JoCo Cruise 2017: Guest Spotlight

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So the 2017 sailing of the JoCo Cruise exceeded all expectations and was pretty much the highlight of my year so far. I’ve already brought you a couple posts with highlights from the week, but I wanted to take a few minutes to give you a feel for the guests who were there, the programming in which they were involved, and what it’s really like to be on a cruise ship with a bunch of famous nerds.

Just FYI: I’m trying not to duplicate too many photos, so if you want to see more from the cruise, do be sure to check out my previous posts. But be warned: this post still has a LOT of photos and videos. Keep scrolling. If nothing else, you’ll probably want to watch the last video, at the very end.

If you’re unaware, the JoCo Cruise (2018 bookings open now!) began as a relatively simple fan cruise for Jonathan Coulton and has–over the past seven years–become a many-headed beast that is much more than the sum of its parts. Coulton and fellow cruise masterminds Paul & Storm still run the show and are the “face” of the cruise, as it were.

But every year finds an impressive lineup of guests on board, and this year was no different. Musicians, comedians, authors, magicians, actors, podcasters, and more took over Holland America’s ms Westerdam for wall-to-wall programming that I alternately describe as comic-con on a boat and Nerd Paradise.

On-board programming during the week can really be split into two categories. There’s the official track (with events organized by JoCo Cruise and featuring the invited guests), and there’s the “shadow cruise” with an astonishing variety of events that are mostly organized by Sea Monkeys (the name regular cruise guests have adopted). Today, we’re focusing on the former. I’ll shine a spotlight on the shadow cruise in a later post.

This year, the cruise ran from Saturday to Saturday, and there were events every day (except the final day, since disembarkation began early in the morning). Every day featured a main-stage concert on top of numerous other panels, concerts, performances, Q&A sessions, meetups, live podcasts, and close-up magic shows.

In the early days of the JoCo Cruise, they only occupied a portion of the cruise ship. In other words, there were still “regular people” taking a “regular cruise” at the same time. However, since last year, that all changed. The JoCo Cruise has taken over the entire cruise ship, which is essentially a charter. This means that there’s room for more people… but it also means that there are more people on board.

Because the ship’s venues are only so big, everyone is assigned to be part of a team (gold and red). Most of the time, this doesn’t mean much (aside from some good-natured competition… Red Team, check in!). But those main-stage performances each day? They do those twice. Depending on your team, you either see the early show and eat a late dinner or vice versa.

This made it so you didn’t have to make any difficult decisions or get turned away because of space, but I have to imagine it was extremely tough on the performers who had to put on back-to-back shows.

The two-hour main-stage concerts were, for the most part, the best performances of the day. Even if you passed on everything else, they were the “don’t miss” events.

Yeah, I know. It’s impressive. And if that’s all there were, the lineup would’ve been amazing. But those were just one part of each day’s programming.

Let me be frank: this was not a relaxing cruise for me. I didn’t do a whole lot of napping, suntanning, and swimming, as you might do on regular cruises. The end of each day found me as exhausted as I’ve ever been at the end of a long day at San Diego Comic-Con. But it was a glorious exhaustion. It was the kind of tired that makes you happy because you just experienced a whole heckuva lot of awesome.

Some of the best “official” events I caught?

And again, we’re just scratching the surface since there were plenty of events I didn’t make it to. A comedians panel, readings by Gail Simone and John Scalzi, Cards Against Humanity live, Rebecca Sugar in conversation with Angela Webber, a “choose your own adventure story time” with Wil Wheaton, a kids acoustic concert by Nerf Herder… I think you get the idea.

See what I mean? There was a lot happening, and you certainly had your choice of great events.

One of the biggest questions I had going into this (and I know other people also have) is: just how up close and personal can you get with the celebrity guests? In a word? Very.

I mean, you’re on a boat together. Yes, it’s a big boat, but it’s not like there’s anywhere else to go.

If you’re easily starstruck and there’s a guest you’re a big fan of, then you might get thrown for a loop during the first day or so. Odds are very good you’ll see Aimee Mann behind you in line at the buffet, Wil Wheaton playing a board game, Gail Simone hanging by the pool, or Cecil Baldwin staring dreamily out at the sea. These are the kinds of experiences you just don’t have at your typical comic-con.

And for the most part, everyone is super friendly and incredibly approachable. Ironically (or perhaps not so at all, considering his schedule during the week), the only person I didn’t see out and about on the boat and mingling was Jonathan Coulton. I saw him exactly once when he wasn’t on stage. But everyone else? Yeah, by the second or third day, you won’t be starstruck anymore.

They’re just people. So when you realize you’re standing next to Patrick Rothfuss in the elevator, it’s really no big.

Perhaps the most ambitious addition to the cruise this year was the inaugural JoCoachella festival (clever, right?). The town square of Loreto (which is a relatively small town) on the Gulf of California coast in Baja California Sur was positively overwhelmed with nerds. Although I’m sure 1,000 things could have gone wrong in the planning and execution of the festival, it went off without a hitch–from our perspective, at least. And it was certainly one of the top highlights of the week.

Ted Leo, Jean Grae, John Roderick, Jonathan Coulton, and Nerf Herder all played full sets. And then Riz Rollins set up a dance party into the wee hours of the morning. Loreto didn’t see it coming. I met a couple expats who live in Loreto, and THEY were overwhelmed. They’d never seen anything like it.

Unless something incredibly wonky happened behind the scenes, I can’t imagine this is the last time they’ll do a festival during the cruise. And we’re all the luckier for it.

(John Roderick totally screwing up Ted Leo’s groove…)

(Check the crowd for this one to see Wil Wheaton and Angela Webber from The Doubleclicks…)

I’d like to say that the JoCoachella festival was the best of the daily “main-stage” performances, but I think that honor goes to the final night’s Jonathan Coulton & Friends show. Coulton played a bittersweet set of songs (for which he’s pretty well known) and then had virtually every invited guest out on stage.

And once they started playing the tribute songs, most of the audience lost it. A good portion of the show was dedicated to some of the many amazing artists we’ve lost during the past year or so. We got The Eagles’ “Take It Easy,” George Michael’s “Faith” and “Freedom,” and an absolutely killer cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain” by Tawny Newsome and Janet Varney. Seriously, it was phenomenal (The Red Team show had a technical hiccup halfway through the song, so my video is no good. Desperately looking for a video from the Gold Team, so if you happen to have one…)

But, all that said, THIS is how you end an epic weeklong celebration of nerdery, love, and awesomeness. Enjoy.

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