In the years since being a cast member on the seminal sketch show The State, Kevin Allison fell on some tough times. As his comedy cohorts were amassing credits, he battled social anxiety, stage fright, and thoughts he might be “too gay and too kinky and too Midwestern and polite” to regain a place in show business. Fashioned from self-described “failure,” Allison decided to tear down his personal barriers in 2009 and start RISK!, a live storytelling show and podcast “where people tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share” and, in doing so, created a judgement-free forum that routinely sells out shows throughout the country, garners about a million downloads every month, and inspires revealing, inspiring, unconformable, and explicit stories from both famous people and average Joes.
Before Allison brings RISK! to the Back Room at the Prospect Ave. Colectivo on Saturday, the host told Milwaukee Record about the show’s origin, the rationale behind bearing one’s soul in front of a crowd of strangers, and whether it’s possible to push the envelope too far.
Milwaukee Record: You don’t seem ashamed to admit that the show was essentially a byproduct of failure, as you put it. Can you get into that more? Before you started RISK! I know you had a one-man show that wasn’t really going well.
Kevin Allison: In the 12 years after The State broke up, I just did not know what to do with myself. I was dealing with a lot of social anxiety and a lot of stage fright. My personality is so weird that I was afraid that I couldn’t fit into any hole in Hollywood that agents, and managers, and casting people would would be cool with. I was afraid I was too gay and too kinky and too Midwestern and polite, too spiritual—a very odd mixture that just wouldn’t jive with casting.
For many years, I just floundered. I was doing a lot of solo shows, and the last solo show I did in 2008 was called “Fuck Up.” It was about five characters who has F’ed up their careers. It was very clearly trying to be autobiographical, but trying to be silly by hiding under these silly sketch character sort of masks. It was Michael Ian Black—who was another member of The State—who came to see the show when I did it in San Francisco. Afterwards I said, “What did you think the show?” and he said, “I just feel like the audience wishes you would drop the act and start telling you own true stories and speak from the heart as yourself.” I said, “That just feels too risky.” He said, “If it feels risky, then you’re probably tapping into something. You’re opening up and the audience can open up with you in response.”
The very next week, I went back to New York and I agreed to be in a storytelling show at the UCB Theater that week. I decided to get on stage and tell a story about the first time I tried prostituting myself when I was 22 years old or 23. I was horrified about what the audience might think of me as I got up and started talking about this in such an open and vulnerable way. It was like night and day. They absolutely loved it. They were okay with the fact I was too goofy and too gay. I was dropping the act and being myself. I decided I would start a show called RISK!, where people tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share in public. I decided to create a show that could fill that void; where it really is safe to talk about anything, no matter how hilariously inappropriate or emotionally dramatic or sexually explicit.
MR: Yeah, and the audiences have really grown. You’re averaging about a million downloads [a month] and some of the actual storytellers are bigger names too. Recently, Trevor Noah was on and Pete Holmes, along with just regular people. As it’s growing, is there more of a thought that with up to million people hearing this, maybe you should soften the edges or is it an invitation to really go for it?
KA: That’s a great question. It’s important for me to have celebrities on the show whenever we can—mostly to bring more attention to the show because a celebrity is always someone who has to maintain a certain persona. It’s their job to be wearing a mask of sorts. Whenever we can get celebrities to [take off the mask], we’ll feature it on the podcast. It can be very hard for them to let that go. I was talking to Louis CK just a couple months ago at a party and he said, “I would like to do that, but when I’ve done storytelling things in that past, I find I’m battling this urge to go for the laugh the entire time I talk. I’ve trained and have the muscle memory to just do it automatically.” But to reveal something very personal, you’re not going to get the laughs every five or six seconds, and that can be awkward for people sometimes.
I think it was interesting to hear Trevor Noah—who, now, people know from The Daily Show as being someone who’s super super quick, super super sharp, someone who’s kind of upbeat and as a certain sarcastic edge—on this recent episode of RISK!, you can tell it’s not memorized and not set up for laughs. He’s really just digging into himself and talking about his relationship with his mother, and how his mother lived with this incredibly abusive boyfriend who literally shot her in the face. I think it’s very moving for someone to be able to do that even if they have a persona to maintain otherwise. So the celebrity thing does help bring some attention to the show, but it also helps other potential storytellers realize everybody does this show and maybe drop their security blanket to reveal a side of themselves they might not be used to revealing.
MR: What do you think the rationale is for people to get up and do that, to tell strangers stories about a horrible LSD trip, happening upon a body in the woods, attempting suicide? In your eyes, what’s the appeal for the storyteller to bare their soul in front of absolute strangers and upwards of a million people?
KA: A person doing the show might initially think it’s about getting some attention, about having people listening to them. Some people might think it’s like taking a verbal selfie. That’s not what RISK! is about really. I coach them. They send me a recording, then I start digging into it the way a therapist would. I come back with questions like “Is that really how you felt? Have you considered what might be going through that other person’s mind at that moment? Do you think you’ve changed since then?” You dig deeper. You share this thing, but really, it’s about the audience. It’s about what associations or feelings it might trigger in them that they can learn from or that they might be changed from hearing. We get emails on a weekly basis from people saying, “I was suicidal, but I started listening to RISK! and started realizing people have been through even darker periods than what I’m going through” or “Holy cow, these people thought they were a freak? Well, I feel like a freak. Now I have this thing that makes me feel connected to another human being.” It’s ultimately about sharing our life experience so that other people might benefit from it, really. Some people aren’t aware of it when they sign up to do RISK! but they’re well aware once they’ve done it.
MR: Is there a limit? I’m sure you vet all these stories. Is there ever one that you’ve listened to that you didn’t feel could air? In my eyes, the stories range from being absolutely funny to really scary and intense, and there are a few I’ve had to back out of listening to. As a person who has a hand in the production of these, have there ever been any you’ve had to hold because they were too uncomfortable?
KA: Yes. I would say we probably only end up putting out maybe 35 or 40 percent of what we actually record. There are a few reasons for that. Yes, sometimes someone will share a story that will make me feel like their heart wasn’t in the right place. Maybe they were sharing it to get back at someone or it didn’t seem like there was enough compassion for another character. I’ve never cut something from the show because I thought it was too much of a reveal. Characters have been on the show talking about eating their own feces or attempting murder. Nothing is too beyond the pale as far as what people reveal. The only reason I don’t put something on the show is because we’ve either covered it before or maybe because it wasn’t enough of a reveal.
MR: The live episode’s theme is “Fuck This.” Is there any reason you picked that for Milwaukee or was it just the luck of the draw?
KA: I’ve actually never been to Milwaukee, so I’m very unfamiliar with it. It’ll be a brand new experience for me, so I didn’t have something that I associated with Milwaukee in my act. I just have a big list of themes for shows. I want the themes to be generic enough where they might bring various associations to people, but specific enough where it will have some bite to it. That is a great example. “Fuck this” is something a person might say when they’re in a high stakes emotional situation and I felt it would bring in a nice variety of experiences. It’s always my goal to try and get one or two hilarious stories, maybe one story that’s beautiful or tear-jerking or heartfelt, and one or two that are really frightening and traumatic. I like to have an evening be an emotional roller coaster ride.
Kevin Allison will host a live episode of his RISK! podcast in the back room of the Prospect Ave. Colectivo on Saturday, November 14. The show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20.