Goodbye to Don Sherman

| 05.29.12

Remembering the infamous cruise ship comedian and his legacy of exceptional entertainment.

I was privileged to be aboard the Disney Fantasy docked in the Manhattan harbor in New York City last April when they brought aboard Jerry Seinfeld for part of the christening ceremony. I was in the front row watching today's king of comedy - close enough to see his made-up eyebrows had gotten ruffled. Then he says, "I can't believe it, I'm on a cruise ship, right here in New York City – I'm on a cruise ship. I've seen the end of my career and it's …not …that bad. In fact, it looks pretty good." Yes, timing is everything in comedy, whether on a cruise ship or anywhere. Seinfeld made a joke about cruise ship comics, but I am here to tell you there have been very few truly great comedians who have made working on cruise ships a full-time occupation, but Don Sherman was one of the great ones.

Don had true comedic style; good enough to write for among the most famous comedians ever; Joey Bishop and Jack Carter. But when Don wrote his own act he made it about cruise ships. So, you may think you have heard all of the cruise jokes in the world, but trust me, unless you have heard Don Sherman you haven't heard the best.

Sadly, Don Sherman just passed away this month (May 2012), but I worked with him in 1993, almost 20 years ago, by no means close to retiring, yet he was already dedicated to cruise comedy in a way most comedians don't even consider. Don took tremendous pride in his work, and he was a pro who had them rolling in the aisles night after night - because he took it as seriously as any other venue he ever played.

Did you have the privilege of seeing Don Sherman perform? Share your memories at the Cruise News forum.

A very popular former Holland America (now Crystal) cruise director - Rick Spath - just emailed me to comment about Don's passing. He wrote the following tribute:

I have only just heard of the passing of my dear friend, comedian Don Sherman. I had known Don for 28 years and worked with him on various ships for approximately 16 years. His style of observation humor was always appreciated by a very broad and diverse mix of guests. What I always appreciated most about Don was the fact that he always strived to make his show better each time. The 'bit' that he would do with the Cruise Director at the end of each show started out many years ago with about 30 seconds of improv but eventually evolved into a 20 minute concluding portion of the show (always entertaining to the guests).

My most vivid memory was a conversation Don and I had in the Hudson Lounge on one of the HAL ships in 1990 after one of his shows. I was sharing with Don my current 'relationship' status and had made a few personal comments, at which point Don chimed in and said, "marry her Rick! I've never heard you speak like that". Needless to say, 20 years later, married to the same person, four beautiful children, I've never been so happy. He knew me quite well. I will miss him dearly.

- Rick Spath.

How Ingenious was Don Sherman?

Don came up with the idea of staying an entire summer in Juneau, Alaska, so he could work aboard several different Holland America cruise ships as they came into port throughout the week. Most cruise entertainers live on one ship and do possibly one and a half shows per week, but Don could perform several times each week. Eventually he did the same in Cabo San Lucas and St. Thomas.

When I stage managed for Holland America in 1993 I was fortunate enough to work with Don Sherman on the original Holland America Westerdam as it made seven-day roundtrip cruises from Vancouver to Juneau. The cruise director was Edwin Rojas who played a great foil for Don's Jokes. Edwin is one of the many people paying tribute to Don in this article about his passing. Another performer I worked with, Pearl Kaufman, also sings Don's praises there.

And the Punch Line?

Don actually got his start doing live comedy on tours with singers like Frankie Laine. He says he started writing his own material because comedians like Woody Allen arrived and he didn't do "jokes," but rather told personal stories. Don said "So, I threw out all of my old jokes and started writing my own material. Then one night I was in Vancouver and I heard people raving about Jack Carter, so I went to see him and there he was doing all of my old jokes."

Of course, it is a comedy crime to steal material, but in this case with full respect for Don's creativity, I'm going to retell some of his jokes as homage to one of the greats. The proof of his greatness is that I still remember so many of his jokes nearly 20 years later.

Don would start out telling us how he got his "gig" by saying he got a phone call, collect, from Holland America. "They said, 'how would you like to sail on the finest cruise line in the world, we go to Europe, Asia, South America and the South Pacific?'"

"Where does my cruise go? – They said 'it doesn't matter where you go, Don, you are going on the Westerdam, the fourth largest ship in the world, (it isn't, but Don didn't care). 'The other three are stuck in the Panama Canal.'"

So he would say, "Now here we are on the Westerdam, which is the sister ship to the Statendam and the Nieuw Amsterdam, and also the illegitimate cousin to the Exxon Valdez. But have no fear, we have a Dutch captain and you cannot get into trouble with a Dutch Captain, our captain comes on the loud speaker and says "the sun will rise at 5:15 a.m. and set at 5:47." – what a captain, the man is in charge of the sun! By the way, have you heard the accent on these Dutch officers? Hssk haschk... I tell you what, the Dutch will never choke on a chicken bone."

"But this captain is the best. He was trained for four years at the Rotterdam Maritime Institute, four more years at the Amsterdam Captain's Academy, and two years at Arthur Murray's School of Dance. But most of all I am impressed by his punctuality, he said he would bring us to Juneau and he did bring us to Juneau! Why he brought us to Juneau I have no idea, it's the first port I have ever been to where the town hasn't arrived yet. But did you know you cannot leave Juneau by car or train? If you could the place would have been empty years ago. I understand some people took a tour of the 'Highlights on Juneau.' The tour went from 11:00 to 11:15, and that was with lunch and a nap."

Wham, wham, wham – and he hadn't even hit his stride. That comes when he starts talking about the ship itself. "So I walked onboard the beautiful Westerdam, and I walked up flights of steps, down flights of steps, through flights of steps… I walked up one flight of steps that went nowhere – there was no reason for those steps. They are just there to make a fool of you. I was so mixed up that I looked at that ship's map and it said "You are here" and I wasn't there. How could they know where I was? And then I realized I was not the only one confused, I was just acting normal because I was alone, but the married people – they were just glaring at each other with loathing in their eyes. I looked under the ice machine and found two survivors from the Titanic."

His room steward was always named Sabu, and he would sing his praises. "Oh boy these room stewards are amazing; aren't they? My Sabu lives in my top drawer. If I drop a Kleenex it's folded back on my desk before I can even turn around. I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and when I came back my bed was made."

Kaboom, set 'em and knock 'em down. With the possible exception of Al Ernst, a good pal of Carnival's top cruise director John Heald, I haven't seen another shipboard comedian who can do what Don Sherman did – good, clean but professional cruise ship comedy. The man was a real pro.

Did you have the privilege of seeing Don Sherman perform? Share your memories at the Cruise News forum.

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