‘Make Him Tell the Machine Story!’

Stand-up Bert Kreischer chronicles the journey behind his megapopular joke.

Bert Kreischer. Photo: Troy Conrad/Netflix
Bert Kreischer. Photo: Troy Conrad/Netflix

Excerpts of this interview were originally published along with the Good One podcast episode’s release on November 10, 2020. We are republishing a longer version of the interview today timed to the release of Kreischer’s movie, The Machine.

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 90 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 discussed the long journey of the super-viral story.

So I want to start with a question I sometimes ask people: Have you seen the movie The Prestige?
I have not. Wait, maybe I have. Is that the one where he cuts his finger off?

It’s with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman and they’re magicians.
Of course I’ve seen that! I love that movie.

I have not seen that movie in a long time, but I feel like it’s a really good metaphor for an artist who is not just committed to their work but literally lives their life to feed into the work they create. I bring it up because when the Machine story was literally happening, you were not a comedian. Being a comedian was just a glimmer in your eye. But do you feel like you were still living your life for stories — like, I’m gonna do this because I want to be a person who has stories like this to tell?
My entire life, I was the guy who was oblivious to how I was perceived, how I was interacting with people, and how I was behaving. I was definitely not the guy that if we were roommates and your girlfriend was like “I’m gonna set you up with someone,” they would ever look at me. But 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 poll and yelled, ‘I have marijuana!’ and there were a thousand kids? And the cops were like, ‘Arrest him!’ and he was like, ‘It’s not here, you idiots! It’s at my house!’” And I would enjoy it, it would make me giggle, but I would live a life that people would then say, “Hey, Bert, tell them about the time we broke into that bar that burned down, and we took all the liquor and we didn’t know the name of them because all the labels were burnt.” I would never be the guy telling my own story, which is an interesting pivot when you become a comedian because I realized if you weren’t telling your own stories, no one was listening. No one was sitting there, bringing you onstage, and going, “This guy’s amazing, you gotta hear about him.” You had to be your own promoter, which I was distinctly uncomfortable with.

The Machine story happened to me in, I guess, 1995, and I just did not tell people for a number of reasons. It’s a long story, but it wasn’t on the top of my radar. At the time when I got into comedy, I was so obsessed with writing material that felt like it “fit in.” I didn’t want to be the guy doing something different. 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 the one about the time you robbed us in Russia?” The story was not thought out, it wasn’t written, it was just me telling a story of what I did. And Dr. Drew loved it, said, “Hey, why don’t you come back the next night?” and I told it two nights in a row.

I never really lived my life to create stories to tell onstage. I just kind of lived my life honestly oblivious, like a drunk Forrest Gump just having fun and doing crazy stuff. I’m from Florida. That’s kind of the norm of all my friends: “Hey, we found a kilo of marijuana on the beach! Let’s smoke it!” That is who I am, and it wasn’t until later when I started realizing, Hey, my authentic voice is recounting these stories of my past, and now I definitely look at adventures as opportunities for material.

What did the story represent to you? How did it feed into the perception of you in the industry outside of stand-up?
I don’t know what people saw me as. I don’t think I knew what I saw myself as. If you look at my first special, Comfortably Dumb, I think there’s a lot of derivative material of what people my age that were white males were doing. It was always backstage at a comedy club where people would be like, “Yo, tell the story about Tracy Morgan!” “Tell the story about the time you robbed the train in Russia!” And before I’d go on radio, they’d be like, “You gotta tell the story about the time Ralph Sampson brought you up in front of the whole basketball camp and tortured you.” And because they weren’t scripted bits in front of an audience and it was just me telling it to a friend, they were so organic and fun. Joe Rogan was the one that really kind of changed my career in that he insisted I start telling these stories onstage.

I rewatched the episode of Joe Rogan that you were on where you tell this story, and he’s like, “You gotta tell it onstage!” and you said, “I can’t, it’s too long.” You said it would be too hard. I’d love to hear you talk about what that fear was.
When I started telling it onstage, there was so much silence. I mean, you have no idea. It’s a 13-minute story, and that’s 13 minutes of me knowing how to tell it, 11 if I cut chunks out. But if you don’t know how, that can be like a 15, 17-minute story.

