Talking to Kevin Allison about the Risk! Podcast, The State, and His Failed Stint as a Male Prostitute
As a member of The State, the seminal mid-90’s comedy group whose MTV sketch show has developed a cult following and seen its members conquer Hollywood in the years that followed, Kevin Allison found success early on in life, with the aforementioned sketch show debuting when its members were in their early 20’s. After The State’s break-up, Allison drifted away from show business, while his peers went on to create comedies like Reno911!, Wet Hot American Summer, and Stella. The discovery of his passion for raw, candid storytelling brought Kevin Allison back to the comedy world, and he now hosts the popular storytelling podcast Risk! (motto: “True Tales, Told Boldly”) which has featured shockingly-honest stories from some of the biggest names in the industry, including Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Jesse Thorn, Marc Maron, Joe Mande, and Michael Ian Black, just to name a few.
Podcasting is emerging as a new form of entertainment that is unfettered by the constraints that big studio movies and TV shows face, and Risk! is exactly the type of exciting, experimental work that the medium allows for. In addition to the podcast, Risk! also has live shows all over the country and a storytelling school responsible for training raconteurs whose tales have been featured on Risk! The Risk! operation is currently in the midst of a fundraiser to keep things running, in which those who donate can win amazing prizes from celebrities who have appeared on the show. I recently caught up with Kevin to discuss the Risk! fundraiser, how the podcast came to be, a particular State sketch that he and David Wain secretly filmed without the approval of the rest of the group, and how you can get a photo of him with your shoes tied to his genitals.
So, how are things going with Risk!?
Good. We’re just putting out the first “Best of Risk!” episode… We just made it through two years and we’re starting in on our third.
How has Risk! grown and evolved over the years?
After The State broke up, I spent about 13 years not sure what my voice was as a comedian and as a performer. I was not one of the members of The State who was very cliquish. I tended to be a loner and a floater in the group. Being the only gay guy, it meant that I spent a lot of my social time away from the rest of the group, whereas the group all hung out with each other 24/7. So, when the group broke up, which I had naively thought would never happen, it was just like, “Oh, fuck! I’m not really in with the Stella guys thick enough to become a part of that. And I’m not really in with the Viva Variety/Reno911! guys to be really in thick with them.” My history of being a floater means I’ve got to figure out how to be a solo performer. I would do these character monologues that were basically sketches/stories but told by crazy, over-the-top, big, broad sketch comedy characters. At first, it was very fun and people really responded, but it became clear after a couple years that I just wanted to be communicating some other stuff. I was really upset about The State having broken up and … feeling like I had been kind of left behind.
I had some darker and more emotional stuff to express than could be expressed by ridiculous sketch comedy characters, but I just didn’t have the guts and the confidence in myself to just get up and start being myself on stage. I always veered away from stand-up because I thought it was too formulaic. And storytelling, I think I was conscious of it somewhere in my brain, but I just feared going there. There’s these two sides to my personality. There’s the side of me that’s super friendly, polite, agreeable, raised to be a good Catholic boy from Ohio kind of guy… And then, there’s this other side of my personality, which is totally debauched, having a crazy-ass sex life, likes to develop characters that say the most offensive, outrageous and over-the-top shit. So, there’s this other side of me that’s kind of this Mr. Hyde, inappropriate wild man. I never knew how I could get up on stage and incorporate both of those things together.
I actually left performing altogether. I quit around about 2000. I thought I was gonna go into journalism. I thought I was gonna go become a writer for magazine… So, I was like, “Why don’t I leave this one industry where I’m making no money and enter another one where it’s extremely hard to get a foothold and start making some money.” There was a journalism school in New York which noticed I was trying to get into magazines. It’s called Media Bistro, and they said, “Hey, weren’t you on The State? Why don’t you come and teach a sketch comedy class for us?” I was like, “I don’t really do comedy anymore, but yeah, what the hell?” So, I start teaching this class and for the first time ever, I’m noticing that I can be, when … I’m talking to a roomful of these kids, I can be Mr. Polite and friendly and agreeable. And at the flip of a dime, I can be Mr. Offensive, crazy… Mr. Hyde debauched guy. So, over the years, working as a teacher of comedy, I learned how to talk to a group of people completely as myself. Subconsciously, in teaching, I started to learn, “Oh dude, your voice is your voice. The way to be onstage just might be your fucking self.”
