The last time we saw Kevin Allison, it was January and he was onstage at the Footlight Players Theatre recounting a nutty story about how, as a young eager gay man in New York, he picked up a guy at a bar and inexplicably ended up in his apartment tying his shoes to his own balls. A memorable introduction if ever there was one.
Speaking of memorable, if you came of age in the early '90s, you probably remember The State, a comedy show that aired on MTV for a while and then spun off into other projects like Reno 911. Troupe members included Michael Ian Black, Michael Showalter, and Kerri Kenney, three actors/comedians who regularly make television appearances. Kevin Allison was also in The State, a group that he thought would be together forever, but when they broke up, he ended up on his own, performing solo sketch comedy shows that ended up not being as awesome as he hoped. But that all changed in 2008 with his podcast and storytelling show RISK!, which puts regular folks onstage to share something deep, dark, and maybe even a little bit nasty.
Allison promises RISK! is nothing like This American Life or The Moth, where they tell the kind of stories the New York Times would love to publish in their Sunday edition for liberals to enjoy with their morning coffee. RISK! plumbs people's hidden selves. He looks for people willing to explore every depraved corner of their minds and share stuff they'd be scared to share with a therapist.
"For RISK!," he says, "it's let's not try to fit any agenda, let's keep on pushing boundaries, see if we can always be trying to be a little bit different."
Talking to Allison on the phone last week, it was clear he has no fear when it comes to taking risks anymore, but it wasn't always that way.
City Paper: How was it performing RISK! in the South for the first time at the Charleston Comedy Festival in January?
Kevin Allison: It was just so exciting. Everyone was so supportive and friendly. The audiences were so warm. It was just a wonderful experience. But as the first time doing this show down South, well, I'm a gay man, first of all, and I'm a kinkster, so a lot of my stories are about what is considered outrageous sex, even for a gay man — bondage, sadomasochism, role playing, all that stuff — and I share stories about that on a regular basis. It's about the discovery of it all. When we came down last time, Katy Frame told a story about discovering masturbation when she was a little kid. David Appleton visited a stripper at a strip club who demanded that he choke her. Michael Ian Black told about how in high school he stole $10,000 from his friend's father — and never got caught. Adam Newman told a story about how a girl he dated threw up on him while giving him a blow job, and he became concerned that — "oh no, I hope that doesn't become a kink of mine."
But the thing about RISK! is that not all stories are X-rated, some are more emotionally raw than what you hear on NPR. We're huge fans of The Moth and This American Life. We try to make RISK! a safe space for being able to say anything, no matter how politically incorrect, so if you have to break down crying because you're getting emotional, you can. We create a show that's truly uncensored.
CP: What were your expectations or preconceptions about presenting RISK! down here?
KA: When we brought it down that first time, I thought, my gosh, I've never done this show in the South. The natural tendency in New York City is for there to be a very liberal edge to the point of view of people sharing the stories, so I didn't know how it might go over. On the first night, in this big, big theater, it was a beautiful place, and the very first thing I see is this elderly couple, gray-haired folks, struggling with a cane to get up to the very front row seat, and I thought to myself, they just look like good old Southern folks — OK, Kevin, do not make eye contact. And then they sit right in front of me, and I know they will be horrified. And then I tell a story about the time I went home with a guy and he forced me to tie my shoes to my balls. So I was avoiding looking at those people in the front row the whole time. After the show, when the whole audience is filing out, I come down the stage and that elderly couple has stayed there in those seats, and she starts nudging her husband, "There he is." And he says, "Oh, there you are, Kevin. We just want to thank you for being who you are and doing what you do." I just melted into a puddle and said, "Oh my god, thank you so much." It was like symbolic to me of the fact that you can come into a certain situation and assume that people are going to react a certain way because of the demographics. But it's hard to predict how they will react, especially when you are onstage speaking so frankly. That's one of the things that storytelling accomplishes. It takes us out of the normal dichotomy of discourse we're used to, ideology versus ideology and stereotype versus stereotype.
CP: What else does storytelling accomplish?
KA: When someone gets up onstage and starts speaking authentically and can be honest and reveal parts of their personality that they keep closer to their chest, the normal human response of the listener is to open up as well. When someone is up there not really bullshitting and toeing the line and saying things they mean and saying things about their life experience, we can't help but open up ourselves, even if that person lives in a totally different world or has had a different experience that you'd never have. It's the vicarious experience that we can go on. At least that person is being true, you know, opening up, and we open up along with them.
CP: Which storytellers will you be bringing to stage this time?
KA: This time, there are only two people we're bringing from NYC: Katy Frame and Marie Cecile Anderson. They did the show last time too, and they have [their own comedy show] the Reformed Whores [also playing at Piccolo Fringe]. The rest of the storytellers are all local people. I've been going through these stories, and they're all over the map: really profound stories, dealing with death, trying to mend relationships with their family, dealing with ridiculous sexual situations that have brought on a lot of shame. There will be 12 different storytellers other than me that will be performing over the course of three nights. What I love about it is the range of going to hilarious to tear-jerking to poignant and thoughtful, a real kaleidoscope.
