“Michael Ian Black said to me, 'I think you should just take the mask off. Stop playing these characters and just start telling your own true stories.' And I said, 'Oh, God, that feels too risky.' And he said, 'Well, yeah. That's a good word.’”
– Kevin Allison
Guy MacPherson: Mr. Allison.
Kevin Allison: Yes, this is he! How are you?
GM: Good, thanks. Where are you?
KA: I am in New York City right now.
GM: Is that where you live?
KA: That is where I live, although lately I'm here a lot more rarely than I wish. I'm on tour so much. We kinda go off and on.
GM: Always touring with Risk!?
KA: Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's often the weekends when I'm travelling.
GM: When did you start the podcast?
KA: In 2009. The first live show was August of that year and the first podcast was October of that year.
GM: Did you ever think it would get to where it is now when you first started?
KA: Well, you know, it's interesting. I really hoped it would. But it was the first thing in my career that I created that did get where I hoped it would get. When I was turning 39, I was at a real make-or-break time. I was like, I have to start something that lasts. I had been through twelve years of failure, pitching projects, auditioning for things, doing solo shows that went nowhere. So by the time I started Risk!, I just had this feeling that I have really tapped into something here and I really believe in this so come hell or high water I gotta do everything I can to keep this running.
GM: That's kinda like Marc Maron's story with WTF, how he was at the end of his ropes when he started.
KA: It's fascinating because he was on the very first Risk! live show, he's in the very first episode of the podcast. He had only had his podcast out for a month or maybe six weeks or so prior to appearing on Risk! and he sat me down after the first Risk! live show and he said, 'Look buddy, I think you've got an amazing idea here. If you want any advice...' He's like, 'I'm starting to do one of these things, too, so let's stay in touch because I can give you advice on what I'm learning along the way.' So he's always been a bit of a mentor to us, and his producer Brendan McDonald. Of course, his podcast skyrocketed in success whereas Risk! has been a very gradual... Year by year we gain more and more listeners and make a little bit more money, but it's been very, very gradual. And sometimes that's frustrating, but sometimes I'm actually quite grateful for it because it's given us the opportunity to really slowly grow creatively as well, without having to deal with all the pressure of becoming super popular right away. We've been able to really explore things and push boundaries and try new things along the way, which has really made the show exciting.
GM: You use 'we'. Is that the royal we? Or how many people are involved now? I assume it was just you at the beginning.
KA: It was just me and a woman named Michelle Walson was helping me produce the live show and the podcast in the very beginning. And then she, about six months into Risk! history, she had to go to grad school and became way busy with that so all of a sudden I really was all alone. I started announcing on the podcast, just speaking right to the audience, saying, 'Listen, I am a creative person. I don't really have a mind for keeping on top of all the logistics: the bill-paying, the emails, the legal shit. I need someone to help with the business.' So JC Cassis stepped in. She was a fan of my old sketch comedy group, The State, from when she was a girl. So she heard me on the podcast calling for that, and she stepped in and helped me turn this into a business. We now have about 24 people working with us in one capacity or another. Most of them are just working part-time here and there on little projects. Some of them are working specifically for Risk!, the live show and the podcast, and others are working for the story studio, which is our school. We also teach storytelling and do corporate workshops and all that kinda thing.
GM: You're like a real small business.
KA: Yes, indeed, indeed. Yeah, yeah. It really is quite something because I was penniless when I started the whole thing, just maxing out credit cards. So the fact that we have been able to turn it into something that's pretty stable is extraordinary. And it has everything to do with the fans, the fact that people are so passionate about the show. People are constantly writing to us saying, 'Oh my gosh, the show saved my life. I want to support you guys. Never stop doing what you're doing.' And that really, psychologically has always kept us going in a big way.
GM: You mentioned pitching projects and going out on auditions. Do you do any other work now or is it all Risk!-related?
KA: This is mostly it. I still will audition for voice-over work. I'm still very happy to make appearances in television projects. I was in an episode of High Maintenance a little bit ago on HBO. I'm very welcoming of making appearances in other stuff; I just don't have a whole heck of a lot of time to be pounding the pavement running to auditions. So it is 99 percent Risk! at this point.
GM: When did The State end?
