Rich Ceisler, 58; helped to form Boston’s comedy scene
Many comedians aspire to be club headliners and land on television, and that’s what Rich Ceisler accomplished. He appeared on HBO, Showtime, Comedy Central, and more, but he also sought a wider audience.
Mr. Ceisler became what he called a “corporate chameleon,” and was hired by businesses to provide comic relief at conferences, sometimes appearing in the guise of an actual expert for a seminar, only to let the audience in on the joke at the end. In his most popular role, he was a highly in-demand cruise ship comedian who joined up to 25 ships a year to spin laughs in Africa, Asia, Australia, the Caribbean, Europe, South America, and seemingly all ports in between.
He was an “ambassador of comedy,” said his longtime manager, Dee Mura. “He was one of the most well-traveled comedians. He loved going places, and the more exotic they were, the more he liked them. His energy was amazing. He just had a marvelous sense of life and adventure.”
Mr. Ceisler, who was scheduled to perform soon in Fiji, Tahiti, and Bali, took ill on a ship off Haiti July 23. Diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease in which the nervous system is attacked, he was taken by helicopter to a hospital in Santiago in the Dominican Republic, where he died Aug. 4. Mr. Ceisler was 58 and lived in Wakefield.
His fiancée, Catherine Doyle, and his best friend, Comedy Connection cofounder Paul Barclay, flew to his side when he became sick. Doyle and Mr. Ceisler had planned to marry on Aug. 9. She had just left a public relations job in Montreal to move to Mr. Ceisler’s Wakefield home and prepare to travel with him during the next year.
“Rich’s material was clever, witty, clean, and he could get a laugh out of a 6-year-old or a 96-year-old,’” said Mike McDonald, a friend and fellow comic. “Sometimes on a cruise ship you play to a family of four generations, and he could do that.”
McDonald followed Mr. Ceisler into cruise ship comedy, as did Jimmy Dunn, another friend who is scheduled to appear this fall on the CBS sitcom “The McCarthys.”
“Rich was one of the first Boston guys to figure out that he could travel the world like a millionaire in exchange for performing on cruise ships,” Dunn said. “And he taught me the ins and outs of the cruise industry. He opened my eyes to a world I never thought I’d be part of.”
Mr. Ceisler would take friends and his sister, Lauri Vinick of Chestnut Hill, on some trips.
“We just went out in November on a big ship called Oasis of the Sea,” she said. “He was so excited to have us experience it, and he made sure they had a special birthday dinner for me.”
He led a “nomadic life, but he was so good at observing people and the country they were from, their customs, their food, their transportation,” said Mura, his manager. “He worked to make all of them laugh. No matter where we put him, he always did well.”
Mr. Ceisler helped other artists, too. Singer Amy Fairchild recalled how he invited her to be his opening act on a 2006 trip to China.
“We played in Shanghai and Beijing for ex-pats,” she said. “And we went to the Great Wall of China. It was one of the highlights of my life.”
Mr. Ceisler grew up in North Bellmore, N.Y., on Long Island. His father, Ralph, was a salesman who did impersonations, and his mother, the former Shirley Mendelson, was a Wellesley College graduate who wrote parodies.
They learned early that their son was arts oriented when he plunged into theater and emceed a school talent show.
“My mom and dad realized that this kid was not going to have an office job,” his sister said. “I don’t think he ever had a real job. He was always an entertainer.”
As an undergraduate, Mr. Ceisler studied theater at the State University of New York at Fredonia, and he received a master’s in theater from Virginia Tech. He joined a comedy/improv troupe in Buffalo and then moved to Boston to join a surge of standup comics, including Steven Wright, Bobcat Goldthwait, Denis Leary, and Lenny Clarke.
“He was one of the people who helped form the scene, and he was one of the most natural comics,” Barclay said. “Some guys would walk in with a notebook full of stuff. He’d walk in with almost nothing. He’d just be Rich.”
Mr. Ceisler’s sister said he displayed “a Seinfeld kind of observational humor. He had an everyman attitude and was wonderfully self-deprecating. He was self-deprecating about his weight as he got bigger, and about his lack of love before he met Catherine.”
His life changed seven years ago when he met Doyle on a cruise ship. She enjoyed his show and sat next to him in a ship’s bar, where he asked her to dinner. They pursued a long-distance relationship from their homes in Montreal and Boston, and she often joined him on trips.
“He was so good to me,” she said. “He would do anything for me. He was kind, gentle, and very intelligent. He traveled so much that we joked that on our honeymoon we would just stay home and watch TV.”
A service for Mr. Ceisler was planned for Sunday at 11 a.m. in Temple Beth Avodah in Newton. Doyle and Vinki were Mr. Ceisler’s only immediate survivors.
Everyone from Pepsi to the Harvard Business School sought out Mr. Ceisler, who enjoyed great success with his “corporate chameleon” role. Hired to appear as expert speaker, he often posed as his alter ego.
“I usually do the show as Dr. Richard Clark, a stress management expert,” Mr. Ceisler told the Globe in 1998.
“That’s my job,” he told the Globe in another interview nearly a year later. “To be a comic, you need to develop a personality; otherwise you’re just some person who tells jokes.”
Mr. Ceisler “was a big teddy bear,” his fiancée said. “There wasn’t an ounce of aggression in him. He had a blessed life. He got to do what he wanted in a field where not everybody can make it like that.”
Correction: Due to a reporting error, Lauri Vinick’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.