Riding the Lightning with Comic Bert Kreischer
Stand-up comic Bert Kreischer is a proud "Florida Man," blowing up the comedy scene on his Body Shots world tour, with shows in the sunshine state this fall.
Comedian and Tampa native Bert Kreischer got his start serendipitously in 1997 when a reporter from Rolling Stone arrived on Florida State University’s campus to write a story about the No. 1 party school in America. What the writer found was a crude and endearing force majeure, holding court in every bar in Tallahassee, skipping class, drinking beers like water and inciting laughter up and down sorority row. The resulting article would name Bert the top partier in America and ignite a 20-year career in entertainment including multiple Travel Channel hosting gigs, a cooking show, a popular podcast, two Netflix comedy specials and, oh yeah, a world tour selling out theaters in Sydney, London, Los Angeles and everywhere in between. Also known as the Machine (for a bit about a class trip he took to Russia—check out the now viral clip), Bert brings his Body Shots world tour through the Sunshine State this fall. Flamingo Editor in Chief Jamie Rich caught up with Bert to find out what has happened since that notorious Rolling Stone article struck his career like a Florida flash of lightning.
Before I reached out, I asked my sorority sisters at Florida State for stories, and they reminded me how you used to rearrange our furniture and serenade us in the dining room with your shirt off—some things haven’t changed.
BK: I have such a connection to that Tri Delt house. I literally was just telling my daughters. They were talking about sorority houses. I said, “You know what’s so funny? I was in a relationship, and I got cheated on. And one of my best friends was a Tri Delt, Erica Youngblood.” I said, “I went to that Tri Delt house every single day. I would eat lunch there, I would hang out in the annex. Literally, that was my safe space for an entire semester.” And [my daughters] go, “You’re like a sorority girl?” And I go, “No, guys. You’re missing the point.”
Hopefully, one of my daughters goes to Florida State, and then it’ll be a reason for me to go back to the school. I’ll get the chairman’s box. Waste a ton of money.
One of your first stand-up shows was at Potbelly’s Bar?
BK: I’m looking at that picture right now, oddly enough. My girlfriend at the time, Kristen, wrote “Bert 4/97 First Stand-up Routine Tallahassee.” And it’s a picture of me at Potbelly’s. [That night] I ran into one of the guys I was doing that show with, Kristian Harloff. I got a beer when I got there, and he stops me and says, “Hey man. I know you’re doing this for your first time, so I’ll give you just a little bit of insight.” And he goes, “I wouldn’t drink that beer because if you drink it, you’re going to always need to drink a beer before you go onstage. You should do it sober.” It’s the greatest advice I ever got in my career. I’m always sober onstage. That’s what people are buying the tickets for.
Living in LA, how often are you back in Florida?
BK: I’m in Florida once a year for like 10 days. My parents own a beach house in Clearwater Beach. I love running at sunset on the beach. It’s one of my favorite things in the world. I’ve been out of Florida for so long that I forget certain things that are just Florida. One time, I went running in the middle of the afternoon, and I ran one direction down to the end of Caladesi Island, turned around and ran back. I forgot, in the middle of every afternoon in Florida, there’s a fucking thunderstorm, and I’m like, “Oh, shit. Where’s my Florida senses, my Spidey senses?”
What other favorite Florida things do you love?
BK: I love those Publix sandwiches they have that are just massive. In Clearwater Beach there’s a Clearwater paddleboard company. I buy something new every single day. I’m like, oh, you can’t get flip-flops like this in LA. The hats here are better than in LA. I love cigars. Growing up in Tampa, everyone had cafe con leche and a cigar in the morning. And so I feel I earned the right to smoke cigars. At sunset, go for a jog, come home, glass of wine, cigar, eat grouper. You know the place you can find real grouper because they just caught it that day, none of that store-bought shit, right on the docks. I’m telling you, man, they may say it as a slur, but I will always be a Florida man.
That’s awesome. Are there any Florida stories you haven’t told on stage?
BK: I’ve always wanted to tell that story of watching that kid get struck by lightning at Publix.
You saw a kid get struck by lightning?
BK: Oh my God. It was a thunderstorm. This was the one Publix by us, and me and my dad were walking in and there was a kid going out to collect shopping carts. My dad literally looks at me, and he’s like, “Buddy, that’s called natural selection.” And the kid gets all the shopping carts. We’d literally just walked into the Publix, right by that green scale, right? Then whack!
Shopping carts are scattered like cockroaches. The kid’s laying on the
ground smoldering. I remember some lady going, “We should go get him,” and some other lady’s like, “Don’t go out there. There’s lightning out there,” like it’s a shark, right?