D.C. was the first time I ever tried to tell it onstage, and I was like, That’ll never happen again. That was painful. So then I tell it on Rogan, knowing full well that this isn’t a stage story. And Joe was like, “This has to go onstage. As a matter of fact,” — and I think these might be his exact words — “from now on, he is only to be known as the Machine, and you have to call it out at his shows and force him to tell this.”

I went to Columbus, Ohio, the very next week. I went onstage, I do my derivative, shitty act of like, “Know what would be fun? Know what you gotta do to your wife?” — stuff where I look back and I kind of cringe. And I get toward the end, and these kids in the front row are like, “The Machine!” And I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s not a stage story.” And one of the kids says, “Hey man, that’s the reason we’re here!” and I was like, “What?” And he says — hand on the Bible — “We understand it’s not gonna be good, but you gotta tell it to make it good. Just tell it, man!” I remember dudes who were sitting in the back who were like, “C’mon, Bert! You can do it, man! Don’t worry! We’ll get you through it!” I swear to God!

I believe you!
It was all podcast fans, and they laughed a little bit, but they didn’t laugh a ton. Then we all went to the bar and drank and they were like, “Man, that’s the most amazing story. You gotta keep telling it, man. Don’t stop.”

I started going on radio shows, and they would be like, “Make him tell ‘The Machine’ story!” For four years I told this story. And I’ve got to be honest with you: For two of them, it sucked. It was so bad because I would get lost in details. At one point I was attached to proving it was true, so I wanted to share things that couldn’t be faked, and that was a mistake. I don’t think anyone really cared if it was true or not. And the ending wasn’t good. The ending was: “… so I understand you are the Machine. Tonight you party with us.” Now you’d think that would be a great ending; it’s not. There’s no closure, no bookend to it. It wasn’t until, seren-fucking-dipitously, I was in Columbus, Ohio, again, maybe four years later, and I figured out the end. Within a matter of months, the story got so fucking good and then that dictated the way I wrote all stand-up. It was a real game-changer.

I want to walk through the finished version of the story. I think the thing that would be most revealing of your process is to talk a little bit about the things you cut out. The opening line is a really interesting way of starting a story: “I’m gonna tell you a story now: When I was 22, I got involved with the Russian mafia. Here’s how it happened.” How did you land on that?
That’s indicative of who I am in storytelling, and I think I borrow that a little bit from joke writing. Let’s take Bill Burr for example: He’ll give you the premise of “I don’t like white women.” That’s a bit of an overstep, but you know what I’m saying: “I don’t like X,” and now you’ve got their attention. For me, I remember being in a green room in Atlantic City with a headliner that I was working with at the time, and I remember someone said something about doing something crazy, and I went, “I fought a bear one time.” And that grabbed the room so quickly. It’s like, I’m gonna tell you a statement that’s so strong that you have to hear it.

That wasn’t the opening for a long time. But with such an outlandish story, I wanted people to know, “What you’re about to hear is true.” Then one day I was just exhausted with it, and I was like, “When I was 22, I got involved with the Russian mafia. Here’s how it happened.” And all of a sudden, I literally felt an energy shift in the room. Now every story is like, “I have a human superpower: I find lost things.” “I jumped out of a plane with Rachael Ray.” I kind of just told you the story, but now I want you to hear the story.

So going into the first section, I should note for fans of The Hero’s Journey story arc as popularized by Joseph Campbell, that in some ways this does map pretty nicely into a hero’s journey.
Please! I’ve always wanted to read that, and I’m not a reader. I’m dyslexic.

You have what is “the ordinary world,” where you’re essentially describing where you are before you get to Russia, and you talk about FSU and how you’re not a good student. You sign up for Russian class but you think it’s Spanish and then your teacher makes a deal with you to take four semesters of Russian, essentially. Can you talk about that section and how you decided, This is the amount of information I need to tell people so they can get it?
So the teacher was attractive. I thought that was super-important because that was one of the reasons I was in the class. I used to tell people it was a noon Spanish class and then I would add “back in the day,” and I felt I could almost go into a John Heffron type of “Do you remember when we were kids and when you had to sign up for school classes on the phone and they gave you that big book, and Russian and Spanish were right next to each other?”