I was still scared of that and still resistant. I was vaguely familiar with The Moth existing, where people get up and tell true stories, but I kept myself isolated. In 2008, I did a third attempt at a big solo show, all kooky, crazy sketch comedy characters. It was more obvious than ever that I was trying to express real shit behind these characters. The show was called F*** Up, and every character in the show was a noble failure who had been trying to express himself but was fucking up somehow and getting up and trying again. In a Laurel and Hardy sort of way, there’s something kind of painfully beautiful and funny about it. But that show was a fucking failure. That show itself was kind of a fuck-up.
So, I took that show out to San Francisco to their Sketchfest and had the worst show I’ve ever had in my life. There were like 12 people in the audience. Huge theater that sat like 300. Very high ceiling, so I felt like I was screaming also. Michael Ian Black was there, and I was just mortified that some members of The State were like the only people in the audience that night. And we’re walking away from the show, and I said, “What’d you think?” He could tell I was just mortified with how bad it had gone. He said, “You know, I think that you on stage and we in the audience all wanted the same thing, for you to drop the act and just start talking as yourself.” And I said, “Yeah, but that’s a risky-feeling. I’m so scared of that.” He said, “Yes! You said exactly the right thing. It’s risky and that’s where the juicy shit comes from.” So, the very next week, I returned to New York and I’m like, “Okay, I understand there are these storytelling shows around town. I’m gonna get up at one of these shows and talk about the first time I tried to prostitute myself when I was 22,” which is a real comedy of errors sort of story… I was a failure at prostitution, too.
This was after The State?
This incident was right before The State was accepted onto MTV… MTV [said], “We’re gonna hire you, but don’t take any jobs and can you wait like four months?” So, we went through long periods of starvation just to figure out whether or not we were gonna be hired or not. That’s what eventually broke us up at the end, just trying to not take jobs and wait around to hear if we were gonna get this, that, or the other.
So, I went to this show called Stripped Stories that Margot Leitman does. And I said, “Okay I’m gonna tell this insanely-risky story and see what happens.” I called Margot the day of and said, “You know what? I don’t think I can do this. I’m getting cold feet. I want to back out.” She said, “That’s awesome… That’s the best news I’ve heard all day… I get people who get up onstage seven days a week who call me on the day of and say, ‘I’m backing out. I can’t do this.’ And I always say that same thing, ‘That’s great.’ That means the audience will probably eat it up because they’ll sense that you’re taking a risk. They’ll sense that you’re stepping outside your comfort zone and not doing your usual comedy bullshit and they will lean forward and give you support like you’ve never felt onstage before.” I was like, “Alright, I’ll give it a shot.” I did it that night, and sure enough, there was a connection there I never felt before. I’m looking in people’s eyes. I’m actually reacting to the audience as they’re reacting to me. There’s just this electricity of people being like, “Oh, that’s the real you. Okay!”
And afterwards, people didn’t say what they usually say to me, which was, “Hey, that was funny.” Afterwards, people were like, “Dude, I’ve never been through anything like that before but thank you for saying that because that reminded me of something that happened with my mom.” I was actually touching people and reaching people. I was like, “I know my history. I know that I am shy about being persistent and continuous about things. So, fuck it, I’m going to create a podcast so that I force myself to have to do this on a regular basis, so that I can’t back out. I just have to keep taking risks. I have to keep being more and more myself in public.” That’s exactly what Risk! has been.
Most of the stories I’ve told on Risk!, I’m telling on the podcast for the first time. They’re not workshopped, they’re not polished. They’re not like [Mike] Birbiglia going on This American Life where he’s done that story about – you can tell – 30 times before he records it for that show. This stuff is raw and you can hear the mistakes and the humanity in it. And that’s what Risk! became all about. People really lit up as soon as we started putting the podcast out there. People started sending in music for the show… People write to me constantly now, saying, “I took a risk. I tried performing for the first time” or “I finally told my dad this” or “My son is relating to me more now because we listen to this show together and he was finally able to give up heroin or whatever.”
