I’ve never spoken to anyone suffering from a near-death experience before. But when I talked with Bert Kreischer, he was in Las Vegas recovering from the most harrowing event he’d filmed for his Travel Channel series Bert the Conqueror — a 108-story free fall off the top of the Stratosphere Hotel. The feat was the most daunting in a series that has the comedian visiting towns across the country, tackling some of the local extreme rides and sports and reporting on them. It is, Kreischer says, a way of revealing adventures that any family can do on a weekend. Though, with the Stratosphere SkyJump, that family would have to be more than a little crazy. Not having acrophobia — which Kreischer admits he suffers from — would help, too. Here are Kreischer’s thoughts on Bert the Conqueror, airing Wednesdays beginning June 16 on Travel Channel (HD), as well as the life-changing Rolling Stone article that started his career.
How did the show come about?
Bert Kreischer: I’d done a show in the past called Hurt Bert. It was the same type of show — single host and reality-driven. I would go out and do an adventure or take dangerous jobs. I’m speculating, but I think the producers [of Bert the Conqueror] were looking for another guy but they called my old manager and he called me and said, “This show is really up your alley.”
There are 10 episodes in the first season. There are four acts in each show, with three or four events, or sometimes five. So each day’s shooting is an act. In the 10 episodes there are 30 or 40 things I’ll be doing. That’s what I love about what Travel Channel does. In Man v. Food, for example, there are four different meals that he’s eating in each episode. I love watching four different meals in one show.
So each show consists of three or four different events, all kind of intense, but crescendoing with the most intense. So in Las Vegas today we are doing a huge slip-and-slide in Lake Mead, which is something people in the area do. For the second one, we do all the rides at the Stratosphere on the top. They are very intense. Then the third or fourth act is me jumping off the Stratosphere. That’s the crescendo, obviously.
Is the SkyJump a bungee jump?
No, it’s not a bungee jump. It’s a thing called controlled descent. So it is a little more intense than bungee jumping, only because I don’t think you can do bungee this high. It’s 108 stories, which is practically the height of the Sears [now the Willis] Tower in Chicago*. They didn’t tell me that, thankfully, until after we had done the jump. We were sitting up in the bar that night and someone said, “This is almost the same size as the Sears Tower.” If I had known that, I never would have done it. I have a massive fear of heights.
What they do is they have cables that guide you to the ground. And you jump and free fall and when you get about 45 feet from the ground, the cables slow you down. Well, maybe sooner, but at 45 feet you definitely realize you are slowing down. At 50 feet, I thought I was hitting the ground. I saw the ground coming at 50 miles an hour and I thought, “Oh my God! I’m going to die!” And then the last 45 feet slows you down.
I was going to say, what were some of your more intense challenges, but I would think that would be the one.
I am being dead honest when I say this, I was having full-blown anxiety attacks the night before — sweating my sheets, throwing up uncontrollably. I just couldn’t reel it in. I was thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?” and freaking out. At 6am all these helicopters were circling because this was the day of the event and I was the first paid customer to do it. They had a military guy do it and some guy who works for the mayor do it, and there I was, a full-blown wreck.
That’s one of the aspects of the show you don’t find in a thrill-seeking show like Jackass. You really see me, the host, arguing with my executive producer, telling her where she can stick it. It’s very genuine, this fear of me going out on the ledge. And she goes, “What we really need for this show is for you to give your read, but we need you on the ledge right about to jump.” And I go, “I can’t do it.” And she says, “You have to do it. Just try.” So I get on the ledge and I have a cameraman strapped in next to me. And I’m over the ledge 108 stories up, holding on with both my hands sweating profusely, ready to slip, both feet over the ledge. And I say, “I’m in Las Vegas, Nevada, at the Stratosphere, 108 stories above the Vegas Strip about to be the first paid customer at the new SkyJump. Here we go.”
And she says, “You’ve got to say this again.” And I say, “Go f@#$ yourself, Lonnie! Are you loony?!” I think people watching it would go, “That would be me. I couldn’t do that either.” But that’s the “conqueror” part. I get to the bottom and I swear to God, I’m getting chills thinking about it now. I had tears in my eyes; I thought, “I’m alive. I can see my children when I get back to L.A.” And that’s what the show is about. I literally conquered a fear I could never have done in a million years.
Even after I did it, I was sitting in the bar on the observation deck where the jump is and my knees were shaking. And I said, “Is this building swaying?” And they said, “No, you’re fine.”
I was going to ask you if there were any challenges you just wouldn’t try, but after that story, I doubt there were any.
