By Ryan Meehan
Kevin Allison is a Cincinnati-born comedian that is most recognized for his work on the cult classic sketch show “The State” which aired on MTV in the early nineties. A couple of years back, I had noticed that there was a lot of talk surrounding Kevin’s new show RISK!. It’s a very captivating and mesmerizing experience that allows storytellers from all walks of life to share moments of their life in both an audio podcast form as well as live. This format allows listeners to hear stories from the artist in told in their purest form, and as a result produces some of the most entertaining tales on available on the web today. I am pleased to announce that Kevin Allison is our guest today in a very special version of 7 questions.
RM: I’ve been a fan of the State for a majority of my life. On Michael Showalter’s standup record there’s a bit where someone on the street mistakes him for Dustin Diamond’s character Screech from the show “Saved by The Bell”. Have you ever had any instances where anyone has recognized you from television and but they haven’t being able to figure out where from and maybe thought you were someone else?
KA: I’ve been repeatedly had people say “Look, it’s the gay guy from “Kids in the Hall” which is really funny because Scott Thompson and I look nothing alike. We met them when The State did some kind of event down in Fort Lauderdale, FL and there was a dinner party of some sort…It was really a trip, and they were really nice guys. I tell a story on RISK! about how “The State” was such a totem pole – there was so much rivalry, and so much sort of roasting each other …Because there was so much competition among eleven people to get roles and scripts in there. So there was a lot of “Well, if I poke your ego, I can bring you down I can bring you down a notch and I can get higher on the totem pole”…And the thing about that is, I have no ego. (laughs) I am that nice guy that tends to finish last, so when I started getting recognized back when we were actually on TV…kids would stop me on the street…It’s a real treat to be recognized for something when you are really proud of the work. When you feel like “Yeah, that work I did is spectacular, I’m really proud of it, I want people to see that, and now people are recognizing that”, and that’s a real treat. However I was so in doubt of myself, I had such an inner critic problem happening at the time, that the first thing I would think when someone asked me for autograph was “Oh…I bet that they are disappointed that they aren’t running into one of the more popular members of The State, not the lame red-headed one”. So I was always finding a way to bring myself down in comparison to others…And that’s something that every artists needs to learn NOT TO DO. And it’s not just with art, but with life in general. It’s always about being your personal best and bringing your strengths to the forefront working on your weaknesses and not worrying so much about what everyone else doing. Because years later, “The State” reunited and did a show in San Francisco and a fan raised her hand and said “Don’t you guys realize that nothing compares to the chemistry and the energy when the eleven of you are together…all together at one.” She said “It’s tragic that you guys aren’t working together as one still”, and it’s true…the group has done all kinds of wonderful work since the group broke up. There’s a remarkable collection of things that the members have worked on…in little groups or…For example my show RISK is very, very different from anything we used to do back then. It’s people telling true stories, many of which are outrageously funny, and many of which are just from the heart, gut-wrenching truth. And many of the members of “The State” have been on it, but it’s a very, very different sort of platform – through storytelling. But it is true unfortunately, that nothing truly compares to the chemistry that we all have when we’re together. And I’ll tell you something: I can say that we really do want to reunite in some fashion, someday we want to work on another project together – We just don’t know quite how that might work…
RM: I want to talk about RISK!, because I’ve been watching RISK! on YouTube all morning and for some time now…For those who aren’t familiar with the show…What is RISK! and how did you end up with the idea of putting something like that together?
KA: The end all, be all of what RISK is, is an audio podcast. It is very comparable to “This American Life” the radio show on NPR. RISK! is a collection of radio style stories, that means people come into my apartment and sit in my recording booth and I get stories out of the them, and then we add music and sound design. And we also have live shows in New York and Los Angeles, and we tour around the country. And the best of the stories told at the live shows told at the live shows eventually end up on the audio podcast which can be found at the Website or on iTunes. So, some episodes of RISK! are just one person telling a story for an hour, other episodes are a bunch of people telling different stories, either live or at my apartment with music and sound design. What happened was…When the State broke up: I was the black sheep, the loner, the floater, the guy who tends to not be super thick with any one little clique. Everyone kind of always saw me as being kind of an outlier in the group, even though you know… that doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t love me and that we aren’t very good friends, but just that I was always the oddball. I was the gay guy, which meant that I spent more time not socializing with the group at night, but was out searching for sexual adventures while the group continues to hang out with each other at night…that sort of thing.
