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Bert Kreischer, the Man Behind the Machine

Bert Kreischer. Photo: Vulture and FilmMagic

Things involving Bert Kreischer can take on a mythic quality. That doesn’t just include the stories he tells in his stand-up, like the time he got involved with the Russian mafia, but the stories behind those stories. “The Machine” was a story Kreischer would tell at parties, backstage, or in meetings for years, but he’d never do it onstage. That was until 2011, when he told it on The Joe Rogan Experience after Rogan insisted he do so. Rogan didn’t just suggest he tell it, he implored his listeners to demand it of Kreischer if they saw him live. It took five years, but he finally filmed the story as part of his 2016 Showtime special titled, you guessed it, The Machine.

But the joke’s breakthrough wouldn’t happen until a month later, at a professional low point, when Kreischer clipped the story and put it on his YouTube channel and Facebook page. The magic alchemy of good timing took over (it was the week between Christmas and New Year’s), and the joke went viral like few ever had. Currently, between Kreischer’s Facebook and YouTube, “The Machine” has over 70 million views, but that doesn’t count the views across the many content aggregators who have reposted the clip. Ever since, Kreischer’s career and life have been forever changed, taking him from a struggling comic to selling out clubs to selling out large theaters, and more recently, large drive-in tours.

On Vulture’s Good One podcast, Kreischer discusses “The Machine,” post-comedy, and more. You can read some excerpts from the transcript or listen to the full episode below. Tune in to Good One every Tuesday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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On the First Time He Told “The Machine” Story

I was the guy who, my entire life, was oblivious to how I was perceived, how I was interacting with people, and how I was behaving. I was the guy who, when you’d sit at a party, they’d be like, “Oh my God, did you hear about the time Bert shit on a pizza box?” Or “Did you hear about the time that Bert climbed to the top of the telephone pole and yelled, ‘I have marijuana!’ and there were like a thousand kids? And the cops were like, ‘Hold on, arrest him!’ And I was like, ‘It’s not here, you idiot. It’s at my house!’” I would enjoy it. It would make me giggle, but I would never be the guy telling my own story. Which is an interesting pivot when you become a comedian, as a guy who never told his own story, but the stories were told about him. That is how I got discovered in Rolling Stone: as the guy that all these stories were told about. I then got into a business where I realized if you weren’t telling your own stories, no one was listening. You had to be your own promoter, which I was instinctually uncomfortable with. I mean, so uncomfortable that it would make my blood boil. And I’d be like, I just am not that guy.

So the machine story being a perfect example — that was a story that happened to me in 1995, and I just did not tell people. I didn’t tell people for a number of reasons: It’s a long story, and number two, it wasn’t at the top of my radar. When I got into comedy, I was so obsessed with writing material that seemed like it “fit in.” I didn’t want to be the guy doing something different. I just wanted to be the guy that got spots that the managers are like, “Oh, I can identify that. I can put my finger on that.” So the machine story was not a story I ever would tell onstage. It wasn’t until I did Loveline with Dr. Drew and they were auditioning guest hosts, someone in my class called Loveline and said, “Hey, why don’t you tell me about the time you robbed us in Russia?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.”

If you’re going to get to the base of who I am as a performer, that one moment when someone calls in and says, “Tell them about the time that you robbed the train in Russia,” that’s who I am. The story’s not thought out. It wasn’t written. It was just me telling you a story of what I did. Dr. Drew loved it and said, “Hey, why don’t you come back the next night?” And Dr. Drew’s like, “Tell them about the time you robbed a train in Russia.” I told it again. I told it two nights in a row, which is so odd on radio.

That is who I was. I just kind of lived my life really oblivious, like a drunk Forrest Gump. Just going through life, having fun, doing crazy stuff. But I’m from Florida. That’s kind of the norm of all my friends — like, “Hey, we found a kilo of marijuana on the beach. Let’s smoke it.”

On What He Cut From “The Machine” Story

The plane ride was when I found out we’re paying off the Mafia. But it didn’t make sense that my class wouldn’t know, but that is when I found out. It’s such a great movie moment, but in comedy, the one detail added to so much more. I loved the detail, but my teacher came back to my seat. I want to say I was sitting in row 35. I don’t know why little details like that stick with me. But I remember being at the back of the plane because I don’t like flying at the back of the plane. She came down, sat next to me, and had a drink and I had a drink. We sat down and she unzipped her pants and she had what I remember as ten grand, five grand, in cash in a hidden fanny pack in her pants. She was like, “I am freaking the fuck out.” Now, what’s also interesting about this is that I explain this teacher one way. I used to dive into the details of [how] I thought she was an adult. She was probably just like a year older than me. I mean, she was my age, roughly. But that for me was … All of a sudden, when the adventure started is when she did that. I used to try to keep that in the story because I thought it was great. And by the way, I feel like I’m just sizzling down to why this story could have been so much better if I was a better comic when I started telling it. If I was telling this story now for the first time, it would be fucking bananas.

