Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The State's Kevin Allison takes a Risk with his podcast

Posted By on Wed, Feb 22, 2012 at 8:53 AM

Kevin Allison at SF Sketchfest 2011
  • Ameen Belbahri
  • Kevin Allison at SF Sketchfest 2011
Comedian Kevin Allison is best-known for his work on the seminal '90s sketch show, The State. While many of those involved in the show went on to other projects, such as Viva Variety!, Reno 911, Wet Hot American Summer, and Stella — among many others — Allison spent the intervening decade attempting to find his voice and place in the world. In the past several years, he has found his niche as a storyteller and podcaster. His podcast and attendant live show, Risk, is devoted to people telling “true stories they never thought they'd dare to share.” Think This American Life's more personal, less journalistic pieces, but frequently covering topics from which radio would shy away. Allison was kind enough to give up a part of his afternoon to speak by phone with The Pitch about the podcast and the art of storytelling.

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The Pitch: How is the #reviewrisk! campaign going?

Allison: It's tricky because the whole podcast thing is so unproven. It's clearing a new path, so it's very difficult to know sometimes just how to carve your way through, you know?

Do you find, doing a podcast, that there's a lot of self-promotion involved?

Definitely. It's interesting because I was kind of out of the spotlight for so long. After The State broke up, it took me such a long time to figure out how to express myself. One thing we have going for us is that I know a lot of famous people, you know what I mean? I'm able to call them and ask them to do the show. But people still don't know who I am.

When we started the show, I felt the same way when we started doing The State. When we started doing The State, we approached it the way we would approach anything: that was, we poured our total hearts and souls into it, and it was a 24/7 job, and we didn't care that we weren't making any money. It's just, “Let's make the best damn show we can.”

And when the shows started coming out, we felt like, “Hey, this is pretty good.” And MTV would not promote it. They would put it on at times when no one was going to be up to see it, and they kept shifting the times, and the reviewers — the very few reviewers that did review it — reviewed it very, very, very negatively.

I remember a commercial you guys had that featured the Bee Gees' “I Started a Joke” with all reviews that panned the show.

Exactly. The Bee Gees song was my idea. That was the blizzard of '93 or something like that, so we're all penniless. Because we're unsure if the show's going to be picked up again, we're starting to wonder when we can begin picking up unemployment, and then, when we did get unemployment, the checks were bigger than MTV's.

So we all gather at Todd Hollabeck's house one day when it's blizzarding outside to look at our first review. It's the Daily News saying that our show is the worst show in the history of broadcasting. It was like, “Wow! Go for a superlative, here, guy. Are you going back to the days of radio for that?” That was devastating to us. We ended up, our second year at MTV, having to hire our own publicist. We had to start paying some dude $5,000 a month to start getting the word out about us, because MTV wouldn't.

I have to remind myself of that story again and again because I'm like, “Look: you used to be on national television and you couldn't get anyone to say a decent word about you. So you've got to expect it's going to take a few more years doing just a little podcast.”

I think there's like 4 million people who download the This American Life podcast, and I think that maybe there's probably a third that could probably stomach edgier, more unpredictable, more uncensored sort of stuff. I think those people would love us, if they just knew about us.

Some of them do now, though, kind of. [Note: comedian Danny Lobell's story, “Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens” was featured on This American Life's episode, “Reap What You Sow,” which you can listen to here.]

We were mentioned on This American Life. You are absolutely right. They wanted to use a story that was recorded with us, and I think they wanted a briefer version of it, so we had Danny do it again. It would really be great if I could get on there doing something. I just never make a point of pitching to them. I hate pitching or auditioning. That has not done me very well in my career — my hatred of pitching and auditioning.

Now, as a sketch writer, you're obviously used to telling stories, but how did you get into storytelling proper?

Now, see — that's the thing. The State, when we worked at MTV, it was a pecking order. It was about as cutthroat and comedy roastlike a relationship as you can imagine. We did a lot of cutting each other down in order to keep people's egos in check and keep the pecking order in order. I'm such a nice guy by default — to a fault — that I did very poorly in that setup. But it got to a point where someone in the group said, “We should have a check-in. Every morning at 10, when we arrive here at MTV, a half-hour where we just go around the room and say where we are emotionally. No jokes, no cutting each other down. Just take a breather and get real about what's going on in our lives and how we feel about working with each other.”

