Shows like This American Life pride themselves on telling true, honest-to-God stories about the average American that hold nothing back. However, even their subjects must keep some details and plot points in the furthest quadrants of their minds, so it doesn't come close to flying out of their mouth.
Kevin Allison's Risk! podcast is TAL's roided-up, bolder and bawdier doppleganger of the storytelling radio show. The founding member of the sketch comedy troupe The State and professional storyteller seeks stories that no one would dare tell another human being let alone a weekly show that's downloaded more than 400,000 times a month. And this Friday, he'll record a live episode featuring local artists and writers at the Dallas Comedy House.
He talked to Mixmaster about how fellow State member Michael Ian Black helped shape the podcast's central idea of telling "true tales, boldly told," how to prep someone who volunteers to share a harrowing tale to a group of strangers and the story that made sex columnist Dan Savage squirm.
Have you always been a storyteller or did it come to you after you got into acting? I went to NYU and that's where I met the other members of The State. We were a sketch comedy group and had a show on MTV from 1993-1996. We were pretty active. When the group broke up, I wasn't exactly sure what I wanted to do as a writer and an actor and a comedian. I went basically on stage to start doing kooky characters giving monologues and that was fun for awhile but I felt like there was something that wasn't connecting and getting through and I felt like I really wasn't, I don't know, communicating as directly and clearly as I wanted to be in the stuff that I was doing. It wasn't turning people on so much. So a member of The State, Michael Ian Black, came to see one of my shows that I did in San Francisco. It was five kooky characters and afterwards he said to me, "I think everyone just wanted you to drop the act and start speaking from the heart as yourself." I said yeah but I'm too much of a mish-mash of things like I'm too Midwestern and friendly. I'm also too gay and raunchy and kinky and I'm also kind of too absurdist and weird. It felt like it was be too risky to get up on stage and be that real and he said, "That's the word. If it feels risky, then you're probably really opening up and being authentic and an audience is going to open up to you because of that."
So the very next week, I got up on stage in New York and told a story about the first time I ever tried prostitution (laughs) and I felt it was about as risky as it would go. It was amazing because while I was on stage, it felt like, oh my god, I'm being a little bit too weird and I'm being a little bit too gay and at another point in the story, I felt like I was being a little bit too friendly and a little bit too Midwestern. I found that the audience totally did what [Black] said. They totally opened up. I could see it in their eyes. I could feel in the laughter. I really felt like I was not reciting to people but that we were in conversation. Afterwards, people came running up to me and grabbing me and said, "Oh my God, I've never done anything like what you were talking about but something about it reminded me of this argument I got into with my mom in junior high" and someone else would be, "Oh my God, that reminded me of something in my career." It was interesting. I realized if you do speak this kind of raw truth of things that have gone on with you and I'm kind of out on a limb here, it touches a nerve with people and it resonates. So I decided to create this show Risk! where just like other story shows like The Moth or This American Life, people can tell true stories but the difference is that it's totally uncensored, nothing is taboo and we really encourage you to get up on stage and share something you're nervous to be being that candid about and the result is magical. The stories end up being all over the map emotionally. Some are hilarious. Some are just jaw-droppingly (sic) shocking and frightening. Some are just completely heartwarming and have people in tears. It's a really, wildly entertaining, cathartic kind of show and people love it for that.
After Black said you should open up more and this is something I hear a lot from comics and writers I've interviewed and even myself in some respects, what is it about an artist that makes them immediately shoot down performing something so personal?
There's a bunch of reasons that people get a little bit wigged out about talking about themselves. One is they're afraid that they might sound a little false because we're a little bit unused to talking in public so personally. They're afraid they'll either be too self-depreciating or too boastful. So it really is kind of a matter of letting go some of those inhibitions and trying to talk to an audience the way you would talk a close friend or a therapist. I actually encourage people to have that conversation between the voices in their head in the story itself. So if a part of you is like, "Oh, I must sound like a total douchebag right now," you can say that out loud. I remember one of the first times Janeane Garofalo did the show. She said something and then she wasn't sure she should have said that out loud. Then she pointed to someone in the audience and she said, "And that guy in the third row is looking like he hates me right now and I'll be up at 3 in the morning remembering that." That is one of the things that's kind of magical about the show. Sometimes people do stumble a little bit but it makes it all that much more fascinating. Last week, I was in Seattle and we had Dan Savage do the show who has a syndicated column called Savage Love. He's someone who is on TV a lot and does public speaking a lot but he was really nervous about doing Risk! because he was worried he would say something that would get him in trouble. He was going to get into the nitty, gritty of a sexual encounter he had.
