This article originally appeared on Manofthehouse.com in 2011.
Bert Kreischer lets out a prolonged grunt. It’s more like a growl and it’s obviously satisfying. He’s been on a plane. The night before he was doing stand-up in LA, but now, he’s standing in a five-star, three-room Detroit hotel room. He’s tired, feeling the need to stretch. He grunts like a man unleashed, a man who has a lot on his plate, a man who doesn’t take a lot of time to sit still.
He is in Detroit for his wildly successful Travel Channelshow, Bert the Conqueror. The second season is set to premiere and he’s making the rounds. If you haven’t seen it, the show is basically Kreischer, the every man, taking on things that thrill seekers do. For the first episode, he rode the four largest roller coasters at Cedar Point in Ohio and the awestruck, pants-soiled look on his face as he took on “Top Thrill Dragster” sums up so much of what the show is about.
“I had never actually been on a roller coaster before,” says Kreischer. “My reactions are always 100% authentic.”
In subsequent episodes, Kreischer has taken on water parks, hand-caught catfish, done a bellyflop contest, been fired from a human-sized slingshot and, notably, jumped from the top of the Stratosphere Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.
“I had decided the night before that I wasn’t going to do it,” Kreischer says of his 855-foot leap from SkyJump. “I called my wife and told her that we could just run. If the show calls, don’t answer, just pack a bag and we’ll just run.
“I called my producer and told him that I just couldn’t do it. He said, ‘That’s fine, but I need you to back out at the top. If you back out over the phone, I can’t make a show out of that. If you back out up top, I can.'”
So Bert went to the top, with every intention of not going through with it. He knew what he was going to say, how he would back out. But when he got there, people were shouting his name. A lot of people. He estimates as many as 400. His crew made the choice before him clear. Jump and fall for 16 seconds or spend 45 minutes explaining to the throng why he couldn’t go through with it.
This is Kreischer’s new life. His old one, the one that got him to this point, was a famous collegiate partier turned stand-up comic. He spent years after his notorious six-year stint at Florida State University–which was the subject of a Rolling Stone profile and, at least indirectly, the inspiration for the National Lampoon’s movie Van Wilder–working clubs. Sometimes he was at the door, other times on stage. He built a name for himself in this old life and, because of that and a passion for performing, he keeps one foot in it, the other in his new life on Travel Channel.
Kreischer finishes his stretch, his caveman grunt and is ready for the first question of our interview. I ask him if he feels like he’s finally made it, if he feels like years and years of working comedy clubs have finally paid off. His answer, microwave quick and funny, reveals the duality of his life and also his instinct for comedy.
“Well, right now I’m in a five-star hotel room, a three-room suite, walking around naked talking to you guys, but in a couple of weeks I’ll be doing comedy and staying at the Shove-It Inn. So, sometimes I feel like that, like I’ve made it. Some times I still feel like a comic.”
It’s cliche to talk about somebody feeling like they have a purpose, a pursuit or career tailor-made for them. But talk toKreischer, hear his cackling laugh, and it’s not hard to tell that comedy is as much a part of this guy’s DNA as skin color and blood type. It’s precisely that sort of zaniness, that anything-for- a-laugh mentality, that makes him so engaging on Bert the Conqueror. While thousands try and fail to make their living telling jokes, Kreischer could not consider failure as an option.
College, long held to be the training ground for future success for millions of young people, wasn’t exactly preparing Kreisher for a life in a cubicle. While others were splitting their time between classes and partying, his scales tipped heavily toward the latter. It made him famous around campus and, eventually, and for a little while anyway, elsewhere. For six years, he made himself the life of the party. He, in fact, was the party. The Rolling Stone piece revealed his debauchery, the way he managed to walk the fine line between party king and creepy sixth-year.
“In a weird way, my dad wasn’t entirely supportive of the Rolling Stonearticle,” Kreischer says. Even in the way he says this, there’s a hint at a punchline, as if he is incapable of turning it off. “He would say to me, ‘I can’t believe this what you’ve been doing in college.'”
That article may well have been a tipping point in Bert’s life. He was approached by Oliver Stone, of all people, to do a movie about his experiences. Nothing came of it, but it wasn’t long until National Lampoon–the company behind college classics like Animal House–took hold of the idea. Kreischer wasn’t a part of it. He wasn’t asked, but that doesn’t stop him from mentioning Van Wilder and his odd association with it.
“I’m still waiting for the Van Wilder people to call,” he says. “I’m always selling their movie for them.”
