Bert Kreischer — ‘The Machine’ — Barely Survived to Tell This Story
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Bert Kreischer — ‘The Machine’ — Barely Survived to Tell This Story

Jul 17, 2023

By David Fear

Bert Kreischer has told the story so many times that he almost seems surprised that you want to hear it again. Almost.

It's not like it's the Greatest Story Ever Told — it's just a strong contender for the greatest story Kreischer has ever told, which is saying something. As a stand-up comic who sells out arenas and organizes annual summer tours with his famous friends, has a handful of popular specials on Netflix and a podcast presence to die for, who's known for ripping his shirt off to the sound of rock-star-level screaming every time he walks onstage, the 50-year-old comedian's business is to tell hilariously epic (and epically hilarious) yarns. And business, suffice it to say, is good.

But there's this one tale in particular that's become Kreischer's hit single, his legacy track, his "Free Bird." There was a point in his career, just as it was starting its ascent and he was finding his voice, that audience members would yell for the bit by name. His second special is named after it, and less than a minute after he's walked onstage, someone in the back is already bellowing: THE MACHINE! "Don't worry, I didn't drive all the way out here to not tell that story," he says. You know the one we mean. It starts like this: "When I was 22, I got involved with the Russian mafia. Here's how it happened …"

THE MACHINE story has gone viral – my classmates have posted pictures of the me robbing them in the comments:

It's 100-percent true, 500 times stranger than fiction, and thanks to that viral clip above, seen by over 40 million people. A not-so-bright college kid, who’d mistaken a Russian language class for Spanish 101, takes a class trip to the former Soviet Union. He introduces himself to a gangster by mispronouncing muzhchina ("man") as machina ("machine"). What starts as a lingual fuck-up turns into a nickname and a license to ill. And after weeks of consuming roughly half the country's Vodka supply with the toughest criminals in the Eastern Bloc, the young man is eventually forced to rob his fellow passengers and classmates on a train bound for Moscow. It sounds like something out of a movie. Which is exactly why it was destined to finally become one.

The Machine is Kreischer's bid for grabbing the big-screen-stardom brass ring, taking his infamous anecdote and turning it into a meta-action-comedy perfectly tailored to his stage persona. He plays "Bert Kreischer," successful stand-up, ex-party animal, and bewildered dad to two teenage daughters. Like IRL Bert, Fictional Bert has turned the story of his drunken days abroad as "The Machine" into a meal ticket. Except an elderly Russian gangster recognizes the fiftysomething comic as the young American lunkhead (American Vandal‘s Jimmy Tatro) who stole his precious pocket watch all those years ago. Both Kreischer and his cantankerous dad (Mark Hamill) must now accompany a criminal underling (Iva Babić) back to the Motherland, in the name of finding and returning that missing family heirloom.

There are gory shootouts and raunchy set pieces. Copious amounts of drugs and drinks are consumed. Bert has to fight several bad guys who make Ivan Drago look like a Girl Scout. Occasionally, our hero even keeps his shirt on. The biggest compliment you can give this is that it's exactly the kind of oversized, violent, ridiculous movie that the 22-year-old Bert and his new Russian mafia buddies would have loved watching in his dorm room in between endless bong rips and shots.

And as Kreischer, tucked into the most claustrophobically "secret" hotel bar booth in all of New York City and sipping Aperol spritzes on a Friday afternoon, recalls how he got to the point of authoritatively discussing why shooting fight sequences suck ("I’d rather cry or kiss someone than film fucking action scenes!"), even he seems kinda overwhelmed by all of it. Like all of Bert's stories, it's winding, long, unpredictable, self-deprecating, and gut-bustingly funny.

"I’ve always thought I had more likability than talent," he says. "There was this intangible thing where I could feel that people wanted me to be funny. When I first started doing stand-up, I tried to be dark and edgy. And every time I did that, I could feel people going, "Dude, no. We like you. Don't do that.’ I wasted a lot of time trying to be, y’know, ‘cool.’ It took a long time to figure out what my authentic voice was."