All that shit didn’t matter. All that mattered was “I signed up for a Russian class thinking it was Spanish,” and what’s important to the story, in my opinion, is why I ended up taking four years of Russian. It was true that she needed kids to teach this class, and once you took Russian 1, you were probably going to take Russian 2. So she said to me, “You’ll be there next semester, right?” and I was like, “Right.”

One of the parts of the story that I thought was so important was when she brought me up to the foreign-languages annex up in the Williams Building. A dude sat down who looked like the Marlboro Man — blonde hair, great-looking dude, great jawline, with a cigarette, back when you could smoke indoors. And he sat down almost like the KGB, and he said something to me in Russian, and I said, “I have no idea what you just said.” And he looked at her and he said, “You’re right. He doesn’t speak a fucking word of this language.” He goes, “I run the Russian Language Department at FSU. Listen: If you go, you’re gonna get a minor, but you’re also gonna be really close to being able to major in Russian, so you can never take another Russian class.” And I was like, “I don’t like Russian.” He was like, “What?” I was like, “I’m just here to get a grade.” And he literally was like, “All right, this kid’s gonna be fun.”

Another thing that was important was that my dad was the impetus of why I went to Russia. My dad said, “You need to go to Russia.” I went to Italy when I was a kid. These are all things I’d put in the story that just seemed to clog it up: People wanted me to get to Russia, so I sizzled all that down to “If you go to Russia, you’ll get a minor.” “You know I can’t read, write, or speak the language.” “Yeah, I’m well aware of that. It doesn’t matter.” And I was like, “Fuck it, let’s go to Russia and fuck some minors.” Now, that is so cheap for all the good stuff that I cut out, but in my head it didn’t matter. You just needed a joke to get me to Russia in 1995 and then all of a sudden, we’re moving forward.

We’re now at what I would call “the meeting of the mentor.” You’re going to meet Igor; you’re building to that. It was Russia in the ’90s, your teacher paid off the mafia, you planned to befriend the mafia. And in your book, this process is a bit longer: You talk about the plane ride, your relationship to your teacher, and you also set up a bit more about Russia at this time. Can you talk about all that got cut out?
So the plane ride is when I found out we were paying off the mafia. My teacher came back to my seat. I was sitting in the back of the plane. She sat next to me, had a drink, and I had a drink, and she unzipped her pants and had what I probably remember as 5 to 10 grand in cash in a hidden fanny pack in her pants, and she was like, “I’m freaking the fuck out.”

That was, for me, where the adventure started. I used to try to keep that in the story because I thought it was great. There was also the detail about being introduced to two dudes, and the teachers were like, “These are their names. They’re gonna be our chaperones. We have paid them to stay with us. Thank you so much.” And then they walked out of the room and the teachers were like, “Listen, do not speak to them, do not talk to them, do not hang out with them. They are not there to be our friends.” And I already knew what was going on: I already knew that they were in the mob, and we had paid them off to keep us safe. So what I did was I mashed up that whole thing and just had the teacher introduce them as the mafia: “They are gangsters. Do not party with them.” We had already got our rooms, and their room was next door to mine, across the hall from the teacher who had been passing me through all my classes. And I was like, “Oh, I am definitely meeting these guys.” That day, I went out and I got vodka and Baltska 6, which is their beer and the one I like now, and I knew I was gonna party with them. I knew they were gonna be my friends.

I’m surprised you don’t include the explanation of why you were called the Machine.
I used to! In the special we did, there was a Russian in the room. I used to pray to God that I’d get a Russian in the room, so I could explain how that started. I’m gonna fuck this up because, once again, I still don’t speak Russian, but this is the short explanation. I’d learned a few key phrases: “My name’s Bert Kreischer,” “Very nice to meet you,” “I work pussy,” “I’m the man.” That’s what I thought I’d say: “I’m the man.” So “I’m the man” is Я машина (ya machine-a). If you say “Я машину (ya machi-nu),” that means “I’m a car,” or “I am the machine.” Russian is a very literal language.

