If the name Kevin Allison doesn’t set off a chorus of recognition bells in your head, chances are you’ve become acquainted with the man better by his impressive cavalcade of hilarious, omnipresent characters on The State – that fondly remembered relic of ‘90s sketch comedy achievement.
Alongside cast-mates like Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter and Thomas Lennon, Allison was responsible for some of television’s (not to mention MTV’s) most innovative and compelling work. Then, after three years, The State was canceled, the group broke up and moved on to other projects, and Allison promptly became, in his own estimation, that guy who “used to be on TV.”
Everything changed, however, the day Allison decided to take a risk. “For the next 12 years, I was getting up onstage as a solo sketch performer,” he says, of his post-State pursuits. “I would get up onstage as these super big, kooky characters, and it just wasn’t connecting in a way that was really palpable. Michael Ian Black came to see my show once, in San Francisco.
I asked him after the show what he thought, and he said, ‘I feel like the audience just wanted you to drop the act and just use the Kevin Allison voice, with your own stories.’ And I said, well, it’s just so not what Hollywood would want: not the kind of thing that would ever get me a role on TV. I said, it just feels too risky. And he said, ‘exactly.’”
And thus, Risk! was born. Now a hugely popular podcast, featuring a wide array of storytellers and performers, the show offers up an edgy alternative to other first-person narrative shows like This American Life and The Moth. Risk’s tagline, “where guests tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share,” is a remarkably apt assessment of material provided to eager fans each and every week – topics often range from the disturbing and gauche to somber, silly and every possible descriptor in between.
Always provocative, and certainly never boring. Since taking off as a podcast, the Risk! brand has since branched off to include a series of live shows, frequent cross-country tour dates, and, perhaps best of all, an educational institution devoted to helping listeners develop and execute true tales of their own. The Story Studio, a regular workshop run by Allison and a handful of other instructors, offers courses on effective storytelling methods, for would-be performers and corporate presentation-givers alike.
All this, of course, has been the brainchild and pet project of Allison himself. Interestingly enough, after making a living under so many different guises, Allison’s biggest success seems to have sprouted directly from his biggest risk: talking about himself. Individually speaking, Allison is much like the show which wears his fingerprints – a human compilation of concepts at once contradictory and complimentary. He’s as serious as he is perverse; as goofy as he is astute and focus-minded. Taking a quick break from a relentless storytelling schedule, Allison talked with Laughspin to chat monologue technique, stitching together each Risk! episode and which stories are too shocking even for him.
Let’s dive in to the origins of Risk! We know that the show started as a series of live performances at Arlene’s Grocery in NYC, but even before that, did you have a sense that there was this intrinsic need for this sort of uncensored material?
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. What had happened was, after The State broke up, I was so locked in to the headspace that I was a sketch comedy guy. I don’t know why I was so unable to see that there were other ways [of performing] – I always thought, I’m a sketch guy, that’s my niche. I’m established and I have to keep working at that. So for the next 12 years, I was getting up onstage as a solo sketch performer. I would get up onstage as these super big, kooky characters, and it just wasn’t connecting in a way that was really palpable. Looking into the eyes of the audience, I wouldn’t feel that… I guess it’s kind of an electricity, or an energy that you can feel between the entertainer and the audience. Back when The State was on MTV, we had these things called “check-ins” – we’d take a half hour each day where we went over, quite frankly, what was really happening in our lives. Everybody always loved my check-ins. At that time, I was the only gay member of the group, and it was the ‘90s, and I was living in New York City. I was always the one at some sex party, or an underground dungeon, or hanging out with a bunch of drag queens and winding up in some part of town I’d never been in. I’d bring in these stories, and they’d always be like, you need to share these somewhere, but I always felt it was, well, too risky to reveal that much about myself.
It was in 2008 that I put together a show called F Up – live, huge, kooky characters who had f’ed up their careers. And they were all blatantly based on me. One, for example, was a vaudeville comedian of the ‘20s who had watched all his friends go on to something more successful, while he was still stuck where he was. Michael Ian Black came to see the show once, in San Francisco. I asked him after the show what he thought, and he said, “I feel like the audience just wanted you to drop the act and just use the Kevin Allison voice, with your own stories.” And I said, well, it’s just so not what Hollywood would want: not the kind of thing that would ever get me a role on TV. I said, it just feels too risky. And he said, “exactly. If you’re opening up, then people will open up to you.”
