For many cruise passengers, one of the best parts of their voyage isn't the elaborate buffets, the casino bets or the booze. It's the belly laughs. These days, several major lines are showcasing more humor by way of their comedy clubs. Forget about the stuff-food-in-your-face jokes; the performers and the material are better than ever.
"Back in the day, being labeled a 'cruise ship comedian' certainly carried a negative connotation, as it was believed that performing on a cruise ship meant it was either the beginning or the end of your career," says Mark Tamis, Carnival Cruise Line's senior vice president of guest operations. "That is certainly not the case these days."
Now, many shipboard jokesters come aboard between appearances in top clubs and on late-night television shows. Second City, the noted sketch and improvisational group, has garnered guffaws on certain Norwegian Cruise Line ships since 2005. When Carnival Cruise Lines, a longtime leader in late-night laughs, launched Punchliner Comedy Clubs presented by George Lopez in 2011, even more passengers packed the clubs.
To meet the expectations of today's savvy audiences, the routines riff on topical trends. "In terms of the sophistication of the audience, standup comedy is everywhere these days -- there's even a 24-hour cable channel devoted to comedy -- so consumers are much more attuned to what sort of comedy options are available," says Tamis. "It goes without saying that comedians [include] more of the pop culture landscape than ever before."
But not all lines and ships use comedy the same way. Smaller vessels and those carrying many international, non-English-speaking passengers skip the jokes or schedule the visual humor of jugglers and mimes. Follow this primer to find the ships that sail with the kind of laughs you crave.
Carnival Cruise Line
What's Offered: Punchliner Comedy Clubs presented by George Lopez are available on all Carnival ships, averaging 20 shows per ship, per week. Cumulatively, the fleet's clubs present more than 20,000 shows a year, making Carnival the largest operator of comedy clubs in the world, according to its executives.
Even before Carnival's connection with George Lopez launched in 2011, the line's comedians shined. Lopez's "curation" has meant even more engaging comics come aboard, both up-and-comers and well-known performers. Another plus for Carnival's clientele: Each of the 20 shows presents new material, thus keeping "laughaholics" happily coming back for more each night.
Style of Show: At Punchliner, a standup comic takes to the stage each night for two or more shows. While families may attend the earlier set, much of the material will come across as funny to those around age 14 and older. Only passengers 18 and older can grab seats in the later show because performers might use R-rated language or comment on sex and other adult topics.
What's Offered: Celebrity Cruises' solution to the "what's funny to different nationalities" conundrum mixes standup with visual humor that transcends language barriers and cultural norms. Celebrity opts for the adult eyeful of burlesque. Its Sin City Comedy, an award-winning Las Vegas revue, currently appears on Celebrity Silhouette and Celebrity Reflection. The comics who add the jokes have appeared on such popular television networks as Comedy Central, VH! and HBO, and on well-known programs like the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Late Show with David Letterman.
Style of Show: The adults-only Sin City Comedy blends standup comedians with dancers doing burlesque. Think feathers, fans, sequined bras, sexy moves and jokes.
What's Offered: Entertainment on the luxury line runs to production like as DIVA and iLuminate. Although these contain comic elements, they're more centered on music and dance than laugh-out-loud jokes. A comic might be scheduled to perform in one of the lounges or in the showroom.
Style of Show: Standup comedians do sometimes perform. For in-cabin viewing, the line broadcasts "Five o'clock Funnies," comedy clips selected by the cruise director.
Disney Cruise Line
What's Offered: Disney Cruise Line keeps comedy family-friendly and apolitical. To do that, Disney relies heavily on humor that comes with a physical or visual element. Disney Cruise Line is also known for its excellent quality Broadway-style shows, some of which are quite funny. A few late-night shows target adults only.
Style of Show: Various theaters and lounges feature ventriloquists, jugglers and others using visual humor. "Villains Tonight!," a song-and-dance comedy revue on Disney Dream and Disney Magic, gets kids and their parents snickering at the antics of Captain Hook, Scar, Cruella De Vil and other villains.
Holland America Line
What's Offered: Like other major lines, HAL may feature a comedian as part of the main show on ships carrying mostly English-speaking passengers, but the line also elicits laughs through visual comedy acts. On ships geared to multinational passengers, HAL stages only visual humor.
Style of Show: HAL's comics must be funny without spewing foul language or presenting adults-only content. That means no raunchy sex jokes, and the multinational crowd precludes piquant political commentary. The visual humor, which can be engaging, comes from magicians, jugglers, impressionists, ventriloquists and musical acts.
Norwegian Cruise Line
What's Offered: Norwegian leans in to comedy but, interestingly, not on all of its ships. In 2005, the line contracted Second City to perform on Norwegian Dawn. Over the years, the troupe took to the stage on other ships, including Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Breakaway. Second City currently holds forth on Epic, Breakaway and Getaway.
The line's commitment to comedy is apparent on its newest vessels, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway. Along with Epic, these ships showcase humor in Headliners Comedy Club with two comedians, who perform about 12 shows total per week. While comedians still take to the stage as part of the main show on other ships, Headliners offers a more intimate venue than the big theater. On Getaway, NCL partners with Levity Entertainment Group, one of the world's largest comedy producers, to sign comedians.
Style of Show: Standup comics entertain in Headliners. Typically, the earlier show is family-friendly, and the later show targets adults. Only those 18 and older are admitted. Second City offers its trademark sketches and improv onboard Epic, Breakaway and Getaway.
What's Offered: The Vista Lounge on Princess Cruises hosts a variety of nightly entertainment. A comedian might be among the weekly lineup, which also includes live bands, theme parties and illusionists. A comic might also be booked in the Princess Theater. Royal Princess and Regal Princess have Princess Live!, a 280-seat television studio that showcases culinary shows, concerts and sometimes live comedy.
Style of Show: Standup comics might perform family-friendly material as part of the main show and comedy that has more of an edge in the Vista Lounge or Princess Live!, depending on the sailing.
Royal Caribbean International
What's Offered: Royal Caribbean, a leader in so many onboard activities -- deckside surfing, rock climbing, ice skating -- focused more attention on comedy with the launch of its Oasis-class vessels. Both Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas ignite giggles at Comedy Live, lounges inspired by New York's standup clubs. On other ships, when the majority of the clientele hail from North America, comics might perform in one of the lounges or headline in the main theater for several evenings on smaller vessels.
"Comedy on ships has changed over the last 5 to 10 years in much the same way cruising has changed," said RCI spokeswoman Janet Diaz. "The industry has become increasingly more and more global, not just with ship deployment but with guests. While before there was a consistent North American clientele, we now have guests from around the world, and while laughter is universal, what's funny is not. Our team works diligently to secure the best comics that will appeal to global audiences as well as regional audiences, such as with ships based in China or Brazil, for example."
Style of Show: Standup comics perform on Oasis-class vessels in Comedy Live and as part of the main show on other ships when the passengers are primarily from North America.
--By Candyce H. Stapen, Cruise Critic contributor