Kevin Allison, Host Of The Risk! Podcast, Talks About The Power Of Telling The Truth Onstage.
Welcome to Humor Us, our column in which Dallas comedian Alex Gaskin interviews comedians about the ol’ funny business.
If your favorite band is in town but you’re busy, you maybe hope to catch them during their next tour or, if you have the means, you see if you can travel to a show they might be performing in a nearby town.
But when Kevin Allison’s Risk! podcast brings its live show — which features an assortment of people going onstage giving honest accounts of moments they typically guard jealously — to your neck of the woods, that really can be your only chance to hear some of the stories being told that night.
To be fair, it’s not uncommon for some of the true tales shared during live shows to make their way to future podcasts. During our interview, Allison actually refers to a story told during his last visit to Dallas that was included in an episode that ran last November. Still, many of the people who appear on a live performance of Risk! aren’t really performers; they’re people who happen to have some remarkable episode of their lives that they’re brave enough to share. If you miss the show, you miss the stories, and you miss what might be someone’s sole moment in the limelight.
The idea to bring truth to the stage came to Allison while he was trying to develop a solo show. When he was told the audience at one of his performances seemed to want to hear from the real him, and not just an act, he took a gamble and shared a painfully intimate experience from his college years at his next show. That experience tuned him in to the radical, cathartic power of telling the truth onstage, and his idea for Risk! came together shortly thereafter. He quickly developed the Risk! podcast (which has now grown to enjoy over two million downloads a month), and included a live show component that’s not unlike Dallas’ own storytelling series, Oral Fixation. He now tours the country encouraging performers and non-performers alike to open up about details of their lives they’ve kept buried, while relying on his own formidable comedy chops to keep the show running smoothly, even when the audience has just watched someone lose their composure sharing more of themselves than they ever thought they could share.
Allison’s adept at that. He first broke into the comedy world as a member of the sketch comedy show The State, which helped introduce a number of now-prominent performers to the public. He’s also appeared on Flight of the Conchords and Reno 911!: Miami among many other works, and runs storytelling workshops, an extension of his work producing Risk!
During our talk, Allison offered a preview of Dallas’ upcoming live performance of Risk!, talked about how he came up with the idea for his podcast and live shows, and offered tips on what you can do to have your own story included in a show. Wanna see the show for yourself when it comes to Sons of Hermann Hall on January 20? Order your tickets here.
Your theme for the Dallas stop of your tour is “Adventure.” Can you talk about what we should expect from that?
The whole idea of Risk! is it’s stories that people never thought they’d dare to share in public. So unlike some of the storytelling shows you might hear on NPR, we don’t have to censor things at all — because we’re a podcast. No story is too emotional, or too sexual, or too violent, or too anything. We say we don’t fear to tread anywhere. The result is that what usually happens with an evening of Risk! is there’s one story that’s hilarious, and then there might be one that’s absolutely tear-jerking, and then one that’s terrifying — really scary. We’re all over the map as far as the emotions go; the only thing all the stories have in common is people being as honest and raw and candid as they possibly can — kind of like the way you’d talk to your therapist or your best friend over drinks. The subject of “Adventure” we thought was great, because we thought it would make people think of those times when they were especially surprised, or especially challenged by something. We’ve got stories on the Dallas night where suicide seemed like something that might happen, or might not happen. We’ve got a hilarious story about a grandma who was drinking too much. We’ve got amazing story about an elderly uncle who had a shocking secret that was revealed to the family. There’s an amazing story about a car accident, and after the car accident there’s a bunch of secrets that were revealed. There’s some really funny moments in this show, and then there are some moments that are really jaw-dropping in a very emotional way. A typical evening of Risk! is just like that.
You’ve had notable comics and performers on podcasts previously — but you also have open submissions, so you get a lot of people who aren’t performers. How do you think that changes what your shows offer people?
It’s really interesting, we do mix it up. If you ever listen to the podcast, you’ll notice we might have someone on like Sarah Silverman or Janeane Garofalo or Trevor Noah or someone like that. And then the very next story might be from someone who’s never told a story live onstage before. When we went to Nashville recently, and we had a fella who did not have an education and was just a couple days out of prison, but someone had alerted us, [saying] “This guy has an amazing way of speaking, and has an amazing story to tell,” so we contacted him, and got him onstage, and made it happen. What we’re interested in is people telling the truth. We don’t really care if you’re a practiced performer or not. We will workshop with people. We’ll listen to their story, ask them questions, get them to tell it to us a second time, give them suggestions. We’ll walk them through the process of getting them to dig deeper and flesh things out, think things through.
Do people ever get scared at that point, when they’re finding themselves giving more details than they’d prepared for initially?
Oh yeah, absolutely. People get cold feet all the time. I myself have had situations where I wanted to maybe back down and avoid telling a story. Every now and then, someone will start crying onstage, or kind of lose their cool. And we always tell people, “Look, we have the most supportive audience in the world. If you need to take a moment to recompose yourself, no problem.” People are very understanding that this can be challenging. But there’s also this remarkable experience of catharsis. We only want to put stories on the podcast itself if the person felt good about it, if the person walked away and felt like, “Alright, great, great, great. I was really nervous, but I walked away glad I did it.”