Kresicher had been talking about trying his hand at comedy since his days at Florida State University, where he’d garnered a local reputation as the hardest-partying dude in a college full of them. When a Rolling Stone reporter went down to write a feature on the university, he ended up focusing on Bert instead; the resulting article made Kreischer an overnight sensation. "I don't think FSU was, ah, pleased," he says, cracking up. But the guy who’d been quoted as saying, "I’d love to be a stand-up comic, get drunk, and hook up with prostitutes every night" suddenly had the momentum of a national magazine profile on his side. He moved to New York.

"It was so free when I started doing stand-up there," he says. "I’d just talk onstage. Nothing planned. It was fun. I did that for a while, then I moved out to Los Angeles. But once I got there, I realized I didn't know how to write jokes. They didn't fuck with crowd work and just talking there. I had to learn set-up, punchlines, joke. Two different worlds."

This was the beginning of the "edgy" phase, where Kreischer admits he was blatantly trying to emulate his heroes (a quick roll call includes Dave Attell, Greg Giraldo, Mitch Hedberg, and Patrice O’Neal). But before he headed west, in what he calls "my last safe year of comedy," Kreischer and a comic named D.C. Benny started a storytelling night in a small club in Soho. "We did four nights there," he says. "The rule was: No jokes. I ended up telling four stories, and all of them eventually ended up in my specials. It's tricky, because you get 10 minutes into telling stories about your life in front of strangers, you risk losing them. People get bored. But I had a few stories that might work. ‘OK, the time I took acid and went to Disneyland? Maybe I can keep that one.'"

Meanwhile, Kreischer did what a lot of aspiring comics who find themselves in Hell-A did. He took meetings, shot a sitcom pilot, logged the odd guest appearance. He’d host gonzo-type shows for cable networks like the Travel Channel, where he’d do things like wrestle a Grizzly bear. (This, too, would eventually become fodder for one of his future famous bits.) He got married and started a family. And he’d spend many, many weeks working the clubs in L.A. and across the country, honing his material. If I end up being a road comic, making $50K a year and can support my wife and kids, he recalls thinking, I’m OK with that.

The jokes were getting better. The sets were getting tighter. It was the longer stories he’d tell the other comedians backstage, however, that were really killing. Kreischer remembers regaling a group of his peers about the time his youngest daughter repeatedly stuck her finger in her butt and then put it in the dog's mouth. A little later, one of the comics asked him why that wasn't part of his act. "I just said, ‘It's a dad story.’ Like Dane Cook isn't going to be talking about his kid onstage. It's not cool."

"And he goes, ‘What? Buddy, that's not some dad story. That's just a hilarious fucking story about a kid putting a finger in her ass and putting it in a dog's mouth. That's gold!’ It was like, Oh, shit! I might actually be on to something here!"

Still, he’d only trot out the one about "The Machine" and the Mob for friends occasionally. Someone once called in to Loveline when Kreischer was on, in fact, and requested it; the host, Dr. Drew Pinsky, liked it so much that he had Kreischer come on the radio show next night and tell it again. But that one wasn't for public consumption. That was strictly an offstage story. Until, at the insistence of a podcaster's rabid fanbase, it very much became an onstage story.

Kreischer says he first told the Machine story on Joe Rogan's podcast in 2013; he was just trying to make his old friend laugh. After he finished, Rogan told him he had to do it at his next show. It's not a stage-worthy bit, the comic stated. The host thought otherwise. He told his listeners to refer to Kreischer only as "The Machine" from now on, go to his shows, and demand he do it. "I remember him saying to me, ‘You just need to work on it and get it the point where it's solid onstage,'" Kreischer remembers. "‘Because once you do that, it’ll change your life.’

"Keep in mind, this was right when Rogan was just starting to blow up," he continues. "The next week, I have a run of shows in Columbus, Ohio. I walk out on the first night, and everyone's chanting ‘The Machine!’ I’m going, ‘Guys, guys … this isn't a stage story.’ And someone in the front row goes, ‘Hey, man, you got to tell it. Rogan said you have to tell it if you want it to get good. So we’re here for you, Bert.’ He turns around and goes, ‘Hey, everyone, we’ll fake laugh, right?’ And they all go, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’ll fake laugh, tell us the story!'"

