Kevin Allison Took a Chance — and the RISK! Paid Off

An evangelist for telling our uncomfortable truths wasn’t always so comfortable with it.

Kevin Allison at a "RISK!" live show. Photo: Erika Kapin.

Kevin Allison’s popular live RISK! shows and podcast don’t constitute a game of “truth or dare” so much as a game of “truth and dare.” The stories heard on RISK! are, by nature, challenging to tell. They’re not necessarily secrets you’d save for your priest or your shrink — though they certainly might be. They can be stories of broken marriages, families or friendships; tales of illness, addiction or loss; confessions of sexual encounters gone haywire. Some RISK! stories are harrowing, some are hilarious. Some even end happily ever after, or close to it.

Recently, Allison and the RISK! brand — which celebrates its 10th anniversary later this year — added a new component: a book called RISK: True Stories People Never Thought They’d Dare to Share. Allison edited the anthology, which includes stories from people you’ve heard of (Marc Maron, Dan Savage, Michael Ian Black) as well as from lesser-known storytellers. There is also a selection by Allison himself.

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The narratives strike wildly different moods. In the eerie “The Riverside,” Jan Scott-Frazier recalls living in Japan in her twenties and growing obsessed with the life of a solitary woman she’d see regularly, sobbing beside a river. Punchier is Aisha Tyler‘s “OMG,” in which she recounts performing at Christian colleges on a comedy tour in the American South, and bombing spectacularly one night. In brief codas to the selections, Allison interviews each author about what it was like to go public with their story.

Allison considers himself an “evangelist” for the telling of uncomfortable truths about oneself. But it wasn’t always that way.

He grew up in Cincinnati. He was not a particularly avid raconteur as a kid, although in retrospect he cites incidents pointing toward his current career. In grade school, he once told a story at a Catholic mass and received a favorable response. In high school he told another, at a huge assembly, and scored a second success.

The cast of MTV’s “The State,” with Allison at far right. Photo: Amy Rachlin.

His first work in show business was in sketch comedy. By age 24, he was featured on The State, a sketch program that ran on MTV between 1993 and 1995. His fellow players included Black, along with Michael Showalter, David Wain, Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio and others. But after the show ended, his career sputtered.

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In January 2009, Allison was performing in a one-man show in San Francisco in which he portrayed five fictional characters. Black was in the audience, and, after the show, bluntly advised Allison that he’d be better off telling personal stories rather than fictional ones.

“That feels too risky,” Allison objected.

“If it feels risky, that’s a good sign,” Black replied. “That means you’re opening up to the audience, and they’ll open up to you.”

Later that week, Allison flew back home to NYC, determined to take Black’s advice. But he knew little about “true story” shows. He’d heard of George Dawes Green’s The Moth, but he’d never seen a Moth show. He contacted a friend, Margot Leitman, who co-hosted a show at the UCB Theatre in Chelsea, called Stripped Stories, in which people told stories from their sex lives. Allison proposed telling about the first time he’d tried prostituting himself, when he was 23. That very night — terrified — he took to the stage and did exactly that. He experienced something wholly different from what he’d found doing sketch work:

I was immediately struck by the difference in energy that I could feel in the room. I felt like I was conversing with the audience, rather than reciting at them. And I really felt that I had connected, because audience members weren’t just coming up to me and saying, “That was funny.” They were coming up to me and saying things like, “Oh, my God! That triggered a memory for me of this argument I had with my parents when I was a sophomore in high school,” or “I’ve never been through what you described, but the emotions you described were so familiar to me.”

As he walked home that night, Allison formulated, almost exactly, what RISK! would become. He even knew what it should be titled, because the word “risk” had been bouncing about in his head in the days preceding his appearance at Stripped Stories.

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The first RISK! live show happened in August 2009, at a small punk-rock bar in Brooklyn called Arlene’s Grocery. The podcast would debut two months later. Both components of RISK! caught on relatively quickly. To date, Allison and his team have featured some 1,300 stories on the podcast, but they’ve recorded probably twice that number. In addition to the live-show recordings, Allison tapes “radio-style” stories out of his Brooklyn apartment. These tend to have more intimacy than the live-show recordings, he explains, “because the storyteller is speaking in a quiet, private room, just one on one with someone else, and so it [feels] kind of like they’re whispering in your ear.” Later, music and audio effects are added, and sound collages are interpolated between stories.