What happened to him?
BK: So, all of a sudden, the kid stands up, starts walking in and the old ladies are like, “Oh, dear.” He starts walking up. The two glass doors open almost like at a Broadway show. He looks at the whole room. This is 1982. He says, “What happened?” Like, “What happened, you’re allergic to donuts? What do you think happened? Your jewelry melted into you … your nametag. You got struck by lightning, bro.” And this was at the time when Jim and Tammy Baker were really big. And in Tampa, everyone was saved.
Everyone kept going, “Did you see the [heavenly] lights?” And my dad’s like, “Come on, buddy.” We were going to go shopping. And I go, “Hold on one second.” Ten years old, new to the neighborhood in downtown Lutz, North Tampa, I lean into this circle looking at this kid. They’re praying on him. And I lean in and go, “Do you think you have any superhuman powers?” My dad’s like, “Shut the fuck up. Why would you even bring that up? Come on. Let’s go.” But, yeah, I’ve got to figure that story out on stage.
You’re selling out shows around the world. How have you built a global fan base?
BK: You know, it’s so funny. I think it was The Machine story going viral, the Netflix special [Secret Time] coupled with the podcast and just always being in everyone’s ear. When you’re an unknown comic, you literally are knocking on everyone’s digital door every day going, “Check out my content. Come see me do stand-up.” And so when the Netflix special came out, that was a game changer.
So how did you land the Netflix special?
BK: I would say I’m the luckiest man in the world. Like going from not studying in school to getting discovered by Rolling Stone, to getting a career in comedy, getting discovered by Will Smith—I mean all these weird things that have happened to me. I was doing stand-up, wasn’t really on the radar of Netflix. A guy named Robbie Praw is the head of Netflix stand-up comedy. He was coming through customs in Canada, and the guy at customs said to him, “What’s your business here?” He said, “I work for Netflix.” The guy goes, “What are you doing for Netflix?” He goes, “I’m shooting a comedy special.” Then the guy at customs said, “You got to do a special with the Machine.” So [soon after] Robbie Praw is on a flight from DC to LA shooting a Dave Chappelle special. But I happen to be at the DC Improv that week. Robbie Praw sat caddy-corner to me on the flight. I said hi to him when we landed, and he was like, “You know what? I’ve run into this guy twice. I should check out his comedy.” He watched The Machine and was like, “All right. Let’s do a special.” So it is sliding doors. It’s just luck.
How did the special change your career’s trajectory?
BK: I was in New York. It dropped at midnight, and I was walking down the street, and I just noticed people were looking at me. I was like, “Holy shit. It seems like—is my fly down?” I was on the front page of Netflix and I heard people going, “Hey, I’m going to watch your special tonight.” And I was like, “Oh, cool.” And then it was really bizarre, and then friends were texting me, “Dude, you’re on Netflix.”
So then we announced my first theater tour ever. I put the theater tour on sale. I don’t expect any change in my business. Tickets go on sale at 10 o’clock, and my wife came in, and she’s like, “Boston sold out like in 15 minutes. They want to add a show.” And so then, I get out of the shower and get in bed and my agent calls me. He’s like, “We’re adding like 7 shows today. We’re thinking about adding another 15.”
You tap into the nostalgia of college days with stories you still tell, and people really connect with that.
BK: I think [my college friends] so informed who I am as a person. I found out I was funny at Florida State. That’s when I decided I was going to do comedy. I remember, going back to Atlanta, this place called the Funny Bar. And I was trying to be edgy or whatever. And I remember my buddy who was there going like, “Yeah, I don’t know what’s going on with that new joke you’re doing. You should just go back to Bert.”
You’re so open and honest about your wild days. And now you have teenage daughters. Do you ever hesitate about what you put out there as a dad?
BK: Yeah, Yeah, yeah, yeah. I have this sex bit with my wife. And I’m like, “Oh, my daughters are going to see all of this.” And so I definitely have reservations at times, but for the most part, everything’s on the table. If it’s funny, I believe that other people have also gone through it, and they connect with it.
There’s one instance—I’ll just say it’s about puberty with Isla—one of the hardest times I’ve ever laughed. And in the middle of my whole family laughing, Isla looks up and goes, “Yo, this doesn’t go on stage.” And I respect that. I’m definitely cognizant that they’re going to be grownups and have to live their lives as well. So I don’t want to try to ruin that, but I do want to pay for college, so.
Along with giggling and having a blast with other big-name comics on your podcast, at times you delve into issues like race, freedom of speech and the #MeToo movement. It’s hard to tell, though, where you land on the issues.