So I came back to NYC, and the very next week, I said, okay, I’m going to get up onstage and tell a real, true Kevin Allison story. I got up at the UCB Theatre, and told the story of my first time trying to prostitute myself. [Laughs]. I was amazed, because it was like night and day! The audience loved me, and they loved how raw and honest I was being. This got me more into the storytelling thing that was going around, so I started investigating The Moth and This American Life. I admired what they were doing, but I immediately noticed that they had to keep things super politically correct. It’s nothing that’s going to ruffle anyone’s feathers while they’re driving their kids to soccer practice in rural Idaho. So I thought, let’s create a show where we push people to reveal really raw stuff, no matter where it is on the emotional spectrum – it could be hilarious, it could be shocking and heartbreaking. And people just immediately lit up. They were like oh, this is a safe space to say anything. Ever since then, it’s kind of had the wind to its back.
Aside from the fact that Risk! is a more, as you pointed out, risque or boundary pushing show, do you think there’s anything else that separates it from those other storytelling shows you mentioned?
Yes, definitely. One of the things is that we will work on stories with people. I like to hear the stories first, then have a conversation with the storyteller, where I kind of do what a therapist does, in that I poke them. “Was that really how you were feeling? Is there anything you’re not telling us? What do you think that person was actually thinking?” You know, that kind of thing. It really gets people to dig deeper than they thought they were originally going to go. We also encourage people not to be too memorized, or too polished. With the live shows, we of course have to keep people in a certain timeframe, but with the radio-style stories, like the ones we record in my apartment, it’s like, if you want to talk for an hour and a half, you can. We’ll cut it down, but you go wherever you want to go. So there have been stories where it’s like, I can’t believe this person is getting this deep into things.
It’s interesting, because I’ve heard some of the people who have shared stories on Risk!, sharing those same stories on some of those other shows, and I do hear that, because they have to adhere to this rule or that rule, one formatting thing or another, it really alters the extent to which they feel the freedom to go deeper. Whereas with Risk!, we really make a point of letting something breathe and go wherever it needs to. There are several Risk! stories where one story comprises an entire episode because of this.
Take me through the anatomy of a Risk! episode. How do you go about choosing the themes and the stories?
Well, I knew I had to create a podcast when I first started doing Risk!, because a), I knew I was going to need to do something that would have a larger audience then just in New York City, and b) I also knew that if I were doing a podcast, I would have a deadline. I am just one of those people who desperately needs a deadline. You know, you’re performing in front of an audience at 9:00 tonight, so you better have something figured out. [Laughs].
As far as putting the show together, it’s mostly me who makes the final decision, but I take a page out of the way The State used to do things. That is, we used to just shoot a lot of material – whether it be, the stuff we did live in front of the studio audience, or the pre-filmed sketches. We ended up axing a lot of it, and it’s the same way with Risk! I would say 50 or 60 percent of what’s performed at the live shows may never see the light of day. With the radio recordings, probably about 40 percent of it gets listened to later, and there’s a realization that it probably just won’t work out. It’s not that we don’t value all the stories that people bring to us – we just have to feel that got-you factor with each one. I hate the feeling of putting on something where I later think, well, we could have gone this way or that way with it. I want to feel like every one is an A.
How do you manage to strike a balance between the comedic and more serious content of the show?
Initially, it was natural that most of the stories were funny, because everyone I knew was in the comedy community. So initially, it was actually more of a challenge to get people to be more serious. But fans of the show started writing in, and they would pitch their own stories, which were often the more emotional stories that we were looking for. There really is no great scientific method to what I do – there’s a lot more madness than there is method. If the show has been really heavy recently, I’ll keep in mind that we should probably try to get some funnier stuff in, or vice versa.
So it’s a matter of looking at past shows and not trying to keep things on one particular trajectory for too long a period of time?
Exactly, exactly. But as far as the live shows go, if we’re going to a place I don’t go to a lot, I’ll want to hear the story beforehand, but with the New York and LA shows, a lot of times we have the luxury of lining up particular voices with particular stories to tell. There’s definitely a random element to it all – people will often bring things inspired by their perception of the reputation of the show.
