Worst Cruise Ever? Confessions of a “Boat Hack,” Jimmy Dunn

As the Carnival Triumph cruise ship endured a slow-tow across the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, following several days stranded at sea after losing power, comedians jumped aboard the Twitter joke parade — not to make fun of the passengers, per se, but to note that one of them was also, well, one of them.

Albert Brooks quipped on Twitter: “You think the passengers had it bad on that Carnival cruise ship, think of the comic.”

Earlier on Thursday, Andy Kindler had written: “Comedian on Carnival Cruise, having run out of material days ago, is now bombing with crowd work.” Overnight, he contributed to a Twitter hashtag trend #CarnivalCruiseComedian, along with Harry Shearer, who replied: “When you say, ‘I’ll be here all week,’ you really mean it.'”

jimmydunnJimmy DunnĀ could do much more than RT those sentiments. He lived them. He wrote the book on cruise ship comedy. “Boat Hack” is a compilation of jokes, thoughts and essays that cruises through Dunn’s dozen years as a stand-up comedian working on cruise ships around the world.

Dunn, a Boston-based comedian, joked yesterday: “Passengers will arrive at 10. But before disembarking, they have to fill out the comment cards.”

On the phone today with The Comic’s Comic, Dunn noted that in his dozen years of cruising, he never found himself in a situation quite like the one facing the passengers of the Carnival Triumph. “I’ve never been on Carnival,” he said. “They won’t pay us. Carnival is notoriously one of the cheaper ones. They have a lot of the B-level comics working there.”

He said that for years, cruise liners “used to put a real premium on the comedy on these ships.” In exchange, they expected the comedians to be professional and pleasing to any and all types of audiences. “They would pay us a lot of money to be clean and presentable.”

But as he wrote in his book on a chapter devoted to “The Future of Cruise Ship Entertainment,” the future is now: “The days of a guy standing on the main stage theater of a cruise ship and entertaining a 1,000-plus member crowd by just telling jokes are numbered. In the future, stand-up comedy will be relegated to the ship’s tiny comedy club, a small venue located alongside the jazz club, the karaoke club, the sports bar, the dueling pianos and other boutique venues. It’ll have the same feel as that of a Vegas hotel. Entertainment Alley. Rue de Joy. Deck 4.”


Carnival’s line has instituted a series of smaller rooms on its ships called “The Punchliner Comedy Club” in association with George Lopez. But that’s not the kind of comedy experience offered on the Carnival Triumph. For the Triumph, it’s a larger comedy room offering “family-friendly” and “late-night” shows.

Dunn said that on bigger ships with more than 4,000 passengers, such as the largest in Royal Caribbean’s fleet, “it has a full-time comedy club in there, two shows each night. It’s like a real comedy club…those comics are pretty good.”

He cites Don Gavin and Rich Ceisler among some of the stand-ups still working the cruise lines that are great or really good at their craft, and acknowledges that “it was a nice chunk of money and I was traveling around the world” for a week each month for several years. And yet.

And yet.

The stigma comedians have against other comedians who work cruises rings from truth. “You can’t have a whole lot going on to be working that, 25 weeks a year,” Dunn said. Part of it, he said, comes from the audiences you play toward, who have nowhere else to go when the ship is at the sea. “They’ll just look at you. For the most part, they’re morons. For the other most part, they’re mostly drunk. These are the same people who are amazed by sculptures of ice.”

The passengers tend to make for audiences that are “the lowest common denomination of traveler,” and the cruise directors expect the comedians to make them happy. “I fought tooth and nail to not be a boat hack,” Dunn said. Until he couldn’t hack it, so to speak, about a year ago. “I got into a big fight with cruise management and my manager at the same time, all by email and text messages. I went out in a blow-out. I was determined to leave my mark. I burnt my bridge with a flame-thrower, as my brother likes to say.” And as he wrote in the opening chapters of “Boat Hack,” he closed his final cruise-ship set with his own take on “The Aristocrats” bit.

Dunn’s work schedule now includes clubs, casinos and corporate gigs.

Is corporate work any less hacky than cruise ships for a comedian, though?

“I do a lot of corporate gigs. I like doing a lot of them, for the most part,” Dunn told The Comic’s Comic. “Generally they’re smarter audiences. You have to be clean, you have to be politically correct. That’s something we all battle against. And you’re not in a comedy club, you’re not in a basement.” You still can exercise some original thoughts and premises, though.

As he’s quick to add and acknowledge, too: “I’ve done some great cruise ship gigs, too.”

The Carnival Triumph, with a combined passenger-and-crew count upward of 4,200, endured a lack of power, lack of food, lack of sewage, and evacuated at least one passenger who needed emergency medical care. Dunn jokes in his book about the medical care you may receive onboard a cruise ship even when the ship itself is healthy, as well as what might happen to passengers who die on a cruise (which does happen), and the conditions of the food and the rooms. All of this, during a normal cruise.

In a postscript to his book, Dunn references the Costa Concordia tragedy from last year, in which 32 people died after that ship ran aground off the Italian shore and partially sank. He told The Comic’s Comic: “I have a general mistrust for anything I hear on a cruise ship…That one in Italy…they went back to their room and died. They died!” He jokingly notes that the guy you might look to at the beginning of your cruise during mandatory safety drills might be serving you bread and butter at dinner that night.

What would Dunn have done if he were on the Triumph?

“I’m not even joking when I say I might have jumped off board and tried to swim to Cuba,” he said.

He doesn’t know which comedian or comedians worked the Triumph this week, although he tried looking on a comedian message board last night, only to find that chat room is private. “There’s a bunch of Boston guys who work on Carnival, too,” Dunn said. “I’m sure whomever he was, he’s writing a book.”

Dunn, whose TV and film credits include Jimmy Kimmel Live and Stuck on You, also has appeared on Comedy Central, CMT and NESN. He’ll perform with Lenny Clarke at the Comix club in Foxwoods on March 28-30, and at the Borgata Casino and Resort in Atlantic City in May. His book, “Boat Hack,” is available now.

Boat Disease

These are the symptoms of “boat disease,” “a term comics use to explain another comic’s decision to cross that metaphorical gangway to a life consisting mainly of life on a boat entertaining the Morons of the Seas. From Jimmy Dunn’s book, “Boat Hack,” pages 152-153:

  • Significant weight gain
  • Cancellation of land gigs and other commitments
  • Bad comedy
  • Moving to Florida
  • Heavy alcohol abuse

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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