Back in the early '90s, shortly before hitting the big time with the MTV sketch comedy show The State, Kevin Allison was so poor that he tried to sell himself as a prostitute — and failed.
Allison never thought he would share that story with strangers, but nowadays, he's all about transparency. He records a weekly podcast and live show called RISK! where people tell shocking and downright personal stories.
RISK! actually has its roots in The State. The cast was living in New York City while they filmed the TV show, and every workday morning at 10 a.m., they held a half-hour "check-in" session to talk about their personal lives. Fellow cast member Michael Ian Black remembers it as a forum for unburdening. "A lot of times it was nothing, but then sometimes people had to unload things on someone," Black says. "It's not the kind of thing I can imagine ever doing today." He recalls that Allison was clearly living "the most bizarre life of any of us."
Allison remembers it the same way. "I was the gay guy who had been out adventuring in New York looking to hook up with guys," he says, "so I would end up in some subbasement in the meat-packing district in some BDSM club, tied up or in a ridiculous position with some crazy person."
The State team parted ways after the show went off the air in 1995, and cast members collaborated on several comedic cult hits over the years — think Wet Hot American Summer, Stella, and Reno 911! But while Allison played the occasional bit part in the old gang's productions, he floundered in his solo career. "I accidentally ended up in comedy, and now that I had established myself there, I was like, 'Oh, well, what do I have to say on stage?'" Allison says.
He started playing what he refers to as "crazy kooky characters" in his solo stage shows, trying with little success to milk sketch-comedy laughs out of roles like a shark fisherman and a gym instructor. He was bombing. For 13 years, he says, "I was just starving, getting eviction notices, taking terrible catering and waiting jobs." In 2008, he made one more run at the solo show, and when Black showed up to watch a performance in San Francisco, Allison asked for an honest critique. "He said, 'Kevin, I feel like everyone in the audience kind of just wanted you to drop the act and start speaking from the heart as yourself,'" Allison recalls.
The next week, back on a stage in New York City, Allison took a chance and told the most personal story of his career: the "comedy of errors," as he calls it, of his abortive venture in streetwalking. He worried about how the crowd would receive the story, but "suddenly I found that the audience was looking right in my eyes," he says.
That show changed Allison's life. He dropped the character acting, and he started a podcast where other people could tell their own stories. Listeners wrote in to say that they didn't feel like freaks anymore after hearing the show.
Listening to the podcast, it's clear that Allison was born to talk on the radio. You need italics to properly render his speech pattern in print. "Is RISK! the show where people share true stories they never thought they'd dare to share? I would say so," Allison says at the beginning of one episode of his weekly storytelling podcast. "The subject of the hour is 'Blindsided: When you didn't see it coming.' Tales of the unexpected ... and ... the bizarre." Here his mellifluous Midwestern voice, which usually lilts at a pleasant mid-range, pitches down into the basement like a horror-movie synthesizer stab.
There was a time in Allison's life when he wasn't comfortable waxing this dramatic. "My mother used to criticize me a lot," he says. "Like, 'Don't use such big facial expressions. Don't use your hands so much to gesture when you talk. Don't run up the stairs like that. You look like a girl.'" These days, Allison runs up the stairs however he damn well pleases, and he hosts a show where radical honesty is the only rule.
On the "Blindsided" episode, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon writer A.D. Miles tells a story about accidentally pooping his shorts while on a date with an attractive coworker. The story is graphic and sophomoric (the phrase "quarts of diarrhea" comes into play), but it is also sweet in its own way. "What makes A.D. Miles' story so funny is he's so candid about how much he really cared about that girl," Allison says. "He takes you inside his mind and his heart about how awkward he was feeling and how nervous he was to make a good impression."
Unlike storytelling shows The Moth or This American Life, RISK! includes a lot of material that will never, ever make it on National Public Radio. Some of the shows aren't funny at all, like Becca Trabin's hellish account of attempting to stab her mother to death during a bad drug trip. Allison says Trabin's story, told at a live show in Philadelphia, made the crowd visibly uncomfortable. "It was so raw and so shockingly violent, her recreation of the scene, that there were some people in the audience that weren't sure if they should get up and leave," he says.
When he brings the live show to Charleston, Allison says he will probably stick with relatively lighthearted and funny material. The lineup for both evenings includes Allison and Michael Ian Black, and Brooklyn standup comic Adam Newman will join them for the Friday night show. The rest of the program hasn't been finalized, but it could include local performers or other comedians in town for the Charleston Comedy Festival.
In conversation, where his voice sounds every bit as animated as it does on the podcast, Allison relishes retelling that fateful conversation with Michael Ian Black in San Francisco when his old comedic partner told him to be himself. "I feel like I'm too weird," Allison said at the time. "I feel like it would be too risky." Black's response?
Fri. Jan. 18 and Sat. Jan. 19, 7:30 p.m. $20. Footlight Players Theatre