BK: I think, as a comic, your responsibility should be to equally weigh both sides of any issue and then try to find out what’s funny. I get turned off by comics that are just one-sided. I have a bit about buying a gun right now that I think perfectly explains my politics. When they hear the bit, I think [people on] both sides of that issue are going to equally cringe.
Not to say I’m pandering to both sides of the audience, because there’s nothing wrong as a comic with just being funny. People are going through real shit—just be funny. If you voted for Trump and you go to my show, I think you should laugh. If you voted for Hillary and come to my show, I think you should laugh. If you like Bernie, I think you should laugh.
The day Jimmy Buffett gets on stage and says, “Anyone who voted for Hillary get out of this room!”—that’s the day I stop going to Jimmy Buffett concerts.
So you’re a Jimmy Buffett fan?
BK: Oh, I’ve been dying to get him on my podcast because I feel like Jimmy Buffett’s thumbprint, his lifestyle, was so embedded in our DNA as Floridians that even who I am today, there are hints (obviously, few and far between artistically), but hints of Jimmy Buffett. I mean, people come to my shows and party and tap out and go, “We’re having a good time.”
Speaking of tapping out, this will be your third sober October. How did that all come about?
BK: I really think Sober October is what makes the podcasts special. I was going to a Rockies game in Denver, and I was texting with three of my best friends: Joe Rogan, Tom Segura and Ari Shaffir. I was drinking at the time, and Joe was like, “How long do you think you could stop drinking?” And I was like, “90 days easy-peasy.” And he was like, “Bullshit.” And everyone started putting bets on it. Later, we went in to do a podcast, and Joe asked me how much I drink. And I thought I needed to be honest, which I’ve always done when podcasting because otherwise you get caught up in lies. So I said, “I usually drink about nine tequilas and Southerns in a night.”
Nine tequilas every night?!
BK: Now, Segura knows I drink doubles so those are 18 drinks technically. And Joe goes, “You can’t live like that.” And it gets very serious, and that’s how Sober October started. Joe then said, “All right, all of us are going to quit drinking.” And then we started talking about marijuana, about how much marijuana Joe uses, and he said something really telling like, “How am I supposed to enjoy my food?” I went, “All right, we all need to quit drinking and doing drugs for a month.” So, the four of us decided together to quit drinking and doing drugs for the month of October and to add some sort of physical challenge in it that would get us healthy. So we did 15 Bikram yoga sessions that first October and we didn’t do any drugs or any alcohol. And we fucking loved it.
We would go to hot yoga together. We were texting nonstop. We were laughing. Our comedy was getting better. It was just a really great, great bonding month.
And a bunch of fans did it along with us, and people started texting us going, “I did Sober October with you, and I just got off opioids.” Or “I quit smoking,” or “I just got healthy, I lost 100 pounds.” It was really inspirational.
How did Sober October impact you personally?
BK: When I started drinking again, I drank exponentially less. I learned how to go to sleep without drinking. I learned how to fly without drinking, which was something I never could have done. And so it changed my life, Tom’s life, Ari’s life and Joe’s life, in different ways.
So what do you do every Nov. 1?
BK: We have a blowout party. Every Nov. 1 we’ve all gotten together, done a podcast, gotten the highest I’ve ever gotten in my entire life, gotten the drunkest I’ve ever gotten, and we’ve done a three-and-a-half-hour podcast together. Then we go out for steaks and just eat and none of us work out.
Well, what would you do with your act if you got thin?
BK: Oh, you know what? Let me deal with that. God forbid. I would love to be in great shape. I would fucking love it. It’s never going to happen.
The Machine would take on a new meaning.
BK: I’m the fattest that I’ve ever been. I was just in Australia, and we were in Bali before that, and I’ve just been on vacation. By the way, my version of skinny is still a doctor’s version of obese.
You’re still going to have some belly overhang?
BK: Yeah. Netflix said, “We want to put a billboard on Sunset [Boulevard] for you,” and I was like, “Hell yeah. That makes sense.” And it was just a picture of my belly. Everyone got a picture with that.
So what’s the next career step for you?
BK: I came out to LA thinking I’d be an actor, so get into comedy, get into acting, do a sitcom, maybe be a movie star. And then I kind of was like, forget all that. I really don’t enjoy being on set. Then I realized, oh, I think I’d enjoy being on set if I created the project. So I have three projects right now that I’ve created that I would love to do.
We’ve got one movie and two TV shows that we’ve semi-sold, but nothing’s a sure thing in LA. Stand-up’s the only thing I can promise. I can promise that I’ll be on tour. I can promise that I’m writing jokes.