Skippers Unspieled

by David Koenig, contributing writer

A boatload of Jungle Cruise skippers take the stage as stand-up comics

For me, Disneyland gets no better than riding aboard the World Famous Jungle Cruise with one of "those" Jungle Cruise skippers at the helm. You know the type. Totally into the trip, even though it's their 15th trip of the day. Plays off the props and scenery in fresh ways. Engages the audience, playfully picks on one passenger in particular, maybe a cute child or a goofy adult. Tells clever new jokes or brings new life to old chestnuts.

These are the guys and gals who you swear must work as stand-up comics by night. Well, come this weekend, they just might be.

Photo by Mike Pucher.

This Sunday, August 20, at 8:00 p.m., eight current and former Jungle Cruise skippers will be taking the stage at the Maverick Theater in Fullerton, California. In addition to stand-up comedy, there will also be three videos of various Jungle Cruise pranks and activities and a contest for a few brave audience members. All for just $10! This is the theater's second skippers-only stand-up show, following a hysterical, sold-out first show in May.

I was able to corner four of the eight, to ask them about the Jungle, the skipper stand-up show, and the backside of water. Meet:

  • Patrick Hall, who has captained a Jungle boat for five years and has been a stand-up comic, counting the performance at the Maverick, for none.

  • David Levy, who became a skipper in 2003 and left earlier this year when it began conflicting with his teaching career. He made his stand-up debut at the first skippers-only show earlier this year.

  • Andrew Petersen, better known around the Jungle as "The World Famous Andrew." He's been cruising the Jungle for 2.5 years and dabbled a bit in stand-up while in high school.

  • David "Dr. Skipper" Marley, a history professor at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, who worked as a skipper in 1996, left for graduate school, and then returned to the Jungle part-time in early 2002 until September 2004 as a place to "relax and have fun" while teaching. He left Disneyland when his daughter was born in September 2004 and decided to channel his creative energies instead into the world of stand-up comedy. Since that time, he's performed at the Irvine Improv, The Comedy Studio in Boston, and small clubs across Orange County, and co-produces the Maverick Stand Up Comedy show, which runs the last Sunday of each month.

Koenig: Did you all become skippers to vent your stand-up tendencies, or did doing stand-up grow out of your already being skippers?

Petersen: I have wanted to be a skipper since I was 5 years old, thinking that getting paid to tell horribly corny jokes clearly had to be the best job in the world.

Marley: I wanted to be a skipper since I was 7 years old. Stand-up comedy came later. After I left the Jungle, I realized that there was a hole in my heart that can only be filled with the laughter of anonymous strangers. I started performing stand-up so that I could have an outlet for my comedy and to give my students a break. To be honest, Jungle was usually more fun for me, even if they gave me more hours than I wanted.

Levy: When I was 5 years old, my parents tell me, I looked up at them after exiting the Jungle Cruise and said, "I'm gonna be a skipper when I grow up." My dad was, of course, very proud and, with tears in his eyes, replied, "Well, at least I know I can spend your college fund on that new car." I became a stand-up comic after David Marley asked me to perform. After I choked back the scream of terror, I told him yes and started writing material.

Hall: I became a skipper because I wanted to entertain people and put a smile on their faces.

Koenig: Let's venture into the Jungle. How much do you alter your spiel from trip to trip? Is it like a slowly-evolving act that you try to perfect or do you just keep changing it through the day to keep things fresh?

Hall: I watch people's reactions to the spiel. If I see them with a bored look on their face or mouthing the spiel with me, I change spiels on them. We have about five different spiels per show scene.

Marley: The best skippers adjusted their act for each boat. You had to do this to keep it fresh for you, and you had to realize that each boatload of guests was different. I would use my time at the dock as we loaded the boat to get a feel for the guests and see what they might like. Some liked political humor, some the corny stuff. My day and night spiels were totally different, as they are for most skippers.

Petersen: Different boats will definitely call for different approaches. A boat full of little kids at 10 a.m. will not be amused by the same thing that a boat filled with adults at closing will be. Personally, I try to do the same general trip each time, however every few months or so I will try out some different material to try and keep things fresh.

Marley: There were a couple of ways that I kept things fresh. I loved to improvise and just say whatever came into my head, which sometimes got me into trouble. The other thing was my goal to write a new joke every day I worked at Jungle. This didn't include an improv, it meant a joke that I could use again and again. I would also look through the script and find a joke or two that I thought was the worst one, then I would use it and see how I could make it funny. When you are a new skipper, you ride the boats of experienced cast members and see how they do it. So sometimes once you have been there a while, it is good to ride other people's boats to get inspired.

I would say that the guest has the biggest say in what spiel I gave. If they had their cell phones out and hated my early material, I hit the throttle and an eight-minute trip became only six. I have also had 12-minute trips when a boat laughed at everything. So when I go as a guest, I try to be supportive of the skipper, so that they will give us the best show.

