Keith Habersberger ’08 rested his puzzled face on a red oven mitt and wondered what had just happened. He was looking down at what was supposed to be the initial stages of a pumpkin pie. But instead of a perfectly shaped crust, there was a gooey pile of dough with pie weights baked into the dessert.
Habersberger spent the rest of his session piecing together his scraps, creating a presentable enough finished product for a panel of judges, who marveled at his ability to rebound. The handpicked taste testers even awarded him first place out of a group of four that the internet has come to know and love.
Habersberger, an Illinois State theatre alumnus, has made a career of overcoming challenges. So much so that his trials and triumphs are seen around the world. More than 16 million people tuned in to see Habersberger and The Try Guys, an online comedy series streaming on YouTube, attempt to make pie without any recipes.
The show features Habersberger, Ned Fulmer, Zach Kornfeld, and Eugene Lee Yang in an improv-based production that the quartet started at BuzzFeed in 2014. The group’s YouTube page is now creeping up on 1 billion views. Part of its charm is the actors literally failing at their assigned tasks.
Habersberger embraces adversity as part of the process, a mindset he honed at Illinois State.
“You don’t get better at something by succeeding at it,” Habersberger said. “You get better at something from failing at it because then you learn.”
Now with 1.4 million followers on Instagram, Habersberger has a fan base all over the globe. In fact, he and The Try Guys recently finished a fall tour that took the group to Australia, Singapore, and parts of the U.S.
Thankfully for his fans, Habersberger has always found a way to learn and never shies away from a risk worth taking.
Coming to Illinois State on a French horn scholarship, Habersberger was involved heavily in performance on campus. He dabbled in a bit of everything from music to theater. Habersberger found, however, that he was a lot better suited in less-structured, more open-ended projects and that making people laugh was his niche.
He joined the Improv Mafia as a freshman and was a big part of a team that won the College Improv Tournament in 2008.
“He has that ability to connect to people,” said Lori Adams, head of acting in the School of Theatre and Dance. “And he’s just not afraid to reveal himself. He never was.”
Even with a successful college stint, Habersberger had to claw his way to notoriety. He headed north to Chicago after graduation. But it wasn’t easy breaking into a major market. Habersberger auditioned for a couple of improv groups that didn’t even call him back. He eventually landed a gig at Mission Improvable.
“I could have been discouraged by being turned down three times in a row, but rejection is a part of any career,” Habersberger said. “I kept at it and ended up with a spot on one of the best and most booked improv teams in the country.”
He also helped formed Octavarius with several Illinois State alumni from Improv Mafia. This group performed live comedy shows, wrote stories, made videos, recorded music, and constantly explored new ways to convey humor.
“There’s a lot of verticals and types of content and ways to approach that kind of content,” Habersberger said. “If you really just navigate the space and figure out where to start having success and also what people are interested in you for, that’s a lot of it. A lot of the skills I learned at ISU applied. I just learned new skills to hone all those things.”
With a rapidly expanding skill set, Habersberger felt he needed to take another risk and move to a place with more opportunities. Habersberger never had an agent come to a Windy City show.
So he and his wife, Becky (Miller) ’12, took another leap of faith and moved to Los Angeles, where it was easier to find exposure. Within four weeks, three agents attended Habersberger’s shows. Meanwhile, Becky has grown her career as a makeup artist. She has used her social media pages to promote herself and gain a strong following of her own.
Habersberger began interning for BuzzFeed in 2014, where he met Fulmer, Lee Yang, and Kornfeld. Through months of experimenting with different formats, The Try Guys was born and instantly became a hit. The quartet left BuzzFeed in 2018 to form an independent company, 2nd Try LLC.
The show reaches a wide range of audiences because of the shtick, format, and appeal to everyday life such as cooking competitions, fitness challenges, and singing contests.
“We are very honest about our upbringing, and we fail on camera all day,” Habersberger said. “In other shows, you only see people succeed. Or you see them fail and make fun of them for failing. We try people’s things, we fail at them, and then we still try to get better anyway. I think people relate to that.”
Complacency isn’t in Habersberger’s vocabulary. He’s always looking to evolve his brand in innovative ways, scouring social media trends to see what is trending.
Currently, he’s on tour with Lewberger, a comedic band he formed with Alex Lewis and Hughie Stone Fish. The trio appeared on NBC’s Bring the Funny in 2019 and was a finalist for the grand prize. He became a published author this past June when he and The Try Guys released a book. Habersberger even created his own hot sauce.
While he hasn’t had too much time to sit back and reflect, he’s grateful for every step of his journey, including an influential four years at Illinois State. He and Becky recently donated to the School of Theatre and Dance Call to Arms campaign, a crowdfunding project through HATCH ISU.
On December 18, Habersberger returned to campus with Becky to shoot a promotional campaign for Birds Give Back. He went a loop on the German wheel at the Gamma Phi Circus facility. He played a nurse in the Nursing Simulation Lab at the Mennonite College of Nursing. He even met Sage, asking the Illinois State University Police’s community engagement dog if she was going to arrest him. Oh, and he and Becky made sure to get in a trip to DP Dough in Uptown Normal.
Before he was a Try Guy, Habersberger was a Redbird looking for a chance.
“There are a lot of things that happen in life that make you successful,” he said. “My most important thing is to always say yes to opportunities. And always be a nice person.”
Maybe just pick around for pie weights if he offers you a slice.