I was also the poor one, which meant that I couldn’t afford to live in the dorms when everyone was living together in the dorms of NYU. So I always felt a little bit like the outsider in the group. And when the group up I thought “Oh, I guess I’m a sketch comedian now? And I guess I should start doing sketch comedy alone?” You know, a lot of kids when they’re in their twenties and they end up having some success and then you’re like “Well, I guess that’s what I do” (laughs) So I started getting up on stage…and doing kooky sketch comedy sorts of characters telling stories, but these characters – there was just some little thing that was missing…There was just one little thing element that wasn’t connecting…And I think that what it was (Michael Ian Black put his finger on it years later) that the sense that I was trying to say things from inside my heart (even though that it was really funny) wasn’t coming pure from me. So in 2008 I did my third and final solo show of kooky crazy characters, it was called “F-UP” and the whole idea was it was a show about live characters who had fucked up their lives and careers. That’s what I felt like by that point. By the time I was approaching 40…I had felt like a total failure…I had kind of fallen off the face of the earth and had never found a way to reach his audience – had never really found his voice. And so I did that show, and again it wasn’t connecting, I wasn’t feeling that sort of electrical connection that you can sometime feel with the audience – I wasn’t seeing it in their eyes. And after a show in San Francisco Michael Ian Black had come to a show and I said “What do you think?” and he said “Kevin, I think everyone in that audience just wanted you to drop the act and just start speaking from the heart as yourself.” You see, “The State” used to have this thing called a “check-in”, and I was the one who proposed the idea. Because when we were at MTV, there were some days when the roasting jokes between us could really fray each other’s nerves. And I suggested “How about we have a half-hour a day where there’s NOT joking around, but we all just go around the room and just say honestly and revealingly as we can, where we’re at emotionally with our lives and the work we’re doing today”. So that was called “check-in”, and every morning, everyone would check in and you’d take about five minutes to say how you were doing and it became the most treasured part of the day for the group and became one of the most crucial things when it came to keeping the group in good health while we were there. But everyone always commented “Holy shit, Kevin has the best check-ins…” because I was the one who the night before had been adventuring in the city. Tom Lennon would always joke that all of my check-ins started with “So I’m in some basement in the meat packing district with my face buried in some Puerto Rican guy’s ass…”, so everyone would always think that I had some amazing stories. So, when I was in San Francisco and I did that show and Mike said that I should drop the act and start speaking from the heart, I said “I get that, and I feel like I’ve been hearing that in my head for a long time now, but I’m too gay, and I’m too Midwestern and polite, but at the same time I’m too absurdist and I’m too kinky” and all of these things that I thought that Hollywood would never get and audiences would feel too alienated from – “I’m too Jekyll & Hyde this way and too Jekyll & Hyde that way, and it just feels too risky…” And Mike said “That’s the word…If it feels risky, then it’s probably revealing something true and authentic about yourself. If you open up about that shit in front of an audience, they will open up to you.” So the very next week, I returned to New York and I said “Alright, I’m going to do what Mike said – I’m going to get up in front of an audience at a show, and I’m going to tell a true story. And I told the story about the first time I tried prostituting myself right before “The State” was picked up for series…We did our pilot, and then for months and months MTV just left us hanging until the point where we were penniless up until they finally said “OK, we’re going to pick this up for series”. Literally the weekend before they called us and said that they were going to pick us up, I was reduced to prostitution. (laughs) And it was a comedy of errors – I did not succeed as a hustler, I was not cut out for that line of work. But I told that story, and it was like night and day. I realized “Holy shit…my voice is quite simply my voice, I’ve just got to own who I am and not give a fuck who thinks I’m too gay, and too Midwestern, and too absurdist, and yadda yadda yadda…If they don’t get me, they don’t get me…But I have to create a show, where I dare people to get up on stage – Whatever the theme is that night…whether the theme is drugs, or God, or death, or moms, or whatever it is – Tell me a story that you never thought you’d dare to share in public. And that makes you feel like you’re walking out on a limb to be sharing…” The moment I created RISK! My whole life turned around…Because people just immediately loved that idea. You know, the podcast now gets about 400,000 downloads a month, and many members of “The State” have been on it…Plus, people like Margaret Cho, Jenneane Garafalo, Lisa Lampanelli, Marc Maron and Kevin Nealon…lots of famous people have done the show, but also fans of the show have written in and said…“Hey, my brother died of a heroin overdose and I want to talk about that”, or “I was molested when I was 5 years old and I want to talk about that” or “Hey, I actually had a weird drug-related meltdown and tried to kill my Mom and I want to talk about that”. Now, that might sound like “What the fuck? How did you go from comedy to that?” But that’s what’s precious about the RISK! podcast is that in an episode, one story will have you laughing like a madman, just total outrageousness, totally uncensored X-rated craziness, and then the next story will just blindside you and have you weeping. And people love it for that – they’re like “I don’t like anything else in entertainment right now, but this show is about as real and lifelike as it gets – and people love it for that…They find it very cathartic.