Levy: I often fed off my crew—not Trader Sam style, but figuratively. It is indeed a slowly-evolving act and it's honestly a matter of emotion and energy—both from yourself and the crew. There were days when I just wasn't funny and others where I could have slept through each trip and gotten laughs. Realize that a skipper averages 30 trips a day, so there's evolution happening from trip one to trip 30, sometimes not so good.

Koenig: If skippers think up some clever new line, do they rush back to the dock to try it out on the other skippers?

Petersen: Oh yeah, of course we will rush back to try the joke out on our friends. In fact a lot of times if you see us chuckling at random points in the cruise we will have either just come up with something new or are remembering something we heard on the dock a few minutes earlier.

Hall: Sometimes, but other times we tell our leads the line, and they will give the thumbs up or down to it. If it is good enough we submit it the to the spiel box to get the chance to be added to the spiel in the future.

Marley: It totally depends. If you have a great new joke, usually an improv, then you might share it with your buddies. Jungle etiquette was that you cannot take someone's joke without their permission. I have seen skippers who work there today who are doing material written by people who left the park more than five years ago.

I shared all but one of my jokes with other skippers, but it got stolen anyway. It was a joke about making a sharp right hand turn and how that was OK in Orange County. Most boats loved it, and eventually other skippers were doing it as well. I wasn't thrilled that it got stolen, because I was afraid that management would hear the joke and ban it. The worst was when a guest would go up to a lead or manager and compliment me on a joke that wasn't on the script. They would smile and thank the guest, then come over and tell me never to do the joke again.

Photo by Mike Pucher.

Koenig: Are skippers protective of their own jokes?

Hall: Some are because other skippers tell the same line and ruin it. It is all in the delivery.

Levy: Some skippers are very protective of their own jokes. I was always flattered when someone new would use my joke. I think most skippers wanted to make sure their joke was funny before they tried it out on a skipper because skippers generally only laugh at stuff that is far above the bar. I had a general rule: if a joke succeeded three out of five times, I'd keep it and then invite a skipper on board to see how they liked it. If it failed three, then I figured it wasn't even good enough to show a skipper. But then, the best moments on any good skipper's boat happen by accident and it's usually because of something a kid has said. Man, I could tell some wonderful stories!

Petersen: There are definitely a few things that we are all protective of. For example, I have been "The World Famous Andrew" for over a year now—and have established that as my identity. There have been a few skippers who tried to adopt it as well, and I let them know that I was none too pleased about it.

Koenig: Since they've been around so long, scenes like the Trapped Safari have inspired literally hundreds of off-the-cuff jokes. Have the show elements added last year, such as the pirhanas and the primate shooting range, been around long enough for skippers to develop much material?

Levy: From day one, new jokes (and I mean jokes that went against suggested material) exploded out of the those new scenes and it hasn't stopped. Some scenes—like the revamped greedy gorilla scene—aren't very inspirational. But the new gorilla camp lends itself to all kinds of gags. It's difficult to perform there because so much is going on but when you have a gorilla firing a gun and missing people who are six feet away, explosions that miraculously miss the boat, and a skipper who, if they're good, is more scared than the crew, comedy ensues. However, one of the all-time best gags I'd ever seen involved the skipper continuing to talk about the plants while his back was turned to the gorillas; never mentioned it at all!

As for the piranhas, skippers have mixed feelings about that. It's a great scene and it's exciting. But you miss out on being able to talk about the other animals in the scene and the old rapids scene was such a great place to steal the show. Since there was little to look at, the skippers got to say a lot of those great one-liners—"Look over to the right and you'll see… absolutely nothing," for example.

Hall: The gorilla camp not so much because it is so loud, but the physical comedy can be great. As for the piranhas, lots of material have come from that.

Petersen: As I was told when I first started, there are no new jokes in the jungle… just undiscovered ones. But, yes, there has been plenty of time for the new elements to join with the old as far as "off-the-cuff" remarks are concerned. Give a skipper anything and they will have jokes for it in a matter of minutes. Now imagine us with over a year's worth of minutes.

Koenig: I heard skippers got their guns back not long ago. How's that working out?

Levy: Wow, kind of old news there, Mr. Koenig!

Koenig: Sorry, I don't get out much. I heard Disneyland's got a log ride now, too.

Marley: I worked with the guns in 1996, but left before they came back in 2004. I remember them as being both cool and a total hassle. I am so happy that they came back.

Hall: Vunderba—sorry, wonderful. It's great to scare hippos again.

Petersen: Much better than with the old air horns. We have to keep the hippos at bay somehow, and merely deafening them wasn't really effective. It's funny though. Right after we got them, there was a great response from guests. Most of us actually got cheers for just pulling the gun out.

