For years, that was the comedy community’s ultimate insult.
“If a guy was a hack comic,’’ said Don Gavin, a veteran Boston comedian, “that was the derogatory term we all used.’’
“At one point,’’ said Michele Balan, a 2006 finalist on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing’’ series, “comics thought that when you agree to perform on cruises you put yourself in a career coffin.’’
“American Idol’’ guru Simon Cowell didn’t help that impression, according to Gary Walker, Celebrity Cruise Lines manager of entertainment and cruise programs, “when he told an ‘American Idol’ contestant a few years back, ‘You’d be OK on a cruise ship.’
“That woke up the entire cruise industry to what people think of all cruise line entertainment,’’ Walker added, “even though it’s really comparable to what you’d find at Las Vegas or Branson, Mo.
“So the lines really went a step further to book the kind of talent that would appeal to all demos, especially the people who go to comedy clubs,’’ Walker said. “Now we look for comedians with totally fresh material, who are a bit edgier and more contemporary.’’
“We’re spending top dollar to get great comedians,’’ said Bret Bullock, vice president of entertainment for the upscale Crystal Cruises. “These aren’t your father’s comedy clubs anymore.’’
The Carnival Cruise Line now has a Punchliner Comedy Club on every ship and celebrity comedian George Lopez is their official patron comic-presenter.
“Last year we did 21,000 comedy shows,’’ said Mark Tamis, Carnival’s senior vice president of guest operations. “We had 5.6 million audience members for our shows, and had a roster of 135 comedians, year round. Over the last six months, we’ve asked our guests what they like most about our cruises, and comedy is almost always one of the things they mentioned.’’
Nearly all the big cruise lines have followed suit if not quite with the same a-comedy-club-on-every-ship goal. “Comedy is a vital part of every cruise,’’ said Bullock. “Our guests take Crystal Cruises to escape and have a good time, and what better way to do that than with laughter?’’
Balan had been doing comedy for 20 years, and avoiding cruise lines, until she performed two years ago at the Nantucket Comedy Festival. Cruise industry people in the audience liked what they heard and approached her.
“I told them I was not ready to end my career,’’ she quipped. “But they just kept coming back to me saying, ‘Try it. Try it. Try it. Try it.’ So I did, even though I went kicking and screaming, and now I love it.’’
This so-called “boat comic renaissance’’ is sweet vindication for Gavin and another Boston-based comedian, Rich Ceisler. Both have been doing the cruise line circuit for nearly 20 years. “You get treated like a millionaire on most cruises,’’ Ceisler said, “and you get top cuisines and itineraries when you’re able to perform at a certain level.’’
“My slogan is, ‘Raising the bar of cruise ship entertainment,’ ’’ said Ceisler. “I’m really fed up with people referring to cruise ship talent as some kind of sublevel of entertainment.’’
Gavin said, “I get phone calls from comics every week now, asking me, ‘How do I get on those ships?’ ’’
The pair have honed their humor over the years to the point where they are completely comfortable doing an all-ages show for 1,000 or more people. But the smaller onboard comedy clubs for 100-250 people can provide opportunities for younger comics to perfect their craft.
“If a young comic plays a land comedy club,’’ said Dee Mura of Dee Mura Enterprises, a New York-based management and production company that supplies talent to cruise lines, “he’ll be seen mainly by people from that city. If he is in a cruise ship comedy club the same size, he’ll be seen by people from all over the country.’’
But cruise ship life is not for every comic. They are expected to serve as company ambassadors on each trip, mixing and chatting with the clientele when not onstage.
“The travel to and from the ships is brutal,’’ Gavin said. One Midwestern comic bailed out halfway through his virgin cruise experience, according to Gavin. “He just couldn’t stand being hemmed in or confined by the boat. He told the cruise line, ‘Don’t even bother sending me my check. Just get me off of this thing.’ ’’