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Let's introduce a concept: standup comedy on cruise ships. Is your reaction (a) ho-ho, that could be funny, or (b) kill me now?

The problem, of course, is you people: the audience. Especially on the mainstream ships, how can a comedian judge what'll get the yuks when the theater could be full of, well, everybody: liberals and conservatives, northerners and southerners, doctors and street sweepers, Opus Dei members and animists, orators, surfers, techies, Trekkies, and Dramamine addicts nodding in their seats.

It's all terribly American in a melting-pot kind of way, but how in god's green goodness does a comedian deal with it?

Forgive them, but many go the low road of (shudder . . .) cruise humor: jokes about eating too much, jokes about the lifeboat drill, jokes about the size of the cabins, and, lowest of all, jokes about the vacuum toilets.

There are, of course, exceptions.

Carnival, despite moving away from its old party-boat image toward a more affluent, family-oriented vibe, continues to offer "Midnight Special" shows, where featured comedians get to trot out their R-rated material after the kids have gone to bed. A PG-rated set is offered earlier in the evening.

The line is also experimenting with an "American Idol" format in its Carnival Comedy Challenge. Now in its second year, the program holds events in comedy clubs around the country, pitting amateur comedians against each other for a chance to perform aboard the line's ships. The Challenge was the brainchild of comedian Al Ernst, who got his start by winning a passenger talent contest and is now a popular headliner on Carnival ships.

Information on the Comedy Challenge can be found at www.emannation.com.

Like Carnival, Royal Caribbean employs "fly-on" entertainers, who join a ship in one port and disembark at one of the next. (Others lines, like Norwegian Cruise Line, have comedians stay aboard as part of the regular entertainment staff.)

Royal Caribbean employs between 25 and 35 comedians a week across its twenty-ship fleet, including name acts like George Wallace and Gary Muledeer. Adding a touch of vaudevillian anarchy, gangs of Krooze Komics in full clown makeup rove the line's huge Voyager-class ships, performing impromptu comedy and acrobatic routines. Twice per cruise, they also present informal talks on clown history, makeup application, and tricks of the trade, with one talk targeted to adults and another to kids. There are also occasional juggling classes, for those who want to get deeper into the act.

Like all lines, Royal Caribbean must think outside the box for cruises sailing from foreign ports, to accommodate non-English-speaking guests. "Due to language barriers, stand-up comedy doesn't always work on our European products," says Robin Cahill, Royal Caribbean's manager of Entertainment Operations. "But I've found several excellent comedic visual and musical acts that have been very successful -- prop comics, comedy acrobatic acts, and comedy classical musical groups."

Keeping things fresh in the U.S., Royal Caribbean is also reviewing proposals from comedy venues Catch a Rising Star and Budd Friedman's Improv to create onboard comedy clubs for its ships.

Earlier this year, Norwegian Cruise Line took a similar route by forming an alliance with improv-comedy troupe Second City, whose alumni have included Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Eugene Levy, Seinfeld's Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and most of the classic Saturday Night Live players, including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, and John Candy. Six members of the group sail each week aboard the line's Norwegian Dawn (based year-round in New York) and Norwegian Jewel (currently sailing the Caribbean), performing improv- and sketch-comedy shows that are absolutely the funniest comedy I've seen on any ship, ever, anywhere, period. At different points in the cruise, the comedians also lead workshops for passengers on the art and philosophy of improvisation, plus another workshop just for kids.

All of NCL's also feature regular comedy acts, usually twice per seven-night cruise.

Elsewhere in the cruise biz, Cunard presented legendary British comedian John Cleese aboard Queen Mary 2 during the ship's June 9 transatlantic crossing. Cleese, creator and star of the Monty Python TV show and films, is currently featured as the voice of God in Broadway's Spamalot, based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Sticking with the British theme, Queen Mary 2 is also running a show titled You Say Tomato, featuring performers from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, stitching together classic comedy routines from both sides of the Atlantic. The show debuted in June and is being featured on many of the ship's transatlantic crossings and other sailings.

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