RISK! provides workshops for those whose story proposals are chosen, helping them gain confidence and poise. The goal is to have the participants tell their stories in a conversational way. Some storytellers write out full scripts, but Allison dissuades people from reading their text word for word.

“At the same time,” he adds, “we really want people to have thought their stories through, and to have put in the time and energy to shape and craft where they’re going to take us.” When RISK! travels to cities around the country, the producers will put out an alert beforehand, urging locals to pitch their stories online in a paragraph or two. Eight to ten candidates whose efforts show promise are then asked to record a 15-minute demo. From these, producers select four stories for the show. Variety in tone is essential to a satisfying live show or podcast. One or two of the chosen stories will be humorous, another will be “beautiful or tear-jerking” and one will be “downright scary or traumatic or bizarre.”

Occasionally, the team determines that a storyteller has not sufficiently processed the incident behind their story, and is dealing with PTSD over it. They may urge the person to explore the incident with a therapist or at least talk it over with friends or family members before spilling it to the whole world. Some of these people come back later and successfully tell their story, thankful that they’d postponed their confessional debut.

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During the early years of RISK!, a number of well-known personalities went on the show, including Black, Maron, Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofolo and Sarah Silverman. But Allison tends to prefer working with non-celebrities who live far away from NYC or LA. Show folk, says Allison, are “much more conscious of their persona, their reputation and their career — and they’re much more used to getting up onstage and getting laughs every eight seconds.” Non-celebs tend to be regular listeners, and therefore more conversant in RISK! format and approach than their more famous counterparts.

In recent years, Allison began receiving requests for written transcripts of the podcast — for deaf or hearing-impaired audience members. He and his team collected transcripts of the “Best of RISK!” podcasts and sent them out. One day, he picked up one of these printed stories and began studying it.

I thought to myself: This is fascinating. I’m being just as affected by this story — by simply reading it on the page. But, not only that, I’m noticing little nuances…that I don’t quite remember, even though I’ve heard this story a bunch of times…. So I started thinking, this could be a book.

Coincidentally, an enthusiastic literary agent, Liz Parker, came to one of the live shows in Brooklyn at about this time and proposed the idea of the hard-copy RISK! anthology. The idea began taking shape.

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Determining which of the hundreds of stories would be included was a long, complicated task. Allison revisited every recording in the entire catalog — at a certain point switching to 1½ or double speed to move things along. He then created synopses of the best 600 stories. The publishers, meanwhile, had their own criteria. They wanted a certain number of stories from familiar names. They also asked that 20% of the book consist of stories not previously heard on the podcast.

Raw transcripts of the selected stories were sent back to the respective authors. Allison encouraged them to make any adjustments they felt necessary, including changes in wording that would make the pieces somewhat more “prose-ish.”

Some storytellers brushed up their selections in small ways. Others made heavier revisions. Melanie Hamlett had told a story called “Unbreakable,” about a very traumatic personal relationship. It had been a radio-style story; she’d tended to laugh a lot and communicate through vocal intonation. She asked, “Would you mind if I completely rewrote the thing?” Allison encouraged her to do so. “The story is more or less the same,” he says, “but she just felt that the elocution of it [had] looked weird on the page.”

The “RISK!” anthology contains 37 out of hundreds of podcast stories. Photo: Trever Long.

The book, published last July, has sold well, especially in its first week of release, and there is talk of more volumes down the road. One option would be a straightforward “More Stories from RISK!” sequel. Another would include selections centered around a theme: stories of addiction, for instance. Yet another idea is a volume devoted to Allison’s own stories, many of which tend to be on the wild and wooly side, such as his “Kevin Goes to Kink Camp” two-parter.

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The performer-entrepreneur devotes much of his life these days to keeping the podcast and live shows up and running. He says he sometimes feels rushed when he tells new stories now (though he finds value, too, in having a deadline and putting something together quickly). He knows for certain that he’s not yet finished as a storyteller and writer. There are tales he has not yet dared to tell — with secrets he’s shared only with his therapist, who suggests that maybe he can tell them publicly, say, five years from now.

Those interested in the craft of storytelling should know about the RISK! storytelling school; there’s a submission tab on the website for those who feel fully ready to take the big leap. Allison urges people not to be shy:

A lot of people have been on RISK! who have either never stepped foot on a stage before or were just not used to thinking of themselves as public speakers or writers, but who have told extraordinary stories on the show…. They ran an idea by us, and we loved it — and started working with them on it.