“Cathy Ladman is the worst comedian we have ever seen.”
Conflict is essential for comedy. For comedy gigs, however, conflict sucks.
From the outset, this cruise job had been a series of misadventures. When my agent had suggested that perhaps I could do cruises to make some money, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. Cruise audiences can be some of the worst audiences out there, and everything’s got to be squeaky clean and not at all remotely controversial to anyone in the room.
However, I had done some cruises in the late ‘80’s, maybe a dozen or so, and I had actually had a good time. I met great people, went to fun locations, and got paid. It had been a great experience.
So, when my agent said that he had a job for me working on a cruise ship, I leaped at the opportunity. Okay, maybe I didn’t leap. Maybe I made an attempt to sit up straight. Anyway, I said yes, and I accepted this as a temporary fix to my financial irregularities.
I will skip through all of the horrific travel details and complete disorganization of the cruise line, and I’ll get right to my arrival at the ship. Keep in mind that, at this point in the story, I have been awake for about 30 hours straight.
Peter, the Deputy Cruise Director – I don’t know who had deputized him - showed me to my cabin. He’s telling me this and that, helping me to get oriented. My head is reeling with information that is exiting my brain as quickly as it enters. Peter seems nice, the nicest person I’ve met in the past 30 hours.
Then he says,
“And your first show tonight is at 8:45.”
I figure this is ship humor.
“Right. You’re kidding,” I say.
It turns out that I have not one, but two shows. It was right there in the program: “KATHY LADMAN,” spelled with a “K,” always a good feeling for me, at 8:45 and 10:45.
“Who else is on the show?” I asked.
“How long do I do?”
“Forty-five minutes?” says Peter, wincing slightly.
Forty-five minutes on a ship is at least an hour and 15 minutes’ worth of land material. I’ll have to dig up everything. Lots of old stuff. I hope I can even remember it. I know I can’t do my favorite material, like my Hitler stuff. That might kill them. (I’m not kidding).
“Well, I’d better try to get some sleep,” I told him. It was 3:00.
I lay down, closed my eyes, and stared at the inside of my skull for two hours. I could not sleep. I was too wound up about these shows. I was not at all in shape to get on stage, and, frankly, in my current physical and mental state, I was beyond nervous.
Oh, fuck it. I’ll just do my act, which I know is funny, and I’m funny, so what’s the problem?
I prettified myself as best I could, as the ship set sail, or however you describe the departure of a ship that doesn’t have a sail, per se.
I never had any significant problem with motion sickness. Maybe once, in a very minor way, on rough seas, but that was it.
Well, guess what!?!
Something in my physiology must have changed because first I started to get dizzy, and then I started to get really sick. I waited, thinking it would pass. It got worse. I called Peter and asked him if he could get me some Bonine or something like it, and he said he’d get on it.
He called me back and said that the consensus – between whom, I have no idea – was to not give me Bonine or Dramamine, since they would make me too tired to do my shows. Oh, I see. Apparently, they preferred me sick to tired. Instead, he was bringing me some ginger capsules, a natural remedy for motion sickness, and these elastic bracelets that are supposed to counteract the effects of the rocking.
Fine, fine. Whatever. Give it to me. I just want this to go away.
I took the capsules, I put on the bracelets, and I waited. Nothing. My show was soon, I was getting worse, and now I’m wearing these bracelets, and I looked either like Wonder Woman or like I had unsuccessfully attempted suicide.
I didn’t know what to do. Frankly, there was nothing I could do. Eating something was definitely out of the question. So, I made my way to the showroom.
I had had a look at the audience when I entered the room. Lots of white hair. The seats were of a lounge room variety, soft and comfy, very bad for comedy. Remember? Conflict, comedy, GOOD.
I went backstage and waited for the show to start. There was a small band, maybe four pieces, playing some innocuous lounge music. You know, the kind of music that “doesn’t offend,” although I found it incredibly offensive. The bandleader said to the audience, in a game show announcer voice, “We’re going to take a short break! We’ll be right back!” Some taped music came on, and, while backstage the bandleader proceeded to scream at the band, telling them that they “sounded like shit and they’d better fucking get it together!” Oh, I wish that audience could have heard that.
The band came back, and they played the often-requested and always-grating theme from “The Love Boat.” Peter said to me, “Are you ready?” “Yes,” I said, meaning “No.” The band went into some unnamable upbeat tune, while Peter jumped up and down in the wings, apparently getting himself all “worked up.” The bandleader introduced Peter, and he sprinted out there like Bob Barker used to in the ‘60’s. He proceeded to tell an old joke, which the audience seemed to love, and then he introduced me.
I did an opening bit. Nothing. I did another bit. Nothing. I continued to deliver material that I had delivered many times before to appreciative, laughing crowds, and the audience continued to give me nothing. They were consistent, I gave them that. And all through this “nothing” I was getting, I was still nauseatingly seasick.
I plowed through more than an hour’s worth of material in about 40 minutes. I wracked my brain and could think of nothing else to give these people. At this point I wasn’t even looking for laughs. I was just looking to fill time.
