The Ship From Hell
I fell down a flight of stairs, blackout drunk, on Deck 3 in the crew quarters of the cruise ship. I awoke at the bottom of the stairwell. Spongebob Squarepants was standing above me, surrounded by his supporting cast. I thought, “I’ve gone to Hell, and this is what Hell looks like.”
It wasn’t Satan though — it was just the cast of Nickelodeon on the cruise ship I was performing on. They helped get me to my quarters. Spongebob, out of costume, was Australian and had great auburn hair (I remember thinking about how nice it looked as he hauled my ass to bed). Later, I learned he’d had preemptive laser hair surgery when he turned 18 to combat the history of hair loss in his family. He didn’t want to jeopardize his destiny of becoming a children’s TV star. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember how much I liked his hair.
I fell asleep right away. I probably had gone to bed with a concussion — a big no-no for waking up alive. But, I did awake and went to do my daily job of performing comedy for an audience of racist Republicans from Florida. In the dressing room, my cast-mate Martha* saw the back of my head and shrieked, “There’s a hole in your head!” We camouflaged it with my microphone’s headband. After the show, I went to see the ship doctor. I never explained the circumstances that led me to falling down a crew stairwell in the middle of the night. I just said I bumped my head. The doc gave me a diagnosis of bacterial infection, given the open wound, a prescription for antibiotics for a week, and a warning: no booze while I was taking them. This was a problem because I was a full-blown alcoholic at this point in the contract.
Performing comedy regularly on a cruise ship contract was a dream of mine until it became a nightmare. I managed to be part of what I assume is one of the most disastrous Real World-style cast meltdowns ever to grace the Caribbean. I was the Company Manager and a performer alongside six actors and one musician who wanted to be an actor (the first week on the boat, she asked if I’d ever be up for “switching roles” and taking over the keys so she could play Sing It! I said no.).
Despite having no experience leading peers my age, I was put in charge because I had successfully run an acting training center/theater for kids. I should probably have declined the leadership, but one of my greatest flaws is rising to the occasion, so I took the extra $200/week and responsibility. But ‘Company Manager’ was really an honorary title; my main purpose was to tattle-tell on my cast-mates. I had no authority to confront issues head-on or take action to remedy situations; everything was to be decided remotely by our bosses in the Midwest. There was naturally a conflict of interest built-in to the reporting as well — because anyone who knows me knows I get up to bad behavior just like the rest (see opening paragraph to this story).
The first two months were breezy, carefree, Caribbean fun. It was an epic boat — excuse me, ship (it’s a point of respect to refer to her as a “ship”) — one of the biggest in the world! It had a room permanently frozen at 32 degrees Fahrenheit that served vodka in glasses made out of ice. I spent 1o minutes in there and never visited again.
Holiday parties on the ship were a hoot! My contract started in October and overlapped with Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years! The worst thing to happen during those first two months was overcrowding due to 6,000 passengers on-board. So, the restaurant Maitre D’s wouldn’t seat our cast at the nicer restaurants (we were “Yellow-Cards,” aka special status employees who almost had Passenger privileges but not quite if they didn’t want us to). So, we had to eat in the crew mess hall or the garden buffet on Deck 15. Ah, those sweet days when denied dining privileges were the biggest issues. We performed 15 shows a week: three separate sketch revues, some improv shows and a lunchtime murder mystery that was served up opposite the most disgusting shrimp salad I have ever seen. We also led two educational workshops touting how amazing comedy was for the enthralled passengers who wanted to know if anyone from the cast had ever been on SNL (the answer was No). The cast spent everyday together, be it performing onboard or taking boozy shore excursions to beachside bars or swimming with dolphins or pirating movies in internet cafes in Miami. I was having the time of my life and felt I was improving my chops as a performer and getting my comedy reps in. Everything was fine until the holidays were over and January lull took over: around month three.
One performer, Mark, started to get lazy. He’d miss his entrances or walk onstage with his microphone off his head. He was addicted to playing a racing game on his iPad backstage. He’d be playing, then run onstage in a panic, 2.5 seconds after the lights came up on his scene. He took catnaps during the murder mystery on the second floor of the theater when his character wasn’t engaged. He began to introduce our shows by saying, “Ladies and Gentleman…and those of you who do not define yourselves by a binary definition of gender,” to the blank, confused faces of patrons I believe now own mugs that say “Liberal Tears.” He made a lot of Herman Caine jokes (it was topical at the time). The audience hated it and would hate our show. But Mark was self-righteous. Fuck the audience!
I didn’t know what to do. I tried to host a “Cast Talk” in the green room, pitching in plural pronouns the idea of us keeping up our game and respecting what we’d rehearsed. It didn’t make an impact, so lacking any real authority, I reported Mark for missing his cues to our bosses. Perhaps because they’d seen some warning signs in rehearsal process of his slack attitude, they informed him by email that he was one mistake short of being fired. I found myself the day after trapped in a stairwell, verbally assaulted by Mark. “What did you say to them?!” he screamed, along with “You lie!” and “I will ruin your career!” The next improv show, despite my best efforts, we ended up in a scene together. I initiated by playing a kid and saying, “Gee, Mr. Life Guard, I’m afraid to go in the deep end of the pool.” Mark stared me down and replied without blinking, “I hope you drown.” So I said, “Yes, and…here I jump!” And then Martha wiped the stage, saying, “Scene!” and ended that, thank God. Pretty soon, Mark was documenting every mistake I made onstage, every time I stammered during an intro or missed a cue myself or arguably crossed the line in family-friendly-rated improv shows. He was building a case to get me fired as part of his revenge, and it set me on edge.
