'I'm pleasantly surprised when people see my growth. I wish my wife saw it too!' Bert Kreischer on whether he has grown as a comedian
Comedian Bert Kreischer opens up about his college days, stand-up comedy, and the Rolling Stone article that came to change his life.
In the Spring of 1997, 24-year-old Bert Kreischer was your run-of-the-mill American college student, but not quite. An English major at the Florida State University in Tallahassee, Bert was in his sixth year at college but had no intention to graduate any time soon, let alone carve himself a career path. He had just one thing on his mind, and that was to drink till the break of dawn, party and, in general, have a great time. Screw what came after.
Now, this sounds like a generic description of any one of millions of similar students across the country, you say. But rest assured, not a single one of them could hold a candle to the wild ride that was Bert's college years. You don't have to take my word for it, or even his; the April issue of the Rolling Stone magazine from that year will do all the talking and then some.
Bert had been infamously crowned "the top partyer at the Number One party school in the country" in an article that solely chronicled some of his incredible exploits at the university. As you glance through this article, titled "Bert Kreischer: The Undergraduate," there are instances when you will be experience pure, unadulterated disbelief. A great example would be his running for office at his fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega when instead of going the traditional way of delivering a speech, he appeared before his fellow brothers in the nude and took a sh*t on a pizza box. He ended up winning that vote by a landslide, too.
You wonder, nay, hope, some of these stories are apocryphal because if they aren't, how fulfilling was your college life, really? Everywhere he went, he was the life of the party, or maybe the party itself. As per the accounts of hundreds of those who went to the university at the same time as him, he loved to laugh and crack jokes, and was the funniest guy they ever met. Take some of the comments Rolling Stone highlighted:
“One time we were driving home from Mardi Gras, a car pulls up next to us, and suddenly we see a naked guy hanging out the window, feet and all. It’s Bert!”
“One time I went to the gym to work out, and there’s a guy on the treadmill with his pants jacked up his ass, with an apple jammed in there. It’s Bert!”
The sheer volume of the incredible experiences he had while at Florida State University meant that, if he ever decided to pull his socks up and answer the calling of stand-up comedy, he would not be lacking in ammunition. And so it would prove to be the case. His bit on how, on a college-funded trip to Russia, he earned the moniker of 'The Machine' from members of the mafia would become his most famous tale and clock over 10 million views on YouTube.
Presently 44-years-old and an established veteran on the scene, Bert even featured in his own Netflix special, 'Bert Kreischer: Secret Time,' recently, and I had the opportunity to catch up with him on all things college, life, and comedy. As I greet him on the phone and confess I'm a big fan, he breaks into a hearty laugh. It's this contagious laughter that always gets to you first, and you can't help but crack a smile as he greets you with the enthusiasm of a long lost friend.
First on the agenda would be the Florida State University.
Over the years, he's spoken in detail about his life at the university, though it's likely those tales leave out some of the less juicy bits. Then again, this is Bert, so those juicy bits are, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. "[College] was a blast, I loved it," he says. "It was real freedom. I look back at that and I go, 'God, I'd love to go back to that time.' But I don't look back longingly because I did it right and I did everything I wanted to do before I was ready to grow up and leave."
"Man, it was so beautiful," he continues with a hint of longing in his voice. "In summer classes, we'd have all our classes done by noon and we'd come back to my house, get high, and go play frisbee golf for the rest of the day. Then, we'd come back and watch 'The Simpsons' at like 4, then pre-party to go out that night. It was such a great time in life. No concerns, no bills, no worries, no kids. Just true, at the moment, carpe diem fun."
Florida State University always had a reputation for being quite wild — one that would be cemented when the Princeton Review later named it the Number One party school in the country — and situated in the vicinity of the campus were iconic bars such as A.J.’s, Po’ Boys, Potbelly’s, Club Park Ave., Fusions, Yiannis, Ken’s, Bullwinkle’s, and Floyd’s. Surely, it was the ideal university for someone like Bert, a self-confessed party animal. Surprisingly enough, the 44-year-old confesses the decision to enroll had a lot more to do with geography than any other mitigating factor.
"I grew up in Tampa, and everything in Florida is so flat I was looking for something that was a tad bit exotic," he reveals. "Like, I know this sounds quite silly, but Tallahassee has a lot of hills and it's almost like the foothills of Appalachia. When I went to college, it just didn't seem like it belonged to Florida. I'd gone to the Florida State University and Miami and it seemed like both schools could have been in Tampa. And when I went to Tallahassee, it just felt exotic."
"It sounds so silly if you think about Tallahassee being exotic," he reiterates, "but it just looked different to me. It seemed like a different place."
I could never have pictured those halcyon days fully without asking him about the article Rolling Stone had penned about him. It would eventually prove to be a life-changer and give him his shot at fame, a fact which Bert readily agrees with. "I was honestly moved to tears," he says about his reaction on reading the piece.