RM: So do you feel that people are generally more reluctant to share things as a part of the live show as opposed to the podcast and what are some of the things that you shared when the show started off to kind of ease others into the process?
KA: There is truth to that. And I talked to Marc Maron about that. That I myself found that when I do the radio style stories, I am able to achieve a level of intimacy and confession that sometimes I’m not able to achieve on stage because of the energy in the room. Because when you are on stage, you just simply cannot help but being a little bit worried about “Are they hearing me? Are they getting this?” You just have this instinct to make slight adjustments in your tone, or slight adjustments in your choice of words…to meet them halfway…You know what I mean? Whereas when it’s just someone speaking to me in my apartment, or it’s me speaking alone to myself in my soundbooth really it’s almost like I may as well be talking to God. For example with just did a story on RISK! with Molina Williams, who is a sex educator. And she told this story about how when she first got involved in the kink community (she’s a black woman) she became very interested in the whole idea of race play…And she wanted to see what it would be like to do a dominant/submissive scene with someone where she would take on the role of the plantation slave that is being beaten by the master.
RM: Holy shit.
KA: Yeah. She really wanted to find out what that was like…So this episode is called “Slave” and this is a classic “Risk!” Episode in that it starts off hilarious, and then gets really X-rated and hot, and then in the end it becomes shockingly profound and upsetting…it’s kind of a case study on how sometimes BDSM can go wrong to say the least…(laughs) But, I think that the fact that she was just there telling that story to me, to my face – really helped her to get into all of the nuances…and to really bring the hardest parts of the stories to life. So yeah, I do think that there is a slight difference between the radio stories and the live stories in that way. On the other hand, the live stories have a real energy of their own, because you can feel that someone is being ballsy to be saying whatever they’re saying in front of the audience…There’s a remarkable story – it’s on the episode called “Best of RISK! 4” and is also on the episode called “Live from Philadelphia” where a young woman told about a time where she had a drug related psychic meltdown and heard the voice of God telling her to stab her mother to death…And she took a steak knife and did start stabbing her mother, and she relived that moment onstage so intimately – that was one of those moments that was just as intimate as a radio style story on the show.
The kinds of stories that I had in mind, the kinds of stories that I used to share when we were doing “check in”…Those were often really funny stories that I have about sexual misadventures, so the first story that I ever told on RISK! was about when I was about 22 years old, I went to my first sex club. And, I met a guy there who was Asian, Probably Japanese, brought him home and he wanted to do a domination and submissive thing but he never negotiated anything…he just started yelling me the moment we entered the apartment. He ordered me to take off all of my clothes, and stand on the opposite side of the room, and then he totally surprised me by ordering me to tie my shoes to my balls. He wanted me to take the laces of my Converse sneakers, tie them together like you would if you were going to throw them over a telephone wire, do this sort of propeller thing where they would just hang at my shins, and then he just wanted to stand there on the other side of the room and masturbate…while I stood there with nothing to do but to sit there with pinched balls – bowlegged. So that’s the first story that I ever told on RISK!, and it‘s a story that I often tell when I first bring RISK! to town as well, because it achieves a few things: It shows that I’m a friendly funny guy that you can relate to…It also shows that I am kind of a kinky guy that doesn’t mind talking about sexual stuff and it kind of lets you know that this show might end up going some surprising and outrageous places. So that usually does warm a crowd up.