KA: The State broke up in 1996. We had a long, tortuous breakup like the Beatles, basically. We quit MTV because we thought we could go to a bigger place. So we tried to go to CBS and Les Moonves had just been hired when our first episode of our show showed up on CBS and he was like, 'Ugh, look, what is this? It's a bunch of kids doing sketch comedy? I don't know. I've got too much on my plate. Let's just get rid of that for now.' So he didn't even take a look at us and that was the end of our career. It was brutal. We tried to keep doing other things: movie projects and stuff like that but it was very very hard to keep eleven people together. So those were dark and difficult years for me because I had really thought that that group would be together forever. We always talked like we were going to be the Rolling Stones or something like that, but that was just naivety.
GM: Do you know if it played in Canada?
KA: The State? I do not know that.
GM: I don't think it did, but I could be wrong.
KA: I think there was a time where they started expanding where they were showing stuff, but it might have ended up showing in reruns at some point.
GM: We didn't get MTV for years and years and years. We had MuchMusic, and maybe they ran it, I'm not sure.
KA: Right. Right, right, right.
GM: When the troupe broke up, where did you see your career going?
KA: When it broke up, I thought to myself, I guess I should start auditioning for sitcoms, doing other sort of sketch comedy stuff. I did a lot of solo shows. I would get up on stage and play kooky characters, delivering monologues. I was very, very fearful. I was dealing with a lot of stage fright and a lot of social anxiety about hanging out with other comedians. Being in The State had really tough for me because it was an extremely competitive group of people. It kind of made me a little bit afraid of, oh my gosh, is everyone so competitive and cutthroat in this industry. So I kind of floundered for a long time. I kind of blame myself for not getting up on stage every night because that's what you really gotta do when you're young like that. I actually quit performing entirely for about four years. I tried to go into writing instead, working in book publishing and magazine editing and stuff like that. But I did come back around to it and put up another one-man show. In fact, Michael Ian Black, who was a member of The State as well, my sketch comic group, came to see a solo show that I put up in 2008. There were like five kooky characters again, but after it he said to me, 'I think you should just take the mask off. Stop playing these characters and just start telling your own true stories.' And I said, 'Oh, God, that feels too risky.' And he said, 'Well, yeah. That's a good word. That means you might be on to something if it feels risky. That means you're opening up and maybe they'll open up to you.' So the very next week I said, 'Okay, I'll try this. I'll tell a true story and I'll tell the riskiest one I can think of on stage.' I asked a friend who had a show at the UCB Theatre if I could be in her show and tell a risky, true story and she said great. It was the story of the first time I tried prostituting myself when I was 22 years old. And I was terrified to tell the damn thing. I actually called her the day of the show and said, 'I don't think I can do this. This is too risky.' And then she gave me the same talk that Michael had given me. She was like, 'Oh my God, that's great! If it feels too risky, it'll probably something tonight!' So I went ahead and did it.
GM: Literal prostituting or metaphorical?
KA: Oh no, literal. That story is a comedy of errors. I failed to get the money so I guess it's the thought that counts. (laughs) But anyway, when I got up there on stage, I started telling the story and I had all those usual self-defeating voices going on in my head going, 'Oh, you sound too Mid-Western and polite here' or 'Oh my God, that was too gay what you just said' or 'too kinky' or 'that was too absurd and strange the way you made that joke.' But they didn't care! They just kept leaning more and more forward because they could see that these weird, quirky aspects of this guy's personality are the true him. So I just felt this energy with the audience that I hadn't felt before doing crazy characters. And I walked away so excited that night because people started coming up to me after the story and saying stuff like, 'Well, I've never been in a situation like that before but the way you described the emotions you were feeling, it triggered this memory for me of this fight I got into with my dad when I was in junior high.' It's amazing what happens to people when they listen to a very honest and heartfelt true story. It'll just unlock certain emotions and thought patterns in other people because you just being so honest. So you really don't know what you might be offering to other people by sharing the truth. So I walked away from that show that night, I walked away from the UCB Theatre, I was walking south on 8th Avenue in Chelsea and the entire concept came to me. I was like, That's it. I should create a show called Risk! where the whole idea is everyone who comes up to share a story on stage, they've got to be stepping outside their comfort zone, they should be sharing something they never imagined they'd dare to share in public. It could be a funny story or it could be a terrifying story or it could be a beautiful story, as long as it's pretty clear that that person is boldly revealing something and kind of taking a risk. That'll be great. And I knew also that it had to be a live show that happened regularly in order to literally force me to be getting up on stage on a regular basis like I hadn't been for the past twelve years. I knew I needed like a deadline that would force me to be showing up in public and speaking to human beings. And I knew it had to be a podcast as well because I knew that after twelve years of occasionally doing small theatre shows in New York, you need to reach a bigger audience. So the whole idea came to me that night.
GM: And then how long did it take from that point to start the show?