While the article was published on April 17 of that year, Bert discloses he received it on April Fools Day. "I thought it was like a joke, a prank for a second," he explains. "There were people talking about it before it came out, and before I got it, people were saying, 'This is big. You have no idea but Rolling Stone wrote an article about you.' And then I got it and I read it on my couch in my living room in my boxers!"
"All my roommates were in class and I read it to myself and I was like, 'OH MY GOD'" He becomes a little lost for words here, unsure how he can encapsulate the raw emotion he experienced into a few sentences. A few seconds pass and he continues, "When I read that first sentence I literally put the magazine down for a second. I think the first sentence is, 'It's taken Kreischer six-and-a-half years to become the man he is today — the number one partyer at the number one party school in the country. I'm not a guy with a ton of insight into life, but I read that and I was like, 'This is going to change my life. I think this is going to change the direction in which I'm going in."
But before I got down to brass tacks, I asked him a question many of his classmates and batchmates may have pondered upon over the years, and even more so in light of the article: How did he survive his hangovers?! "I have no idea! I believe in time travel," he says, struggling to hold down his laughter. "I literally look back, and I said to one of my friends one time, 'You ever look at your life and go I cannot believe I'm alive?' And he was like, 'No, I could never say that.' Oh well, I say it every day!"
As for the drinking, Bert says it's just a matter of how his body adapted to his crazy alcohol splurges. "You get used to it," he says. "It's like you get calloused. But it's gotten a lot worse the older I've gotten. I literally say to myself, 'Well, if I want to get work done this week, I shouldn't drink on Sunday.' When I was young, man, I look back and I wish I had that mentality. But you know, work hard, play hard!"
It would be a mantra that would serve the comedian well, especially when it came to showbiz.
There are a select group of individuals who can lay claim to the fact that they have a movie based on their life. Bert is one of them, though the background to 'National Lampoon's Van Wilder' is admittedly murky. From the Rolling Stone article, director Oliver Stone optioned the rights to the 44-year-old's life, but the development deal with him eventually fell through and all the scripts that were submitted went back to their writers. But one of these writers decided to change Bert's name and sell the script to National Lampoon, who would then turn it into a movie starring none other than Ryan Reynolds.
While 'Van Wilder' premiered in 2002, Bert says he still hasn't watched it. "I didn't have anything to do with the movie," he discloses. "Maybe one day, I'll watch it. I always say I'll watch it with Ryan Reynolds. I would love to watch it with Ryan Reynolds but I'm sure he's like, 'Who the hell are you?!'
Despite a possible claim to fame through the movie, he would still have to make it the hard way. His life at Florida State University had convinced him stand-up might just be the gig, but it wasn't all so straightforward. "Everyone in college would say, 'You're the funniest guy I know, you should do stand-up!'" he explains. "It's funny. I had built some of the skills for stand up based on hanging out with people, partying, and telling stories. I just didn't know how to apply them."
Clarifying further, he warns me he's about to give me a horrible analogy. "The worst of my life," he insists. Instead, it proved to be quite succinct. "It's almost like the Jamaican bobsled team," he says. "It's just like 'Cool Runnings.' I knew how to run, all you had to do was sit in that thing, but I didn't have any of the other skill sets. I didn't know how to get in and out of the joke; I didn't know how to deal with an audience; I didn't know how to read an audience; I didn't know how to have an opener, a closer, or how to plant the seeds to a story that you can harvest at the end to make the story better."
"I didn't know any of the fundamentals," he continues. "But I was really good at being on stage and having a good time and making people feel the moment."
Bert's first experience with stand-up comedy would be at Potbelly's in Tallahassee before moving to New York after a tape of one of his sets came to the notice of a talent agent. However, it would be in LA that he would take major strides towards realizing his goal, and it was none other than Will Smith who would recognize his natural talent in the field.
"When I moved to LA, I was so psyched that I was going in the right direction," he reveals. "Will Smith watched my set! I had done a seven-minute set, recorded it, and sent it to him. When I went and talked to him and had dinner with him, he was like, 'Dude, you're just a natural storyteller, you're so funny!' I was just telling stories that happened to me, you know."
"One of the jokes I had went like, 'Me and Demitri Martin were on a subway with like a hundred black guys. And I got off, and before the train took off again, I looked at Demetri with the 100 black guys on the train and I said, 'I'll see you at the meeting on Thursday. White power, my brother!' It's a stupid joke that you would do in front of your friends but I told it on stage and I felt it was almost like a cheat code. I didn't know that was what a joke could be and Will LOVED it. He was like, 'That's so funny! That's who you are,' and I was like, 'Oh, okay, I can just tell the stuff I'm doing in life. I don't need the craft or well-written joke. I can just tell you about what I'm doing.'"