RM: I just watched the story that you told about the guy yelling at you on the street over a series of days…Do you really experience that kind of prejudice every day? Outside of the entertainment industry, how often do you run into that as a gay man nowadays? Is that a normal thing? Does it happen a lot?
KA: Well, it’s been in very much the news that New York City has for some reason been experiencing a spate of hate crimes against gay people. This past year…2013 there’s been about ten pretty high profile cases of people getting bashed, including a couple of deaths – people being either beaten or shot to death. But it’s very unusual, one of the reason that it’s so in the news is because everyone’s like “What is going on in New York City?” because as far as cities in the United States of America, New York City has a longer history of gays being out and present and being part of the community than any other city…You know, long before San Francisco became a place for gays to go, New York was a thriving “gay mecca” even in the 1920s. So people are all weirded out like “What’s going on with culture that there seems to be this weird backlash that’s going on in 2013?” I don’t know…I really have no idea… I’m not a sociologist…So I don’t know about that…Me Personally? No…I’ve had very few instances where…I mean, I’ve been yelled at in the street before…”Faggot this or whatever” but that’s why I didn’t do anything for the longest time with this case…because I was just like “That’s a crazy person yelling “Faggot”” but eventually it became clear to me that “Oh no, this is a guy who could actually become a serious physical threat to me”. So, it’s weird because…like for example conservatives like to talk about how “we’re living in Post-Racial America because we elected Obama” – and of course that’s total nonsense. And then when Hilary Clinton is nominated people will be anxious to say “Well, women are equal now” – Which will be total nonsense. I mean, our society – It just takes a long, long time for us to even out and for us to grow. In America, it this melting pot where we have a lot of fear and loathing…around our differences…Now where I come from (Cincinnati) that’s a classic place for white flight That’s a place where white and black people don’t live in the same neighborhoods. Now in New York at least, everyone lives right on top of each other. And it really is huge mix, and I love that about it. But yeah, It’s a never ending battle with that kind of stuff.
As far as the entertainment industry goes…I came out when I was 24 in ’94 when “The State” was on TV and that was right around the time when the sketch “The Jew, the Italian, and the Redheaded gay” was on the show. Which was coming out on the show as well…And I never left like it made any difference. I felt like I held myself back after “The State broke up… I felt like if I had gone forward and if I had been doing then what I am doing now (getting out there and telling stories) that I would have been fine…I don’t think that my being gay really held me back. I think I held myself back.
RM: Which do you enjoy doing more, doing writing for television shows or telling stories and helping others do the same? And how exactly do you teach storytelling?