Levy: Shortly after the guns returned, a little girl got onto my boat. She was maybe 6 and very prim and proper, her little hands folded neatly in her lap. She spent most of the trip intrigued by the animals and, when she could, politely asked questions of her stalwart skipper—me, in case your memory has failed you. When we got to the hippo pool, I fired the gun. This little angelic lady threw her hands up, sucked in air, and yelled out, "Jesus!" I didn't recover until well after the attacking native scene.

Koenig: How do you maintain your sanity after the 30th trip past the backside of water?

Petersen: Alcohol. And lots of it. Only kidding. It isn't hard. As stated before, each boat is different, so they don't really get too monotonous. Personally I try to find the one person who isn't having a good time and try to force them to smile.

Marley: You have to mix things up, try new material, or else you will go insane, or just zone out during your trips. One time I zoned out during a trip and paid no attention until I came back to the dock. What jarred me back to reality was when the guests all clapped and cheered and several came up to shake my hand. It was a weird feeling because I had no idea what I had done during the trip.

Speaking of the backside of water joke, I think that is the only joke I did each time. Guests would complain if I didn't, so I always did.

Levy: I estimate that I've taken 30,000 trips past the backside of water and I still clap for it every time. The Backside of Water is a symbol for me of the power of tradition and the magic of comedy. I've never seen a boat fail to laugh at that joke, even the ones who didn't laugh at anything else. After the 2005 rehab, I stopped saying the joke as a sign that the Jungle was moving on. I got yelled at by more than a few of my crews and put it back in my spiel a short time later.

Now, as for just generally keeping sanity on those long Jungle days? I have my fellow skippers to thank, and always have. With a bad skipper team, it was hard to keep sane. There were days when it'd be 100 degrees, others when we'd be soaked to our skin, but those days were the days we all just smiled, patted each other on the back, and gave the best show we could. Those were my favorite days.

Hall: A happy crew who laughs is a great reward.

Koenig: Thank you, Confucious. All right, you don't have to name names, but are there many skippers who qualify for an immediate transfer to Storybook? Or better yet Foods?

Hall: A couple, but with good coaching and poking with a piece of bamboo they can be salvaged.

Petersen: Oh, there definitely are some that are cruising for a transfer, but from what I have learned is that the Jungle will always right herself. If you are not supposed to be there, sooner or later, you will find yourself somewhere else.

Levy: In the first three months of being a skipper, almost no one is very good. You might be funny, but there's more to being a skipper than laughter. After three months, almost everyone either finds their groove or leaves. Skippers help each other out and there were plenty of us who were willing to help a new kid find their niche. But, yeah, I can think of a few who needed to visit Trader Sam's Cannibal Café.

Marley: There are always skippers that just aren't funny. Several of them tried to get into the stand-up show. It is usually new skippers who think they are funnier than the really are. Sometimes you can help these people, sometimes not. When I was a trainer, I sent more than one person to Toontown, the ultimate cast member hell.

Koenig: Back in the mid-1990s, management severely cracked down on unauthorized spiels and even the most innocuous ad-lib could get you terminated. How's the atmosphere these days?

Levy: (sigh) Sadly, it comes and goes. During my time at the Jungle I watched it go from lax to rigid and almost back again. The truly tragic part is that there are fewer and fewer who believe in the old ways: push the envelope, don't offend anyone, and try not to get caught. There will come a day, I fear, when you can get on the Jungle Cruise three times and hear the same robotic spiel. Let's hope that never happens.

Hall: Management still cracks down on unauthorized spiels, but they also encourage new material to be submitted.

Marley: I knew several of the guys who were fired back in 1996. Some of their material had gotten out of hand. Sadly, every year that I was at Disneyland, the management became more and more restrictive on skippers' spiels and behavior. When I left, it had gotten to the point that they were cracking down on anything that was not on the script, even if it was funny and appropriate. For the skippers and 90 percent of the guests, this sucks, but I understand management's perspective. Getting a guest complaint is the worst thing that can happen to a cast member. They are inevitable when rides break down—stupid Indy—but ones that are caused by cast members should not happen. The problem with Jungle is that almost all of our guest complaints—of which there were very few—related to cast members, which is why management cracked down hard.

The problem is that today's skippers are afraid to go off script, and many of them are not even aware of how things used to be and what we got away with. When I was a cast member, my entire spiel was not part of the script. This came to management's attention when they asked me to join the team of writers for the update in 2004. I didn't get complaints because my material was clean and appropriate to the jungle… mostly.

Koenig: Does anyone jump or get thrown into the lagoon anymore, or are those days gone forever?

