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