KA: It's really interesting because we – myself and Michelle Walson [?] – took a whole summer to develop the whole idea. We were recording people's stories throughout the summer because we knew we wanted to do some of these radio-style stories on the podcast. That's where we record someone one-on-one and then remove me, the interviewer, from the audio and just have the person telling the story and cut together music and sound design with it. And we knew we wanted to do live shows. So throughout the summer of 2009, we were recording all these stories with people one-on-one. And then we did the first live show at Arlene's Grocery [?] in the Lower Eastside in August of 2009 and then we had our first episode ready to go in October of 2009. So it's interesting – we created a show that is incredibly hard to produce because when you get right down to it, there's an awful lot of hand-holding that you have to do with the storytellers. A lot of people might not have so much experience with storytelling who do the show, but they have extraordinary experiences to share about. So there's half the work of an editor and a dramaturge and half the work of a therapist, the poking and prodding at people to get them to continue to dig deeper and unpack their experiences. When Risk! started in 2009, we would come out with an episode once every two weeks, so two episodes per month. And then later we were able to feel like, okay, we've figured this out enough and we've got enough momentum going that we can do it every week. But it is still exhausting. I mean, every week we still get that episode up. We finish the damn thing right before it goes up.
GM: It sounds like maybe you were also teaching future guests how to tell a story by editing yourself out of those one-on-ones as you coaxed them into revealing more and more.
KA: Yeah, it's kind of fascinating, especially with those radio-style stories. I don't think even sometimes the storytellers know how much we've cut out, the ums, the repetitions, the little digressions.
GM: The half-started sentences.
KA: Yeah, exactly. It takes a lot of editing but we can really make these things into fantastic stories.
GM: Standup comedy has gone from joke-telling to personal stories, personal truths. Do standups make better storytellers because they're used to talking in monologue form and these days it's all about personal truth-telling?
KA: It really, really depends. It's very surprising. We'll try to predict sometimes who will be able to nail this easily and who might really need some instruction. My very favourite example was when Trevor Noah first did the show – this was way before he was on The Daily Show. It was one of his first times in New York City. He came to do the show and he was like, 'Oh, okay, I get it. I'll tell this funny story that I often tell in my act.' And I was like, 'Well, okay, okay, but I gotta tell you, we do really push people to share something as meaningful as possible. It's really no holds barred.' And he was like, 'Okay.' So he comes and he listens to the other storytellers and he grabs me backstage and he says, 'Whoah, you weren't kidding! These people really are baring their souls. Do you mind if I change what story I was going to tell and just improvise something?' And I said, 'No, no. If you've got something you think really speaks to your heart, give it a try.' And he got up and told this story about how his mom was in an abusive relationship. His step-father was so abusive that he finally shot her in the head at one point. And he told this story and it was just very, very moving and kind of stunning, and a great, great Risk! story. So that was an example of someone who got it. But there really are very often standup comedians who don't want to run their story with us beforehand because they're like, 'Nah, nah, I'm too busy. I get up on stage all the time anyway. I know what I'm doing.' And they often just don't. They just don't get the spirit of the show. And then there are others who are just afraid of going for more than 15 seconds or so without a laugh. It makes them really, deeply uncomfortable because they're so used to getting laughs all the time. And sometimes a story that is being really truthful needs to go without a laugh in some stretches. The best example recently was Hannah Gadsby's show that's on Netflix right now. It's called Nanette. It's funny but it does not at all shy away from getting into some serious stuff and some real storytelling.
GM: Yeah. That could have been a whole Risk! episode.
KA: Yeah, exactly.
GM: Do the guests have to pass their stories by you before they come on?
KA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Our official tagline that we send out to people when we're casting the shows is that we cast based on story, not storytellers. In order to deal with people's egos... A lot of people are like, 'Well, I'm a big name, why can't you just put me down?' And we're like, 'No, no, no, no.' We kind of want an evening of Risk! to be a couple of funny stories, one maybe terrifying story, and then one maybe beautiful and tear-jerking story. We want to have it be like an emotional roller-coaster ride. So we tell people we really need to hear your story beforehand and we really need to be able to give you some feedback and some coaching along the way. And to be honest with you, it's when we go out on tour to these places like Detroit or St. Louis or Dallas or whatever that we'll often have the best stories. Because those people are not industry professionals generally; they're usually just diehard fans of the podcast who really get the spirit of the show and have pitched us because they want to share about something that was really, really emotional for them. And we'll work with those people very intensively to make sure they're ready to go.