So I said, “My name is Bert Kreischer, very nice to meet you, I work pussy, I am the machine.” The way I’m doing it, it looks like I’m saying “I fuck cats, I’m a car.” And Igor started laughing hysterically and brought me in. I used to say, “If anyone’s Russian in here, translate what I say,” and that used to be part of the story. As the story built, Russians heard about it, and they’d come to the show; there’d always be a few Russians, or a hot Russian chick if you’re in Irvine or Philly, and they could translate it. I would explain I was trying to say “I’m the man,” and as soon as I’d say that, they would fall down laughing and they’re like, “Of course!”

It’s a pun in Russian! It’s like a joke for only Russians.
This is another thing I used to take out — I used to say, “I was face-to-face with a real Russian gangster: wifebeater, tattoos, track pants, cigarette, and he looked at me and he was like, ‘что (shto),’ which means ‘What,’ and everything flew out of my head and all I said to him in Russian was ‘I am the machine.’” He brought me in with the gangsters, and I said, “I’m the machine,” and they started laughing hysterically and then I was like, “Я работу кошку! (ya robo-too kosh-koo)”. “I’m the machine and I fuck cats!” They are on the ground laughing. And then I pull out a pocket knife, lemons, and sugar from a fanny pack and they all start dying laughing, and Igor goes, “The machine runs on lemons!” This was very important, I felt, to the story, but I took it out just to keep it moving forward.

With the next section, you essentially “yada yada” most of the summer: “And then we became friends, and we did a pool-hall scam and we stole a boat.”
I used to talk about the pool-hall scam and stealing the boat. The pool-hall scam was awesome. But I don’t think they needed to hear about us breaking the law before we actually broke the law. I thought keeping it more innocent and leaving a little more to the imagination was a better way to get into the story they wanted to hear.

I think that’s what’s so exciting about when you’re immediately on the train: From the beginning of this story, you’re Bert, this college student, and now you’ve been doing shady shit all summer.
It had gotten progressively shady. And it doesn’t matter, but I can’t reiterate this enough — Igor was a very sweet dude. I remember asking him, “How did you get involved with this?” and he was like, “I mean, I grew up thinking the government was going to take care of me and then one day it just didn’t, and everyone was like, ‘You need to have a plan.’” Igor was a very innocent guy. I mean, in the story, Igor was watching a class, making sure that he could shake hands with the right guy when the bad guy showed up and say the right words, and he could get us through quicker. We did crazy shit, but for the most part, Igor was a very, very, very good person.

That’s interesting. I understand why you cut it out — because it’s a story about you in Russia, not “Let me tell you a story about what Russia is like.”
He used to come into my class and I’d be hungover because we’d been partying all night, and he’d just walk in, open the door, and go “Machine, пойдeм (pa-ee-diom),” which means “Let’s go,” and no one could say anything. As soon as a bar opened, we’d go to the bar and have, I think you call it “malenki kofe,” which means a small coffee. It was basically an espresso, and then we’d drink gin. I remember one time, he asked me if I’d ever seen drugs, and I told him “Yeah, I’ve definitely seen drugs.” He was like, “Do you know people who have done drugs?” And I was like, “Yeah! I’ve done drugs!” And he was like, “Wait, you’ve done drugs?” I go, “Yeah, and I still haven’t done cocaine,” and he got so let down! He was like, “Why would you do that? It’s so bad for you!” And I was like, “Igor, we’re drinking gin at 11 in the morning! What the fuck are you talking about? I think you’d enjoy cocaine!” “Innocence” is the wrong word I guess, but there was a sweetness to him.

To move on to the biggest part of the story, which is the train, you cut out the part where there was another guy there with you from your class.
Yes. “John Bolshoi” is what they called him, which means “Big John.”