It’s amazing… I’ve finally found a way to do comedy that doesn’t have to just be funny. It can go anywhere. There are stories on the show that I’m very proud don’t have a single laugh in them, they’re just pure raw emotion. I’m very glad that we’ve found this weird zone where we can be completely weirdly funny and then go anywhere else we want emotionally at the same time, which I really don’t know you can do most places. I’m still starving, I’m still making no money, but the amazing thing about podcasts is that you can be relentlessly honest and totally unique if you want to be, because you don’t have to answer to corporate purse-holders. You can say what you want. That’s revolutionary. I finally seem to be onto a kind of show that’s really down my alley.
Have there been any stories you’ve been reluctant to share publicly?
The story I just mentioned … about me turning to prostitution. I’ve never put that on the podcast and the reason is, I originally wrote it as pure comedy. But in retrospect, I’ve done it in front of audiences a couple of times and walked away feeling like, “That was not totally honest, Kevin, because it’s not purely funny what you did.” There’s something down beneath the layers of the comedy of errors there where it’s like, “Dude what were you thinking? What was really going on inside that you would do that? And how did you really feel about that?” So, sometimes, I just feel like I have to process that a little bit more. I have to dig a little deeper into that in order to really be true to the material. I’m sure I will share that story someday on the podcast, but I’ve got to figure out what the more serious side to all of that is.
My staff started to talk to me about six months ago, “Look, Kevin, the one thing people don’t have as much of a hook into with the Risk! Podcast is what’s going on in your life right now as the host of the show. The example everyone was bringing up is of course, [Marc] Maron. On Maron’s show, people have this extra thing that hooks them into it, which is that they feel like they’re kind of inside the mind of the host of the show. They know the names of his cats, what things are like this week between him and his girlfriend, and stuff like that. There’s a cult of personality thing that hooks them into that particular show. People have said, with you, you usually tell funny stories that are from say 12 or 15 years ago, so there is some safety there. Finally, about a month ago, I started for the first time, telling stories directly into the microphone in this little recording booth that I have in my apartment. Speaking directly to the podcast audience about what just happened to me. The first major one was this story about, I went to Provincetown and this guy completely broke my heart. It was only about two or three days after this had happened that I sat down to record the story. The emotion was still very very raw. That episode is called “Kevin Goes to P-Town.” … It got the biggest response of anything we’ve ever done on Risk!… For the first time, I tried telling a story directly to the podcast listeners through the microphone and they really responded to it. So, that’s a new direction for me.
I went to this kink camp in September – this sex camp for kinksters – for about three days… That was the second major attempt at this kind of longform storytelling straight to the podcast audience. And that too, has gotten a great response. It’s definitely way more explicit and way more information about my own sex life right here, right now, than I’ve ever put out there before, but it’s amazing. I was speaking to Marc Maron… and I said, “Marc, I kind of followed your lead, and for the first time, I’m telling stories right into the microphone to podcast listeners.” And he said, “Oh, Kevin, once you find your groove with that, once you’re able to start speaking to the listener like a friend, you’re simply gonna find out that you’ll be able to say things that you can’t say quite as specifically and intimately in front of most live audiences.” Because in front of a live audience, you’re always trying to assess, how does this room feel? Are they with me? Do I need to broaden this a little bit? But when you’re just speaking into a microphone and imagining you’re speaking to one listener, it’s just gonna come out really raw and really you. So, it’s been pretty liberating.
Tell me a little about this Risk! fundraiser. What are some of the prizes you have in store for those who donate?
We’ve had a lot of great people on the show tell really personal stories. So, now, a lot of these folks are helping us out with this fundraiser. For example, Janeane Garofalo will make you a personalized friendship necklace… and send you a little note with it. Lisa Lampanelli [will] insult someone personally, like find out a little bit of information about them, what they do and where they live. Then, throughout the day, [she’ll] send Twitter insults specifically directed at that person. I am going to be giving people locks of my hair, so I have to get a major haircut soon. Kevin Nealon and Rachel Dratch are giving people autographed copies of their books that are just about to come out. Michael Showalter, Joe Lo Truglio, and Tom Lennon; they used to doodle all the time when we were in The State. They used to draw cartoons, just ridiculous shit while we were all rehearsing at MTV. So, I have a lot of these cartoons now. So, we’re going to be giving away some of these, [which are] written on the back sides of State sketch scripts, to people and I’ll autograph them.
