris now looks forward to going behind the camera and taking advantage of the three-time Pro Bowl tackle's colorful personality.
“He's an idiot,” Morris said with a laugh. “In a good way."
Morris is still picking the brains of those more experienced and will continue to take classes (he intends to take the third level sketch class offered at Improv Asylum), but he hopes that he can turn all of this into his next career. Of course, the comedy industry isn’t easy to break into, but neither was the NFL.
“Growing up, you have the dream to play in the NFL,” Morris said. “That's all I wanted to do and what I kept striving for. The odds weren't in my favor, I guess, but hey.
“I've kind of heard the same kind of things about writing movies and directing and stuff, that it's a small market and it's tough to get into. I'm like, ‘Alright, I understand that but I still have the desire to do it.’ That barrier there doesn't feel as formidable because I've already been through that just getting to the NFL.”
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