Kevin Allison is probably best known for his work with the sketch comedy group The State, which also featured the likes of Michael Ian Black, Thomas Lennon, and many more. When The State broke up, Kevin found himself in a situation a lot of us find ourselves in when a major part of our life comes to a close: He didn’t know what to do next. Allison now hosts the popular storytelling podcast Risk!, but the road that got him there wasn’t an easy one. Allison was nice enough to talk with us about The State, storytelling, and the process behind Risk!
I first met Kevin Allison when I went to interview Jesse Thorn at the Etsy Holiday Shop a couple of weeks ago. Allison was giving a storytelling workshop a few hours before Thorn’s “Make Your Thing” talk that evening and Thorn suggested we meet up in between. When I arrived at the shop, Allison’s workshop was just starting, so I took a seat and watched.
Most of what Allison covered in the workshop was basic storytelling elements, but he also talked about how to take chances and tell stories that are interesting for their subject matter as much as the way they are told. It’s what Allison specializes in.
Risk! isn’t just any storytelling podcast. It’s motto is “True tales boldly told,” and it focuses on the stories most people would never tell in public. Stories that are too dirty, too embarrassing, or even stories people thought could ruin their lives if they ever got out can all be found regularly on the weekly show. Allison shares stories himself, but he also has guests come on to tell their most personal stories. It’s something Allison brings out in people, because it’s something he does himself.
He certainly didn’t hold anything back during the interview.
Geekosystem: You’re host of the Risk! podcast now, but you’re probably best known for being from The State.
Kevin Allsion: Yeah. The State, I’m eternally grateful to have been a part of it. It was remarkably, remarkably and kind of uniquely a creative bunch of people and it was really bizarre how we all just found each other in our freshman year at NYU.
Right, you guys started when you were in college.
Yeah, the group started in 1988 at NYU. We became so impressed with ourselves actually. We became so amazed at how good our shows were becoming that by about our junior year in college we started thinking, “Wow, you know, maybe we shouldn’t be worried so much about our film classes and our acting classes because this thing we’ve created may very well have a career beyond college.” We weren’t a year out of college before we were on television.
It was a lot of success and a lot of creative control at a very young age. We were all about 22 or 23. So when the group broke up it was incredibly disorienting for me. I really felt like I had the Earth pulled out from under my feet. The group had a mantra for the eight years that we were together.
What was the mantra?
That we would never break up. That we were going to be like the Rolling Stones. That we would always be working together creatively as a group, and that there was nothing that could replace the specific chemistry of those eleven people together.
But of course The State did break up, and Allison didn’t take it well. He didn’t want to face the idea of building a solo career after having success working with a close group like The State. Even today, most of the work members of The State are known for are things they worked on with other members. Wet Hot American Summer, Reno 911!, and Role Models are all collaborations by former members of the group.
When Allison was forced by circumstance to build a career for himself he had a tough go of it for more than a decade. He was doing stand up comedy. He developed and pitched shows that didn’t take off, auditioned for roles in commercials and indie movies, but he never really got a break.
In 2008, he made a last-ditch effort by mounting a solo show called F— Up.
What was the idea behind F— Up?
The whole idea was that it would be five characters who F’ed up their careers. Five characters who were failures. But kind of lovable failures along the lines of Laurel and Hardy. The kind of guys who their heart’s in the right place, but then they fall down, but then they get up and keep trying. Because that’s what I felt like I was at that point in my life.
I had gone from being successful on TV early on to having to deal with the brutal reality of starving as an artist for over a decade and I just felt like a failure. So I tried to address it in these character monologues, but even that show felt like a failure to me. Even that show felt like an F— up, because it just wasn’t connecting with audiences the way I wanted it to.
I did the show out in San Fransisco at their Sketch Fest in 2009 and Michael Ian Black was at that show and afterwards I said to him, “Well, what did you think?” and he said, “I think everyone in the audience just wanted you to drop the act and start speaking from the heart as yourself.”
I feel like I’d kind of heard that advice in the back of my head my whole life, but I’m just so afraid that I’m too Midwestern, and too gay, and too polite and friendly, and too weird. My sense of humor is too kooky and bizarre. All these things, all these parts of my personality I thought were too disparate and didn’t quite fit into the square pegs that Hollywood has in mind for the kind of charming, attractive, stereotypical this or that kind of guy that we want to hear from.