It seems like now you’re in the position of being able to be more selective, where the stories come to the show as opposed to the other way around.
Well, that is a very accurate assessment, except that I am very aware of the kind of story that we don’t have enough of, or the kind of storyteller that we don’t have enough of, so I am very actively involved in trying to cultivate and find those personalities. That is, stories from people who are really poor, or who have been in prison or addicted – people on the margins of society. Maybe it’s that they’re a prostitute, or they’re a minority religion in the country. As with the cast of Saturday Night Live, and their diversity issues, I like to consider how many of our performers are white and college educated, and it would be nice to find individuals who can help us represent more of the culture as a whole.
Is there anything you would never consider running? Have you received material that you felt crossed a certain line that was maybe never verbalized, but present in your sense of representation?
If I feel that a story is aimed at hurting someone else, or somebody’s like, “This is going to be a story about what a total fucking bastard my father-in-law is,” that, to me, crosses a line of sorts. Plenty of those stories are completely legit, don’t get me wrong, but you want to be conscious of when somebody is using Risk! as a platform for revenge. But as far as taboos, I try and I hope to keep things open as far as that goes. For example, within the kink community, I’ve noticed that some fetishes are more socially acceptable within the community than others. No matter what the community or the social circle is, you’re always going to have someone who’s like, “Well, at least we’re not like so-and-so over there.” So I have to remind myself, even if something feels freaky to you, Kevin, you should still try to find some emotional place in that story to connect with.
Are there any episodes that you regret or wish had turned out differently? Maybe some early episodes before you’d completely hit your stride?
Gosh, good question, I hadn’t really thought about it. I told a story just last night at a show in New York, where the theme was “confessions,” and I confessed that, in one of my most well-known stories, (the story that is like a chestnut of mine, from the second week of Risk!), I had lied. I told the story the original way, and then said, ok, that was a big old lie. It was a story about me looking for a hook up in Central Park, and because it was one of the first stories I’d ever told, I was still learning, so I presented the whole thing as a total failure, and told the audience that I’d never hooked up with anyone that night. I just made it a comedy of errors. But the truth is, I did hook up! [Laughs]. So I told the whole story last night, along with that little kernel of truth at the end, and people just loved it. Even though I strive to be as honest and bold as possible, here I was admitting that I had failed to live up to my own rules.
Well, that brings up another interesting point: have you ever had another storyteller maybe come to you and say, oh, I embellished this or that? Would you say it’s more important to foster the entertainment factor of the show, or do you have some sort of integrity milepost as far as keeping the stories honest?
What I like to say is this: in the example of last night’s story, I knew I was lying. There was no way to get around it. But you do still have to embellish some things a bit. For example, if you can’t remember exactly what your mother said to you when she was telling you to get out of the house that summer, you’re going to piece together the kinds of things your mother would typically say. I think something like that is totally fine. Sometimes people will tell stories where two very similar things happened in the course of a week, and they’ll make that one incident. That’s also totally fine with me. But if there’s an instance where you know that you’re consciously making something up to improve the impact of the story, well, we’re a little iffy on that. The audience tends to pick up on that, too, so I really advise against it. You take a storyteller like Mike Daisey, who later admitted that he made up visiting a factory in China, what he could have simply done was say, I imagined what it would be like to meet the man who lost a hand in the factory.
What was the story that surprised you the most? Either because of the content or the reaction that you received from it?
Oh, that’s fascinating. The one that surprised me the most when it came to me was the story that Becca Trabin told in Philadelphia. The story is called “Transcendent,” and it’s about the fact that she was studying religion in college, and was looking for some sort of transcendental experience. But she was also very stressed out about things, so she started doing a little bit of opium and a little bit of hallucinogenic mushrooms, and at one point had a sort of meltdown and heard the voice of God telling her to kill her mother. It was confusing to her, because she loved her mother, but she took a steak knife and started stabbing her mother, anyway. When she came to me with that story, it was a total surprise to me, because she had been a student of mine. In our classes, she’d shared several hilarious stories, so my impression of her was that she was super down-to-earth, super smart, and just very funny. A day or two before the Philly show, she said, I just have to live up to the theme of Risk!, and I’m going to change the story I’m telling at the show. We started working together on it, and she went back and forth on whether she felt she could really get up in front of an audience and tell this story, and of course she had to confer with her mom, too, about it. But she did [tell it], and it was super, super, super powerful.