After graduation, he set his sights on comedy. If calculus and statistics classes are supposed to prepare students for the real world and careers, being the biggest party animal at a top party school prepared Bert for his calling. That doesn’t mean he was an instant success. He tells stories about working the door at New York comedy clubs, about picking up the scraps of stage time where he could. One story, his friend and fellow comedian Jay Mohr has become famous for telling. It involves the eccentric comedian Tracy Morgan and skipping out on a massive bar tab, but the rest of the details are a little too off-color to mention here. Mohr tells the story in the first-person and you can find it on YouTube if you know where to look. But it was Bert’s story. He was the guy who lived it.
And for a long time, he lived it.
In the beginning he took a series of jobs to pay the bills. There was the time he worked at Barnes & Noble and the time he folded sweaters in a sweater factory. These are the closest things he’s ever had to what his FSU classmates might consider a real job.
“I folded sweaters all day long,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “I don’t know if you’ve ever folded a sweater, but it sucks. So, no, I’ve never had a real job. Not one that you had to interview for anyway.”
Bert’s comedy–unctuous and fervent–became pretty well known. He landed a couple of spots on Comedy Central, made it to the Bob & Tom Show. All achievements for any comedian. But it was an off-hand experience with a show called Hurt Bert that would make him a household name. The premise of the show was to take a non-daredevil and have him do daredevil things. The show ran on another network, but when the Travel Channel was looking for someone to host a similar program, he got the call.
BERT THE CONQUEROR IS BORN
If it seems like you can do the things that Bert Kreischer does on his show, it’s because you can. There’s nothing physically or mentally taxing about it. Not really anyway. Anyone can, for instance ride a roller coaster. Anyone can jump on the back of an ostrich and be dragged around. Anyone can, theoretically at least, take on water parks and shove their hands into the gaping mouths of hidden catfish. And that’s half the point of the show. Anyone can, everyone can. Every man can be Bert.
But there are a couple things that set Kreischer apart: 1) simply because anyone can does not mean anyone would or should and 2) no one can be as side-graspingly funny while doing it as Kreischer can. His comedy, honed over years and years in those clubs and on the stage, is instinct. It’s also very honest. It’s his ability to be afraid, his willingness to be scared that makes him so appealing–he reacts the way we imagine we would if given the opportunity. True, it may not always be the way we would like to think we would react–cool, calm and collected–but it is how we probably would.
That’s what Travel Channel was looking for in their newest star.
Though he was called to audition for what would become Bert the Conqueror, he wasn’t alone. There were others being considered. Seasoned daredevils, men who skirt the limits of adrenaline and adventure. Bert felt a bit out of place during the process.
“They said that we might have to skydive from a helicopter into an active volcano, and I was like, ‘hell no, I’m out of here,'” he says illustratively. “But the guy next to me was like, ‘sweet, that will be my third time. I did that for vacation last year.'”
It may help, if you haven’t seen Kreischer or spoken with him, to paint a picture here. He’s not exactly what you’d think of when someone mentions the word ‘adventurer.’ He’s a little soft, a little bald. He’s got the kind of beard you’d see on a guy working the key machine at the local hardware store. And, unlike others who may have auditioned, he’s not some young take-on-the-world Turk. He’s 39. Married. Got two daughters in school. He could be your neighbor and, if he was, you’d have him over every time you fire up the grill. He’d have you shooting beer out your nose and all over your steaks and, if college Bert is still alive (and there’s a good chance he’s in there somewhere), doing keg stands by the end of the night.
In short, he’s likable. He’s like you or someone you knew back in college. And it seems that’s part of what the Travel Channel is going for these days. While other networks and cable outlets are doing everything they can to undervalue their stars, to avoid paying for writers at all costs, Travel is banking on the personalities of those people they put on screen.
Whether it’s the literary snarkiness of Anthony Bourdain or the tough focus of Steven Rinella; the “I dare you to eat that” bravado of Andrew Zimmern or the “I can’t believe you ate the whole thing” joie de vivre of Adam Richman, the network is building its audience one male archetype at a time. In Bourdain, we see the intellectual. In Rinella, the hunter. In Zimmern, the kid on the playground who would do anything. In Richman, the little brother who wants to hang with the big boys.
But in Kreischer, we see ourselves. And that may be the smartest thing about the show. He doesn’t eat extraordinary things, he doesn’t hunt wild game. He doesn’t take on colon- or artery-clogging challenges. He just does the stuff we all do–except when some of us might waver, he says ‘yes.’
Kreischer says there is a fraternity of sorts among Travel Channel’s primetime hosts. Especially he and Richman, who have become good friends. They challenge each other–to see who can do the best introduction reading over dinner or to see (and if you haven’t followed this on Twitter, you really should) who can create a display in their hotel room that will freak the maids out the most.
Which brings us back to Detroit, and Kreischer’s naked pacing of his five-star suite. He’s trying to figure out what he can do next. Richman threw down the gauntlet when he turned his bed into a giant vampire, complete with fangs and fake blood.