I think a lot, an awful lot of supremely talented people do spend decades auditioning for stuff and getting turned down, because they are rather original and unique and interesting in a way that doesn’t quite fit what Hollywood thinks the Midwestern male ages 18-25 would get. They want types.
Do you think there are a lot of people who feel that way? That they have to kind of hide who they are and play to a type to try to find work?
Absolutely. I think that one of the problems with corporate entertainment, with the 90% of what is put out by the television industry and the film industry in the country, actors and writers kind of spend decades just thinking, “If I try to do it their way, if I try to fit in to the kind of paint-by-numbers, one-dimensional way they have of seeing things, and the typical way that they have of presenting things in today’s movies and TV shows then eventually I might be able to work on one of those projects that slips through the cracks.”
Every year at the Academy Awards, someone raises a trophy for having won Best Picture or Best Screenplay, and they say, “It is a miracle that this made it through the system.”
It’s always a good sign that an industry is doing well when everyone is surprised that they can actually make a good thing.
Absolutely. Patton Oswalt gave a remarkable keynote speech at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal this year. He split his speech up into two parts. The first part was for entertainers and artists, and the second part was for the industry, the executives, the people who greenlight things. In the first part he held up an iPhone and he said to all the artists in the room, “This is all you need to make a 90 minute motion picture these days. So keep in mind that you now have the power. You as artists have the means to completely express yourselves with creative control the way you want.”
In the second part of his speech he addressed the industry and he said, “You guys have got to become a little bit more humble here, and understand that now people are creating art without your money, and you’re going to have to start paying a little bit more attention to what artists really want to say, and what artists really want to do, because they’re going to be doing it without you if you guys don’t start paying closer attention and get on board.”
Do you think that’s because of the Internet?
The Internet has changed everything. Marc Maron [host of the popular WTF podcast] is now extremely successful. He is a force to be reckoned with as far as comedy careers go in this era of 2012. A few years ago he felt like he spent his entire life struggling to make a dent in the industry, because he just felt that he was too angry, too neurotic, too bold. When he created a podcast of his own, and said, “Alright, I don’t have to answer to anyone. I don’t have any executive to please. I don’t have anyone’s agenda to meet. I’m just going to be myself with a little do-it-yourself podcast here, and it caught on.
Now he has one of the biggest podcasts on the Internet.
Exactly. He has millions of listeners now. It’s just an example of how the do-it-yourself nature of the Internet is changing things where artists are starting to feel a little bit freer to be themselves. So when Michael Black said to me after that show in San Fransisco, “I think you should drop the act and just start being yourself.”
I said, “That just seems too risky.”
He said, “Exactly. The risky stuff is the juicy stuff. The risky stuff is where emotion is going to get engaged. That’s where you should be focusing on. If it scares you, you should be trying it.
So the very next week I went back home to New York, and I contacted Margot Leitman who has a show called Stripped Stories where people tell stories about their sex lives, and I said, “Okay, I want to tell a story on your show.”
What was the story you wanted to tell?
It was going to be about how before The State got our green light, how I had attempted, with very mixed results, to prostitute myself. The day of the show I got scared. I thought, “What am I doing? I’m going to get up in front of an audience and talk about prostituting myself? It’s just too raw. It’s too much.”
I called Margot, and I said, “I don’t think I can do it.” and she said, “Oh my God, that is great news. When people call and say ‘I don’t think I can do it’ then I know that story is going to rock.” Because when the audience senses that a person is really stepping out on a limb. When the audience senses that a person is really kind of opening up and being themselves, they are with you in a way that is very hard to get them with you in stand up comedy.
Why do you think that is?
You don’t even have to be a polished performer, and you can leave an audience riveted if you get up and tell a true story. And the reason is we adjust our expectations as listeners. We have a built in psychology for when we sense that someone is being authentic and telling the truth, we just open up. They’re opening up, and so we open up.
If you go into the therapist office and bullshit for an hour and kind of skirt around things, you might find that your therapist is starting to doze off a little bit, but if you go into the therapist and start really digging into things you’ll notice that the therapist is having a hard time not acting sympathetic. The therapist is supposed to act like they’re a blank slate, but if you’re really being authentic you’ll catch that dude crying.
So you’re saying it’s a mark of a good story if it makes your therapist cry?
I don’t have a therapist. I’m just using that as an example, because people always joke about “Oh, the therapist fell asleep on me.” I think that in storytelling, in Risk! especially, people say, “Oh my God, this is a lot like therapy.”
Yeah. It is.
So you had this feeling that you didn’t want to keep playing to a type, is that why you started Risk?