KA: Well, the thing about any narrative structure (and that goes for sketch comedy, and even improv comedy or writing scripts for sitcoms or movies or books) …The basic rules and principles of storytelling are very applicable across the spectrum and across various formats. It’s the little nuances between the formats that make “this harder for some people and that harder for the others”. For example, you asked me about if I find it easier than I do say…writing fictional stories about other characters…I really do find it a lot easier to talk about myself. Because there’s still a lot of what you see happening in fiction that you can employ in telling a story about yourself. – Because so much of our lives…are in our fantasies and our musings, in our perceptions that may not actually be all that accurate. And you can explore all that when you’re telling a true story: And you can be quite frank with it and say ”Picture This” and then start picturing something that you fantasize about, you can go into a very fictional sort of realm there but still be true to something that’s really meaningful to you. To me, that’s the anchor – I just find it very useful to come back to me and my experience and my questions about my experience – I just find that an easy way to navigate through narrative spaces. But other people do not – other people have a certain psychological thing where they do not want to look at their own lives and examine them – They’d rather have much more fun making up characters where they can basically do whatever they want with that character. So, it kind of depends on who you are and what you resonate with most. As far as “What do I teach”? There are a lot of things that I teach-I teach various kinds of classes…I teach storytelling for business for example, and those stories really have to teach, and make a point, and clarify a vision. And then I also teach on story telling for personal growth, that’s for people who feel particularly shy who feel like they have trouble going up on stage or functioning at cocktail parties…or just showing up at staff meetings and having anything to say. That’s more of a “teaching people to come out of their shells” type of class. But the normal class I teach is a six week class for people who are interested in telling stories at a show like RISK!…And, Those folks I always just encourage with a lot of the same ideas, One is – We tend to summarize too much when we’re walking people through a story…we tend to stay too broad in general and give an overview of what happened. When you get to those choice moments in the story where you are particularly emotionally affected, that’s a great time to slow down the action and really include some of the sights you saw, or the sounds you heard, or a sensation that went through your body…or an actual bit of dialogue that went through your head but you didn’t say it, really kind of including cinematically or in a novel per se…Life being experienced moment by moment. And the other thing that I really encourage people to do is to meditate on those moments in their lives where they think “that got a hell of a reaction out of me…I was really wound up that day”. Whether it be that you were mortified, or thrilled, or totally bewildered or whatever the emotion the was to try to do some thinking back on those moments where you were most engaged in what the hell was going on and kind of start trying to flesh those in.
RM: What’s up next for you and RISK! in the remainder of 2013 and the beginning of 2014? Is there anything big that you’re working on that we should know about?
KA: Well, we do an awful lot of touring now in 2014 and we want to do even more touring in 2014…and we love that…we love coming to different towns and what we’d love to start doing a lot more of is coming to colleges, because RISK! is really fun when you bring it into a closed community like that where you get professors getting up and sharing stories they never thought they’d share in front of students, and students sharing students they never thought that they’d be up telling the rest of the campus…But we’d love to do something like going to Rikers Island…We’re talking to them at the prison here in New York City about having inmates get up in front of one another and share stories. So that kind of stuff is really exciting to me…People always ask me if I’m interested in doing a TV show or anything like that…For the time being, no. For the time being I’m interested in talking to filmmaker or producers who might be interested in taking this story or that story and working with it…But I’m really happy where the podcast is right now where the podcast is just a radio show that you can download and listen to on your iPod. I want to keep building that and building the school and take our time with it all.
RM: As far as people that I’ve talked to, everyone I’ve spoken with seems to be pretty stoked about RISK! in general…For example, Selena Coppock (another New York comedian whom I’ve interviewed here…http://firstorderhistorians.com/2012/08/02/5-questions-with-selena-coppock/) But I have to ask you…the inmate thing…How close to being a reality is that? RISK! is risky, but that sounds really dangerous…
KA: Well, something like that, we’re already aware of…We’ve already started talking to those folks. One thing we do know is that we would have to…the thing about RISK! is that we pride ourselves on being uncensored and everything like that… but when you come into a situation like that where there is a real physical danger of going awry, we know that we have to talk to the staff about…(pauses) When people tell stories on RISK! they get coaching from me first. They tell the story, I give them notes. Often they tell me the story a second time and I give them a second round of notes. So, we would have to make sure that these guys were very prepared about what they would share and that there would be parameters involving some things that they should not talk about.
RM: If nothing else for their safety, I would think…
KA: Exactly…And that we’d have to also talk to security about how to react if anything went wrong there…Dave Hill is a comedian I know that has done a show there before and he’s the first person who introduced us over there, and we’re talking to someone else over there now as well…So I don’t know if it’ll be ever become a reality, but certainly stuff like that can start happening, more of that…Basically I am really interested in…At this point RISK! has been around for almost four years, and if there’s one thing that you can say about most of the stories, it’s that most of them do come from people who are white, college educated, and doing somewhat OK. (As far as having a safety net) I would be very curious to hear from people from other walks of life especially – people who you don’t being represented so much in the media and such…So I’m always considering where we might find new people to talk to…just to get different perspectives…
RISK! on Twitter: https://twitter.com/RISKshow
Risk on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/RISKshow?feature=watch
Kevin Allison on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kevin.allison2?fref=ts
Kevin Allison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheKevinAllison
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