Stevenson alum travels the world on 'Trip Testers'
Being from the suburbs has its perks, as Jason Kessler, co-host of Travel Channel's "Trip Testers," can attest.
Three days after graduating from Northwestern University, the Buffalo Grove native and Stevenson High School alumnus moved to Los Angeles to find a job in TV. A friend passed along his resume to the production coordinator at NBC's "The Office," who happened to be from Wheeling.
That suburban connection didn't hurt. Kessler got the job, launching his TV and writing career.
"It was a happy accident that the person hiring me lived in the suburb next to me," he said. "Let's go ahead and say the suburbs made my career."
While he started as an entry-level production assistant, Kessler worked his way up to become a digital writer at "The Office," managing the show's online content. Later, he worked as a writer on shows such as "MTV Movie Awards," "America's Best Dance Crew" and "True Jackson, VP" on Nickelodeon.
Today, Kessler's career is in front of the camera. He co-hosts the new Travel Channel show, "Trip Testers," in which he and friend Jeff Miller check out lesser-known attractions around the U.S. They ride the "shark chute" in the Golden Nugget Hotel in Las Vegas, feed marshmallows to alligators on a New Orleans swamp tour, explore San Antonio's up-and-coming food scene and more.
"Jeff's the up-for-everything guy, and I'm always the guy who asks why we need to do things," Kessler said. "You feel like you're on vacation with us, and having a great time. We both love to have fun. But his idea of fun is a little more outrageous, and mine is a little more luxurious."
The series debuted earlier this year and frequently reruns.
Yet, until recently, Kessler, 34, hadn't traveled much. As a kid, his family vacationed in Wisconsin Dells or New Buffalo, Michigan. He hadn't been out of the country, except for Canada, until he was 27. Today, his Instagram feed is filled with photos of him riding elephants in Thailand, checking out the architecture in Florence, Italy, or relaxing on a beach in Fiji.
"I am so, so lucky to have really fallen into this career. How can you not love to get paid to go on vacation?" he said. "It's not something I grew up with. Now I want to go everywhere."
Kessler and Miller pitched this TV show idea for four years. After meeting on a press trip at a "barbecue boot camp" in California (Miller was an L.A.-based Thrillist blogger), they came up with the idea to do a travel show about two everyday guys who live extraordinary lives, possibly named "Million Dollar Schlubs." Travel Channel rejected their first pitch, but when new leadership took over the network, Kessler and Miller tried again. This time, they got the green light.
"It's so hard to get a show," Kessler said. "With any TV show, it's like you have to win the lottery seven times in a row to even get a pilot ... but I worked very hard to put myself in the right place at the right time."
"Trip Testers" isn't Kessler's only job. He's also a freelance writer, blogging about travel and food on FlyAndDine.com as well as writing stories that have been published everywhere from Bon Appétit to GQ magazines.
Kessler has loved restaurants since he was a teenager, getting a worker's permit at age 14 to work as a busboy and runner at Navo's Pastaria in Buffalo Grove and Cucina Roma in Lincolnshire (both of which have since closed).
"I love food and think about it all the time. My favorite moments are meals. That act of sitting around the table is something that everyone in every culture knows," he said.
Kessler, who recently got engaged to food stylist Hannah Canvasser, hopes to host or produce more food and travel shows in the future.
"There's a lot of room for great food and travel TV that hasn't been explored yet," he said, "and I think I'm the guy to do it."
-- Jamie Sotonoff
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a good feature, email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
'Trip Testers' marathonA "Trip Testers" marathon of six back-to-back episodes will air from 9 a.m. until noon on Monday, May 22, on Travel Channel. The show's also available On Demand.