As far as audience reaction goes… I would say that we never had a universal audience reaction to anything. There have been a couple of times where one or two people have been very offended by something, and we’ll be like, well, ok, what can you do? There was one piece where several people complained – it was a story by Nancy Sullivan, where she talked about being molested by a cousin from ages five to eight. It’s really intense, and she goes into tremendously graphic detail about the molestation itself. This was another case where I worked with the storyteller, but also said, you don’t have to do this. Maybe we can take a couple days, think about it, rerecord it, etc. But she really wanted to do it, and I thought it came out really remarkably executed, but we did have several people who said things like, I think you really exploited that young lady, it doesn’t seem like she’s fully processed what happened, and so on. She does break down crying several times while telling the story. She actually wrote to me a few days after the episode was released, and said, “I have been in therapy for over a decade, talking about that molestation issue, but I’ve never felt like I had more of a breakthrough than putting that story together with you and just putting it out there.” Something about that was profoundly cathartic for her. I ended up feeling good about it.
What single accomplishment with the show are you the most proud of?
I think that, when we hear that we’ve had an effect on people, it’s a very powerful thing. I spent 10-12 years as a starving artist – the guy who used to be on TV – and I spent those years deeply jealous of the other people who were on The State, even though we were still like a family, in that we all love each other and stay in good touch. Even though the issue was that I hadn’t gotten my own act together, I just couldn’t help all that resentment and jealousy. Now, all these years later, it’s not as though Risk! has made me fabulously wealthy, although we do hope that bigger things are coming with The Story Studio. We’re in our fifth year, and while it’s been slow and steady, it’s always growing.
But anyway, people will write in these emails to us about the show. I had a dad who wrote to me and said, “I have been trying to get my son off drugs for years, and finally, we sat down and listened to an episode of Risk! together.” It was finally what convinced the son to go, hey, I should really take a look at what I’m doing here. And he’s sober now! So when people write stuff like that in, it’s just like, wow. Money or fame can’t compare to that. I can’t even comprehend how awesome that is. We’ve had other people tell us that the show got them through a suicidal stretch in their lives. It’s funny, because a lot of people will listen to the show and go, oh, this shows me that I’m not such a freak, but the ultimate takeaway is that we’re all kind of in the same boat, even if you’re listening to stories from people who are in radically different situations than you are.
Another thing I find absolutely fascinating is that people will write in response to my kinky stories, and will say things like, “I’m a straight man who’s 50 years old and happily married, so I couldn’t believe it when I was in tears the other day hearing you talk about BDSM sex.”
Sounds like you took a beating for that guy, so he could just listen to it and not have to go through it.
Exactly! And it’s funny, because he could completely relate to it, and it reminded him of something he’d gone through. That, I think, is the key to it – stories that touch on what it felt like and how it resonated for you. That ensures people will be able to relate to it on some level.
Ostensibly, the show is about presenting these crazy and completely out-there stories, but the interesting element is that there’s this underlying thread of reliability running through all of them. It’s a very unusual juxtaposition.
For you personally, do you think you would ever return to more traditional acting, or do you see monologue development as kind of your primary pursuit right now?
Oh I definitely see [storytelling] as a primary pursuit, but one of the great lessons I’ve learned from Risk! is that I should never close myself off; that I should consider, even if something seems scary right now, in the future, I might be willing to give it a try. I’d be interested in maybe one day trying to make some films or TV stuff out of these stories – I’m just really open to whatever may be.
How do you envision the Risk! brand continuing to grow and expand? Do you see it developing anywhere beyond the podcast, the live show, and the classes?
You know, we have had several people contact us about making short films based on some of the pieces, and a few have actually been made. Some are animation, and at least one is a very serious, beautiful, arty movie. Seeing these things has made us think, could there be a series, either for TV or for the Web, that would highlight what we do. We’re toying with that idea, and seeing what might happen.