Let me entertain you. (Photo: Thinkstock)
Entertaining people who are on their dream vacation may not be the dream job it seems. In recent years, there have been a number of scandalous allegations of cruise ship entertainers involving drugs, sex, and more. I spoke to a handful of comedians and piano players, current and former, to find out the juicy details about life behind the curtain for cruise ship entertainers. Most spoke to Yahoo only on condition of anonymity. Here are their confessions:
Cruise ship piano players never stop performing. (Photo: Thinkstock)
On cruise ships, piano players usually work on contracts as long as six months at a time, pounding out melodies and witty banter in piano bars almost every night. Randall Barnes, who worked as a piano player for Holland America Line over a decade ago, managed six long years at the line. He would return from months at sea with a glassy-eyed stare, barely able to socialize for several weeks. “I wouldn’t even think of touching a piano between contracts,” he says.
Comedians are usually guest entertainers who cycle through a schedule of short hops onboard as featured performers once or twice during a week-long cruise. Between cruises they maintain land-based careers.
Jimmy Dunn, star of the CBS sitcom, The McCarthy’s, is keeping quiet these days about his past life as a comedian on a cruise ship. In fact, he gives no credit to time spent onboard for his current success. But in 2012 he wrote a book about that life, Boat Hack: A stand-up comic’s farewell to the cruise industry: Not cruise line approved. The subtitle would seem to indicate the tone the book takes toward his former employers.
What makes seemingly easy work hard is the “never off” factor. These guys are contractually obligated to socialize, smile, and entertain every moment they are on the ship. “All discussions, contracts, negotiations, plans, agreements, and integrity are left at the dock,” Dunn rants in his book, indicating that once onboard, entertainers perform at the whims of captains and cruise directors.
When asked about dealing with cruise directors, one former piano player told us confidentially, “There’s a LOT of ugliness beneath the surface of that industry.”
Travel and Money
Jimmy Dunn in his cruise ship days (Photo: Jimmy Dunn)
No matter how hard they perceive the work, there’s a reason these guys are there. The comedians are in it mostly for the travel. Dunn, who doesn’t knock the money, says his first gig was a cruise to Tahiti. As a surfer, he jumped at that offer and then enjoyed more than a decade of travel adventures. “Travel is the juice,” Dunn told Yahoo Travel.
Comedian Dan Nainan, who cruised on numerous lines, said he could make “more money in one night on land than on several cruises.” Luckily for passengers, the lure of distant ports in exchange for standing up and telling jokes is one that some comics cannot resist.
The piano players tell a different story. For them, it’s all about the money. Barnes, who often took three months off between contracts, says he earned enough in his six years at sea to “not have to do a lick of work” for another six years (if he chose). The difference is all in the magical tip jar. One performer told us anonymously that the tips “far exceeded his salary.” The difference was “not even close,” he said.
But it turns out that filling the tip jar requires more than just musical or comedic talent. “People in bars are basically bastards to deal with,” said one piano player, who worked three years on an unnamed cruise line. “They are rude to the entertainer and rude to each other.” Another piano player confidentially told Yahoo Travel that his secret to salvaging bad tip nights was to cozy up to the loneliest looking person in the bar, male or female.
Some cruise ship entertainers go above and beyond when it comes to entertaining passengers (Photo: Thinkstock)
The benefits don’t stop at travel and money. For some, the reward is entertaining passengers after hours. One anonymous entertainer working on an unnamed line, told Yahoo Travel he was encouraged to “mix with the ladies.” That meant leaving his cabin door unlocked for nightly visits where “some fair lady would come in, unannounced, and crawl into my bed naked.”
All of the entertainers hint that this is part of the deal if they want it to be. In his book, Dunn mentions a fellow comic who attended the lifeboat drills just to check out the “talent” on board. Others talk about groupies being just another hazard (or perk) of the job.
What They Think of Passengers
Here’s the truth: the crew doesn’t like you. (Photo: Thinkstock)
“It’s not a bad gig if you like dealing with fat, stupid drunks,” an anonymous piano bar comic told Yahoo Travel. That opinion was unanimous among the entertainers we talked to. Passengers are simply there to fill the tip jar on the piano and the seats in the auditorium so that they can negotiate a better contract next time. Barnes told Yahoo Travel that as much as he loved Holland America ships, the wealthy passengers attracted by the line are “stuffy.” He makes fun of them with a clenched jaw and protracted vowel sounds. “We’re cruising to the Maldeeeves, on the Veeeendam, dahling,” he chuckles.
And a word to the wise: cruise entertainers quickly become experts at dealing with hecklers. One piano player, who declined to divulge the line he performed on, told me how he got rid of a problem patron by getting the crowd in the bar to start saying “pretty, pretty princess” every time the guy opened his mouth. Not satisfied that he had done enough damage to the man’s ego, after the heckler left, the piano man told everyone to continue calling the guy a pretty, pretty princess for the remainder of the cruise.
Comics especially love to tell jokes about how stupid cruise passengers are. “There’s only one thing that goes on the nerves… passengers,” German comedian Uel Wolff, says in his YouTube video. Comics laugh at passengers for gazing in amazement at ice sculptures, for assuming that the fish served in the dining room is fresh, and even for wanting to get married at sea.
Dunn says he wrote his book as an insight into what he “saw and thought about while traveling around the world on a boatful of drunken Americans.” Of course, the legal disclaimer in the front of the book clearly states that his stories are fictional.
So enjoy the hired funny people on your next cruise, and tip them well if they make you smile. Just be careful what you say, unless you want to become part of their next act.