We are half an hour into the interview when the US comic Bert Kreischer starts telling me about his recent panic attacks, the worst he’s ever had. The type where he is locked in the bathroom all night, doing breathing exercises on the toilet, trying in vain to calm himself down. He’s been riddled with them, he says, and he’s pretty sure it’s down to travelling so much, spending most of the past year away from his family and drinking more than he should.
“Then I go on stage and it disappears so I’m like: ‘Why is this the one place where I’m comfortable?’ I didn’t want to get off stage last night because I knew, the second I got off, I was going to go back to feeling shit,” he says.
The 50-year-old standup is in Toronto, and in a few hours’ time he’ll be performing to a huge sell-out crowd. That’s par for the course these days; Kreischer has been breaking ticket-sale records at arenas and baseball stadiums all over North America.
He’s the frat boy turned middle-aged dad that everyone wants to party with: a throwback to his days at Florida State University in the 1990s, when Rolling Stone magazine singled him out as the No 1 hellraiser in the US’s No 1 party school – a story that inspired the 2002 movie National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, starring Ryan Reynolds as the Kreischer character.
Kreischer has been milking it ever since. “That article was the catalyst to everything happening,” he says, from doing standup in New York to signing a deal with Will Smith and making TV shows, to Netflix specials in Los Angeles.
He’s not being funny now, though. As he leans into the camera of our Zoom call, his big, bearded face looks ashen. He admits he is hungover. “Man, I’ve got to find a way to get the anxiety out of my regular life,” he sighs.
But then Kreischer’s regular life and his onstage persona are, by his own admission, difficult to separate. “I’ve been such a fucking open book about my life in my standup that the audience knows me really intimately,” he says. “They bring me drinks and I get handed joints all the time.” There’s an expectation, not only to be funny but to be their buddy – and he rarely disappoints. “I don’t want to let anyone down”, he says. “So I rip off my shirt and kill a beer!”
It’s this sense of familiarity at the heart of Kreischer’s comedy that has helped him emerge as one of the US’s top standups over the past decade. It earned him Variety magazine’s coveted creative impact in comedy award in 2021. More than anything, his shows are characterised not by quick-witted one-liners but by storytelling. Jokes often unfold over five- or six-minute intervals, with Kreischer talking to the audience as if he is in their front room.
He’s part of a set of middle-aged comics who have stormed the US – a cultural phenomenon fuelled as much by podcasts as by the stage – including the likes of Bill Burr, Tom Segura and Joe Rogan. And while he’s sometimes seen as the least naturally talented of that group, he’s also the most likable.
He performs all his shows naked from the waist-up. It’s something he started doing initially just to amuse himself, he says. “To remind myself that it should be fun.” On one occasion, he’d left his shirt off for 20 minutes and forgotten about it. “I was like ‘I should put that back on,’ and this lady in the audience shouts: ‘Keep it off! So I was like: OK.”
These days he’s shocked when he sees the size of his belly on billboards. “That’s what I fucking look like! But everyone’s like: ‘If you lose weight you’ll lose your fans.’” Now Kreischer’s bringing his brash, no-holds barred show to Britain, making his debut at Manchester’s O2 Apollo on 18 January. He’s looking forward to it not least because “You guys have a pint in the middle of the day – we call that day drinking. I like anyone who parties!” he roars.
For all the laddish exuberance though, there’s an insecure streak, too, that keeps finding its way into our conversation. One minute he is talking about how good life is. “I’m a very happy man, I have two kids, I tour around the country, I’ve just finished my own movie.” The next, he’s telling me about the way his dad stopped him having opinions as a kid. “He’d shut me down and tell me I was wrong – and explain to me why I was wrong. I don’t know what that does to a person, but I know for a fact that I’m never confident in my opinion.”
It’s why his shows aren’t edgy or political, he says. It’s not because he doesn’t have opinions, he’s just afraid to air them. The closest he gets to political, perhaps, is during a skit about guns, which Kreischer admits he “loves”. He tells the story of how he originally got turned down for a gun because his paperwork didn’t check out. “I started laughing hysterically because I thought, ‘How great is it that our system actually works! I feel safer knowing that I can’t get a gun.’” But then the gun dealer looked at him seriously and said: “‘Oh, you’re getting your fucking gun!’ I didn’t feel so good about that any more,” Kreischer says. But, in a US at boiling point in its conflicting views on guns, Kreischer is careful not to upset anyone. “I try to paint both sides of the fence equally with the same brush,” he says.
There’s a macho vulnerability to Kreischer that may explain why he has connected so successfully with male audiences. Another possible reason is his friendship with Rogan, the podcast host whose show was so successful that Spotify paid him $100m to have it exclusively on their platform – but who was also accused of spreading misinformation about the Covid vaccine, a controversy that led to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulling their music from the streaming service in protest.
Kreischer won’t be drawn on the Rogan backlash (you get the sense he is all too aware of how powerful Rogan is). “I have to credit Joe with sharing me with his fans,” he says, a bit sheepishly, adding that his appearances on Rogan’s podcast gave his own act a “big pop”. Rogan’s audience is overwhelmingly male but Kreishcher’s keen to stress that his own audience is different, with more married couples than “straight-up dudes”.
“My demographic is overweight dudes with beards who like smoking weed, with wives that are a tad bit hotter than they deserve,” he quips.
On Rogan’s advice, Kreischer started telling a story on stage about the time that he unwittingly helped two Russian gangsters rob a sleeper train travelling between St Petersburg and Moscow. The story has become so popular that his audiences cry out for him to retell it, and he obliges.
He swears it’s true – that when he was 22 he really did befriend two Russian banditti named Igor and Igor, drink vodka with them all night and then help them hold-up a buffet car. They took to him, he says, because he went shot for shot with them until 4am. It’s how he earned the nickname “The Machine”.
Then there are the stories of how he had a bare-knuckle fistfight with a 10ft grizzly bear, jumped off the 1,149ft Stratosphere tower in Las Vegas and got fired from a human slingshot. These are some of the zany yarns that Kreischer intersperses on stage with stories about raising his two daughters, and the mundane reality of married life. (“My wife farts during oral sex” – you get the idea.)
Again though, he has his regrets. His two daughters are now famous among Kreischer’s fans because he has talked so much about them, yet they hate people knowing who they are. “If they could trade all my success for anonymity, they would in a heartbeat.” One has just started college, he says, and now every frat boy is knocking on her door. “They’re like: Do you wanna party, we gotta party, I wanna party with the Machine’s daughter!’ But she is not that kid,” he says.
He gets anxious, too, that both his daughters have confessed to smoking cannabis – and thinks in part it’s because he has made such light of it in his shows and podcasts. “I remember they told me as if we were friends. I was like: I’m your fucking dad! I wish I could put the toothpaste back in the tube.”
• Bert Kreischer plays o2 Apollo, Manchester, 18 January, then tours the UK, US and Australia.