Stand-up comedy is a lot like riding bulls, except when you fail on stage, it hurts a lot more.
“Ten thousand times worse,” said Nick Morrison.
He would know. The 40-year-old from Gillette, Wyoming, started rodeoing as a kid, turning pro on the Professional Bul l Riders Tour when he was barely out of high school. By the time he was old enough to buy a Coors and a tin of chew legally, he was done. He’d been bucked off and injured more times than he could count.
“My bull riding career was over at age 21. Something I thought I was going to do into my 30s was suddenly not an option,” Morrison said.
Morrison’s laundry list of injuries reads like a Taylor Swift greatest hits catalogue — too numerous to mention.
The highlights? Broken C2 vertebrae in his neck. Broken C10-11 in his back. Dislocated shoulders, both. And concussion after concussion that likely began in high school and were never diagnosed.
In 2004, doctors told Morrison he could walk away from the sport of rodeo under his own power then or be carried out of an arena one day for good. He could not continue to take the pounding.
At age 21, when most are still not yet decided on their life’s work, Morrison found himself already eyeing a career change. From riding bulls on the PBR Tour to one that would place a microphone in his hand. The sudden career about-face took him to from a dirt floor arena to a carpeted stage.
It was a move that quite literally saved his life.
Rodeo Is No Joke
Morrison grew up in a rodeo and ranch lifestyle. His fourth-generation family ranch in Gillette is where his heart still is, he said, though he lives in Houston now.
Morrison’s father enjoyed a short rodeo career riding saddle broncs before a hip injury forced him to hang up his spurs in college. The family moved to South Dakota, where dad went into the ministry.
It was there Morrison first learned how to ride steers. His brother preferred bucking horses. Dad built a makeshift arena of sorts in the backyard and made sure there was plenty of rank stock around for the boys to climb on.
“I knew I was good at it, but I also knew I wasn’t a natural. I was tall and skinny. Most of your successful bull riders are short and squat,” Morrison said. “But I had two things going for me. I have a high IQ, so I would use my brain more. And there was not going to be a person who would ever outwork me.”
A lank build doesn’t work in the favor of bull riders who must keep their weight up on the animal’s shoulders, often leaning out over the front of the bull when they’re in trouble.
Morrison remembers actually clanging heads with bulls on more than one occasion. Other times he had to be told later, when he woke up, that’s what happened.
“When I rode, my style was balls to the wall,” he said. “I made a lot of mistakes, but I made a lot of recoveries in my career just because I would not check [bail] out. I just had that cowboy up mentality and wanted people to see me as someone who was not a quitter.”
That all-or-nothing style caused more than the physical damage evidenced in emergency rooms. Morrison didn’t know it at the time, but dozens of undiagnosed concussions had sloshed his brain into a ticking time bomb.
Bull Market To Bible Thumping
Morrison took almost a year praying about what he would do with the rest of his life.
A devout Christian, ministry seemed like a fit. Sharing the good news of the Gospel with teens — an age group he was not far removed from at 22 — turned out to be a blessing in disguise in more ways than one.
Morrison packed his bags for Texas in 2005, taking over as the worship leader and youth pastor at a growing church in Montgomery called Lone Star Cowboy Church.
Morrison relied on humor to connect with kids. That, and speaking in front of large groups, were to be gifts that would prepare Morrison for his next career move.
Crossfire Youth Ministries began to thrive under Morrison’s leadership. Once attracting about a dozen teenagers, the program grew to hundreds a week and was beamed via satellite to more than 30 locations around the Midwest.
Morrison was sure this is where God had called him to.
But beginning around 2008, he began experiencing weird symptoms he couldn’t quite pinpoint. He got frequent nosebleeds. He would pass out. His personality changed. And he would sometimes get lost, not knowing who he was, where he was or how he got there.
More than a year of tests and the cause was finally determined. Morrison had a serious traumatic brain injury to the front right lobe, undoubtedly caused by those dozens of concussions.
By 2012, the stress and time commitment of his ministry work became too much to handle. Morrison stepped down and moved to Dayton, Texas, to take an administrative position at Dayton Christian Center.
He continued to travel and make appearances as a Christian preacher or motivational speaker bringing awareness to concussion issues.
Disturbing symptoms still lingered, but they weren’t enough to dissuade a former rodeo cowboy from living his life. There was a marriage, two kids and God in the forefront.
Then one day while driving with his wife, Morrison heard God speak to him. It was a quiet voice that put into his heart a suggestion to do comedy.
He shook his head and ignored it.
Not five minutes later, his wife asked out of the blue if he ever thought about doing comedy.
“God, why did you just go around me and use my wife?” Morrison remembers thinking.
When God reveals his plan, the Bible is full of examples of three knocks at the door.
“A friend called a few days later and said, ‘This is hard for me to bring up because I know you have the brain injury and all, but I just feel led to ask if you have ever thought about comedy?’” Morrison recounted.
God had Morrison’s attention now.