Had you tried versions where he could be in the story?
I thought, He may be a grown-up and he may not want people to know he did some bad stuff growing up. It may not be financially beneficial for him to be a part of this story. In all honesty, had this been me alone, I’m not certain I would have behaved the way I did. Not to take the wind away from this story, but had I been by myself, I may have bailed out earlier or found a reason to get away. And here’s the other big part of the story that I can’t believe people didn’t ask more about: John spoke Russian! That’s how I communicated with these mafia guys! So in the joke, the moment we go into the bar car and Big Igor speaks Russian to me and I learned it, the person I was talking to really was John, not Igor. I was talking to John!

From reading it in the book and hearing you talk about it, the thing you cut out the most is how afraid you were for your safety, especially when you were robbing the train. Was that a thing where you were like, If I bring this up now, the story will become a bummer?
Listen, there are things I keep back that would turn this into a very sad story! [Laughs.] Like, let’s just say their language, the mobster’s language, wasn’t technically “progressive” back then. The things they were saying were pretty aggressive.

Little sidebar to this: I remember one time we were in Vietnam, I was with my Trip Flip crew on Travel Channel, and we were on a train identical to the one that I’d robbed. And I told my crew, “Dudes, this is the train that we robbed! Come here, I’ll show you the car I sat in!” I guess it’s just these old Communist trains, or old European trains. And I showed them how you would rob a train. I can’t try to feign that I was a good guy, but I will say that John was bigger than one of the Igors and me, and John was like, “Hey man, we got chicks on our crew. We can’t just let them take off and go through everyone’s cabin.” I think that John and I, for most of the night, were staring at each other in wonderment of what we were a part of, what we were doing. The other part of this story that I used to include was that we robbed me too! My bag was with them! So we pulled my bag out, and my dad had given me a pocket knife that meant a lot to me, and they stole that and my camera! I had to call my dad and be like, “I need a new camera. I got robbed.”

In the book you allude to the fact that the cops you hung out with were scary.
They were terrifying.

The book story ends when you’re sitting in your hotel room and you’re getting phone calls from the cops, and you don’t want to pick it up.
If John Bolshoi hears this podcast, the one thing he’ll remember the most, more than anything, was that me and him shared a room and our phone rang all day, nonstop. I’m not even exaggerating. We could not sleep. It would not stop ringing.

Another part I didn’t put in the story is we’re ready to get our asses chewed, get sent home, everything, and they didn’t say anything the whole time in Moscow. Then the day we’re leaving on the train to head back to St. Petersburg, my teacher, the one that was cool and got me through all the classes, came inside. She was close to me and John, probably close in age too. She said, “Okay, so obviously there’s a new rule: You can’t rob anyone on the train. But we’ve been asked to see if you guys would party with those gangsters again. They’re really excited to see you guys, they had a great time, and we’ve been informed that technically nothing bad happened. We need you guys to party with them again.” Both John and I were like, “Are you fucking kidding me?” And this time we just got on the train and we drank with them. There was a little darker energy on the ride home, if I remember correctly, and I think they just took pictures of me shitting. Then we had a big class meeting by the elevators, and I remember people were really upset and angry at what had happened. Some people had vodka spit in their faces at certain points in the evening. I remember my Igor very blatantly was like, “The Machine is done with this! Machine, пойдeм!” He looked around and said “You’re being children! You’re all sitting here! No one got hurt! You guys lost a little money, you lost a little camera, it’s not a big deal! The Machine’s done with this, let’s go!” And I just got up with Igor and was like, “I guess this is over?” and I left.

There isn’t a moment where you go “And the moral of this story is, if you’re in Russia, don’t blah blah blah.”
I had that in there: “The moral of the story is: When in Rome, roam if you want to, and if you’re in Russia, fuck it — sometimes you gotta rob motherfuckers.” I had every fucking ending you could ever imagine. I had the ending where we go out with the cops to a strip club, we walk out hammered, and the cop throws me the keys and he goes, “You drive!” And I was like, “You want me to drive a cop car?” And he was like, “Yeah, it’s fun! I am police! What’s the worst that can happen?” I was like, “Fuck it! I’m the Machine! Let’s do this!” That was an ending. But it wasn’t until l found “Fuck that bitch, this is Russia” that the audience knew the story was over.

Without telling them what the takeaway is, what were you hoping the takeaway is?
The takeaway from the story? [Laughs.]

