Kevin Allison is probably best known for being the tall, redheaded member of 90’s cult sketch comedy group The State. Since the dissolving of The State, Allison has been doing a podcast called “Risk! True Tales Boldy Told” where people tell stories from outside of socially accepted norms. He will be doing a Storytelling Workshop with Sketchfest at Brava Studio on Friday, January 31st at 3 PM (tickets). He will also be doing a live recording of Risk! at the Brava Theater at 7:30 on the 31st with Dana Gould, Nato Green, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Brendon Walsh telling stories, as well as an opening set by fellow The State alums Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black (tickets). We had a chance to sit and talk with Allison ahead of these performances. Since he is a storyteller, I was only to squeeze in three questions. It’s ok, because I didn’t want him to stop talking!What prompted the desire to start a storytelling podcast?
During the decade after The State broke up, I sank into poverty and kind of fell of the map, at least where the entertainment industry is concerned. It wasn’t as if I wasn’t trying, but I became that starving artist that used to be on TV. I was pitching shows, I was doing one man shows, auditioning, but something just wasn’t clicking. Back when I was in The State, every morning we would do “check ins.” We would start the day by sharing with the others where we were at emotionally with each other. The reason we did that was so we could off set the way we were so mean to each other. This was the opportunity for us to share actual truth and actual emotion. And everyone thought that I had the most fascinating check ins! It may have been because I was the only gay member of the group. I was the only one venturing away from the group, going off into New York City on weird adventures, to clubs and underground places, making strange dalliances with people of all sorts of social and economic backgrounds, yadda yadda yadda.
My life was a big sexual adventure, and I always had crazy stories to tell. So the people in The State always told me to go up and tell those stories! And I always told them no. I’m too many things that, when you add them all up together, Hollywood and middle America would never want to hear about or see. I’m too raunchy and gay, and conversely, I’m too polite and friendly and midwestern! These things just don’t make sense together! I’m not your typical “type.” Well, it turns out that those ten or twelve years after The State broke up, I tried too hard to be a “type.” To be how others expected me to be. To be what the TV or movie industry would be looking for in a guy that looks like me. So finally I did a show in 2008 called “F-ed Up.” I did five characters that have “f-ed up” their careers. So, it was obviously about different aspects of myself. But that show didn’t even work because all of the characters were too big and too goofy, and clearly not authentically me. So my friend Michael Ian Black came to the show, and I asked him how it went. He told me that I should drop the act and just tell my own stories. And I replied, “But I’m too gay and kinky and raunchy and midwestern. It’s too risky.” And Black said, “Exactly. If it feels risky, that’s because you are opening up. Because if you open up, the audience will start to open up to you.”
So, I started looking at these true storytelling shows, like The Moth and This American Life. And I thought, I can’t tell my story on those shows! With those shows you have to really clean and polish, so that your ideas are as liberal and politically correct and palatable to mothers driving their children home from soccer practice at 3 in the afternoon as possible. I said, I want to create a show where people can get on stage and speak to an audience as if they were talking to a therapist. I want people to tell stories that would cause people to get up out of their seats and leave the theater because it’s too taboo or too emotional or whatever it is. I just want people to feel they can get on stage and take a risk, and be as unfiltered as can be. So, when I introduced the show, I was surprised by how thirsty the entertainment industry was for this kind of show. This is the kind of show that makes me feel like “I am not as big a freak as I thought I was.” It can be funny one moment, shocking another, and heartwarming or tearjerking the next because people are saying whatever their experience is.
Have you ever had a situation where you had a guest that wasn’t as willing to be as open or forward as you’d like them to be?
The very first episode of Risk was called “Strange Sex.” And two young ladies came forward to share stories with me. When we prepare for the show, I generally behave like a therapist, asking people questions and getting them to dig deep, to get them beyond rationalizations and niceties. Which you can always do. I even have to do that to myself when I prepare a story. But, yes, two of the first people came and told me about these wild sexual experiences, and they started putting two and two together and realized that they were truly getting taken advantage of in that situation. And it feels more like a “date rape” story than a story about me being a wild child. So, I contacted them the next day and said, “Hey look. I’m not going to put this out there. I want us to take some time and think about this before we release it.” Sure enough, they decided that we shouldn’t put it out. There have been circumstances when I’ve decided that this person needs to process this more thoroughly. And there have been times when, for both me and the story teller, it’s been a Hail Mary! sort of thing. There was one in which a woman named Becca told a story of how, when she was 20 years old, she was into these transcendental ideas of religion. She was experimenting with psychedelic mushrooms and optimum. One weekend, she had a psychotic break where the voice of God was telling her to kill her mother. But she loves her mother, but she felt compelled to do this. So she took a steak knife and stabbed her mother. And, the most amazing thing about this story is that her mother then helped her heal through forgiveness and encouragement. She helped her find where her real priorities were. She helped her get to the point where she could get to the point to tell that story in front of an audience. She was able to recreate every moment of the stabbing, the way she felt, the look in her mom’s eyes, the look in her dog’s eyes, why she was yelling, and it all completely came alive. It was an extraordinary story.
There was another one recently. Malina Williams shared it. We had to hold it because it came about right around the time the verdict for the killing of Trayvon Martin came out. This one dealt with racial division in the country. I’m really into the “kink” community, and that came about through someone daring me to do it. I took them up on the dare and became a total kinkster. At Kink Camp, I met Williams, and she told this story called “Slave.” It was an entire hour long story on the show. She became very fascinated with this very taboo concept within the kink community called “race play,” where she became fascinated with this concept of taking the submissive role where a white person would take on the role of a bigot. The white person would abuse her in that way, and it’s a sort of role play where she knew she could call it quits at any time with a safe word. So she’s delving into this community, and is having a hard time with it because other kinksters don’t feel comfortable with getting off as the “white bigot.” But she does find a few people to play with her, but she finds one guy that goes so far with her, and gets so realistic with a southern plantation scene that she goes into an altered state. She’s not on drugs. She just goes into this “subspace.” She loses comprehension that she’s in a scene and forgets that she has a safe word and can end it at any time. So this guy gets more and more ugly and intense and abusive until it becomes an ugly experience for her. It’s a tale of where playing with this taboo can go wrong, leaving the person badly burned.
Sorry, I need to take a minute to process that last one. I can’t fathom being ok with being the “white bigot” in that role…
She does a really beautiful way of telling that story. What you will find is, often times, when you need to go someplace really strange, people are afraid to tell those stories. But we are really fascinated by those darker stories. It’s not the details that matter, it’s the emotional journey of “I really felt like I belonged here” or “these people don’t like me.” Those sort of emotional ups and downs are what we relate to from story to story. It’s how we love the stories of Jesus or Buddha because, even if we don’t relate to them, they remind us of the emotional journeys, the ups & downs that we experience.
The one question that I need to ask you that everyone is asking you. Is there any future for The State?
Oh, yes. The truth is that we are all still good friends, and the email chain between the 11 of us stays alive and ridiculous all the time. We really want to do something together again, and there are times when it really starts to feel like something might happen. I’m convinced it will. It’s just a matter of when, and it will be pretty concise, like a few episodes or a movie or something for Netflix. We need all of us to set aside a month a year in advance, and we will make it happen.
Allison has a slew of live dates across the country coming up. If you aren’t coming to Sketchfest, why don’t you check him out here?