So Kreischer started telling the story every night. "And I gotta be honest with you: For a solid year, it fucking bombed," he says, laughing. "It bombed every night onstage. Seriously, a solid year. The first time, I clocked in at 20 minutes. And it was just not good. I didn't have an ending for it. It wasn't until I added in the part where I ask if I’m going to get in trouble for committing all of these crimes, and the mobster says, ‘Trouble? This is Russia!‘ — and then the whole place popped — that it felt like, OK, it's there now.

"Working that out on the road was the first time I felt like my comedy was authentic," Kreischer adds. "It really captured what would be my voice. That was the one where I really learned how to tell a story."

He kept refining the routine over the next few years, tightening it up and figuring out what to leave in and what to take out. Then Kreischer decided to post a clip of the routine on his Facebook page in 2017, and the rest is history. He had become "The Machine." His career took off. If there was ever a time to pitch the idea of starring in a movie about his youthful exploits, it would have been right at that white-hot moment, right?

Kreischer giggles the Bert giggle that's familiar to anyone who's seen his specials or tours, or listened to one of his several podcasts. "Uh, that’d be a ‘No,’ dude," he says, before taking a deep sip of the new spritz that's replaced the one he’d finished. "Not quite."

Go back to the Rolling Stone article from 1997, and you’ll find a second wish-list quote, right after the one about becoming a stand-up. "I’d love to be a movie star," he says. "That’d be great. But I lost the looks awhile ago. They slipped right through my hands like sand in an hourglass."

Kreischer didn't need the looks now — he was funny and had made a name for himself and besides, he had a killer story that had just gone viral. There was an earlier brush with the movie business, when Oliver Stone had come sniffing around about adapting the article into a film, which never panned out. National Lampoon had expressed an interest in a comedy based on Kreischer's alpha party-animal personality; when they eventually did make the movie, they named it Van Wilder and he wasn't involved at all. They later admitted that the character was based on Kreischer, though there's zero bad blood on both sides. "I’d love to meet Ryan Reynolds," Kreischer says, "though ideally it's because he likes my work, then he finds out about the other stuff later. ‘Hey, that guy is really funny. Oh, wait, he's the crazy college partying dude?!?'"

Now that the Machine clip had become a calling card, Kreischer began talking to producers and pitching a movie. Everyone loved the idea. There was just one problem: No one knew what the actual story was in terms of a three-act structure. "I’d started pitching it around Hollywood after the Rogan appearance, actually," he says. "I talked to Richard Donner, who made The Goonies. I talked to Ed Helms’ production company. No one could crack it. Then I got tired of pitching it."

When the Facebook post racked up millions of views, Kreischer started making the meeting rounds again. Still, no dice. By the time he sat down with producer Cale Boyter of Legendary, the production company behind Dune and the recent Godzilla/Kong films, he’d given up on the idea of mentioning the story at all. "I had three ideas I’d come up with," the comedian says. "They were three good ideas, too. I pitched all of them to Cale, and he just goes, ‘I’ll make one. I think it’d be fun making a movie with you. Pick one. Which one do you want to make?'"

"I said, ‘Well, great, but hold on for a second,'" Kreischer continues. "If you’re gonna say I get to make a movie, and I can just pick what I want … I’m gonna make the movie about ‘The Machine’ story …" And he goes, ‘Yeah, I was wondering why you didn't pitch that!’ I was like, well, I’m just bored of it, and I don't know what the fuck the plot is! And I gotta be honest with you: What if I pitch it, it's a hit … and the fucking Russian mafia kidnaps me, because I’ve told the story about robbing the train with them all over the fucking world?"

Kreischer is in wind-up mode now, his voice getting higher and faster. Then he goes in for the kill. "And Cale goes, "Oh, that's the story That's the fucking movie. It's The Godfather 2 meets The Hangover. I love it. Sold. Sold!"

Several script drafts came and went, as Kreischer tried to expand on the idea of him returning to the scene of his youthful crimes; at one point, it was a buddy comedy that would costar Kreischer's best friend and 2 Bears One Cave podcast cohost Tom Segura. One of those drafts made their way to director Peter Atencio, who’d directed both Key & Peele's sketch show and the duo's 2016 movie Keanu.

