Waves of laughter
She never stood a chance.
Poor Ainslee, seated front and centre at a sort-of kitsch hypnotist show aboard the Pacific Pearl. "You, there! Wearing that lovely dress, come and help me with my next trick."
It was only a matter of time. At least this routine involved several nail guns directed at the hypnotist-come-mind-reader. When the hecklers weren't yelling that this novice assistant had the nail gun pointed the wrong way, they roared numbers at her (as if they didn't believe their chants were in vain against the mind-reading ability of Anthony Laye).
"BANG! BANG! BANG! POP!"
Laye ended the show unscathed, with mind-reading credibility intact.
The heckles from the crowd weren't the only thing that my partner Ainslee and I had been told about cruise ships.
For two cruising newbies the opinions had come in thick and fast: "Oh, those ones that just meander offshore are just one big booze-up"; "Aren't you two a bit young? They're like floating retirement villages, with the bingo games to match"; "There's an abundance of food, but most of it's quite average"; "Aren't cruises usually just for bogans and baby boomers?"
The one thing the opinions had in common was they were preceded by the inevitable question: "Where is your cruise heading?"
To which we could only reply: "Well, nowhere."
P&O Cruises now offer shorter cruise options such as a weekend away and, due to New Zealand's isolation, the route is often just a scenic look around the Hauraki Gulf and a bit beyond.
For a couple of fledgling cruisers, P&O's SeaBreak Comedy Wave Cruise offers a cheap, entry level cruise that gives a bit of a taste (in more ways than one) of a holiday at sea. But even so, our interrogators would press further: "No, but really, where does it take you?"
To make up for the doom and gloom of May's below-average maritime weather, we were promised some of the best Australasian comedians from Queensland's famous Sit Down Comedy Club.
Given this was following on from Auckland's comedy festival a fortnight beforehand, my comedic barometer was already set fairly high. I was not let down.
In the late-night shows, veteran Aussie comedians Bev Killick and Mick Meredith had the theatre audience putty in their wildly gesticulating hands. Comedy export Cal Wilson, often seen as a panellist on TV comedy gameshow 7 Days, gave a Kiwi flavour to the Aussie offering, which the local audience appreciated.
We laughed, chuckled and sniggered - but never so hard that we'd be singled out for a ribbing.
Of course, with shows starting at 11.15pm, most of the finest one-liners are best left unrepeated.
Killick and Meredith offered self-deprecating mid-life-crisis shtick better than your embarrassing drunk aunty or uncle at Christmas, but without the cringe factor.
The two hours of late-night laughter gave my stomach muscles a workout the fitness trainers at boot camp the next morning could only dream of.
I later asked Killick, who has been doing stand-up on cruise ships for over a decade, whether the sometimes-geriatric audience ever forced a last minute softening of her onstage act.
"Sometimes, you look out to a sea of grey hair, but you can't go back on your routine, it wouldn't be fair to them ... and the old girls howl with laughter the hardest.
"They love it just as much as the young ones. The crass, rude, crazy stuff is right up their alley and then I think, well, luckily I didn't tone it down," she said.
"They don't want the dairy milk version and I don't give them it."
Unlike a usual comedy gig, on this cruise there was no escaping the fans or the hecklers, and our chat was interrupted more than once by guests coming to praise and joke around with the comedienne.
"This place is like a goldfish bowl, so there's nowhere to hide. This one very bearded heckler a few years back, I told to ‘shut the f... up, Santa!' but then for the next five days I couldn't stop running into him," she said.
Killick also runs a comedy workshop for passengers who want to sharpen their witty observations to front the Comedy Gong Show on the final day. I avoided the invitation to leave all my dignity somewhere in the South Pacific, but the novice comedians numbered over 100.
"The comedy cruise is very different from a comedy crowd at home because the guests aren't paying for just one show at the door, so there's no pressure on them to get their money's worth," said Killick.
She was right - there were a couple of performers whose one-liners and cringe-worthy stories went right over my head, but on a three-day cruise with as many as four multi-act shows a day we shrugged it off, avoided their next shows and instead explored the Pacific Pearl's 14 storeys.
"The audience are in holiday mode and because cruising is kind of like a shared experience, that leads itself to tons of in-jokes and observational stuff from on-board. It's like all being away at band camp together and that gets the crowd going," she said.
The crowd was well warmed-up and watered by the time Auckland's Mistress Viv took to the stage, complete with Amy Winehouse beehive and the Henderson Valley uniform of a tight black T-shirt, leopard print leggings and a miniskirt.
A regular character from Auckland's hospitality scene, Mistress Viv and her "Bitchin' Bingo" were the perfect fit for the Comedy Wave Cruise, hosting late-night bingo "but not as your nana knows it".
Well, that was an understatement. I wouldn't bring my Grandma within 100 nautical miles of her. It sure wasn't good clean fun but bad, bogan fun - and we wouldn't have it any other way. That mistress had total control over the crowd, as she reeled off "Westie" themed bingo rhymes that would make Cheryl West blush.
But she couldn't take the mick out of Salt Grill by Luke Mangan, the ship's upmarket steak and seafood grill restaurant, because its dinnertime fare was no laughing matter.
Mangan's menu took what you assumed about mass-produced cruise liner food and turned it on its head; offering instead dukkah-crusted quail, seared scallops, liquorice parfait and hands-down the best steak I've had this side of the millennium. No joke.
Mick Meredith summed up the dining habits of his sea-faring audience by suggesting, "Cruisers are boozers and buffet-abusers".
Having witnessed the over-eager plate-piling at the Pacific Pearl's Plantation buffet restaurant at lunchtime and the first Coronas of the day cracked open in the spa pools around 10am, I couldn't argue with him.
Cal Wilson reminded some in the audience that the buffet dining style was "a description, not a challenge".
So, despite the raucous cackles from the comedy audience, to be fair to my fore-warners, some of the cruising stereotypes they mentioned were spot on.
P&O Cruises' Pacific Pearl is in New Zealand waters this month, returning to Auckland in 2015 for a 10-cruise season, including three P&O SeaBreaks. An alternative to a weekend road trip, P&O SeaBreaks feature a variety of themes, such as the comedy cruise, with passengers able to enjoy a wide range of activities, entertainment and dining options in one location.
Fares for a three-night comedy-themed P&OSeaBreak departing Auckland on April 16, 2015 start from $649* per person quad share.
Fares include accommodation, main meals, and onboard entertainment and activities. Surcharges for upscale dining apply. Luna is $29 per person and Salt Grill by Luke Mangan is $49 per person for a three-course menu.
For more information and bookings contact a licensed travel agent or P&O Cruises on 0800 780 716, or visit pocruises.co.nz.
*Subject to availability. Conditions apply
The writer was a guest of P&O Cruises.
- Sunday Star Times