Considering what he does for a living, that's weird. You would think the show would be perfect for someone like him.
Exactly because everybody knows that Risk! is a show where you're encouraged to go further than you would normally go in any other context or venue. So part of him is thinking, "Oh my gosh, how might I put my foot in my mouth due to the atmosphere in this room and what Kevin's encouraging?" (laughs) But it was amazing. It was an amazing story and even those moments where he started laughing and stumbling and saying, "I can't believe I'm saying this," those moments are still kind of magical and riveting.
I have to ask what he talked about.
He talked about having an encounter when he was in his late 20's with a guy who was kind of barely legal. He said at one point that he had to check the guy's wallet just to make sure the kid really was 18-years-old. Dan at that point in his career was doing a lot of drag for crazy, kooky shows he was involved in and the kid became fascinated by all the drag in his apartment and before they had sex, the kid wanted to dress up as a woman and so he started putting on wigs and bras and all this stuff. They ended up having sex with the kid, like Dan said, it was an amazing transformation. This young man looked amazing as a girl so all of a sudden, they were having sex but Dan said it really felt like he was having sex with a woman and he kept having to deal with the whole process of "What do I feel about what's going on right now?" and it ended up being very, very hot but the kid accidentally left his panties behind or something like that. (laughs) It turned out there was the one bit of clothing that the kid had wanted to do that all along. So he called the guy back and said, "Can I get these panties back to you?" and the kid was like, "Never call me again. I never want to do that sort of thing again." There was all this shame that was there and embarrassment about what had happened. It was just one of those fascinating encounters. At the time, it seemed really hot but as soon as orgasms were had, all this shame kicked in.
Is the goal of the show to be a comedy or dramatic? How would you define it?
When we do a live show especially like the one that we're doing in Dallas, I do make a point when I'm cultivating the stories, what we do is ask lots of people for pitches. So I read through dozens of pitches and I narrow it down to the ones that sound the most interesting to me and then I start to narrow it down even further. There's one that's totally hilarious. There's one that's going to be tear jerking. I start to make sure that it is going to be a well rounded evening of going in different places. There is a little bit of consciousness on my part. I love comedy. I love to laugh. I don't want to have the show be just one thing or another for any given evening of it. That goes for the podcast too. Sometimes the podcast is just one story, one hour long story but even the podcast itself, we're very conscious of mixing it up a lot. It's very true to life, too. I think that's kind of representative of the way life is too, sometimes hilarious and sometimes not.
When you pick somebody for the show and ask them to tell a story they wouldn't tell anyone else, do you encourage them to go for shock or focus on the experience and what they learned from it or do you just let them tell it?
I actually talked to each storyteller before hand. I make sure we at least have a phone conversation where they have told me the whole story as best they can. Then I kind of start working with them a little bit like a therapist. I'll start asking, "Wait a minute, is this how you really felt?" and "Did that person have ulterior motives?" and "If you had to go through this all over again, would you have approached it in a slightly different attitude?" so the person can begin to unpack a little bit about the deeper meaning of the experience. There is a tendency on shows to end with a kind of politically correct, liberal lesson learned and I tell people that we don't necessarily need that. In fact, real life is a lot messier than ending a story on "and so I learned prejudice is bad" and that kind of thing. If they are still iffy about an experience, just go out and leave that at the end. We've had people do stories on Risk! where they go, "So that was really screwed up that that happened to me and to be honest, I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about it." I'd rather you end the story that way if that's the honest truth than arriving at some Aesop's Fable kind of moral at the end but I do encourage people when I run over stories with them over the phone to dig into the deeper aspects of it whether the story is mostly funny or really heart wrenching.
Has it ever gotten too emotional for someone or change their life in someway that you know about? Do you try to keep it from getting too personal or hurtful or whatever?
There are two things that I do worry about when we're working on stories. I don't want the storyteller to walk away feeling like that they hurt themselves by sharing too much too soon. There are cases where I've said to a person that it seems like this is a little too close to home right now. It seems like you might need a year or so of processing of this and the other thing I don't want to do is I don't want people to hurt other people. I don't want someone to use the show as a platform for lashing out at someone else. So there are cases where I've said to people, "Let's not tell that story" but there are plenty of cases where people did get up at Risk! shows and broke down crying or started laughing hysterically and couldn't stop. I've had cases where there were slight meltdowns on stage but those people were able to get it back together and finish the story.
