Kevin Allison Brings ‘RISK! Live’ to Milwaukee
After his big break starring in MTV’s “The State” came to an end in 1995, Kevin Allison was unable to achieve the heights he had reached early in his career. Then a conversation with his former “The State” cast mate, Michael Ian Black, took him down a path of self-realization that led to the creation of RISK!, Allison’s podcast and live show that is downloaded nearly 1.5 million times a month and tours nationwide.
We caught up with Allison ahead of his show at The Back Room at Colectivo on Friday, Dec. 16 to talk about the show, what led him to it and how he has become a therapist of sorts for his listeners.
For those who may not know what RISK! is can you explain it?
RISK! is a show where people tell true stories that they never thought they would dare to share in public. It’s a little bit like other storytelling shows you might have heard on NPR like The Moth or This American Life, but RISK! is totally uncensored. People talk about traumatic things, or outrageously hilarious stuff. Nothing is too outrageous, sexual or violent. It’s bold, real, unfiltered honesty.
A typical evening of RISK! Live, or even an episode of the podcast, is an emotional rollercoaster ride. We’ll take you from a story that has you crying laughing because it’s about how someone shit their pants on a very high pressure date, and then we’ll take you to a story where someone attempted murder or something like that. It can get scary at times, and it can be beautiful at times. It really is all over the map and it’s constantly fascinating, riveting stuff.
I read that RISK! was started because of a rock bottom experience you had. Can you talk a bit about that?
I was in a sketch comedy group called The State, and we had a show on MTV in the ‘90s. When we lost our TV career and the group broke up, I spent the next 12 years not really sure how to get a solo career off the ground.
Because I had always played these big, crazy, kooky characters on stage, I thought I should keep doing that alone. It never really broke through, and In 2008 I created a solo show about five characters that had basically fucked up their careers. It was clearly autobiographical, coming from someone who used to be pretty successful and kind of lost it.
I did this show at San Francisco Sketch Fest and Michael Ian Black, who was also a member of The State, came to see the show and said, “I think that everyone wishes you would drop the crazy character act and start speaking from the heart.” I was too worried about how that would go over. I didn’t know if casting directors in the film and TV industry would get me. It felt too risky to be the real me up on stage. Michael said, “That’s the word! If it feels risky, then you’re probably opening up in a way that an audience would open up to you.”
The very next week, I told the riskiest true story I could on stage. It was about the first time I tried prostituting myself when I was in my early 20s before “The State” was on TV. I was super nervous to tell that story, but I was shocked by how the energy in the room was so different. It wasn’t like I was reciting something at the audience. It was more like I was having a conversation with them. Every time I found myself thinking I was sounding too gay, kinky or Midwestern, it would melt away because the more I opened up, the more the audience saw that I was being genuine.
I really felt like something powerful had happened that night, and I walked away thinking that I wanted to create a show where everyone told a story and would be kind of coming out about something. That’s how the idea for the podcast and live show were born, and once we started doing it, it changed my life.
How did you initially get everyday people to agree to reveal so much of themselves?
Initially, I asked a lot of comedian friends to do it. People like Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman and Marc Maron. They all were amazing and helped bring attention to the show. Once the podcast was gaining an audience, people started writing in to us. People who were listening would say, “When I heard so and so share their story it made me feel like I could share about anything.”
How do you approach a live show differently than your recorded podcasts?
For the last three or four months I’ve been saying on the podcast, “Hey Milwaukee, we’re coming to town and our show on December 16th is going to be themed ‘Eye Opening,’ so pitch us your stories.”
What generally happens is about 20 people pitch us a story, and some will be funny, some will be sad, but a lot of times we’ll have to think if we’ve heard a similar story before, or if this person sounds like they’re ready to share. There are many factors going into what we choose to put in the show.
Eventually, we narrow it down and choose four people to start working with. They send recordings of them telling their story, and then I write them some questions, almost like a therapist, until they’re ready to go.
There really is a risk factor to it all. Sometimes these people are used to getting up on stage, and sometimes they’ve never stepped foot on stage before. When you see RISK! Live there is that feeling that anything could happen. Sometimes people break down crying. Sometimes audience members get too uncomfortable and have to leave. It’s very much the essence of live theater, but 99% of the time it’s a very uplifting, fascinating evening.
One thing that struck me when you were just talking about the process is that it has to be extremely difficult to reject someone bearing so much of themselves to you.
Yeah, but one of the things that I always tell people is that just because we weren’t able to use your story in the show this time around, doesn’t mean that we might not be able to use it in the future. I also say that you should definitely honor the effort you put into starting to share your story, and look into other places you might be able to share it. You can always try and get a personal essay published, start a blog or look for an open mic in town. I’m always encouraging people to remember that their story is precious and there are so many reasons we might not be able to use it that don’t have anything to do with whether it’s a good story or not.
RISK! Live will be at The Back Room at Colectivo on Friday, Dec. 16. The Milwaukee storytellers will be: Amy Salloway, Megan McGee, Molly Snyder and Tania Tomilonus. You can purchase tickets here.