It started as it often does in showbiz: I had to make a room full of old Jews laugh.
It was during a showcase of performers trying out for gigs on cruise ships at a theater in Miami. There was a doo-wop group, a “human statue of liberty,” a boy band, a flamenco dancer, and a piano player from New York who sang in Yiddish. The audience consisted of 500 extras from the movie “Cocoon,” several of whom according to the showcase coordinator were “survivors.” Bussed in by cruise lines, they were used as a litmus test for picking performers. If Saul and Esther liked you, then, like a tuna sandwich with low-sodium mayo, you would be considered palatable fare for the passengers.
The crowd was ornery, and each act struggled through their shouting of phrases like “speak up!” That was until the Yiddish-singing piano player, slotted to go before me, took the stage. This guy annihilated so hard that at the end of his set, an old lady in a sunhat slipped him a number and said, “I got a daughter in Queens. Single.”
Even though following that guy was like following Springsteen in Jersey, I managed to book one gig. It was with a cruise line that, as a professional courtesy, I’ll call “Circus Cruises.” It had the collective ambience of a floating Red Lobster. While most other cruise lines give the performers cabins among the passengers, Circus cut corners by having the performers bunk below deck with the crew in spartan conditions – and by paying a fraction of the going rate. But I was determined to give it a shot. How bad could it be?
I flew into Texas where the ship, headed to Mexico, would be taking off. Once aboard, I was shown around by a veteran cruise-ship comic I’ll call “JR,” a baby-faced fireplug of a man sporting a baseball cap, a reddish tan, and a slight North Carolina drawl soaked in sweet tea.
“You look like a Spanish Billy Bob Thornton,” JR greeted me. “They tell you about the phone card? Only way to call out.”
“Tell you about the cash card? Only way to pay for things.”
“Show you where your cabin is?”
“Well, damn. This your first cruise?”
He checked his watch.
“Well, you missed orientation. Off to a good start already,” he said. “I guess I’m gon’ be your orientation.”
“Where’s the venue?” I asked, trying to help move things along.
“It’s on five aft,” he replied. “That’s where the shows are at, but first we got a ‘welcome aboard’ show. Different venue.”
“Aft. That’s the ass-end of the boat,” he explained. “Starboard’s right. Port’s left.”
I scribbled it all down on my nautical crash-course cheat sheet.
JR led me to my cabin, which was down a narrow hallway behind a bank of elevators. When I opened the door and saw the inside, I almost had a panic attack. It was tiny, no windows, bare floor with a bed, a small desk, and a bathroom where I discovered later that, to fit onto the toilet, I had to jam both legs into the shower stall. It was also freezing, with no way to turn down the air conditioner.
“You just crash here,” JR offered. “Read. Books. Naps. Work out. That’s how you get through it. And it’s either cold or hot. Mine’s hotter than hell. Wanna trade?”
“Nah,” I said. “I’ll just see if I can score a parka at the gift shop.”
Books. Naps. Pushups. A friend of mine who’d done ten years at Lorton Penitentiary once described the same routine. The rest of the time was spent fighting guys who were trying to rape him – with mixed results.
Once ensconced, I studied the pamphlet I’d been given. It was a sort of employees’ guide to the cruise line and it was mind-bogglingly rigid. The beauty of comedy is that there are essentially no rules besides showing up, being funny, doing your time, and not getting the club staff pregnant. But on Circus Cruises there were rules about what performers could wear (pressed dress-casual with additional options for “elegant night”), where performers could eat (the crew’s mess hall), and how to appropriately interact with passengers (no sleeping around – one of the few I didn’t have to adjust to). Name tags were to be worn at all times, and besides random drug tests there would be quizzes on the differences between muster stations and embarkation stations, weather-tight and fire doors, crew alerts and general emergency alarms, when to use a C02 fire extinguisher or a dry chemical one, what “alpha” and “daco” codes were, and how to identify a mass casualty incident.
My act would be graded based on such criteria as “Did comic receive big laughs at regular intervals?” and “Were there frequent applause breaks?” There were select allowable words for “family shows.”
“Change ‘hell’ to ‘heck,’” the pamphlet read, “‘damn’ to ‘darn,’ ‘bitch’ to ‘witch,’ ‘sucks’ to ‘stinks,’” and “avoid words like ‘sex’ and ‘gay’ as well.”
I had a total of two “family shows” and three or four regular shows, plus one “welcome aboard” show. My act had to be completely rearranged into three different half hours, one child-friendly, each one repeated once, plus a different “welcome aboard” show, not to be repeated.
