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Lost At Sea

by Chris Bliss
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I'm peddling vigorously on the Lifecycle, midway through my workout, as we pull away from dockside in Port Everglades.  The ship's health club, located at the bow on the starboard side of Deck 15, features a panoramic view through its Plexiglas outer wall, making me an accidental witness to this special moment for the throngs gathering along the rail outside.  Turning toward the Atlantic, the ship's speakers come alive, blaring the song "Celebration" while couples of all ages toast, dance, whoop, and embrace.

Directly in front of me, a 30-ish man in a tank top with a scruffy beard and a Budweiser is overcome with happiness. His face beams seraphically as he inserts a fresh pinch of Skoal between cheek and gum, chugs the beer, and, after several heartfelt chews, spits twice into the empty can.

Welcome aboard the Grand Princess,  until a few months ago the largest passenger vessel ever built, a $550 million mega-cruise ship three times the size of the Titanic. But unlike the Titanic, there are no Vanderbilts on board, especially not toward the end of the season. The cash flow requirements of keeping this half-billion dollar investment afloat have democratized the cruising experience. Princess Cruises even markets a "Love Boat Loan", qualifying almost anyone with a steady job for the vacation of a lifetime. With monthly payments serving as a keepsake for years to come, it's "hasta la vista, Vanderbilts.  Dukes of Hazard, come on down!"

For my tobacco-chomping shipmate, the week-long journey will serve as an affirmation of just how far he's come. But for me, it's pretty much the opposite. I'm halfway through my two-cruise run as one of the ships Guest Entertainers, and each passing hour only reminds me of how dangerously close my career is to being lost at sea.

Don't get me wrong. There are a lot worse gigs for a stand-up comedian.  And at least I'm only out here for two weeks.  But to be here at all . . . to have spent 12 years and appeared on seven Tonight Shows, only to find myself doing time as a "boat act" (the ultimate dismissive judgment among comedians), is causing a loud emotional conversation in my head.  So I put my head down, and peddle harder.

All told, the Grand employs over 100 performers, with most signed on for months at a time.  It's a seabourne sub-culture of refugees from Disney World and dinner theater. There are singers and dancers,  playing out the string of their show business dreams as cast members in the soulless vanilla production shows that are a staple of the industry.  There are musicians, buffet-style. The Jamaican steel drummer and the Haitian duo alternating poolside. The piano bar crooner who knows two verses of every song that's ever graced an elevator. The sonic odd couple of accordion and violin,  who play chamber music during the ship's photographers' daily assaults.  The string quartet from Poland, sleepwalking through "The Godfather" theme while oblivious passengers hunt for bargains among tables laden with spools of silver and gold chain (not to mention plenty of logo'd leisure wear).  Last but not least, as evening turns to night, a five-piece band of Hungarians drones out heavily-accented Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis tunes in the Wheelhouse Bar, while over in the Explorer's Lounge, an aging black R and B singer is closing his set,  sans-a-belting out an all-too-true rendition of "The Thrill Is Gone".

The other "guest ents" and I are at the top of this heap. On this cruise they include a husband and wife disco acrobat team, a comedy magician and a comedy hypnotist, and a fellow stand-up who specializes in the genre, pumping out an amazing repertoire of cruise ship patter in the course of seven performances over three different nights.

I say "amazing", because cruise ships are a kind of purgatory for a comedian. The shows get a sizable percentage of people who've never seen live comedy before, including many clueless enough to bring their children, and the cruise lines are hyper-sensitive to the tiniest passenger complaint. On rare occasion, comics have even been choppered off ships between ports to assuage offended passengers.

This makes cruise work a non-starter for crude,  nasty, or otherwise 'tasteless' material. But it also makes an act like mine, which is topical and occasionally thought provoking, more than a little problematic. Incidental contact with even minor truths can be a punishable offense aboard the friendly seas, as I learned on my first and only other cruise ship booking back in 1990. I made the tactical error of doing my favorite Dan Quayle joke (that the only thing he'd ever have in common with Kennedy was that apparently half his brain was missing, too).  I vividly remember overhearing a drunken passenger berating the cruise director about how he "did not pay this amount of money to hear our second in command be ridiculed!"

That was 10 years ago, a lengthy sentence for a first offense. My talent, assets, and liabilities have all grown over that decade, in inverse proportion to the shrinking market for comedy.  The resulting squeeze has led me here. And while a second banishment won't bother me (other than the disappointed phone call from the agent),  my inner Republican insists that I at least should give it the old college try.

Meanwhile, my inner bullshit detector reminds me that I dropped out of three colleges and never bothered to get my degree. Warping my hard-earned creativity to meet the task of crafting gutless set lists for the cruising public's delicate sensibilities feels about as warm and fuzzy as wearing ocelot underwear to a PETA fund-raiser.  If the news reports about these ships dumping medical waste and covering up on-board assaults aren't morally compromising enough,  then there's always the dichotomy of third world crew members working below decks in near sweatshop conditions to support the mind-numbing consumption-fest indulged in by the passengers. My audience.

Beyond that,  this particular cruise doesn't even offer the limited salvation of travel-as-education.  Four out of the seven days are spent at sea, and one is spent at a "private" island run by the company.  That leaves only two 4-6 hour excursions on two less-than-exotic islands for passengers wishing interactions beyond the beneficent domain of Princess Cruises. It's the perfect trip for people who want to travel as far as possible without ever leaving the comfort of their own sensibilities. A virtual voyage, with as little  life-altering impact (and far less content) than an evening spent watching the Discovery Channel.

Enough. My first show is less than an hour away. Time to re-focus on the task at hand. Now where was I . . .

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.  It's great to be here. Are you all having a good time so far? I see some of you have brought your children,  so I want to assure you that I won't be using any language or talking about any subjects not currently being discussed on the playgrounds at our schools  . . .    . . .   . . . Thank you, and good night!"