Another actor, Bob, refused to wash his clothes since the beginning of the contract. His suit began to ooze stink. He asked for a suggestion one day of anything at all, and an audience member offered, “When was the last time you washed?” He thought he had bedbugs for some reason, and he asked Security to come check his room for them. They didn’t find bedbugs, but they did find jars of illegal alcohol in plain sight around the room (let’s be honest, everyone smuggled Vodka on-board from the K-MART in St. Thomas in their water bottles, but no one openly displayed that shit for Security to see). They also found water glasses full of cigarette stubs littered around the room, indicating another no-no (smoking in your room), glasses which were later recycled for use by passengers on the ship. And lastly, they found mattress stains of some sort on his bed and sent photos of them ship-wide in an email saying our cast did not live up to the ship’s cleanliness standards, with a recommendation to remove us from crew lodging. I had to forward that delightful email thread to our bosses!
There was one bright spot though, which occurred the week after my spat with Mark — my parents surprised me by showing up on the ship! Not knowing any of the ensuing drama, they decided to pull a prank on me, and told the Cruise Director to angrily call me into his office for a meeting. He ominously phoned my Satelite phone. I responded that I was in the middle of watching the True Blood Season 3 finale. “Could it wait?” He said no, so I assumed I was in major trouble. WHAT NOW? But instead I got the surprise of my life and a heart-attack averted! My parents and I had a weeklong adventure together, and it was one of the most touching things they ever did for me.
That same week, I got a care package from my wonderful friends back home! A New Years miracle!
My parents disembarked though, and no more gifts showed up in the mail. And our cast continuned to unravel. Ben — the only veteran actor of our cast, a survivor of five former cruise ship contracts — began isolating himself and drawing caricatures of us instead of talking to us. It got back to me that he didn’t think I knew what I was doing, and that he thought he could do a better job. I bet he could have, but he hadn’t been offered the Company Manager position after he supposedly got in a fight with some guy on his first contract. This was the guy judging me.
I got lonely to the point of desperation. So I seduced a straight crewman and turned him gay. His name was Simba. Well, that was his name on the tag the cruise line made him wear as an employee in whatever they called “childcare” on that ship. He had to choose a character name from a Disney film so the children could better remember it and torment him. He was a South-African, twenty-one year old guy; and we got drunk together at the employee Halloween Party. I guided him over his fears and into his curiosities and sleeping with me. It was the worst sex of my life; like teaching a baby what to do. Scratch that last simile. Worst of all, I became his sexual lifeboat in the subsequent months; he would not stop calling my satellite phone for more hook-ups, and I had to spend the next two months of my contract avoiding him on the ship.
Our piano player began to check out of doing shows. She had more cases of the Noro virus than anyone our Cruise Director could remember; and whether or not you’re exaggerating your symptoms, Security quarantines your ass the second you say you’re a bit nauseous. One day in month four, instead of calling in sick, she just started heavily drinking. We had three shows back-back that night. By the 9 PM show, she was intoxicated. By the 11 PM show, she could barely play her way through our final musical sketch. She then continued drinking. Flash-forward to the cast dancing late night at the ultra-lounge, and she began making-out with a female passenger on the dance floor. Though the passenger reciprocated, consent between crew and passengers doesn’t mean it’s OK to Security. One of the cardinal sins on a cruise ship is sexual interaction between staff and guests. So they accosted, reported, and nearly arrested her on the spot. We were sure she was going to be told her pack her bags when we ported into Miami that Sunday. There would be little notice other than a knock at the door the night before telling to pack her bags. We braced for impact, only to learn the Staff Captain let her off the hook because it had been a “a girl on girl thing.” Can you imagine if she had been a guy? The double-standard pissed off some of the other entertainment personal on the ship, turning them against our cast.
I dealt with the turbulence by constantly working out in the gym. I joined the celebrity impersonators on the boat and did INSANITY workouts daily. I threw my body into shape alongside Elvis and Lady Gaga. I became obsessed with counting calories and not eating carbs. By the final week of the contract, I was in the Italian restaurant, looking gaunt and famished, and Martha told me to, “Eat a breadstick for God’s sake!” My fingers were shaking as they reached for it.
To be fair, on the worst day of my life at sea, I spent hours soaking in the balmy sun of St. Maarten or some idyllic island. I got really good sleep, lulled by the gentle rocking of the mothership. I saved a lot of money and bought a nice TV. I got into the best shape of my life (until I pudged up within a month of being back on land). And I think I got better at comedy. So, maybe it wasn’t entirely Hell on Earth. Other people on cruise ships crash into rocks off the coast of Italy and are abandoned by their captain to drown in the bowels of the ship. I survived.
And I’ll never do it again.
I encourage those who enjoy reaidng about cruise ships to check out David Foster Wallace’s essay on his own experience. I related to it.
*All names changed for privacy sake.