But at the time, I remember two dudes, we were in an auditorium, teachers are in the center. They’re off to the right. And they’re like, “These are their names. They’re going to be our chaperones. We’ve paid them to stay with us. Thank you so much.” Then they walked out of the room and they were like, “Listen,” and they were very clear: “Do not speak to them. Do not talk to them. Do not hang out with them. They are not to be our friends.” I already knew what was going on. I already knew they were in the mob and that we had paid them off to keep us safe. I knew all that detail. So what I did is I mashed up that whole thing and just had the teacher introduce them as the Mafia. But I knew that detail immediately.

So I just sizzle that down into, “They are our gangsters. Don’t party with them.” Because I already knew that day. I went out and I got vodka and Baltika #6, which is their beer and the one I like now. I knew I was going to party with them. I knew they were going to be my friends. And the way it had set up is, we had already all got our rooms and their room was right next door to mine — like literally next door to mine, and across the hall from the teacher who had been passing me through all my classes. Literally across the hall from her and next door to me. And I was like, “Oh, I am definitely meeting these guys.” And by the way, everyone in this Russian class were kids that were interested in learning Russian, if that makes any sense. I was a kid who was interested in partying. So, like, you’ve got a bunch of kids that are interested in possibly working abroad when they graduate for the U.S. Senate or something, and then you’ve got me, like, “I’m not going to ever use this language. I’m here to get fucking crazy.”

On “Post-Comedy”

I remember this article very, very well. And I remember being personally offended by it. It felt like the kids at the Thanksgiving table were rolling their eyes at mom and dad going, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. Let’s go to a bar and hang out.” And mom and dad want to go to the bar and hang out, but they’re not allowed to. It’s the same shit I’ve probably had with the alt-comedy scene where I’ve never been invited to do anyone’s shows. No one ever has asked me to do a show. Not only that, but they don’t even know who the fuck I am. I can’t do what Hannah Gadsby does. I definitely can’t do what Drew Michaels does at all. I don’t know how to, and I wouldn’t know how to do it and do it well. Hannah does what she does, and there’s such confidence in what she does, and such a voice and a thumbprint on what she does. And I am the exact opposite.

I remember feeling like you were right a little bit. There was a truth to it, and I didn’t want that truth to be real. I didn’t want people to read it. I didn’t want people to know it. I didn’t want people to say, “Hey, guys, the Comedy Store is gonna be over in five weeks. All these guys with these dick jokes and these un-woke jokes … The new future of comedy is, ‘Have an agenda. Speak about that agenda. Get those people with that agenda to come to your shows. Don’t make strangers laugh.’”

I’ll just say, a lot of my friends were bothered by Nanette. And I remember saying, “Hey man, remember, people get bothered by what we do. We go, ‘You don’t have to watch it if it’s not for you.’ That also applies to what we watch.” By the way, in that special, Hannah Gadsby had one of my favorite jokes of the whole year when she said, “When I was a kid growing up, I knew more facts about unicorns than I did homosexuals. Unicorns aren’t real.” And I went, Oh my God! It’s such a great joke. But I think Nanette was such a lightning rod for all of us because you watched it and you said, I’m not laughing, but I’m still listening very attentively. And I’m still laughing every now and then. And then she’s angry at me, and I actually know she’s talking to me. That’s the other part: When she was yelling, I think she was actually speaking to Bert Kreischer. So part of you is like, Hey, I’m not that bad, am I?

It made you think in a way that made you uncomfortable, which is so brilliant for stand-up. Bill Burr gets to do it when he says “I don’t support the troops,” and everyone’s like What? But Bill does it in the way Bill does it, and Hannah Gadsby does it in the way she does it, and it was effective and it gave a voice to a bunch of people that maybe I think us, as bro comics, were maybe ignoring or sometimes writing off and going, “Whatever, I can say that word. It doesn’t mean what you think it means.” It means exactly what you think it means. I am sorry.

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Bert Kreischer, the Man Behind the Machine