My act is essentially a low-budget indie film about my life in New York with neighborhood characters like “heroin dude” and “check-cashing place lady with beard eating an LGBTBLT.”
I’d also been warned that if passengers complained about a performer, that performer could be helicoptered off of the ship.
I was conflicted about even being there. Cruise ships are one of the last refuges for veteran comedians to make a living doing what they do. While there are many funny comics working on ships, calling a comic a “boat act” is the ultimate insider insult, implying that they are the worst kind of hack – someone whose jokes are the equivalent of tying verbal balloon animals.
But if you are of a certain vintage, and haven’t hit – meaning you aren’t on a show, writing for a show, doing warm-up for a show, and are not a YouTube sensation or whatever else puts asses in seats, then you’ve got to explore options so you don’t end up like a punchy boxer who never saw the expiration date coming.
At the time I was hired by Circus Cruises I was pulling up on 50 years of age, a combustible ingredient, especially after 30 years working in a field with absolutely zero stability.
While I had one foot in the Manhattan clubs as a regular, another was on the pedal doing road gigs. Still, I figured it would be smart to give the world of cruise ships a shot, even though with Circus, I was starting at the bottom.
* * *
My first cruise performance, the “welcome aboard” show in front of about 200 very drunk Texans, was discouraging. As I went into my opening joke about being from New York, someone yelled, “Pussy!”
Normally, I would have immediately responded with, “Don’t make me go back to your trailer and kick over that meth lab made of empty Cool Whip containers and failed dreams, you toothless sister-fucker.” Instead I clammed up, as that could have been considered an “inappropriate passenger interaction.”
I did not want the helicopter.
As the trip continued, I decided to mine the new world around me for material.
There was much to see.
The ship was absolutely mammoth – it had to be to accommodate the almost-4,000, many borderline-obese passengers, scooters whizzing by each other like pickup trucks – who consumed everything in their paths, edible and alcoholic. It was a symphony of shit-faced-ness, beet-red behemoths staggering and scooting from buffet to casino to bar, cabin to cabaret, then line-dancing back to buffet. It was as if I was watching an anti-American propaganda video.
Then there was the crew – the grunts mostly Filipino and Indian, the officers and the captain, who loved making unintelligible announcements at random junctures, Italian.
There was a running joke among the ship’s crew about the captain:
“Dish ish your captain shpeaking.”
Americans were conspicuously absent from the crew, replaced by a bunch of people who were all probably really good at soccer.
When I asked one of the crew about why this was the case, he told me, “Americans are more likely to file a lawsuit for working conditions that are basically indentured servitude, whereas other nationalities are just…used to it.
“Plus,” he added, “very few of them could fit through the door of the crew cabins.”
Above deck were magic shows and slot machines, but below deck was like an urbanized honeycomb of the crew’s cabins, some turned into bodegas with anything you’d want from booze to DVDs to socks. One particular cabin, I was told, doubled as a pop-up brothel where you could either “dock your boat” or “get your anchor tossed,” depending on your proclivity. I was told repeatedly that it was common to be “straight on shore, gay on the high seas.”
* * *
As anticipated, I stumbled through my first family show, the kids frolicking in the aisles. Needless to say, I hadn’t stockpiled material children could relate to.
Afterward I got a note from the entertainment director to remove the phrase “knowing each other biblically” and my tried-and-true swear substitute “mother-flower.” But the good news was that “Johnson” was acceptable.
A few days into the trip, JR informed me of the unfortunate fate of a certain Yiddish-singing piano player. It wasn’t clear whether this had happened on our ship or another one, but it was back to the Catskills for this guy. Apparently there was a ping-pong table set up next to his piano, and he hated when people played during his set. So day after day the passengers would arrive at the table and find the paddles missing. They complained and more were conjured up from storage. This happened several times and before long, there were absolutely no more paddles left on the boat, so the staff looked at security camera footage to find out what might’ve happened to them. On one tape they saw the piano player throwing the paddles overboard at around midnight.
He got the helicopter.
This tale inspired me to step up my game. On the early-evening shows I utilized bits I’d stopped reciting years ago – scraps, anything that wouldn’t rock the boat, so to speak. Then, during the later shows I figured I’d try letting it all hang out a bit more.
In the middle of my second late show I’d gambled on some material about being Jewish and being married to a black woman. After I got off stage, a drunk Texan approached me and said, “I got one for you. If y’all had kids, where would they sit? In the back of the oven!”