Marc Maron will send a WTF poster that he’ll autograph and write you a personal message on. Margaret Cho will answer a relationship or sex question that you have. So, a lot of crazy gifts, but a lot of them that are kind of cool. If someone gives a certain amount, we’ll actually put on a Risk! show in your home. There are gifts where I’ll teach you a personal storytelling lesson over Skype. The very first story I ever told on the show was about a guy who forced me to tie my shoes to my balls. So, one of the gifts is, if you send me your shoes, I will photograph myself with them tied to my balls. I’d have to make it tasteful somehow, maybe like an Austin Powers… thing, but send that back to you. But yeah, a lot of amazing prizes. It’s basically about just keeping this thing in existence because, at this point, I’ve got a staff of like 18 people, most of which are working for nothing, except that they love this show and they believe that it has a big future if we just keep plugging away.
What do you have planned for people who don’t donate? Any sort of retribution?
[Laughs] I might send pictures of their shoes tied to my balls. So, that could be a gift and retribution.
Do you have a favorite experience looking back at The State?
One of the things that I’ve always considered one of my favorite experiences was the creation of the “Taco Man” sketch, which is the sketch where I deliver tacos instead of the mail. David Wain has always been a huge inspiration of mine. One of the great things about The State is that, even though we had so much tension in the group and so much rivalry and were often so much at each other’s throats, is that we had kind of a roasting sort of relationship. There was definitely a pecking order and there was a lot of tough love joking around with each other that was sometimes not so pretty but we definitely love each other. We truly to this day still feel like we’re brothers and sisters. We consistently send e-mails to each other, just joking around about this and that… We’re always saying, “God damn, if we could only work on some sort of project together.” It’s just that we’re all just so busy in such different ways now that it’s a little bit tragic.
David [Wain] spent the first few years when we were on TV having a really hard time getting his sketches included in episodes. And I did too…. He and Mike Black and I wrote this sketch, “Taco Man.”… When we presented it to the group in the pitch session, no one voted it, except for the three of us. It got 3 out of 11 votes… so it was not gonna be done. So, David came to me and Mike, and he said, “Look, the three of us love this sketch and know it could be something. So, why don’t we, behind everyone’s backs, just go to the art department and see if they can find some thrift store mailman kind of accoutrements? Then, when we’re filming something else someday and the three of us aren’t needed quite so much, we’ll find someone’s house down the street and knock on their door and ask them if we can use their front lawn. We’ll just shoot this sketch ourselves”… That’s exactly what we did. David edited the sketch and then presented it to the group. One day when we were watching rough cuts of other sketches, he was like, “Oh, by the way, everyone, there’s also this,” and showed everyone the finished sketch. And everyone was like, “Alright. We have to admit, it’s funny. It should go in the show.”
So, it was, “Who cares what everyone voted for? We’re gonna do this and show you.” And that’s the way that most things work now. No one goes in front of TV executives now and tries pitching something cold. Everyone comes in and they’re like, “Look, we’ve got three YouTube videos to show the general tone of this thing and people are already responding.” Because you can’t rely on TV executives to have the imagination to get anything. You’ve got to show them an already almost-finished thing and say, look, people are already reacting to this. And it’s the same with podcasts. Maron and I are both people whose careers were kind of dead in the water for a decade or more. We were like, “Fuck it, alright. Hollywood doesn’t want us? Terrific! We’re just going to start taking shit directly to the people through this new podcasting format that anyone can do on their own gumption and see if we can just build an audience from being ourselves.
The Risk! fundraiser is still going, and by pledging, you can win prizes provided by Janeane Garofalo, Marc Maron, Lisa Lampanelli, and more. For episodes of Risk!, check out the show’s official website. The latest episode, “The Best of Risk!,” is a great place to start.
Photo by Keith Huang.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.