GM: Does it have the same oomph when a guest is not a celebrity?
KA: Yeah, it's really, really interesting. When we do have celebrities on the show, that will help put butts in seats. It's always hard to get people to come to shows in New York or Los Angeles where the show happens once a month in both of those cities because that's just the nature of doing anything in both of those cities. You've got so much competition that it's very difficult to get butts in seats. But when we go out on tour, those people are generally just big old fans of the podcast so there's an excitement in the room and an eagerness, and there's an understanding that the people getting up on stage are kind of flying without a net. When someone does screw up or have a little bit of a meltdown, which sometimes happens, the audience will applaud and be supportive and yell out, 'You can do it!' and stuff like that.
GM: Do you get desensitized after hearing all these stories? Do any of them still make you squirm?
KA: Oh, some of them certainly do. I have recognized that I do have a bit of an ability psychologically to compartmentalize things and not be overwhelmed too much by all of these intense stories. People are like, 'How long do you think you can do this?' And I really feel like there's all kinds of experiences that we have yet to tap into. There are sometimes very similar experiences that will come our way, like child molestation or rape or stuff like that where it's like, okay, here's another one of those kinds of stories, but because people are so individual and have such specific backgrounds and such specific friends and family members, there's often incredibly different things about each story that make them surprising in different ways. So yeah it is kind of amazing to me how it feels like we'll never run out of new and surprising stuff.
GM: There must be some stories that make you yawn.
KA: Oh, gosh, all the time! Yeah, yeah, yeah. We're always coaching people that you really have to zero in on specific really emotional moments and then really flesh them out. People will sometimes just give us a list of things that happen but not really unpack why it was emotional for them, or a person will just choose something that seems mundane and we're like, 'Wait, why are you even telling us that?' So we definitely have to send out a lot of rejection notices.
GM: When you do the live show, are you up there with them interviewing or is it just solo?
KA: It's just solo. I host the show, so I come out in between every storyteller and bring them up on stage and then they're up there alone.
GM: Sometimes you'll hear somebody listening to a story say, 'I don't care if it's true. Just make it a good story.' How much poetic license is there?
KA: That's a very interesting question. We always encourage people to be as accurate and truthful as they possibly can, but if they want to compress two characters into one or change the order of a couple of events, those kinds of little creative license where you make it more emotionally clear what's going on by kind of fudging some of the details. For example, a person will be talking about something that happened when they were six years old, a conversation that their parents were having, and they'll have to use a little bit of fictional creative license to recreate what their parents were saying because they don't remember exactly what was said; they just remember how it felt like what they were saying. So there is room for fudging things a little bit as long as you're not making something up out of whole cloth. I think you can feel that. And generally I hope that I can feel, as a listener, like, 'Wait, wait, is that true? Are you exaggerating there or what?' There were a couple of occasions where fans have written in, 'I think that that story is bullshit.' It's interesting to me because I'll think, 'Wait, I did spend a lot of time working with that person. Did I not test intuition to sense that it might have been bullshit?'
GM: I guess everyone, being ego-driven as we all are, thinks that their story is more interesting than it perhaps is. So you guys are there to vet them and go, 'Wait a second. That's really not that interesting.'
KA: We're always trying to guide people to understand that you ultimately shouldn't be telling the story for yourself. Hopefully you're sharing it because it's insightful enough or emotional enough or just interesting enough that other people can really have some resonance with it. So we're always looking for people who seem to have a certain emotional intelligence about what they're talking about, who seem to have some compassion for the other characters in the story. We have had some occasions where someone's got up on stage and it just felt a little icky, felt a little self-promotional or self-indulgent or falsely self-deprecating even, and we'll feel like it didn't quite work.
GM: Do you have the Vancouver lineup yet?
KA: No, in fact what I'm doing today – what I was doing before you called and what I'll be doing when I hang up – is listening to a ton of stories from the Pacific Northwest.
GM: And these are just listeners, regular people, who want to share their stories?
KA: Yep, for the most part. Yeah, yeah. I mean, always people in these cities who are involved in the local improv school or maybe are standup comedians around town or are writers... There's usually a mix of people who have never done anything like this before or people who have dabbled in it.
GM: You've done a show here once before.
KA: I believe we've been in Vancouver twice. A lovely experience.
GM: Have you spent any time here outside of that?
KA: Just a tiny bit. The one thing I regret most about this touring is that I often don't have enough time to stay in any one city. For the Pacific Northwest I'll be going to Portland and Seattle and Vancouver just like boom-boom-boom. In order to save money, we often have to have me in and out.