Bert Kreischer can pinpoint the exact moment his life changed: Dec. 28, 2016.
Before then, Kreischer had been a stand-up comedian for about 20 years and had achieved what appeared to be a good amount of success. As a student at Florida State University, he was the subject of a Rolling Stone article that crowned him “the top partyer at the Number One Party School in the country”; Oliver Stone had optioned the film rights.
Kreischer, who will receive Variety’s Creative Impact in Comedy Award on July 27, was a busy touring stand-up comedian, known for his unbridled enthusiasm and epic storytelling (usually while shirtless) and had published his book “Life of the Party: Stories of a Perpetual Man-Child” in 2014. He’d had a lengthy relationship with the Travel Channel, where he had hosted such reality shows as “Bert the Conqueror” and “Trip Flip.”
But things weren’t as sunny as they appeared to the outside world. A few months earlier, Kreischer had been let go from the Travel Channel after a change in leadership. Expected dates on an upcoming tour had been pulled. And an associate had asked him flat-out: “How much longer do you think you’ll be able to do this?”
“It was a time where I was literally lost, entirely lost,” Kresicher recalls. “I was 44 and suddenly I freaked out.”
But rather than continue to spiral, Kreischer took another route. “It was a pivotal time in my life where I decided to take control of things for the first time ever.”
It helped when friends Bill Burr and Joe Rogan had a frank conversation with him. “They sat me down and told me, ‘Your Travel Channel show sucks. You’re funnier than that. You need to do specials, you need to do podcasts,’ ” Kreischer recalls.
Burr remembers the conversation vividly. “He was down in the dumps, trying to figure out what the next move was and Joe Rogan and I were about just starting podcasting,” says Burr, who notes that this was before the medium became as popular as it is today. But he pointed out that comics were catching on that it was a way to gain an audience.
“It was one of those things where I think comics saw that all of a sudden, you had all the power in the world. You didn’t have to sit around and wait for somebody to tap you on the head with their little magic wand, saying, ‘I’ve decided that you’re going to make it now!’”
Burr and Rogan helped him load up on podcasts with friends and then promote and monetize the shows. That helped alleviate some of the financial pressure so Kreischer could focus on his stand-up. “And I started enjoying it,” he says. “I had a deal with NBC at the time and they were going to make a pilot. But I was so caught up in promoting on Instagram and YouTube and podcasting that they called to give notes on the script and I was too busy doing other things.”
And then, on Dec. 28, Kreischer posted a snippet from his Showtime special “The Machine” to his YouTube channel. The nearly 14-minute story of how a 22-year-old Kreischer got wrapped up with the Russian mafia and earned his nickname quickly went viral — it currently sits at over 85 million views. The following weekend, Kreischer went to do shows and the whole weekend was sold out.
“I remember asking people why they were here. And they’d say, ‘The Machine.’ It was a very big moment, the moment that got me to where I am today.”
Where he is today is Serbia, where he’s filming “The Machine” movie, a big-screen adaptation of his story for Legendary. Kreischer stars as himself (Jimmy Tatro of “American Vandal” plays him in his 20s) in the film, which finds the events of his story catching up with him when the Russian mafia kidnaps him and his father. Oh, and the father? He’s played by the iconic Mark Hamill. Kreischer can’t believe it, either. “That’s Luke Skywalker,” Kreischer marvels. “All guys my age wanted to be him.”
When going into filming, his wife of 17 years, LeAnn, reminded him that Hamill was there to do a job. “I can be a strong cup of joe,” he says with a laugh. “And she told me, ‘Do not need anything of him. Don’t try to force him to be buddies.’ ”
Though he still admits to fanning out — “We were on set and I grabbed a fan and said, ‘Hey, Mark you ever just do this?’ And I go up next to the fan and say,” — and here Kreischer slips into a perfect Darth Vader imitation — “Luke! Luke! I am your father!”
For his part, Hamill says: “I’ve never done a movie like this and I’ve never met anyone quite like Bert.”
The impact of “The Machine” video wasn’t just about selling out shows and opening opportunities — it was a reminder to Kreischer to be true to his voice.
“I just started doing stuff that I found fun,” he says. “I found enough confidence in myself to go, ‘I got here doing what I wanted and what I loved. I’m just going to do what I love and not let people tell me what I should be doing.”
For those who know him best, Kreischer’s success isn’t a surprise and they say he couldn’t ever be anything but himself. His manager of 15 years, Judi Marmel, who is co-founder, partner and president of talent of Levity Live, always knew he could do it all. “In a world where everybody’s putting a filter on their life and trying to pretend they are something they’re not online, a lot of the appeal of Bert is he is authentically who he says he is,” Marmel says. “People relate to that. Some comics you look at and think, ‘That’s a character they play on stage.’ That’s not the case with Bert. There’s not a lot of division of when he goes to pick up his kids at carpool and when he’s on the stage.”