Is that an adjustment for you? You came up through television and performance, where it’s more focused on making sure you get things right. Now you’re working in an environment where you have performers who lose their composure live.
I am the curator of the show, so I will often tell a story at the beginning of the show, and I’ll come out between the show and get the audience laughing again, or prep them and let them know, “OK, this next story’s gonna get kind of emotional.” I try to be the host who’s holding everyone together for the experience. And I do a lot of work with the storytellers before the show. I feel so very honored to be able to have people sharing such intimate things with me, to have people trusting me, that I’ll help them do this.
You started your career in the ’90s, performing with The State, and something like a podcast tour certainly didn’t exist then. What’s this been like for you?
Well, y’know, for the 12 years after The State broke up, I was kind of at a loss for what to do with myself and my career. I was trying everything I could think of. I was pitching TV shows, auditioning for commercials, writing solo shows, and nothing was quite clicking. It was in 2008 that I created a solo show of five characters, and I took it out to San Francisco Sketch Fest, and Michael Ian Black, who was another member of The State, came out to see it, and I asked him what he thought. And he said, “I think the audience wanted you to drop the act and start speaking as yourself. I think you have amazing stories from your own personal life.” And I said, “That feels too risky.” And he said, “If it feels too risky, then that’s the word. It means you’re opening up, and people are going to open up to you.” And that very next week was the first time I tried telling a true story for the first time. It was a very sexual story, about the first time I tried prostituting myself, before The State existed. I was about 22 years old. And I was so scared. But that night, when I told that story, it was like night and day. It was such a powerful experience of connecting with an audience in a way I had never felt before, where I felt like I was really in conversation with them, rather than reciting at them. And I walked away from that show that night saying, “That’s it. I’ve got to create a podcast called Risk!, where people tell true stories that they’d never dare to tell in public,” because I could see that there was something really powerful I had hooked onto there. And podcasts? I had just learned about the existence of podcasts at that point. I knew two things. One, I knew it was important to be getting up live in front of people — there’s something very, very powerful about getting up in front of people live. But I also knew there’s something about putting it out there to the world, and that podcasts allow you to do that as well. I knew that, “Oh, here’s the perfect way for this to work.” I can have these live shows, but I can also have this deadline, where every week I have to be coming out with a new episode. It’s kind of changed my life. The Risk! podcast now gets about two million downloads a month.
You’ve created something that is about as stripped down as it can be. What’s it been like introducing that concept to some of your performers, who may be used to working within genres, or who usually have certain moods dominating whatever it is they’re performing?
Well, it depends. Sometimes practiced performers will kind of bristle at the idea that we want to hear your story beforehand, and that’s really necessary, because we have to be able to poke at a person the way a therapist would. We have to be able to say to a performer, “No, we need you to get a little more emotional there and we need to hear a little more about your feelings about your mother.” Too often, someone who’s a comedian, for example, will just be used to going for a laugh every eight seconds. And that’s great! We love funny stuff, we love outrageously funny moments on the show. But we’re kind of insistent that a person go deeper, that a person really be true to how emotional the story [is], that they’re not leaving any stone unturned. We really insist we have to hear the story at least once, and try to brainstorm with the person on how they might dig a little deeper.
You’ve done the show previously in Dallas – what’s your experience been performing here?
Oh my god, it’s great. The last time we were in Dallas, it was a full house, a super enthusiastic audience. There were several incredibly moving stories, several of which we have included on the podcast since, which got lots of reactions — people tweeting about it, leaving comments on our page. And there was one that was told the last time we were in Dallas that was told by a guy named Pollo Corral. And the story was phenomenal when he shared it in Dallas. It was about how he used to be a drug smuggler in Mexico. He was kidnapped, and tortured for 40 days by a drug cartel before he was finally released. He told the story of what it was like to withstand all of that physical torture for all of 40 days. And the story was so compelling, but I knew… the stories don’t last more than about 15 minutes for our live shows, so I knew when he shared that that there was more there, that he could go into even deeper detail about it. So I came back and I said, let’s record this as a radio-style story. Because we also do radio-style stories where it’s just me and the person recording one-on-one, and then we add music and sound design. That story became part of an episode called “Hope,” which was released in November. So that was an example of something that happened the last time in Dallas that took on a slightly different form eventually.
The deadline to submit for this show in Dallas has passed — but for the next visit, do you have any tips you can give for potential applicants?
Absolutely! People can pitch us at any time, regardless of when we’re coming to town. And there’s a video there where I explain how to pitch those. The gist is kind of that you want to zero in on a moment from your life, maybe it’s a particular day or particular weekend, where you were most surprised, or most emotionally swept up in something, or most fascinated by the way life had taken a turn. And to kind of zero in on specific moments from that day or that weekend or that week, and really kind of try to flesh them out and re-live them. Remember the sights, sounds, smells, tastes — the things that people actually said, the thoughts that ran through your head, and the sensations that ran through your body. And kind of take us there to re-experience that key moment for you.
Cover photo by Gene Silvers.