It could be nothing! Insomuch as you feel like they learn anything about you, or they learn anything about Russia, what do you think the takeaway is?
I had no takeaway. I think at one point you get so caught up in the momentum of a story like that where you don’t think about it, you know? I just wanted it to be good, I wanted to prove to myself I could tell a story. I don’t think I had any insight into what the message was.

I remember my daughters one time when they were sharing a room, which means they were very young. I remember walking in and they were saying something, and Georgia was like, “Not Daddy.” And Isla was like, “No, Isla, it’s true.” And I was like, “What are you guys talking about?” Isla’s like, “Georgia said you robbed a train one time with some bad men. That can’t be true, right, Dad?” And I was like, “Fuck. All right, hold on.” I got a glass of wine and I sat down at their little white table that had stickers all over it, and I said, “All right, I’m gonna tell you a story. It’s a true story, okay?” I told them the story, and they were on the edge of their beds. Obviously I candy-coated it a little bit and explained parts that I needed to. So when Igor goes over to the cop, I said that he says a bunch of things in Russian, and then the cop looks at me and he’s like, “пойдeм! Где, где!”

Isla goes, “Stop! Stop! You can’t go on anymore! I have to know — do you go to jail and get in trouble?” I’m like “You fucking idiot, I’m right here! You’re alive! Clearly I don’t get in trouble!” I was like, “Isla, you gotta listen to the story, baby!” And she was like, “Ah! Georgia, Georgia, what do you think happens?” Georgia was like, “I don’t know, Dad, just finish the story!” So I say, “I go up to the cop, he looks at me in the eyes, and he says, ‘So I understand you’re the Machine.’” And these two lose their minds. They were like, “He knew who you were?” I was like, “Yeah, I think that’s what Igor had been telling them! ‘I’m with this guy, he’s the Machine!’” And they were like, “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” They had so many questions. And then I left the room and I listened to them talk to each other. They were going back and forth, asking each other questions, and my wife was like, “That might be the best version of the story you’ve ever told.”

So November 11, 2016, The Machine special comes out on Showtime. You put the joke on Facebook and YouTube, and it explodes in a way that very few jokes ever had. What does that viralness feel like when it’s happening to you?
Very, very, very candidly, I was at the lowest ever point of my career and life at this point. I’d gotten fired from Travel Channel, and I was in therapy. Tom Segura, who’s my best friend, was doing a tour that I was supposed to be on with Funny or Die, the Oddball Tour, and we had privately discussed how much we were getting paid. He was getting paid literally 25 times what I was making, and I was internalizing that. Then I got fired off that tour. I had no dates going from the release of my special until New Year’s.

My special comes out; Showtime is like, “Maybe I’d wear a shirt if I were you,” and I was like, “This is my thing. I don’t wear a shirt. It’s how I perform.” And they were like, “I think you’re giving people a reason to change the channel.” They were very accurate. No one watched my special at all. I think it was one of the bottom-rated specials they’d released. My wife started demolition on a house, so I now have no income, thinking, How are we going to rebuild this house? My wife wanted me to get a vasectomy! Tom and I are in this huge fat-shaming thing where all I’m getting online is “You’re a fat fuck,” “Bert eats mayonnaise on dick,” whatever it was. All this is happening, and I am so lost. I remember Dane Cook said, “The one thing I love about this business is every day’s like a lottery ticket. Every day you get a call like, ‘Hey man, crazy, Joel Schumacher just saw your stand-up and he wants to put you in a movie,’ and things change immediately.” And I remember going, “Let that happen to me once.” I hired a marketing company for $6,000 a month to help me get views on my videos. They did nothing. And randomly, I released “The Machine” on December 27, I think.

The 26th or 27th, yeah.
Christmas and New Year’s were on like a Wednesday and a Tuesday that year, so everybody had this huge swath of time off. The day I released it just happened to be the right time for people to watch videos, but even more importantly, a young lady commented on it, something to the effect of “I was in Bert’s Russian class, I was on this trip, the story is 100% true. He fucking robbed us.” People saw that comment and would screen grab it and the viral-video people who do that for a living, like the Fat Jewish Guy people, they would then put that on their page with the block lettering on top and bottom: “This is a true story. This is 100% true.” I did a Thursday show, posted it, got onstage and looked at it, and it had like no views, but a ridiculous amount of shares, which I thought was odd. I did Friday’s show, and it had like 3 million views.

