As a kid in Chicago and Sarasota, Al Ernst was called "Groceries." He hasn't missed a meal since. Today he is Big Al, one of Carnival Cruise Line's roving comedians. Self-deprecating Big Al says he's the 344th best comic in the fleet.
It all started on a Carnival cruise ship amateur talent show. On the Mardi Gras in the mid-1980s.
Al was fresh out of Lutheran Southern seminary. On his honeymoon. Always the jokester, he asked the crowd: "Why is it the airlines sit the fat guys next to each other? Do they think we want to share recipes?" The crowd responded positively.
Eventually, he gained a career, lost the wife.
In February, I caught up with Big Al on the Carnival Fantasy, where he did his first paid cruise ship show in 1993. The crowd loved his shows as we cruised between New Orleans and the Yucatan of Mexico. See video of Big Al below.
Twenty-five years into the comedy business, Big Al could do a whole show on how he snatched the role of a regular comedian -- no easy task, as he balanced his hunt for humor gigs while working at a YMCA and some professional wrestling.
Wrestling was unplanned. He started as an announcer, then trained his way into the ring as The Inferno, a loser. "I could take a punch," he said. "My record is zero and 264."
As a struggling comedian, Al would take any job he could get, $50 a night, one evening wowing the crowd, the next night a bomb. Same material. He remembers a stretch of bombs during which hecklers were flicking lighted cigarettes at him on stage.