“IT FEELS LIKE we’ve inserted a bizarre multiverse within the ship.” Comedian Kurt Braunohler and I stood on the aft of the Royal Caribbean cruise liner, gazing out at some heat lightning scarring the horizon on the third and final evening of the Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival (aka “boatparty.biz”), masterminded by the Maximum Fun network of podcasts. Indeed, our group of 250 tattooed, Twitter-literate, tech-savvy weirdos did stick out from the other 90 percent of RC passengers (the “normals,” as they were fondly dubbed), who seemed to view us with a mixture of curiosity and confusion.
The majority of the AOC&MF crew had never been on a cruise, yet we proceeded—with caution and without Internet—to acclimate ourselves to ship life (“the most surreal experience available to human beings,” noted festival comedian John Hodgman). And though there was plenty to do all day (gambling, conga lines, and rock-climbing on board; deep-diving, jet skiing, and parasailing off, during our daily Bahamian island sojourns), us boat partiers felt particularly lucky to have private access, each night, to a powerhouse artistic lineup—an escapism from our escapism that might have sated even David Foster Wallace.
For the comedy programs on the first and final nights in the dim and loungey “Spectrum Room,” Max Fun founder Jesse Thorn took a cue from festival comic Eugene Mirman’s tour model by including at least “One of Each”—a male, a female, a gay, and a nonwhite comic. Thorn upped the ante by booking two UK performers, who in the European comedy tradition added a dose of theatricality. One of them, Josie Long, enacted a film noir/Jay-Z mash-up (“I’ve got ninety-nine problems but I’m unable to disclose all of them at this time”); the other, Nadia Kamil, performed a feminist burlesque show, removing wrap dress after wrap dress to reveal political slogans (STOP ASKING ARE WOMEN FUNNY & DO SOME PROPER JOURNALISM) and her tassel-bedazzled Cambridge diploma.
Unsurprisingly, many of the comedians referenced the peculiar circumstances of the cruise ship itself, while others offered satisfying gallows humor. (“We’re always just a touch away from dying here,” teased Braunohler.) Nick Thune joked about the audience’s unbridled enthusiasm: “Thank you guys for being here, I know it means a lot to you.” Mirman performed a wedding ceremony for Braunohler and his girlfriend, as well as for AOC&MF comics Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, forcing each to agree to vows like, “I promise to bottle up my feelings and then get mad at you for hiding things I’ve actually misplaced” and “I promise to let you squeeze my breasts in a way that I don’t really like but you seem to enjoy.”
Not all performers kept things strictly silly. Braunohler related a vulnerable story about his first sexual experience, at the age of twelve, with a McDonald’s apple pie. Wyatt Cenac gave an account, for the second time ever onstage, of his father, a New York City cab driver who was murdered by a passenger when the comic was five years old. Ever the professionals, both comics did of course make us laugh, but they also brought us back to reality, cracking through the cruise’s bubble. Cenac eventually concluded his set with the dark and whimsical “palette cleanser”: “I want to start a racist bakery…and call it Cake Cake Cake.”
As Hodgman and I discussed over surf ’n’ turf during our formal dinner on Saturday evening, the Boat Party participants were a “self-selecting population” who chose “to isolate themselves from the world” to support the performers they love. The artists, too, benefitted from the setting, which inspired a “conspiracy with the audience” and a “return to authentic interaction.” This was certainly not the “Oddball,” the concurrent, ongoing music and comedy festival whose Hartford, Connecticut, audience notoriously heckled so much that headliner Dave Chappelle wound up leaving the stage in disgust after just thirty minutes.
Instead, the Boat Party’s hypercamaraderie served as proxy compensation for the festival performers. “To say no one got paid their market rate is the understatement of the century,” Thorn acknowledged in his final thank-yous. Talking poolside with me on the very last evening of the fest, electronic music wunderkind Dan Deacon enthusiastically lauded the “instant community” that had formed on board (cemented, in fact, by his own ecstatic performance during Saturday’s music show, alongside John Roderick, Nelly McKay, and John Darnielle). “Everyone here just wants to have fun. It’s this weird, cool sliver of society that doesn’t normally have a critical mass. And there are no assholes!” Moments later, some fifty of us weirdos all jumped in the pool.