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” That was until the Yiddish-singing piano player, slotted to go before me, took the stage. When I opened the door and saw the inside, I almost had a panic attack. 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.
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. “That’s where the shows are at, but first we got a ‘welcome aboard’ show. 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. My act would be graded based on such criteria as “Did comic receive big laughs at regular intervals? ” 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.
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.
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.
” 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.
It was during a showcase of performers trying out for gigs on cruise ships at a theater in Miami. The rest of the time was spent fighting guys who were trying to rape him – with mixed results.
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. 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. 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.
“You look like a Spanish Billy Bob Thornton,” JR greeted me. Only way to call out.” “No.” “Tell you about the cash card? 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 You Tube 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.
Single.” Even though following that guy was like following Springsteen in Jersey, I managed to book one gig. “I guess I’m gon’ be your orientation.” “Where’s the venue? It was also freezing, with no way to turn down the air conditioner. 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.
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. I flew into Texas where the ship, headed to Mexico, would be taking off. 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. Cruise ships are one of the last refuges for veteran comedians to make a living doing what they do.