Finally, I thought, “Forget it, I’m leaving, 40 minutes is close enough.” In closing, I said to the audience, “By the way, if any of you see me out at the pool tomorrow, please be completely silent so I know it’s you. Good night.”
I walked off to tepid clapping – I can’t even call it applause. Peter came back onstage and said, “Cathy Ladman!” as if these people wanted to hear my name again, and then he insistently called me out for another bow. I went out and took a bow, if only to fully experience the surrealism of it all. Then I went backstage and dropped into a chair, sick as ever.
Second show: I was feeling worse and worser. I felt like I was going to throw up, and hearing the theme from “The Love Boat” served only as a catalyst. Peter bounded out onstage again and did the same old joke, which got a laugh, just like it did the first time. I was sitting on the edge of a riser backstage, literally with my head in my hands. When he introduced me, I got up and slowly walked out to center stage.
I began to just talk to the audience, and this time, they were responding. It was going pretty well. It wasn’t the greatest show I’d ever done, by land standards, but it was good enough. I managed to do 45 minutes, have a decent time, while the audience seemed to enjoy it.
A couple of days later, we were in port at Ft. Lauderdale. The ship wasn’t moving, and I felt better. It was about 4 PM. I was in my cabin when my phone rang.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hello, is this the fabulous Cathy Ladman?” a British accent asked.
“Why, yes it is,” I replied.
“This is Graham Seymour, the cruise director.”
This was my first contact with him since I’d arrived three days prior.
“Oh. Hello,” I said.
And here’s how it went:
“I was at your show the other night. We have you scheduled to do a show on Thursday, but I’m afraid you may have to leave the ship early.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. I really thought it was more ship humor.
“No, I’m afraid not. You received 20 negative comment cards, the most anyone’s ever received.”
I considered that for a moment.
“Well, I guess that makes me very special.”
“Not in a good way,” he said.
I explained to the humorless dimwit that I was trying to be positive about it. “Yes, well.” He said that people had objected to my material about Jesus and religion. Maybe I should have done the Hitler material.
“So, what, am I supposed to start packing?”
“Oh no, no!” as if I had insanely pulled that idea out of thin air. “We wouldn’t have you leave now. We have to see if we can find a replacement first. It’s possible we may have to have you do a show on Thursday,” as if that would be their last, horrifying resort. “We’ll let you know.”
I’d never been fired in my entire career as a comedian. True, this whole thing had been a nightmare from the start. But still, I was being fired.
The ship left port at 6 PM, with a new load of passengers, and I mean “load.” I went to the opening show, and this Asshole – this will be his name from here on in – was in the show. He seemed to fancy himself a comedian, doing a variety of ship jokes and otherwise tired concepts. He did the kind of comedy I can’t stand, and I wasn’t surprised.
I decided to find him between shows. I went down to the entertainment office and told him that I wanted to talk to him. He invited me into his private office, closed the door, and went to sit down behind his big “I’m important and you’re not” desk.
“You know, Graham,” I said, “a lot more than twenty people enjoyed my show the other night.”
“Yes, well, they didn’t write comment cards.”
“Well,” I said, “maybe those aren’t the kind of people who vote on that sort of thing,” I said, hoping he’d sense how ridiculous I thought the whole idea was.
He said “many of the other performers have received positive comment cards.” I said that only about 5 minutes of my act was about Jesus and religion. He said, “Well, these comment cards were ruthless.” And he told me, “One of them said that ‘Cathy Ladman is the worst comedian we’ve ever seen.’” I thought, “Worse than Gallagher?” Maybe that’s what these people like. Maybe that’s the whole problem with this conservative, religious-right bunch that I was attempting to entertain with my brand of humor, which they couldn’t possibly appreciate because most of them wouldn’t even be able to get past the fact that I was a Jewish woman from New York.
And, furthermore, the asshole continued, he and a couple of other “officers” in charge had decided that there was no way they were going to have me perform again that week. Apparently, they had had a conference about this, like that conference they had had about the advisability of giving me some Bonine.
“Oh, no, no. None of us would feel comfortable having you perform again.”
Like I posed some sort of danger to the ship.
“Maybe I’m just too edgy for this crowd,” I told him, way too politely.
“Oh, no, no. It’s not a matter of being edgy. I love to be edgy. I always push the envelope with these audiences.”
I believe he was confusing “pushing the envelope” with “relentlessly hacky.”
I got up to leave his office, and I turned around at the door. “Well, Lenny Bruce was arrested,” and I left. What a self-righteous prick. I just knew that he was fated to a life on cruise ships, performing over-processed, unmemorable drivel to audiences that had chosen between coming on a cruise and going to a theme park.
I was informed that I would be leaving two days later from Grand Caymans. When I finally arrived at home, my dog, Preston, gave me the best greeting.
“I know, I know, boy. Mommy was away spending time with jerks.”
A few weeks later, I was looking through the Travel Section of the LA Times, and I saw an ad for Princess Cruises. All I could think of was that Asshole, dressed like an organ-grinder’s monkey, hopping around on the stage, the audience cheering wildly. It was so good to be back on dry land.