As an alumnus of both NYU and the sketch comedy group The State — which went on to have its own MTV show — and as the host of the popular true-story podcast, “Risk!,” Kevin Allison has seen the value of storytelling firsthand. On the podcast, he gives voice to anyone with a crazy, unbelievable story — and he’s got a few of his own. WSN spoke with him about his time at NYU and how he got to be where he is today.
Washington Square News: Do you think your time at NYU helped you in the long run of your career?
Kevin Allison: Oh my god, yeah … It might have been the very first day or the second day at NYU. Spike Lee came to talk to everyone, all of the new film students. And it was very funny because he said … “look around at this building. You think that you’re paying for this building and this equipment and the faculty and yadda yadda? No. What really matters, what you should really take away from this experience here at school, are the people sitting next to you. Get to know people, start working with people. Collaborate, and see who you jibe with, because some of the friendships you make here at school could last a lifetime.” … That one piece of advice, did I really take that to heart. When I first saw The State’s first show … I saw the group perform and was so blown away by the creative energy and just the passion and how inspired everyone in the group seemed to be and how lit up the audience was that I said to a couple of my friends, “whatever it takes, I’m gonna get to know those people and get in that group eventually.” And, lo and behold, I did … It wasn’t until my junior year that I finally got into the group, but it made a huge difference in my life, because The State had a show on MTV within a year of our graduating from NYU.
WSN: So about “Risk!” — I know that idea came from one of [your] members, but could you tell that story more in depth?
KA: After The State broke up in 1996, I was very flat-out terrified. I think that we can lose sight of the fact that fear and lack of confidence can really really hold us back in so many ways … So when the group broke up and all of a sudden I was a solo act, I didn’t know how I wanted to express myself … It was in 2008 that I put together a show called “F Up.” It was about five characters who had fucked up their career. It was clearly auto-biographical … And when I did it in San Francisco, Michael Ian Black — who was a member of The State — came to see it. And the show was kind of a disaster that night, and afterwards I said, “well, what’d you think?” And he said, “I think the audience just wanted you to drop the act and start speaking as yourself, just start telling your own true stories. Your life is so interesting.” And I said, “oh my god, but I’m so scared. I’m so uncomfortable in my own skin onstage.” I think I’m too gay, too kinky, too absurdist, too serious, too spiritual, too intellectual, too Midwestern, you know. I’m a bunch of things that don’t necessarily add up to what a Hollywood casting director would understand right at the drop of a hat. So I said, “it just seems too risky.” And Michael said, “that’s the word. If it feels risky, then you’re probably tapping into something that people will want to listen to.”
So, the very next week I came back to New York and I said alright, I’m going to take a risk. I’m going to tell a true story onstage at one of these true storytelling shows in town … I got up that night, and I told the story about the first time I tried prostituting myself, right before The State was picked up for a series on MTV, and I felt like that was the riskiest thing I could possibly be doing … The more I was just allowing my warts-and-all personality to show, the more I was kind of winning them over, because they were kind of appreciating the, you know, letting my insecurities show and just kind of being myself. So, I saw that I had really kind of broken through and tapped into something that night, and I walked away from the UCB theatre that night saying, “this is it, I want to create a show called ‘Risk!’” … And you know, people are like, “oh, did the show’s philosophy and tone and everything evolve over time?” To an extent it did, but really it still is the show it was conceived to be.
WSN: What has been your favorite type of story that people tell on your podcast?
KA: I hugely value the way that we are able to go from one genre to another … one of the things that people love about the podcast is that there will be a story that has you just laughing out loud, bursting out laughing on the subway while you’re listening to it on your phone. And then the next one might have you crying, and I’ve always kind of loved how it has that ability to take sudden sharp turns, you know?
WSN: So I know that you have a storytelling studio, what made you want to create something like that?
KA: When I first started helping people shape their stories for the podcast, I realized right away that these storytelling principles are universal, because a lot of these principles are the exact same ideas that I would kind of work with in a fundamental way while creating sketches for The State … I also realized: anyone who has to get up and speak, whether it be in front of a boardroom or at a conference or even just chatting with a client over lunch … You can use narrative to reframe almost any bit of information. You can take raw stats and figures … and find a way to transpose it into something more narrative where human beings are having felt reactions to things. So, I realize, I should start teaching classes in this stuff. Both classes for people who just want to be more self-expressed … and classes for people who want to learn how to communicate in their careers at work in a more narrative way.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. RISK! Live will be at the Bellhouse Theatre on Dec. 14.
Email Jordan Reynolds at [email protected]