About 20 or so years ago, Kevin Allison was mostly known as that ginger dude from the MTV sketch-comedy crew The State, mostly serving as the straight guy for the other players’ more wacked-out characters.
These days, Allison is less about playing roles and more about telling stories, mainly on his podcast, RISK!. Sort of a more uninhibited version of public-radio shows like The Moth and This American Life, host Allison usually corrals many funny people (to name a few, Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, his former castmates in The State) to tell stories that are brutally honest, wildly entertaining and, on some occasions, deeply emotional.
Allison, 42, took time out to answer some questions the Indy had about his podcast, and what can people expect when he brings the show live to the Artscenter this weekend during the NC Comedy Arts Festival.
INDY: In a recent Indy article, RISK! was described as "The Moth, but less NPR-y." Do you think that's a fair assessment?
Of course, the big question is how you get all these people to dispense such personal stories?
In the first few months, the stories were mostly about embarrassing, R-rated comedy-of-errors situations. Someone pooped their pants on a date. Someone masturbated to a grainy home video and then realized the people in the video were his parents. Someone accidentally fed psychedelic mushrooms to their elderly cleaning lady.
But in time, the fans of the podcast started writing in saying things like, "This show makes me feel like I'm not such a freak after all" or "Now I see that others have been through harder things than I'm going through lately," and they started pitching us stories. So, it was from fans of the show that we first started to get the heavier stuff: stories of surviving abuse, dealing with the death of a loved one, struggling with extreme poverty.
So the show took on this extraordinary feel where any given live show or podcast episode could go from outrageously hilarious to shockingly tear-jerking. And that's now what people love most about it. That it's as unpredictable and extreme as life itself.
What have been the stories that just floored you the most?
In our “Live From Philly!” episode, someone tells how, when she was 20, she overdosed on mushrooms and opium and tried to stab her mother to death. Now, this is a beautiful human being who dearly loves her mother and she brought the scene of the attempted murder to life so vividly, you just can't help but cry. The bravery of her sharing that is truly inspirational.
In an episode called “The Third Man,” Mani Sheriar tells how a neo-Nazi rapist convict tried to take her baby away from her—but she came to see the beauty and vulnerability in this man and forgave him.
And in my own story, "Beyond Kink Camp Part 1," I describe how a sexual experience I had went from being a kinky, bondage and S&M sort of situation—to a religious experience.
There's so many more! Our "Best Of” episodes are the best place to start.
Of course, it's a funny show with funny stories, but it's also a show that can delve into darker territories, especially in the Extra RISK! shows. Have there been points where you think this is too boldly told even for you?
The episode called "Nancy Sullivan” worried me when I first heard it. She described in excruciating detail the child molestation she lived through from the ages of 5 to 8. The first time we recorded it, I said, "I'm going to give you this recording to listen to for a few days. Then you decide if you want to continue recording this story." I just didn't want to put such an intimate story out there if she wasn't absolutely sure she wanted to share it. She did. We did two more recording sessions. After it was released, she said she felt a tremendous catharsis. She said she felt she'd grown more from doing that than she had from years of therapy.
Mind you, about probably 70 percent of what we record never makes it to the podcast. So yeah, there were times when I felt a person's story was not well enough thought-out or perhaps even a bit mean-spirited, so I left it on the cutting room floor. Although it's a very uncensored show, I do like to keep it somewhat encouraging and life-affirming.
You've been known to get quite risqué yourself—your "Kink Camp" story, for example. Has doing this show and being open like this opened up more doors for you, or do people still see you as "that guy from The State"?
What happened was that RISK! fans started daring me to live by example. In the case of "Kevin Goes to Kink Camp,” a friend dared me to go to a BDSM camp for a weekend by saying, "Kevin. Take a risk!" So I did—and it changed my life. I'm now an out and proud member of the kink community. And that crowd is all about openness, honesty and pushing the envelope. So it's another way that RISK! has made me feel more at home in my own life. Plus, kinksters share great stories!
You teach storytelling in New York at The Story Studio. Is this becoming a mini-industry for you?
I learned within the first couple months of coaching people to tell their stories for RISK! that I absolutely loved that role—the guy helping people to remember their most emotional moments in their lives and to shape them into meaningful narratives. Also, we realized very soon after putting the podcast up that although creating this show is a full-time job, there's almost no money to be made in making podcasts yet. It's ironic because podcasts like RISK! are now far better than most of what you can find on TV, on the radio or in movie theaters. So, we're still struggling in a big way to keep this thing running. And we feel like TheStoryStudio.org is the key. We offer corporate workshops, online video courses, one-on-one coaching over Skype. I'm doing workshops in NC this weekend: one on sketch comedy writing and one on storytelling.
You'll be teaching at NCCAF as well. What wisdom will you be imparting?
We'll cover a brainstorming process on how to zero in on the moments from your life that are story-worthy. You learn how to use the six senses to trigger emotional responses in listeners. You learn the five beats of a classic story structure. You learn how to dig deeper and locate the controlling ideas of your story. It's always uplifting. It's always great fun. And lots of folks who do these workshops end up on the podcast eventually because I'm constantly knocked out by their stories.
Any influential storytellers for you?
Well, Bob Dylan is where it begins for me. I was 11 when I heard Blood on the Tracks and realized that a person could take their own life experience and create something timeless, profound and remarkably emotional out of it. But in later years, I discovered Spalding Gray, Mike Daisey and Julia Sweeney. I love them all dearly.
Are there any people you would like to appear on the show?
Oh boy. Hundreds. We'd love to do a show at a maximum security prison, so we could get some stories from those folks inside the gates. I'd love to meet social workers who could introduce me to folks with triumph-of-humanity style stories. Folks who have gone to the very bottom of dealing with addiction, homelessness, people who have escaped cults, survived disasters, committed heinous crimes.
As for well-known people, I'd love to have Louis C.K., Lena Dunham, Dan Savage, Julia Sweeney, Zach Galifianakis, Cheryl Strayed, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, E.L. James—the list just goes on and on.
Let's end this on the Barbara Walters question: What do you want people to take with them after listening to RISK!, whether they attend the live show or listen to the podcast?
To get involved. Pitch us your stories. Take our workshops. Share the podcast with friends. Send us your ideas for how we can do more. RISK! has become what it has become because of the love and participation of the fans. We welcome more and more.
RISK! will be at The ArtsCenter Saturday night at 7:30. For more details, go to www.nccomedyarts.com.