While the stand-up scene would prove welcoming, Bert also found himself hosting his own TV shows. But it seemed as though his reputation as "the wild guy" had followed him out of college and into his career, with 'Hurt Bert' featuring the 44-year-old putting himself in dangerous and life-threatening situations on purpose. His stint on the show would result in his incredibly popular 'Fighting a Bear' story, though it does make one wonder how he reacted when the concept of the series was pitched to him.
His tone changes to a serious one as he says, "To be very candid, I think at that time of my life I thought fame was what I wanted and I was excited about doing something different from what was already on TV. I thought it would really pop and people would really love it and I could go on and do movies and, who knows what I thought at the time. I was excited by the idea of doing a show that no one had seen. Like, a type of show that wasn't out there yet. And, man, I look back at that with just, 'I can't believe I was this stupid!'"
And no matter how hard he tried, it seemed as though he could not shake off his 'crazy guy' tag. 'Hurt Bert' was followed up by 'Bert the Conqueror,' which featured him as he traveled to amusement parks and other entertainment venues across the United States in order to experience thrilling rides and activities. Despite suffering from a fear of heights, he can be seen riding roller coasters and other amusement park rides as well as engaging in activities such as jumping off the Stratosphere tower in Las Vegas and being fired from a human slingshot.
Why would he put himself through all that after 'Hurt Bert'? "I remember when they pitched me 'Bert the Conqueror' I turned it down and initially I was like, 'I was done doing that kind of show' and the next thing I know, I'm doing that show for three years!" he says. "And then I did this show called 'Trip Flip' for the travel channel. At first, it was just me taking people on vacations and then the vacations got more intense and next thing I know, I'm helo-skiing in Matterhorn and I'm like, 'What?! I'm not even a good snowboarder!' I really carved a niche out for myself as a stuntman host that didn't know how to do stunts."
However, just when you may have counted him out, Bert's come back with a bang and banished those previous stereotypes. His new Netflix special sees a remarkable change in tone from any of his previous performances and sees him addressing his life as a father, though with the same in-your-face humor that made him so popular. The references to drinking, partying, and death-defying incidents are now replaced by those that pertain to his wife, his children, and family. What brought about this change in tone, I venture, and is there an exact moment in his life to which he can pinpoint this change?
"No. Honestly, no," he insists. "And it may revert back to wherever it's going to be. I don't know. I'm really impressed. I'm very lucky. I feel very grateful that people are saying what you just said. That I've grown, and that they see much growth, and it's positive. But I had no insight on that progression. I had no insight on it. You get so close to the forest you can't see the trees, that metaphor, is very real because you're just going up to different clubs and you're just telling jokes that happened that day and if it gets the laughs, you're like, 'Great, put it in the act!' but if it gets a big laugh you're like, 'Wow, we'll close with it!'"
"I'm sure there are comics that go like, 'I need a joke about race. I need a joke about politics,'" he adds. "I literally was like, 'I just need a joke that works!' and I'm pleasantly surprised when people come up to me and say, 'So, you've been talking a lot about your family and it's a natural progression from party animal,' and I'm like, 'Oh, no. , I'm still partying like a lunatic!"
"I guess, I'm pleasantly surprised when people see my growth. I wish my wife saw it too!" he laughs.
I'm told I have time for one last question, and I ask one that I've been thinking about ever since I read 'Bert Kreischer: The Undergraduate.' Bert had mentioned how he was always unsure what he wanted to make of his life. "I’d love to open a bar and name it Bar Flies. I’d love to write a book called How to Raise a Virgin. Seriously, I think a book about that would sell. I’d love to be a movie star. That’d be great. But I lost the looks awhile ago. They slipped right through my hands like sand in an hourglass," he would reportedly say.
"You know what’s funny, Kristen [his then girlfriend]? I just can’t picture me doing anything. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do.”
What would someone who didn't know if there's anything they could do, do if it weren't for stand-up comedy? Bert chuckles heartily for a good few seconds before answering, "It's really a great question. I've been thinking about that a lot lately."
He breaks into a fit of laughter once again before continuing, "I have a bunch of different answers because I would have been the kind of guy that tried a lot of jobs. I'd probably have never been happy at any one job. I would have gotten fired a lot. I would have been a flats fishing guy. I would have have been a captain for sailboats. I would have transitioned into selling boats, in which case I probably would have transitioned into selling cars and then going into RVs. I'm definitely a lifestyle guy!"
"I would have sold RVs and I would have gone back to school to get my law degree, in which case I would have found out that that's not what I wanted to do at all and I would have become a contractor. I'd become a contractor and then gotten right out of it. I'd have done one house, flipped it, not made a profit, gone, 'That's not for me, I need to go back to my real passion, which is the water.'"
"I would have gone on and become a scuba diving instructor. I would do EVERYTHING. I'd probably have gotten my pilot's license in the hope that, one day, I could become a pilot and get on the mic at the beginning of the flight. And then I would have been like, 'If I could just become a flight attendant, then I can do the intros to flight and make people laugh there.' And then I'm sure at 50-years-old I would have been like, 'Maybe I should have just been a stand-up.'"