Then New Year’s Eve, I had a weigh-in with Joe and Tom the next day for this big fat-shaming campaign, and I drank that night — I shouldn’t have drank when I’m on a weight-loss challenge. I woke up, I looked at my phone, and the views were at like 7 million. I was at the bottom of my career, I felt. I’m hungover, I knew I was about to lose this weight-loss challenge, I knew my beard’s about to be shaved off; I’m driving from Oxnard to L.A., and it was one of the most beautiful rides I’ve ever had in my entire life. The sun was coming up and I listened to the entire catalogue of Creedence Clearwater Revival, and I thought, This will be my anthem for this year. I think this video might help sell some tickets. Then I just watched the story climb. I remember going to do weigh-ins with Tom and Joe and I was like, “I think my story’s going viral,” and they blew it off. They were like, “Yeah, yeah, sure, it’s going viral. Bert, you’re doing a weight-loss challenge with Joe Rogan. This is one of the biggest things you’ll ever do.”

It all kind of culminated in the next weekend on the road. I had lost the weight-loss challenge, shaved my beard off. I’m in the Stress Factory with Vinnie Brand, there’s a huge blizzard, and it’s sold out. And I walked onstage, and I literally said, “Why are you guys here?” And someone said, “The Machine!” And I said, “I don’t tell that anymore. I put that on my special, I’m retiring it.” And this one guy in the back’s like, “The fuck you are! I just saw that on Facebook over Christmas! You’re telling that fucking story!”

It changed everything in my life, that one story. I’ll say this across the board: If you want to be a successful comedian, you need one thing to shift the needle. You also need a body of work behind you so when they see that one event, they can go, “Oh my God, he fought a bear? Oh my God, he’s got a special? Oh my God, he’s got TV shows?” Bill Burr’s Philly rant shifts the needle. Jim Jeffries getting punched in the head at the Comedy Store goes viral, then you find Jim Jeffries and you see his body of work. Joe Rogan, the Carlos Mencia stuff shifts the needle. I think that the Machine story, for me, was my “shift the needle.”

When I listen back to the first “Machine” appearance on Rogan, there’s this really funny moment, especially in retrospect, where he says, “You gotta be careful telling this story. People are going to start wanting to party with you.” And you brush it off and say, “I don’t think so. I don’t really do that anymore.” The irony is that’s exactly what happens. People want the Machine. Is there a certain burden to that, either physically or emotionally, of being the Machine?
No, not at all. It’s kind of the opposite. The comics I was drawn to were the ones where I couldn’t tell what was an act and what wasn’t an act. Some people would be these crazy, high-energy, wild-thinking guys and then when you met them you realized they were … maybe bad people sometimes. And I’d go, Wow, you’re a good guy onstage, but you cheat on your wife or you do gross things. Or, You represent yourself as someone who parties, but you’re sober and you don’t party at all. When I started, I had been written up in Rolling Stone magazine as the No. 1 party animal in the country, and I was like, “That is who I am, and that is what I like to do.” I used to love getting done with a set and then partying with comics and talking about comedy.

When we did my first tour, my wife came with me for the very first run. She was like, “This is going to be a real hectic schedule. You can’t go partying with people.” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah.” Then after the first show, I didn’t go out and party, and I remember feeling very empty. We did the next show in Seattle, and I was like, “I don’t know, something’s off about this.” Then we got to Calgary, and I got done and was like, “Who wants to go to a bar?” My wife’s like, “Honey.” And I’m like, “We’re gonna go for one drink.” And everyone showed up. At the time, my wife was like, “Okay, you can do this, but no shots because you’ll kill yourself.” And I’ve been partying with fans after shows for now, I think, three tours. The part I love is when you have fun with people and everyone wants to party; the part I don’t love is when you’re just taking pictures and not doing anything, and you’re standing there getting picture after picture after picture, and then people are getting a second and third picture. I like when we party. That’s a blast for me. But the long and short is, sadly, who I am onstage is almost identical to who I am offstage.