Marley: Pretty much. I got away with a lot and just never told anyone. The old motto was "what happens in the jungle, stays in the jungle," but that began to break down. I helped film someone diving into the elephant pool as part of an audition tape for Survivor, and I had done lots of other things, but you just cannot tell everyone anymore. So thanks to skipper show, I can tell all about the wild things we did.

Hall: We know better and we know what's in the water.

Levy: The water is green. Seriously… green. That's not natural and there is some bad Juju going on to make that water green. My theory is that it's some jungle curse for skippers poking fun at Ganesh, but I could be wrong. I stuck my hand in once and got a rash. Technically, the water is safe even to drink in small doses. But who would want to? If someone goes in, it's by accident, trust me.

Photo by Mike Pucher.

Koenig: On the Land boat ride at Epcot, they're replacing their skippers with a recorded spiel. Sound like something Disneyland might copy one day on Jungle?

Levy: That'll be the day they might as well take the Jungle Cruise out and replace it with something else. The skipper is the heart and soul of that ride. There'd be nothing to gain by taking the skipper out, and I don't think Disney would mess with something so truly original to such an extent.

Marley: A couple of years ago, I was at the dock when some Imagineers took a boat out for a bunch of trips to see if a similar system would work at Disneyland. I heard that they decided not to because it would be too easy for guests to jump out of the boat. I can imagine nothing worse than Jungle Cruise with a recorded spiel.

Koenig: How did this Jungle Cruise night at the Maverick come about?

Hall: Through the efforts of Dr. Dave Marley. He thought it would be a great idea to gather skippers past and present and share their comedy with the world. Can't argue with that. It was either the comedy night or the weekend pass from the mental hospital.

Marley: This show is the result of my love of the Jungle Cruise and Disneyland. I knew that so many skippers are incredibly talented people, I wanted to give them a venue to show how funny they really were. I am a co-producer of Maverick Stand Up, which began in January 2006. I told my partners that I wanted to have a show that featured only current or former skippers. Neither of them were ever cast members, so they were unsure, but the show sold out faster than anything we had ever done. The show was a huge success. We literally had to take the chairs out of the dressing room so that people didn't have to stand. That made me happy because we have to pay to rent the venue.

That first Skipper Stand Up Show was one of the best nights of my short comedy career. The audience was pumped, and they laughed at everything. It was great seeing cast members and annual passholders together having a good time.

Every skipper did a great job. Working at the Jungle gives you so much practice in comedy that they all seemed natural. The owner of the Maverick Theater didn't believe me when I told them that none of the skippers had done stand-up before. Some talked about the park, others didn't, but they were all funny. We also showed some videos that brought the house down.

For the August 20th show we have a few new ones, plus the now infamous one from the first show called, "The Five Myths of Disneyland." At most comedy clubs you will pay $20 plus a drink minimum to see five or six comics talk about sex and their toilet habits. At the skipper show there are going to be eight skippers, a couple of videos, plus a contest for a few brave skippers from the audience. All of that for just $10.

Levy: I'm lucky enough to have been involved in the first show and this second and I hope I'm able to keep doing them as long as people still want to love us.

Marley: A few people refused to perform or even attend the first show because they were afraid that it would be a Disney bash-fest and management would be mad. Some of those same people now want to take the stage if we do the show again because they saw how positive and fun the show was. If the show on August 20 does well, we will have more. I have so many skippers clamoring for spots that I could this every month.

Koenig: Do you work your Jungle Cruise experiences into your act?

Hall: Yes, I learned never to fake a Russian accent to real Russians.

Marley: I had never done any material on Disneyland or Jungle Cruise before the first skipper show back in June. After that show the owner of the Maverick Theater, Brian Newell, asked me why I had never done my Disney material before. He thought it was some of the best comedy I had ever done. It was certainly the best time I had ever had on stage. Since then I have added a lot more material about life at the park to my act, and the response has been great. People love Disneyland and they respond to the fact that I still value the magic and loved my time at the park.

Levy: I haven't yet. I left the Jungle and miss it every day. Talking about it is still bittersweet, because I truly did not want to leave it. I do talk about Disney during my act for the skipper night, but normally I leave that part of my life out of it. That, and my years spent as a male nude at Circus Circus.

Koenig: One last question: To be truly authentic, does the theater exit into a gift shop?

Petersen: Yes, but of course. Make sure to pick up your "World Famous Andrew" T-shirts, bobbleheads, and all sorts of other high-quality things before heading home. Kids love 'em!

Hall: You have to come to find out! And don't forget to tip Trader Sam on the way out…

Levy: I could stand out there and sell you stuff I have in my pocket if it would make you feel better.

Marley: I might steal this bit for my act.

The Maverick Theater is located at 110 East Walnut Avenue in Fullerton, California.

Tickets for the August 20 Skipper Stand Up Show can be reserved online (link). Space is limited. For more information, call (714) 526-7070.