“I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do next,” he says. “I have this idea that I’m going to take my jeans and fill them with towels and attach my boots. I’m going to hang them over the balcony like it’s a guy hanging by his feet over the edge. That should freak the maid out.”
It’s a good stunt, maybe great. The next in a line of such stunts and evidence of a man who spends an awful lot of time on the road away from home; indeed a man who is probably more comfortable on the road than at home.
BERT THE FAMILY MAN
For more than 15 years, Bert Kreischer has lived a nomadic life. Traveling to comedy shows and now for a television show. But in that time, he has managed to put down roots. He’s married and has two daughters–four and six.
“Do you ever get home for a couple of weeks and wish you could just stay?” I ask.
“Well, that assumes I’m ever home for two weeks,” he says. “But, some times. Most of the time, though, I get home and start thinking about getting back out there.”
He lives in Southern California. At least that’s where his bills go. This year, he estimates that the longest stretch he’ll be home is a week during the summer. Bert the Conqueror, which premieres Sunday and has been renewed for another season, keeps him traveling, and when he’s not doing that, he’s on the road with his stand-up. In fact, even when he’s home, comedy is a part of his routine.
“It’s funny, I was home last week and I took my girls with me to the comedy club and they loved it. What four- and six-year-olds love going to the comedy club?” he asks. “But they love it. They hang out in the dressing room, and every comic comes off stage and talks to them and they get catered to.
“My girls are the Paris and Nicky Hilton of comedy clubs.”
Well, he certainly doesn’t hope that’s how they turn out, but for now the girls seem to like it. While it was hard to bring his family with him touring clubs, the Travel Channel show has created opportunity to involve Kreischer’s family in his work. On the premiere episode of this season, his wife makes an appearance when Bert competes in a “wife carrying” competition in Maine. That’s not a euphemism or a clever name. Bert is taking part in a race during which competitors must carry their wives while sprinting, jumping, climbing and wading their way through an obstacle course. Watch the preview and you get a sense that his wife is a pretty good sport and has come to accept Bert for the man he is–joyful, smiling, itching to get out there.
But it was an experience while filming the first season of the show that cemented Kreischer’s non-traditional role as family provider. He was filming at a water park in Arizona and had brought his family along for the day. Usually when he does this, he carves out an hour or so to spend with his daughters on the rides, and the benefit of being with their dad means the girls can get to the front of the lines–“they have a golden ticket wherever they go,” he says.” He and his older daughter had just ridden one of the biggest water slides in the park and, at the bottom, she popped up wanting to go again. They were halfway back up to the top of the ride when she turned to him and earnestly asked, “Dad, hold on, is this really what you do when you go to work?”
Yes, yes it is.
Kreischer has always lived what he describes as a “rogue lifestyle.” And, apart from the Rolling Stone piece, his parents have been very supportive from the get-go. But, now that he’s a father, he says he doesn’t necessarily want the same things for his girls. He’s had to learn the hard way, to try and try and fail; to face rejection over and over in the pursuit of the glimmer of success. He hopes they grow up and go to college and then get the real jobs he just wasn’t cut out for. Still, he isn’t one to regret.
“Stand-up is what got my girls into public school,” he says, the ever-present punchline. He’s building on his success to provide even more opportunities and says there are good things to come.
So, what’s next for Bert Kreischer? Well, there’s another season of Bert the Conqueror on the books and another in the works. Plus, he hints at a spin-off. Travel Channel, with its focus on the personalities of its stars, is great about taking new ideas and running with them, he says.
I ask if he can share details.
“No,” he says, “I really can’t. Got any ideas?”
I suggest a cross-promotion in which Steven Rinella hunts him down.
“I love it and I would totally do that,” he says, Then he laughs like a man who loves to laugh, a man born to laugh. There is something else on the books, but for now, fans will just have to be content with him carrying his wife over obstacle courses and riding on the backs of motorcycles driven by marginally sober hillbillies through mud pits and other feats of every man derring do.
Kreischer tells me to come check out his comedy show when he comes through the area. He offers to comp tickets and the offer, while appreciated, seems a little ridiculous. Here’s this famous TV star offering to comp tickets at the Chuckle Hut. It’s like he doesn’t get it, like he isn’t affected at all by fame. It’s so genuine and real.
And so is he.
Bert Kreischer lives two lives. In one, he is the Conqueror. In the other he is a comedian doing what he loves to support his wife and kids. He keeps one foot in each world, splitting his time and effort between them. But in both, he is Bert, the guy with the contagious laugh, the guy with the quick line and the confidence to be exactly who he is. In both, he is an every man.
And, in both, he is us.