Concurs Burr, “Bert is the guy that he’s presenting; he’s a really big-hearted guy that likes to have a good time and likes everybody around them to have a good time. And there’s no secrets about him. He puts it all out there.”
Asked what helps set him apart other comics and Burr jokes, “Well, I think the fact that he doesn’t wear a shirt might set him apart.”
But even Kreischer’s penchant for going shirtless isn’t a calculated branding moment — he used to open his shows by going on stage and ripping his shirt off as a high-energy starter. About 12 years ago during a set in Columbus, Ohio, he just kept it off. “It happened organically in the room, I didn’t want to stop the momentum,” he says. “After 25 minutes I went to put it back on and this woman shouts, ‘Keep it off!’”
After doing the entire show shirtless, he realized he was far more comfortable that way — Kreischer notes he has “tactile” issues and also stresses about picking out a shirt to wear. In truth, he says, he’s usually shirtless when at home.
“I know I’m not attractive shirtless, but I feel more comfortable that way,” he explains. “I might not look it, but I feel it. And I think what’s important is how you feel about yourself.”
Kreischer actually came to stand-up comedy later than most. He was 24 years old and in his sixth year of college at FSU when the Rolling Stone piece, “Bert Kreischer: The Undergraduate” came out in 1997, documenting his hard-partying ways. Though a film based on it was in development, it was eventually abandoned although the 2002 comedy “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” starring Ryan Reynolds, is rumored to be based on his story.
Asked if he ever considered suing, he recalls wise advice given to him at the time by producer-manager Barry Katz: “He told me: ‘There’s two people in this business. There’s people who work and there’s people who sue. Pick which one you want to be.’ And I went, ‘Oh yeah, I’m good.’ It’s a cool footnote in my life but that’s all I want it to be.” Now having made a movie on his own, Kreischer says he realizes how much it takes to get one made and would never consider trying to take credit for it. He’s still never seen “Van Wilder” — though he’s a big fan of Reynolds, whom he’d love to meet some day, maybe to do a podcast in which Kreischer finally watches the movie.
While the Rolling Stone article brought him notoriety, there was some backlash. In the piece, Kreischer mentioned he was interested in stand-up and a local club in Tallahassee, Fla., offered him a spot to perform one night. He was also offered a morning radio show; however, Kreischer had plans to go to New York following his graduation in 1997.
But there was a snag: his creative writing professor refused to pass him. “He was like, ‘You sullied the name of the university I teach at, you think I’m going to pass you? Party your life away! We’re never going to hear from you.’”
Kreischer went to New York anyway and began taking correspondence courses to get his degree. “This was before the internet, they’re basically the classes offered in the Florida prison system,” he says. But part of it required him to do book reports and read classics including “The Great Gatsby” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” novels he jokes he had spent his youth dodging. As a result, he says, “I ended up falling in love with literature.”
Another benefit was that he began to better understand the comedy he was seeing. “I remember my first night in New York going to see Janeane Garofalo and she made a reference that everybody but me got,” he recalls. “It was the first time I thought, ‘Maybe being the dumbest guy in the room isn’t the best thing.’”
Kreischer got a job at Barnes and Noble and began devouring everything he could read.
Still, it wouldn’t be until his 26th birthday that he finally got on stage, and only after his father gave him some tough love. “He called me in the morning and I thought he was going to wish me a happy birthday,” Kreischer recalls. “And he goes, ‘You are a piece of shit. I just perjured myself in court for you.’”
The elder Kreischer had been asked in court by a judge how his son was doing and had said “fine,” which he considered a lie. “He told me, ‘You say you’re going to do stand-up, but you’re just sitting there partying. If you really wanted to be a comic, you’d go after it. I raised you wrong.’ And I said, ‘What can I do to fix this?’ He said, ‘Go to that comedy club tonight and tell them you’ll do anything — you’ll clean, you’ll mop up — whatever it takes to get on that stage.’”
Kreischer did as he was told, but the club manager sent him away, suggesting he go back to Florida and start there. His father insisted he keep going back until he got a yes. The next day, the manager relented and said if he could bring in 20 people, he’d let Kreischer go up. Kreischer delivered. And now he can always pinpoint the exact moment he made his stand-up debut: the day after his 26th birthday.
Six months later, Kreischer was living in Los Angeles at the Universal Sheraton, having been discovered by Will Smith, and pitching shows. Working with Smith and his partner at Overbrook Entertainment, James Lassiter, was a “master class” for the young comic, he says.
But Kreischer says he was still developing his voice. “I had been influenced by what I saw in New York. Those sets are short and tight and great jokes, but I was more of a storyteller,” Kreischer notes. “I had a joke about taking acid at Disneyland but it was a seven-minute joke and I had an eight-minute set. So I was a little lost at first.”