At Risk!, we do two types of stories: We do stories at the live shows and record those and we do radio style stories where a person comes over to my apartment and I record them. Those get even more intimate because it's just me and a person and when a person is alone in a room, they just have this tendency to feel even freer to go deeper into their experience. Those stories we cut together with music and sound design and some of those have been especially trippy on the podcast. The podcast comes out once a week and has quite a following now. We get about 400,000 downloads per month and we're over 11 million. Probably the most dramatic incident we've had one stage happened when a young woman in Philadelphia told the story of how she took some mushrooms and some opium and had this sort of psychic meltdown where she heard the voice of God telling her to kill her mother. It was a real struggle for her because she loved her mother. She had a good friendship with her mother but she heard this voice commanding her to do it. So she took a steak knife and attacked her mother and stabbed her several times and it was a real, very dramatic scene. When she did it on stage, she really brought every moment of that encounter to life: what she screamed at her mother, what she screamed, the look in their dogs' eyes when they came between them. It was just really heart wrenching. The end of the story was really beautiful because her mother was the person over the course of the next decade or so who helped her to heal and get back on her feet and be able to be in such a well put together place emotionally and mentally that she could share that story in front of an audience. That was a real jaw dropper.
Just a couple of days ago, a young man shared the story of how he forgot his medication or was on way too many medications when he was lost in the desert and was starting to die and having all these hallucinations. He did, of course, obviously survive and he was hospitalized and they brought him back but part of what happened to him in that experience was that he ended up with what's called synesthesia where he'll sometimes see sounds or hear sights and stuff like that and he'll sometimes have no ability to understand the temperature of the room because he almost died of hypothermia. So it will start to feel very hot to him in a room that's cool and vice versa. So as he's telling the story about his experience, he started to have little bits of hallucinations and he started to feel terribly cold on stage while the room was warm. It started coming back to him while he was telling the story on stage and several times, he broke. He had to cry for a moment or was just clearly kind of befuddled and he was worried afterwards that it might have looked like a total mess up there but no, it was incredibly riveting and moving. The music of his voice was entrancing. I'm someone who loves the human voice and loves to hear how when a person really does get lost in a true story how sometimes they'll take on rhythms and pitches and stuff that are just quite...you can just tell when someone's being real because you can hear it in the voice.
When you talk to the storytellers, do you give them much advice about how to talk or tell the story to an audience if they don't do it for a living?
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As far as when we go over the story together before the show, what I'm concerned about is mostly them making sure they've dug into the details as thoroughly as they can and that they've brought some scenes back into memory as best as they can. Once they're up on stage, I just trust they'll find that groove that some of the stuff we've talked about, they'll remember. I don't give them coaching to the extent of start to slow it down here and start to get much more intense here. When I review it with them before hand, it's more like I'm the therapist kind of guy who's just helping them to unpack their memories so that when they get on stage, they'll have all that stuff at their fingertips if they need it.
You share a lot of stories yourself. Is there one you've told yourself that you'd never share and I realize now that by asking that question that if you say yes, you're probably not going to share what it is.
In fact, there are some stories that I think to myself, "Well, it's probably better if I wait a couple of years before telling that story" because I want to make sure that I take care of myself as well, that I don't expose something before I feel like I really understand it. I want to make sure that I too am not relying on shock value too much, that I'm just spilling the beans about stuff for the sake of spilling the beans about stuff. For example, one of the things that has happened because there's a theme to the show about taking a risk and have the balls to share about it, people will sometimes dare me to do things to and go off and have adventures. A couple of years ago, a fellow storyteller dared me to go to this kink camp in Maryland, this sort of four day sex festival. The story ended up being two Risk! episodes because it's a 90-minute story called "Kevin Goes to Kink Camp." That experience was very transformative for me.
I shared the story very soon after it happened but that was OK because I feel like I really had a handle on what had happened. Then what happened is that I felt like I was on this ever-opening sexual adventure because once you get into that sort of BDSM realm in the kink community because there really is a community around all that stuff, all of a sudden you feel like "Oh maybe I'll try this." It's like a Pandora's Box. I have to admit that there have been some things that have happened there where I'm like, "Ooo, wow, OK, I'm don't know if I'm ready to share that one yet. (laughs) You do have to be sensible and think to yourself, "This might make me sound like a complete and total monster" or "This is just too strange and I don't know myself what I make of me." I do think that most of my major stories, I will share. When sometimes occurs to me like "Wow, this is going to be a story," I keep in mind that it doesn't have to be a story right now. The rest of my life is ahead of me.