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"I've been doing a lot of comedy cruises lately," comedic troubadour Mick Meredith tells an audience on board P&O Pacific Explorer as he strums a guitar. "Because … you know, my career is over."
He's joking, of course. In fact, from a professional perspective, performing on one of P&O's popular Comedy Cruises is a badge of honour, a coveted gig that established acts are, quite literally, gagging for.
"It's a fun thing to be invited on," says Dave Hughes, the headlining act on my pre-Christmas sea-break from Sydney Harbour to nowhere in particular. "The gigs are really good, you have a great audience, and you get to hang out in the sun. I love doing stand-up comedy, so to do that and have your family on board is a real bonus."
What started as an experiment in 2009 with four comedy cruises has grown into a juggernaut for P&O, with the cruise line offering a staggering 72 dedicated comedy cruises in 2018 and 2019, a mix of two-, three- and four-night jaunts out of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns and Auckland. The highlight of this jam-packed calendar will be the biggest comedy festival at sea, the four-night The Big Laugh departing Sydney on June 20, 2018.
Securing world-class acts for these events is increasingly easy, according to Kelli Gemmola, entertainment manager of P&O's partner, Sit Down Comedy Club. "When we first started, it was a little difficult to get people on the bill – I guess there was a stigma about cruising, 'where comedy goes to die'," she says.
"Word soon got out that it was a fantastic gig, however, and it has such momentum that P&O is now owning comedy and we get repeat passengers on board. It now has a brand of its own."
As a first-time cruiser, I also find the three-night 'sampler' a worthy introduction to the cruising genre, offering a taste of the fuss-free life on-board with entertainment, food and activities laid on thick and fast.
The latest addition to P&O's fleet, Pacific Explorer is somewhat of a theme park at sea, with two awesome waterslides, a kids' waterpark, ziplining, Segways, rock climbing and even a mechanical bull to keep things interesting. Add to that a large fitness centre, an Elemis Day Spa, an Archie Rose gin bar and myriad dining options – many of which are included in the fare – and there's little chance of getting bored, or hungry for that matter.
For passengers prepared to pay a reasonable surcharge, celebrity chef Luke Mangan's self-named al fresco casual eatery overlooking the pool, Luke's, offers delicious gourmet burgers, while his signature restaurant Salt Grill is represented with the Taste of Salt chef's table experience, a seven-course degustation menu with paired wines, held in a private space seating 12 in The Waterfront restaurant.
The after-dinner entertainment options are as copious as the food, from P&O's signature Gatsby Party, held on the second night at sea, to top-notch shows including the raunchy, latex and sex toy-laden burlesque/circus spectacular LOVE RIOT, directed by acclaimed Blanc de Blanc mastermind, Scott Maidment.
But the main attraction is undoubtedly the comedy – half-hour to 40-minute individual sets by six guest comedians, plus a one-hour Comedy Gala headlined by the inimitable Hughsie.
Each show – even the late-night offerings peppered with expletives and adult-only material – is packed to overflowing, with highly receptive audiences who appear to possess an elevated sense of humour.
"Does anyone speak a foreign language?" one comedian asks during a showcase. "Bogan!" yells a heckler, a joke that has the self-effacing crowd in stitches.
The shared experience of cruising also provides endless material for the comics. During the gala, each performer offers their own observations about getting lost on board, lifts breaking down due to overweight passengers, or the irony of takeaway coffee.
Even the "cruising to nowhere" concept is roasted: "We just f***-ing drove a bit, popped a U-turn and went back … actually, I have no idea where we went," jokes funny man Harley Breen. "But I'm pumped to be here – I have to be, I can't get off!"
Comedy-obsessed passengers are also given the opportunity to learn the art of stand-up at a workshop presented by Kat Davidson, a performer who also teaches aspiring comedians at university (yes, there is such a thing!). While natural talent is a bonus, Kat explains, performing skills can be honed: it all comes down to understanding your audience, maintaining eye contact, and punching up, not down.
Of course, confidence and good material helps – a fact made fairly obvious during the most confronting element of the itinerary, the Gong Show. During this one-hour session, six brave passengers risk it all by performing original material in front of a full theatre of people, judged by four of the comedians. The standard varies from woeful to promising, but even those who "die" on stage with an inevitable gong are met with enthusiast applause and words of encouragement from the critics.
One passenger, however, puts all the professionals on notice, outshining everyone with a hilarious set about being a Muslim Australian. "All Muslim men have beards, you know," quips Muhummad, elastic shorts pulled high under his armpits. "'Cos we all want to look like our mothers."
Boom-tish. And 10 out of 10 from every judge, with promised calls to their agents to get Muhammed (described as "the Muslim Carl Barron") on their books. Five minutes on stage in front of some comedy legends may well have changed the life of this very funny man; look out for Muhammed on a stage near you!
In many ways, the Gong Show exemplifies P&O's Comedy Cruises – entertaining, accepting and egalitarian. Laughter is the common denominator; from encounters in corridors and lifts with fellow passengers, to lame jokes from waiters, to our own increasingly bold routines and stories over dinner, this cruise is filled with the contagious sound of guffawing.
And that's before the hot shots take the stage.
"I initially didn't think that comedy was a natural partner to cruising," muses comedy legend and TV regular Claire Hooper.
"I realise now that people come here to relax, and that comedy helps you unpack – a natural comrade to the pool and the massage.
"It's a really good diffusion of tension, it's the last little bit to a full relax. Of all the forms of entertainment, it's the one where the audience is allowed to be loud and vocal as well; having a laugh, rather than just watching. The audience is actually getting a big physical response, so it's a really good thing to relax."
And that, in a nutshell, explains the popularity of these cruises – laughter is, after all, the best medicine.
P&O Cruises has launched its biggest season of comedy comprising 72 dedicated comedy cruises in 2018 and 2019. Departure ports are Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns and Auckland, with a range of 2-, 3- and 4-night cruises on offer. See pocruises.com.au
The largest-ever Comedy Festival at sea, The Big Laugh, will feature 14 big-name comics including Jimeoin, Matt Okine, the Scared Weird Little Guys and Dave Callan during a four-night cruise departing Sydney on June 20, 2018. Fares start from $529 a person quad share. See pocruises.com.au
FIVE OTHER P&O THEMED CRUISES
FOOD AND WINE CRUISES Be lured away from the buffet with presentations and workshops focusing on gourmet food and wine. Learn how cheese is matured, how to mix cocktails and the finer details of what's on your plate. Various dates.
STATE OF ORIGIN Meet Rugby League greats and mingle with like-minded sports freaks en route to the first State of Origin match in Melbourne. Includes tickets to the game, departs Sydney June 4.
MELBOURNE CUP CRUISE A seven-night cruise departing from Brisbane to Melbourne, with tickets to Flemington and a whole lot of on-board glamour. November 3-10, 2018.
AUSTRALIAN OPEN TENNIS Bookings are now open for the January 2019 cruise from Sydney to Melbourne for the Australian Open. Join tennis legends on board and watch the lead-up games on the big screen while you're at sea. January 19-24, 2019.
DARK MOFO CRUISE Get in early for 2019 Dark MOFO cruise to Hobart to join the now infamous winter solstice celebrations, including a contemporary take on a medieval banquet feast. 18-24 June 2019.
The writer travelled as a guest of P&O.