Before I knew it, I was reaching for his neck, but JR slid between us and jammed a beer into my hand, miming a helicopter noise while steering me in the opposite direction.
But it wasn’t until the last few days of the cruise that things got really crazy. I woke up to a strange announcement from the captain, asking a lady who I’ll refer to as Sally Jameson, to report to the front of the ship.
“Dish ish your captain… We are looking for a Ms. Sally Jameson… Ms. Jameson, please report to the front office or make yourself known to a crewmember…”
I went back to sleep. Five minutes later: another announcement, then another, and another, all telling her to report to the front office with increasing urgency. Finally, the captain used the phrase “you’re not in trouble” – which always means that you are in trouble.
Why and where was this lady hiding? After about 25 minutes of announcements, the captain ordered all the passengers back to their cabins until this missing woman was found. Each cabin was going to be individually searched.
There was a knock on my door. A Filipino steward came in and dutifully looked in my bathroom and under my mattress. I waited in the hall because there was barely room for both of us, then went back inside when he finished.
A couple hours later I popped my head out and eavesdropped on two crewmembers. The first one said in a low voice that the lady had fallen off of the ship.
“What?! Was I really hearing this?” I thought to myself.
In response, the other one sighed wearily and said, “Here we go again.”
Soon the captain announced that the search had ended; there had been an unfortunate accident, we could now leave our cabins, and please keep the Jameson family in our thoughts.
As we docked into Mexico and investigators came aboard, I couldn’t stop thinking about what had just happened. Rumors of foul play were circulating. Had she been pushed or was it suicide? There had been a gap in the time between when the she disappeared and when it was reported. Passengers and crew looked like they were in a daze. People were drinking hard. With the level of inebriation I’d been seeing, I’m surprised this didn’t happen all the time. I kept thinking of how sometimes we destroy ourselves to remind ourselves that we are still here.
Back at sea, word got around that security tapes indicated the incident was an accident. She had leaned against a railing, slipped and fallen into the deep.
That night, I was still scheduled to do my last performance. It felt simultaneously inappropriate yet, somehow, more appropriate than ever.
Someone from Circus warned not to address what had happened, but as I walked past the yellow tape marking where Ms. Jameson had fallen off, it was all that was on my mind.
I got to the showroom and could see in people’s faces that a woman plunging to her death in 11,000 feet of water was all anyone was thinking about. I felt like my hands had been tied this whole trip, but now I really had a job to do.
I remembered a day in Brooklyn at the Fulton Mall. Two feet away from me, a kid had bumped into another kid. Words were exchanged. There was a quick movement, and one of the kids took off. The other young man’s face now had a thin red line going from cheekbone to chin, then suddenly his whole cheek split open and separated. I could see through the cheek to his lower back teeth on the other side of his jaw. He’d been slashed with a box cutter and had no idea where all the blood was coming from – just stood there in shock, looking at his hands while his cheek hung in two parts.
Everyone else immediately avoided him. I pulled him to the side and, taking his hand, helped pinch his cheek together to limit the bleeding, while telling him jokes about pigeons eating pizza crusts until the ambulance arrived. I remember him smiling and nodding and bleeding. I was a distraction.
The audience in that showroom on the cruise ship needed a distraction, too.
I’ve always felt that to process a traumatic event, one first needs to acknowledge it. To me, it was disrespectful that a woman just died and I had to pretend it hadn’t happened.
Maybe I wasn’t allowed to discuss it, but the captain had…
I decided I would become the captain.
Under the stage lights I improvised a set as the captain talking about what had happened.
“Good heevining, leddies and genitals,” I began. “Thees ees thee captain of the sheep. We cruising 20 knots, mebbe 40 knots, not a lotta knots. If you hungry, try the garlic knots. If you get lost, can’t find the buffet, follow an American on a scooter.” The crowd laughed very hard. “So, today, I make announcement about how I can’t find something. My Johnson. Good news, I found it, hiding under my belly. I don’t see it for long time…but tonight, we are together again, and we gonna celebrate. A toast to my Johnson.”
It was the best set I’d had on the trip, even though a light telling me to end it flashed halfway through – but all I knew was that the note in my pocket said “Johnson” was acceptable.
After the show, three things happened:
First, everywhere I went people would scream, “The captain!” They’d give me a hug, and thank me for making them feel better.
Second, after some back and forth with Circus, I was paid only a portion of the money I was contracted to get, and was advised that I’d never work Circus Cruises again.
And third, I learned that while it’s unlikely I’ll ever be totally comfortable on a budget cruise-ship, I really love helicopters.