Kresicher says going on the road helped a lot, learning from other comics and having more time to tell his stories. His act was also significantly altered when he met LeAnn and became a father to girls Georgia and Ila — all three feature heavily in his act.
A busy screenwriter when she met Kresicher, LeAnn says she never thought she would sign up for life with a comic.
“I actually had a full-blown panic attack when I realized I was completely in love with him,” LeAnn admits. “I thought, ‘I’m in for a life of being poor and struggling. And I don’t know if I’m up for this.’ But clearly, I made the choice anyway.”
The pair clicked after a bowling night with friends and LeAnn says she actually had to encourage Kreischer to ask her out. As for concerns over that Rolling Stone article, she says he didn’t tell her about it for the first few months.
“I read it and wasn’t freaked out at all,” she says simply. “I think one of the best things about Bert is he’s a 9-year-old frat boy. Everything is fun, everything is an adventure. On my wedding my best friend said, ‘He’s a boy at heart and if you can deal with that, you’ll be the happiest woman on the planet.’ And it’s true.”
Both Kreischers speak of each other in such loving, glowing terms, it’s hard to believe they’ve been together nearly 20 years. But LeAnn says while she adores her husband, honesty is a big part of their relationship.
“The first time I saw him do stand-up, he got off stage and asked me what I thought,” she recalls. “And I said, ‘I think you’re a lot smarter than that act.’ And he went, ‘Wow.’”
Rather than be offended, Kreischer seemed to be intrigued by this person who, in LeAnn’s words, “sees something better in me that I don’t see in myself.”
While LeAnn specifies she would never take credit for changing his act — “everything he does on stage is 100% his; our daughters and friends and life kind of give him a base” — her frankness has certainly helped. And it’s never wavered.
“When he starts working on a special, he asks me to go on the road with him about a month before because I’m just brutally honest,” she notes.
LeAnn adds that she understands anything is fair game in her husband’s act, but they do have an agreement.
“I have two rules. One was, if anything really bothered me, it was out,” she states. “The other rule was, it had to be funny.”
There are also many things people can relate to: when Kreischer talked about the challenges of his daughter being dyslexic, LeAnn says, “I can’t tell you how many people have emailed either him or me and said, ‘I’m so glad you talked about that, it gave my wife and I a break.’ Even if their kids [are] not dyslexic, just having a kid that has some kind of special need. And to be able to laugh about that — not laugh at the child, but laugh about how you act as a parent in relation to the child — is so great.”
Another reason for Kreisher’s success, according to his agent Jason Heyman, UTA partner, talent, is that the comic is always going the extra mile.
“His genuine love for his fans, including oftentimes having a beer with them after the show, gives him that down-to-earth quality that people respond to,” Heyman says. “He has also been very smart to embrace the media in a way few others do. He tirelessly promotes shows in the local markets, going on local radio sometimes for hours. It’s what makes promoters and fans alike appreciate his work ethic and genuine passion.”
Echoes Heidi Feigin, UTA Agent, Comedy Touring, elaborates that in 2020, “He is the life of the party, the guy you want to be your best friend, the guy who makes you feel good just being around him. His enthusiasm for everything he does is infectious.”
Feigin notes that in 2020, “The Berty Boy Relapse Tour” was cut short after just 23 sold-out shows due to COVID, “but not even a pandemic could stop Bert from doing what he loves. We were able to quickly pivot and put him back out on the road for his sold-out ‘Hot Summer Nights’ Tour at drive-ins across the country.”
During filming of “The Machine,” he had to put appearances and podcasts on hold, but he’s excited to get back. He has resumed his podcast, “Bertcast,” along with “The Bill Bert Podcast” with Burr and “2 Bears, 1 Cave” with Tom Segura.
Kreischer is back on “The Berty Boy Relapse Tour.” Heyman notes Kreischer is “doing his first arena shows, which is a huge accomplishment. He will be travelling around on the world on that tour.”’
Heyman teases there is another film in development in which Kreischer “will be working with an amazing comedy legend.”
Now that he’s made one film, Kreischer is both in awe of the process and ready to do it again.
“I’ve been a fan of movies and never been in one,” he says. He says you can expect to see a more vulnerable side of him in the movie, as the role required some dramatic scenes as well.
“I’m not Bert, the stand-up comedian, that thinks he knows it all or Bert, the podcaster, who’s got it dialed in, or Bert, the game show host who can read a Teleprompter. I am Bert, the very, very, very vulnerable actor who needs guidance and trust and has been humbled by this. It’s been an amazing experience, at least.”
Bert Kreischer will receive Variety’s Creative Impact in Comedy Award in a special evening on July 27 at the Hollywood Improv in conjunction with the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal. Kreischer will also participate in a conversation for the festival. More information on both events is available at hahaha.com.