While the comedic cowboy figured he was funny enough, how was he going to get enough material to fill a set on stage? He remembered watching an interview of comedian Jim Gaffigan who said his material came mostly from noticing things or thinking of funny things while he was driving.
“That’s exactly what we do. We drive around and laugh about stuff,” Morrison’s wife Ivy reminded him.
During their next three-hour drive together, Morrison said he soon had enough material written down to do his first set. Now he has more than two hours of solid, dependable stuff he knows works.
While Morrison says it was an easy transition from Jesus to jokes, his new career came to a screeching halt almost as it began. A week after his first stand-up show, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the world shut down.
“You know God, if my first open mic was that bad and you were having second thoughts, there are a lot better ways of telling me,” Morrison remembered thinking.
But Morrison used the pandemic lockdown to his advantage. He did what he always did best when bull riding. He worked smarter and harder.
“I took the same exact approach as bull riding,” he said. “In bull riding and in comedy, I am able to compete at a high level and still make a lot of mistakes because of work ethic.”
Morrison studied every successful comedian he could think of. He picked up on their every little nuance, their mannerisms, their timing. Just like gathering “the book” on a bull from fellow cowboys at the chutes — whether he likes to spin left or right and other valuable intel — Morrison gleaned what he could from popular stand-up comics of the day.
“I still film every one of my sets and tear it apart afterward. What worked, what didn’t? What can I improve on?” Morrison said. “I put so much work into every joke.”
Then, late in 2020, Morrison suffered a minor stroke while outside doing yard work. He temporarily lost the ability to speak. A career in comedy didn’t look very promising. His very life was a question mark — again.
Back From The Brink
“I've always said, ‘Work like it depends on me. Pray like it depends on God,’” Morrison shared.
A lot of both had the promising new comedian on the road to recovery in 2022. There was a move to Houston where the comedy scene is fairly vibrant. Morrison has since doubled down on his stand-up career and has been gaining a steady following since.
Like the ministry, faith can be found most anywhere in the rodeo world. Believers and bucking stock just seem to go together. Not so much with Morrison’s new crowd on the comedy circuit.
“Ministry and comedy could not be more different that way,” Morrison said. “I have this joke I tell about getting stoned in the parking lot after the show and how it means two different things to two different crowds.”
Depending on the show he may bring up the religious angle, or not. But just working clean is often enough to set Morrison apart from most comedians today.
“I am not a Christian comedian. I am a Christian who does comedy,” Morrison said. “Most of the time I just try to be a light. This has become a new ministry for me in that way.
“Sometimes I will tell the story of my stroke and brain injury, and I can’t do that without mentioning faith in God is why I'm back from it.”
Morrison still uses his time in the spotlight to share his faith. He just lets the punchlines do the proselytizing.
Comics like Nate Bargatze and Bob Smiley, who Morrison sometimes headlines with, are bringing clean comedy back to the mainstream. It seems like the timing is right and Morrison is perfectly positioned to blow up.
Navigating from rodeo to comedy has been a 180-degree shift in some ways.
“I went from rodeo people who were all exactly like me to comedy green rooms where there might be a bunch of dudes sitting around in there dressed like women,” Morrison said.
But the bull rider-turned-comic sees a lot of similarities as well.
“In stand-up, when a crowd is really eating out of your hand, it is like conducting. You can take them anywhere you want. You know you’ve got them,” Morrison said. “In rodeo, I still think the greatest feeling in the world is the roar of the crowd in the arena when you hear them cheering you while you are locked in with focus for 8 seconds.”
Similar highs. Similar lows.
“Yeah, a crash-and-burn in comedy is 10,000 times worse,” Morrison admits. “The closest thing in rodeo would be if you nodded your head, they pulled the gate and the bull slowly tiptoed out. And somehow you still managed to slide off. Bombing onstage is the worst feeling in the world.”
Even the best comedians find out that audiences don't always laugh. Not every joke lands.
“When a crowd makes up their mind you are not funny, it’s tough to get them back on your side,” he said.
Morrison said he’s only bombed maybe three times, and it was awful. Shortness of breath, dizziness.
“It was like a panic attack,” Morrison said.
Still, it was no worse than what the comic works through every night with the whole brain thing.
“My biggest deal is still passing out or stuttering. Sometimes I will get loud ringing in my ears or people get blurry,” Morrison said.
Rest, preparation and a stool on stage in case the stand-up comic needs to sit down have helped.
“I only blacked out once and forgot where I was. Most people in the crowd can’t tell if I'm struggling, though,” he said.
Morrison said he feels like he is just poised to make that next leap. He’s booked solid through the rest of the year. Gigs that used to draw 30-40 people are now selling out — hundreds, if not thousands, paying to see him perform.
Daughter Gracie handles Morrison’s social media presence. She’s a junior in high school, so who could be more qualified?
He’s not sure what’s next, but said he is waiting on God to see.
“Look, I never wanted to do comedy to begin with. I only want to be where God wants me to be,” Morrison said. “If he has more fame intended for me in the future, OK. If this is the biggest he wants me to be, if this is all for one person to be reached, then praise God, I am 100% on board.”