When his sketch comedy group the State broke up in 1995 — thus ending the cult-favorite MTV show of the same name — Kevin Allison found himself in comedic limbo. While other members of the State went on to more TV success with shows such as "Reno 911!" and "Stella," Allison struggled to find his niche as a solo performer.
"I was getting up on stage by myself, playing big, crazy characters. The monologues were clever, but it didn't seem to connect with people in a way that had any momentum," Allison recently told Seven Days by phone from New York City. "So for 12 years I was lost and afraid. I didn't know how to express myself as an artist."
In 2009, he presented a solo show called "F***up" at SF Sketchfest in San Francisco. The show centered on five characters "who had somehow fucked up their careers or their lives," Allison explained. "It was very big and over-the-top. And it was also very obviously autobiographical," he continued. "It was also a big failure."
Following the show, a dejected Allison debriefed with fellow State alum Michael Ian Black, who suggested that he "drop the mask and start telling your own true stories."
It was probably the best career advice Allison ever received.
Soon after, he launched a live show and podcast called "Risk!" in which he and guests, famous and otherwise, tell stories about their lives that "they never thought they'd dare to share," he said. Raw, unpredictable and often hilarious, Allison's podcast has drawn raves from the likes of the New York Times, Slate and the A.V. Club.
The show and podcast benefit from a healthy dose of comedic star power: Marc Maron, Janeane Garofalo, Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman are just a few comedians who have shared intimate stories. But, as NYC PodFest noted in awarding Allison its first Excellence in Podcasting Award in 2015 — the award was subsequently named after him — the true brilliance of "Risk!" is not just that it's a "groundbreaking storytelling podcast," but that it gives "a voice to everyday people."
Allison hosts a "Risk!" live show this Saturday, March 18, at ArtsRiot in Burlington. It features local storytellers Dennis McSorley, Mark Redmond, Toni Nagy and Wes Hazard. What follows is the rest of our conversation with Allison.
SEVEN DAYS: How did you react when Michael Ian Black suggested you start telling stories from your own life on stage?
KEVIN ALLISON: I said, 'Oh, God." I have too many incongruous things about me. I'm too gay and too kinky. And yet I'm too polite and midwestern. I'm too serious and intellectual. And yet I'm too silly and absurdist. I have too many things that are too hard to make sense of when you put them all together. It just felt too risky.
And Mike said, "That's the word. If it feels risky, you're probably on to something. You're opening up to something, and the audience will open up to you in return."
SD: So what happened next?
KA: The very next week I came back to New York and decided to try this true storytelling thing. I went to the [Upright Citizens Brigade] theater in Chelsea to tell the true story of the first time I tried prostituting myself, when I was about 22 years old.
I was so scared that I called the woman who was running the show and said, "Oh, my God, I gotta back out. I can't do this." And she said, "That's great news!"
KA: She said, "There's usually someone who calls me the day of and says, 'This is just too risky.'" And she said, "If I can convince that person to do it, that's usually the story that knocks it out of the park."
So I did it. And it really was like night and day. I could see it in people's eyes. I could feel the energy coming back to me. And after the show, people weren't just saying it was funny. They were saying things like "Oh, my God. I've never lived through that exact experience. But the way you described your emotions brought back to me this argument with my mom when I was in the eighth grade."
If you open up about your truest thoughts and feelings in actual life experiences, it will resonate with people. People live vicariously through hearing people describe the most sensitive things they've been through. I realized that that night, and realized I had to create a show called "Risk!" where people tell true stories they'd never dare to tell in public, and it will be a place where everything is OK; nothing will be censored.
SD: And that's the biggest difference between your show and, say, "The Moth"?
KA: People have heard other storytelling shows, especially the ones on NPR. But they had never heard a show where people were as raw and unfiltered and emotional and sometimes controversial as they are on "Risk!"
SD: Does that create problems for you?
KA: That's one of the headaches. People are always offended. And I really have to navigate that from week to week. Because I'm trying to create a safe space for people to feel like they can really bare their soul and talk in the way that they might talk over a beer with their best friend, or with their therapist, in a moment of total candor. But in order to create that space, I have to be very aware that people might be triggered or hurt or offended in a way that, all of a sudden, the show doesn't feel safe for them anymore. It's a weird balance we have to find, and we make mistakes sometimes. But we try our best.
SD: Do you see "Risk!" as expressing the opposing parts of your personality in a way that sketch comedy couldn't?
KA: Absolutely. For example, I just shared this story at the Bell House in Brooklyn last month about this gay men's kink camp that I went to. And at a certain point I was ambushed and a bunch of guys peed on me.
It's a funny story. But in certain moments it gets very erotic, and then it gets kind of spiritual. And that's what I love about telling a true story, as opposed to walking into a comedy club where, if you're going to spend a minute in the middle of your standup comedy set getting really emotional and serious, that's not going to fly. Whereas at "Risk!" people understand that this could go from hilarious — where people are crying laughing one moment — to suddenly taking a turn that is stomach turning, tear jerking or profoundly beautiful. I love the fact that it has that flexibility to go wherever life itself goes.
SD: What are the elements of a great "Risk!" story?
KA: What is most important is that the storyteller really cared about the incidents they're describing. It's usually a time that they were terrified or ecstatic or confused, a time in their life when they were pretty raw with emotion or stunned by a turn that life had taken, and it took their whole heart and brain to figure out which way to go next.
Then, what's really important is that the person is really able to take us there. In other words, that they're not just intellectually describing, from a distance, the Wikipedia version of what happened. But they're able to slow down at key moments and show us someone's eyes, or the feeling they had in their gut, or the actual dialogue — those sights and sounds that make us feel like we're there.
SD: Is there a sense of catharsis in sharing those kinds of stories?
KA: Oh, absolutely. What I always tell storytellers is that you start off thinking it's about you, that this is going to be like taking a verbal selfie. But what happens is that you realize a story is only worth sharing if you actually feel like you're giving something to the audience. Like, "I lived through this. Here is my attempt to make some sense out of it, and maybe it will have some resonance for you."
What happens is that people respond, whether right after a show or [online], and people are very passionate about how the stories affect them personally. Like, "I'm thinking of changing this thing in my life because that story resonated with me." So, there is definitely a therapeutic thing that happens in the transfer from storyteller to audience.
But it's also very entertaining. Even though it can sometimes veer into darker places, at any given show there are one or two stories that are just flat-out hilarious. So it's a real rollercoaster ride. Laughs, tears, everything.