CP: So who are the other storytellers?
KA: David Appleton will be doing it again, Andy Livengood, Camille Lowman, Shon Kennedy, Paul van Slett, Nathaniel Bates, Brian Carter, Stacey Lathem, Lauren Krass, Michael Clayton. A lot of these folks are actually comedians, but there are other folks who are literally folks who have been working on their stories since their workshop or are big fans. What happens is they pitch me extensively. I have them write out a summary of their story, a paragraph or two, then ask them some questions. Then what I do, I decide if the stories have a lot going on, and then have them record an mp3 of the whole thing, give them extensive notes on that, then even a phone call. We don't necessarily want people to be memorizing, but we do want people to have thought through what this means to them, and really pinpoint specific instances that can show us the drama. Storytelling is complex, more complex than, say, stand-up comedy. Storytelling has to do several other things, and it's a good idea to have workshopped it, have someone grill you like a therapist would.
CP: You say storytelling has to do several things. What are those things?
KA: Most stories have an emotional throughline. Most stories start in one emotional plane. The person witnesses a series of dramatic incidents, the person is being challenged or dealing with things they have to react to. They're making an attempt to go toward what they're tying to attain. At the end of a story, there's usually a turn. The person realized they have to give up or they do succeed or they have some realization. By the end of the story, you've usually arrived at a slightly different emotional place. We want to keep that emotional throughline in mind, we want people to think of the times they were most serious or most giddy, most inspired, most devastated, most emotionally wound up. Those are probably going to make for good stories.
CP: How did you get to this point of being a storyteller? Have you always told stories?
KA: It's so funny, it took 12 years of resisting doing it. I think it's really what it was: 12 years of starving and avoiding doing this thing. I was finally at rock bottom, about to turn 40. People always told me I should try, and I've always been terrified of it.
I was in this sketch comedy group called The State. We had a show on MTV. We were spoiled. I thought we would be together until our 70s, like the Rolling Stones, so when the group broke up, I didn't have safety in numbers. I said, "I guess I'm a comedian now, and I do sketch comedy, and I guess I'll do sketch comedy alone." So I started getting up on stage with crazy characters. It was fun, and I got some good reactions in the beginning, but I clearly wasn't making a connection. There was something missing all those years. Twelve years after The State broke up, I was the starving artist, being evicted, working terrible waiting jobs, which is especially humiliating when you wait on someone and they say: "Weren't you on TV?"
In 2008, I created a show called F*** UP about five characters who were failures, who had effed up their careers. It was intended to be autobiographical, but I was hiding behind ridiculous characters, like a Yiddish vaudevillian, Frankenstein's creature. At that point in my life, I felt like I was screwing up anything I put my hands on. There was something daring about this show, this admitting to failure, but it wasn't quite connecting. I couldn't see it in their eyes, that electrical sort of ... bolt of electricity from your chest to theirs, that wasn't happening. There was a glass wall between us, and they weren't hearing me. I did the show out in San Francisco, and Michael Ian Black (also a member of the State) showed up. It didn't go very well at all, and I asked him, "What'd you think?" And he said, "I feel like everyone in the audience kind of just wanted you to drop the act and start speaking as yourself."
Aw jeez. I feel like I'd heard that in my brain somewhere, but I was too many opposing things for Hollywood or audiences to accept: I was too Midwesetern and too perverse. I was too gay and too polite. I'm a jumble of things that don't make sense or fit stereotypes to get me cast on a sitcom. I told him it just seems too risky. And he said, "That's the word! That's exactly what it should feel like. If it's risky, people will lean forward. That's where the juicy stuff is." So I thought, let's take his advice and get up onstage and tell a risky story.
CP: What was the first story you told on stage?
KA: So I did this show Strip Stories at UCB Theatre [in New York] that Margo Lightman was producing. The whole idea was to share a sexual story, and I had a time when I was 22 and I attempted prostitution and it was a comedy of errors. But on the day of the show, I called Margo and said, "Oh my god, I have to back out. I can't do this. I don't know what I was thinking. It's way, way too risky." And she said, "That's great news. People do my show who are used to getting onstage six nights a week, but they call me to cancel, and then I talk them out of it, and then those are the best stories."
So I was like I'll do it, and the experience with the audience was like night and day. I noticed I was looking right into their eyes. They were conversing with me. Afterwards people were grabbing me by the arm, and I saw that I had really made a connection. Up onstage, I felt like I was too gay, too absurd, Midwestern, kinky, but they didn't care because those are the aspects of my true self, and it won them over.
CP: What's your sales pitch for why people should come see RISK?
KA: It's never dull. You are sure to laugh and pretty sure to cry and everything in between will probably happen as well. It will definitely be a memorable rollercoaster ride of an evening. People are going to have a lot of fun.