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What normally would happen is, because I was the only gay guy in the group, and we were all in our 20s, is that I would be the only one who would split off from the rest of the group at night. The rest of the group would hang out together at night, and that meant they were all a little bit more close and a little bit more pitching each other ideas well into the night, while I was out looking for dudes, you know?

In the morning, though, when we would have our check-ins, everyone would not have a whole hell of a lot to say. But I would have a 10-12-minute story about what I did last night, and it was always like the highlight of the check-in. Everyone was like, “OK, what did Kevin do last night?”

Michael Ian Black, especially, used to say, “Kevin, you have got to start incorporating some of that into your work, some of this crazy shit that you do in your life.” And I was always terrified of that because I always thought of myself as kind of a Jekyll and Hyde kind of person. I was raised very Catholic and I was kind of a mama's boy.

I was a very, very good boy because I knew I was gay from a very young age. It was one of my first conscious thoughts — that I physically liked other boys. So it was kind of my winning formula. My defense mechanism was to absolutely be a good boy, not rock any boats, and not be strange at all. A lot of gay kids probably do that. It made coming out of the closet kind of an archetypal pattern for me. So when I got into high school and I got drunk for the first time, I came out of the closet as the “Crazy Kevin.” The Kevin who runs around the party naked and ends up smearing mayonnaise on himself. There's always the nice Kevin and the crazy madman, bursting out, raunchy, inappropriate Kevin.

When Black was telling me, “You've got to tell these true stories in your solo work,” I was like, “No, people just won't get it 'cause I'm so Midwestern and corny and nice and shy and submissive and blah blah blah blah, and I've got this other side of me that is equally off-putting in the other direction. It's so bizarre and raunchy and inappropriate and wild man, that it'll just make their brains explode. They won't be able to understand who I am and what I'm doing.”

That was all just BS insecurity. When I was watching the other performers at Luna Lounge after The State broke up, in '96, I was watching [Marc] Maron and Sarah Silverman and [Stephen] Colbert and Amy Poehler and Zach Galifinakis — everyone was there at Luna Lounge, trying stuff out. Maron would get up on stage, and he wouldn't necessarily have anything prepared. He would just go off about whatever he was thinking right then, and it was electrifying. Sometimes, it would come to a bizarre, grinding halt, or it would become really awkward or embarrassing or whatever, but it was amazing, because he was letting all his flaws show, and I couldn't see that, for some reason.

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I thought, “No, no, no. I can't let my flaws show. I have to come up with these extremely polished, extremely written characters.” So I did that for literally something like — gosh, 11-13 years, and it just got me nowhere. It was 2008 when I finally put together my last solo show. I think it was my third solo show of crazy characters, and it was called “F-Up,” and each character in the show was a failure, somehow. They were all different sides of me, so I was really expressing how I felt about my own career at that point.

But the show didn't work because I think people sensed that I was trying to tell my story, but not really telling my story as me. Black pointed that out. Michael Black again stepped in and pointed that out when I did it in San Francisco. He said, “I think everyone in the audience just wanted you to drop the act and just start talking as yourself.” And I said, “It feels so risky to do that.” He said, “Well, there you go. That risk is where the good stuff will come from.”

The very next week, I forced myself to finally get up on stage as myself and tell a story, and it was night and day. It was night and day. It was the show “Stripped Stories” that Margo Lightman does at the UCB Theater here in New York, and that show was all sex stories. I prepared this sex story, and I called her that day, and I was like, “I don't think I can do this.” And she said, “Oh, that's such great news. When people call me and say, 'I don't think I can do this,' it's usually because what they're going to be doing is stepping out on a limb, and the audience loves it all the much more because of that.”

So I did it, and indeed it was. The audience wasn't just saying stuff like, “That was funny.” They were saying things like, “Thank you! That reminded me of something that happened to me,” and “Oh, my God, I could relate to that so much,” and that sort of thing. The State used to have a philosophy that if you wanted to learn how to do something, do it in public. Fail in public.

So when the guys went off to do Reno 911, they were like, “Well, we've never had an improv class in our lives. Why don't we learn to do improv by creating an improv show?” That's what they did, and I did the same thing with Risk. If you listen to the first episodes of Risk, you are listening to the first stories that I told. You're seeing my development as a storyteller in the history of the podcast.

Kevin Allison's podcast, Risk, can be heard weekly. Find links to listen and download at the show's website.

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