After doing Margot’s show what happened was I did that prostitution story and it was night and day. It was the exact opposite of the experience of having done my character monologues show in San Fransisco, because I noticed that people were making eye contact with me. I noticed that at one point I was actually conversing with the audience.
At the end of the show people weren’t just saying things like,“That was funny.” People were saying things like, “Oh my God, thank you so much for sharing that, because that totally jiggered in my memory this thing that happened between me and my mom when I was eight years old.”
It’s kind of fascinating to see the impact that true storytelling starts to have when you start sharing things.
After Margot’s show I said, “Listen, I’ve had twelve or thirteen years of failure here.” I was 39 years old, and there’s something about 39 years old that makes people feel like, “Oh my God, I am not going to the big 4-0 without a project under my belt.”
There’s a little of that at 29 as well.
Yeah. So I decided to start the Risk! live show and podcast and the whole idea was, if it was a podcast then I would be forcing myself to be getting up on stage and telling stories on a regular basis. If I have a deadline to meet then I’m going to do it. So the earliest episodes of Risk! you’re literally hearing me learn how to tell stories. That’s when I was brand new at it.
That seems to be true of a lot of podcasts. The early episodes are very different, but you can sort of hear the show progress over time.
Absolutely. The State used to have a philosophy of “Just learn by doing.” We never took any courses on how to build scenes. We never had any background in improvisation, or philosophies of comedy, or anything like that. We just did it from instinct and from growing up watching [Monty] Python and SNL and the Muppets.
I love the Muppets.
I mean, I say the Muppets, but I have to include Sesame Street and the Electric Company too. People underestimate the extent to which those shows you saw as a kid actually are probably the most foundational of all.
Why do you think it’s important to teach others how to tell good stories?
Well, at the risk of sounding like I’m advertising my services, I have a school called TheStoryStudio.org and at the The Story Studio we do one-day storytelling workshops for businesses. We do two-day workshops for just anybody. We have six-week workshops. We do one-on-one stuff over Skype or Google+ Hangouts. We just have a whole array of ways you can just start working on your stories with other people.
There’s a lot to be said about the nuances of storytelling. There’s a lot of tips and tricks and formulas that you will want to be aware of over time to become a better storyteller, so there’s all that stuff, but then there’s something even more invaluable. There’s the opportunity to share stories in the presence of other people who are thinking about all those same nuances.
It really is one of those things, a little bit like improv where they say you should really be taking classes in improv for two years straight before you can really expect to be a really ace improvisor. You become more authentically you out of practicing it. It’s really a process of learning to let go a lot of your stiffness. Of letting go a lot of your internal critic.
The only way to get better at doing all that letting go and letting yourself live and breathe in an authentic way is to take a lot of workshops and get a lot of practice at it. There’s also a lot of story slams, at least in New York City, but in more and more cities now, and the whole idea of what they call a slam is a situation where it’s not a curated show. It’s a show where anyone who comes has an opportunity to put their name in the hat and get up and tell a story if they are called.
I’m almost afraid to ask this based off of the stories you’ve already shared about your own life, but let’s take a risk — Are there any stories that even you have been too afraid to tell on stage?
There’ve been two I’ve been thinking of, and one of them is the story of my marriage, my nine year relationship with my ex-husband. One of the main reasons I’ve been reluctant to go into it is because I don’t want to hurt him.
That’s one of the things you’ve got to keep in mind when you’re telling stories is you often really have to hide the identities of some of the people you’re talking about, but when you’re talking about family members, it can be impossible to disguise who you’re talking about. So I would like to tackle the story of my marriage, and I’d like to do it this year, and I actually asked him if I could, and told him I would even run parts of it by him.
The other story I would like to tell is when I became suicidal after The State broke up. Several years later I was about as close as I’ve ever been to being in a dangerous state in that sense. Both of those stories are going to be really challenging because they’re going to involve a lot of like digging into myself.
I can be pretty hard on myself in my stories because I think it’s just my nature to beat up on myself, so I know that I’ll see all sorts of ways that I handled both those situations, my marriage and getting all down-in-the-dumps after The State broke up. I’m sure I’ll see a lot of ugliness in myself that I’ll have to be looking at. But those do strike me as pretty profound stories that I should probably tell at some point.
Kevin Allison’s show Risk! is available for free each week and can be found at Risk-Show.com. It’s part of the Maximum Fun network of podcasts, and can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, or however you listen to podcasts.
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