As you’ve mentioned, every show you’ve done since 2016, people have asked you to perform “The Machine.” I don’t know if you’ve done it at every single show since, but you’ve done it a lot. The joke has changed, and there’s that conventional wisdom that people don’t want to hear a joke twice, and I’m sure you have fans who have seen the clip of the joke multiple times, who’ve seen it live multiple tours. Why do you think it is that they want this? What is happening that they want to hear a thing they already know?
I look at everything — I say “in my business,” but I mean as a comic — simply as a consumer. I don’t look at it as a comic or “You know what would be good for my brand?” I look at everything as a fan.

I will tell you, my favorite story I’ve ever heard in my entire life is Ron White’s tater-salad story. I saw it in a movie theater, I’ve never seen him perform that joke live, but if I was told “He’ll be onstage in 15 minutes at the Store, and he’s telling that story tonight,” without a doubt, I’d say to my wife, “It doesn’t matter what we’re wearing. Let’s get in the car and drive to go see that story.” I’d listen to Mike Birbiglia tell any of his stories five or ten times. I’ve heard a ton of Dane Cook jokes that I’d love to hear him tell again. I think stories are a little different than jokes in that it’s not setup–punch line, and it’s predictable and you can already get it. But I watch a lot of people’s material over and over again, and that’s the way I looked at it.

One night, probably like four years ago, I told it in San Francisco. My wife was there, and as we all know, my wife’s brutally honest. She goes, “Hey, if you don’t want to tell it, just don’t tell it. Don’t force them to sit through you fucking reciting it.” And I go, “What?” And she goes, “You were not into it, and they could tell, and I could tell, and that’s just masturbation, so don’t do it.” Luckily, now I think the story’s big enough so that when I say, “When I was 22, I got involved in the Russian mafia,” the response is so loud that it makes me giggle just like when I take my shirt off and I forget where I am, and in the moment I just have fun with it.

Now I’m at a place in my career where I can very quickly add new stuff and change old stuff and pull stuff and then mash up two stories. I’ll put a little bit of flying dildos in there and pull it out and then throw an old joke in there, and then I’ll go off on a tangent. And sometimes you go off on a tangent and you’re like, Dammit, I wish that was in there when I told the joke the original time. Now I’m at the point where I go, “I’ve got four stories you can hear. Everyone pick which one,” and I name all four and they lose their shit for “The Machine.” It also gives an opportunity for people who don’t want to wait in traffic that have already heard it to go, “All right, let’s get outta here, we’ve got a sitter!”

It’s like a jam band who are like, “All right, we have the set, and we’re gonna iterate on it.” It’s a little bit different than what you normally come for with a comedy show, which is, This is now a community. We’re all going to tell this joke together. You know all the beats; you might scream out parts.
Me and Burr did a show at the Store one time — I want to say it was just me and him, and I did 30 minutes and he did 30 minutes. I’ve got like ten minutes left, and they start chanting, “The Machine!” And Burr’s standing behind the curtain — I hear him and he goes, “Don’t fucking do it! Don’t you fucking do it! You don’t let them tell you what to do! You tell them what you’re gonna do!” And I go, “All right. When I was 22 …” “Fuck you! Coward! You’re a coward! You have no spine, Kreischer!” And I heard the back door shut.

Dude, there’s been iterations of that story that are so enchanting. I was in Bristol in England, and I started it off — I did not enjoy this as an artist, but it was amazing — when I started and I said, “I went to school at Florida State,” and I heard a hum over the crowd of “I went to school at Florida State.” And I was like, “I wasn’t a very good student,” and they were reciting it with me. And I went, “You guys gotta stop, you’re fucking me up.” I’d get to pivotal parts in the story, like when I was sitting there in the dorm, and they all go, “I am the Machine!” to the point where I was crying laughing. When I got to the end, the whole room’s standing up: “Fuck that bitch! This is Russia!” I got offstage, and I was like, That’s amazing.

This interview excerpt has been edited and condensed.

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‘Make Him Tell the Machine Story!’