"I’d seen the Machine clip, obviously," Atencio says, over a phone call from the set of his new film in Budapest. "I don't think I’d seen any of the specials or heard his podcasts at that point — I hadn't had the full Bert Kresicher experience, in other words. But I got on a Zoom call with him, and told him: ‘OK, it's a great story, but how much of it is true?’ We talked for two hours, and I just peppered him with questions: How were you feeling when this happened? Tell me about this other person, who you don't mention in the stage bit? And we both bonded over our relationships with our dads, and how different we were from them. Then how, when we each became dads ourselves, we understood them better."

The director had recorded the call, then sent it over to screenwriter Kevin Biegel. See if you can make anything out of this, Atencio said. Biegel came back with: What if it's Kreischer and his dad who end up going back to Russia? "And I’m telling you," Kreischer says, "from that sentence to like, a month later — we were greenlit and going to Serbia. He wrote the script in a month."

There was still the question of who they’d cast as Kreischer's dad. Then, on a call right before filming was set to begin, Legendary's production chief Mary Parent informed Bert that Mark Hamill would be playing his dad.

"She said, ‘You have a Zoom set up with him tomorrow, I hope you get along,'" Kresicher says, right as a third Aperol spritz arrives at the table. "I was like, ‘OK …?’ The minute I get on the call with him, he immediately goes, ‘Why don't you wear a shirt?’ ‘Well, Mr. Hamill, it's kind of part of my act?’ ‘I’m just saying, wear a collared shirt or maybe a nice Brooks Brothers suit. You know, Shecky Greene wore a shirt onstage …’ Mary called me later that day and asked how the call went. I told her, ‘He's my dad. He's already fucking in character.'"

When he landed in the Eastern European country for the shoot, Kreischer decided he was going to take this job very seriously. He ran four miles every morning, ate better than he normally did, regulated his coffee intake. He declared he was also giving up drinking — at which point, he laughingly says, "Cale asked me: ‘Who the fuck did I hire, exactly?’ He didn't want me to kill myself making this one way or the other, he just took me aside and said, ‘Let me tell you something. I can't promise you this movie's gonna be good. I can't promise you it's gonna be bad. I can't tell you it's gonna be a hit. What I can tell you is if you have a great time making it, that will show up on the screen. This may be the only time you ever get to make a movie, so enjoy yourself.’ Best advice he could have given me."

Kreischer did what he had always done, which was to make everyone feel like they’d been invited to a party. He’d have the cast over every weekend for wine tastings and dinners. They went to cabaret shows. He tried to be as warm and welcoming as possible — to give everyone a kinder, gentler version of the man known as The Machine. "There's a happy-go-lucky quality to everything Bert does," Atencio says. "It's why people are so drawn to him. And it's funny to hear you say he hated the action scenes, because he threw himself into those, too. I told him he needed to go to fight training, and he was like, ‘Can't you just get stunt people to step in and do all of that?’ Then he spent a month learning how to properly throw a punch."

"I still feel bad they had to edit around me in those scenes," Kreischer admits. "Because every time I threw a punch, I would make those ka-doosh sound effect noises." He mimes throwing a punch and makes a movie-punch sound. "I got to work out with Arnold Schwarzenegger recently, and I mentioned how embarrassed I was that I did that. He goes [in thick Ah-nold accent], ‘Listen, I still do that with the guns! I have a shootout scene and I just go, ‘Bang, bang, bang!'"

A fourth round of drinks has shown up, which Kreischer has to down quickly — he's talked for nearly two hours and has to run to catch an evening Yankees game. Someone invited him, and he felt bad saying no, and hey, it sounds like fun, right? This is the good part of being The Machine, a persona that's given him the chance to make a few of his wilder dreams come true. It's also the persona that had him doing shots with a morning-show crew at 10 a.m. at a bar earlier in the day, because people asked him to do it and he wanted to oblige. They expect The Machine to show up and show them a good time. Kreischer doesn't want to disappoint them.

"I don't read a lot of books, in case that's not obvious," Kreischer says. "But I read Keith Richards’ memoir [Life], and there's a part in there where he says, ‘People need their rock stars to act like rock stars.’ And I thought: Fucking thank you, Keith Richards! I want my rock stars to act like rock stars. I want my pro athletes to act like pro athletes. I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger work a room, and it was like, that's what a movie star does. If someone asks me to go have a drink with them, I’ll do it. I want to give them a story of their own to tell."