I trust Travel Channel more than I have trusted anyone in my life. They don’t need MTV Jackass stuff. For them it really is about something every man can do. For someone who is into thrills or looking to challenge themselves, our show is right up their alley.
It gives you something that is very specific to a region. Like Las Vegas and the Stratosphere. Say some guys are having a bachelor party in Las Vegas and they say, “We should go to the Stratosphere and do that jump.” And people that live in Las Vegas and watch it will go, “I didn’t know they do a slip-and-slide at Lake Mead.” You can easily take your family to Vegas and do all this stuff.
How have you mellowed since you began comedy?
I think if you saw me do standup live or hung out with me for an evening you might not think I have mellowed at all. But I try not to drink shots any more, that’s one way. I have two kids and I love to spend more time at home. So though I do shows Thursday through Sunday and travel Monday and Wednesday, I always fly back to L.A. even for a day. … Today is my day off and normally if I had a day off in Vegas I’d be sitting at the pool and drinking and gambling all night. Instead I’m sitting in my room with a cup of coffee and later I’m going to the gym and out to get some healthy food because I don’t want my cholesterol to be too high.
Going back to your beginnings in comedy, can you explain how you came to be the No. 1 college partier in the nation? How did you rise above all the rest?
Rolling Stone magazine was looking to do an article on the No. 1 party school, which was Florida State, where I was at for seven years. They called fraternities and clubs and asked if there was one person in their organization who could show them around for a day. And the first ones they called, each person gave my name. And this reporter called me and said, “Can I spend a week with you?” I said sure and so he came and spent a week. Obviously, when you have a journalist with you, you kind of rev up your partying. He picked up the tab for everything and we had a blast for a week. That guy came out of his shell. When he went back to New York, he was like, “Screw the school, let’s do a story about this kid. He’s just a lunatic.” And if you turn someone’s career in college into a six-page article, you are going to get some great highlights. So they changed the scope of the story and just made it about me. And when it came out, I was shocked.
It came out April 1, and my dad called that day and said, “What did you do? There’s news crews camped out in front of our house.” I said I had no idea. I was checking my pockets, thinking, “What did I do last night?” But while I was on the phone, the desk guy knocked on the door with a copy of Rolling Stone from Rolling Stone with a note saying, “Thank you from Erik and all the guys.”
I opened it and said, “Oh my God, Dad! I think I’m in an article in Rolling Stone.” It was six pages, and print has changed so much with the Internet but then it was a big deal. All of a sudden all these daytime newsmagazines sent people out to party with me. CNN sent out a film crew and some actors to shoot some party animals commercials with me, and one of the actors turned out to be Johnny Knoxville from Jackass five years before he got any success. So it was kind of a whirlwind event that took me from being in college with no direction to optioning the rights to my life. Book agents were coming up to me trying to shop a deal. And people were starting to believe that maybe I had a career in entertainment.
So I went to New York [and] got into standup officially. Five months later, Will Smith discovered me doing standup and I had a developer deal in Hollywood. So I’m the luckiest kid in the world. There are guys I know who were buddies who lived the life I did in college and are still bouncing around doing nothing, tending bar in Tampa and running restaurants. I’m very lucky and very grateful for that Rolling Stone article because it changed my life. It gave me direction and a belief in myself that I was interesting and fun.
What were you planning on doing before then?
I had no plans whatsoever. I had never thought past tomorrow. Tallahassee was such a utopia at that time. No one was graduating college. They were there forever. If they did graduate they went to grad school or law school. It was like $50 to take a class so you never wanted to leave.
My uncle is a lobbyist in D.C. and that spring break my parents forced me to spend half of it in D.C. talking to my uncle to try to give me some direction. He asked if I wanted to get into lobbying or public relations. I remember taking meetings for, like, three days, and it was like I was in class. I wasn’t listening to them. I was wondering, “What does this guy do after work? Where does he get those suits pressed? How does his hair look so good? Does he get haircuts all the time?” I wasn’t listening to a word.
I played baseball with a couple of guys who went pro. One of them, Brad Radke, pitched for the Minnesota Twins. In my whole life growing up with him, there was a way they talked about him that made you know he was going to go pro. When he played, it was effortless. And people would say, “He’s such a natural talent.” The first time I did standup, I got done and I felt for the first time in my life, “Wow, that was exactly the way Brad must have felt when he pitched.” It was seamless and it felt like it was really me.
Anything to add about the show?
It’s a massive learning experience. I am learning so much about myself. I really enjoy it. I’m not doing that show for my health, believe me.
* Note: “They” were exaggerating, but what’s a couple of hundred feet when you are 108 stories in the air? The episode with Bert in Las Vegas airs June 23.