The Kevin Allison Interview

In case you were going to come out to see me at Read Between the Lynes tonight in Woodstock, please know the event has been canceled, due to pneumonia--mine. But if you want to read about some of my favorite anti-heroes, go here!

If you're a comedy lover you may most immediately know today's interviewee from the beloved sketch comedy group/show The State (if you liked "The Jew, The Italian and the Red-Head Gay," he was the titular red-head gay.) Most lately you can catch him as the creator and host of the Risk Show, the podcast and live show where storytellers tell their riskiest tales. His recent film and TV appearances include Reno 911!: Miami, The Ten, Stella, and Flight of the Conchords. Behind the scenes, Kevin has written for Blue Man Group Productions and JibJab. In the print world, Kevin's writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Giant, Premiere and Film Journal. He has served as the Artistic Director of The Peoples Improv Theater in New York and teaches comedy writing at New York University Kevin is collaborating with producer Jonathan Stern (The Ten, Horrible People, Children's Hospital) on the development of new TV series at which the world will soon marvel. He has also created two one-man shows of character sketches.

Who would you love to have on RISK! that you haven't been able to get? (Within reason: not Jesus)
Oh boy, booking is the hardest. I'd love to have damn near everyone! I can brag that I've done a lot to bridge the gap between the stand-up and storytelling communities in New York. And we're getting pitches from folks I've taught too, cause I do classes and coaching. So the show's featured names as big as Janeane Garofalo, Lily Taylor, Kevin Nealon, Adam McKay, Margaret Cho, Rachel Dratch, Andy Borowitz, Michael Ian Black... and amazing characters that are completely unknown. Some folks I've been "courting" to do the show are Paul Rudd, David Cross, Neil Patrick Harris, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Amy Poehler, Chuck Klosterman, David Rakoff, John Hodgman.... it never ends.

If you only have 10 minutes to teach someone storytelling, what's the first thing you'd teach them?
Go lighter on "summary" and heavier on "scene." Rather than saying, "My mom threw me out of the house that day, so that was that," say, "She swung the door open. She stared at me. I could see her eyes were red from crying and I felt like I'd just been punched in the gut. She said, "Get out.""

You see, summary is on the surface. Scene is in the moment.

Can you paraphrase the best story you've heard lately (whether on RISK or elsewhere?)
Joy Gabriel told a story at a RISK show this week. Her mom was a "Paula Dean" type -- warm, spoiling. The lady did a lot of "talking with" Jesus. Mrs. Gabriel told little Joy that Christ said to her, "You are one of the perfect ones. You can do no wrong." So this poor girl grew up putting enormous faith in a culty manipulator. When Joy turned 21, her mom robbed her and her new husband of $30,000. Joy declared bankruptcy and dropped out of college. Her mom said, "Your money, the Lord's money -- whatever. Jesus says I don't owe you a thing." So Joy lost her mother and her God that day. Now, she says, she still has strong feelings for both, but "it's complicated."

How much do you vet your RISK guests? How much do you work with them on their stories before they air?
Most stand-ups are used to just showing up and doing their thing, so some are offended when we ask to work with them first. But a stand-up can move easily from one gag that's not working to one they know will. A story's not like that. It's all of a piece. So before Michelle Walson and I book someone, we ask them to send us a couple paragraph-long pitches -- like that description of Joy's story above. We look at what came in and try to judge what seems most "high stakes." That is, what stories feature the narrator fearing the worst or hoping for the best with potentially huge consequences. If we're unsure about one of these paragraph-long pitches, we'll ask that person if we can do a 3-way chat on the phone for a few minutes to get a better feel for it.

Then when the show is booked, about a week before the big day, we talk on the phone with each storyteller for at least 20 minutes, asking them in-depth questions about the thoughts and feelings, the details, the order of events and so on. Like I said, performers are sometimes put off at first. Then after the show they say, "Wow, that wouldn't have been half as good if I hadn't had you guys there to use as a sounding board beforehand."

How do you pick the RISK topics? Are there any subjects you thought would turn out better than they did?

It can be so unpredictable. "Dreams" was hard, because dreams often drift away from story logic. "Revenge" scared people. Everyone said, "I'm not the vengeful type!" Then with a little prying, it turned out they had plenty in them. "Spiritual Breakthroughs" was fascinating. Such a wide variety of perspectives there. The one we just did, called "In Harm's Way" was the example of a perfect topic. We got five radically different stories on danger from without and danger from within. When you choose those titles, you want to be specific, but not too specific, and general, but not too general.

There's a famous longform improvisation game called "The Armando," named after comedy guru Armando Diaz. An improv team stands in a line on stage and asks the audience for a one-word suggestion, like "pizza" or "divorce." Then, in a split second, someone on the line is supposed to jump forward and tell a five minute personal story they somehow associate with that word. You train in "The Armando" and you learn fast that you have a story for everything. There's no word that won't remind you of something that then reminds you of a dramatic event in your life. So that's a great exercise.

Which sketch groups (that are currently performing) are you enjoying lately?
Eek! I must admit, I've been so focused on story that I've missed a lot of sketch. In New York, Rue Brutalia, Murderfist, Harvard Sailing Team, Elephant Larry, BOF, New Excitement... Those are some folks I've enjoyed that are still at it! There's a couple great improv groups I love, like Centralia and Nathan & Joe. And there are sketch comedians now whose only focus is on making videos like B-School Comedy, Front Page Films and Your Free Comedy. I think it's very smart to make videos like that and take it straight to the masses.

Which podcasts do you regularly listen to?
I listen to Marc Maron's podcast WTF religiously. Marc is an old hero of mine going way back. He was always "the brutally honest guy" in the comedy world, but at 46, he's also the patron saint of late bloomers like me. He's finally found his niche in podcasting. He realized that the Internet now provides him with a platform to speak to hundreds of thousands of people without any interference at all from corporations. What's been killing guys like him and me for decades is the fact that we're "not for everybody." We're not cute, simple "types" that fit easily into sitcoms and commercials and fluff. We're peculiar and difficult and contradictory, like, you know, human beings. Ever seen a human being in a Hollywood romantic comedy? No. So RISK! and WTF are places where people can be all that.

What creative projects have you not taken on yet that you'd like to try?
I've developed a brilliant sitcom with Ryan McFaul (The Electric Company) and Joe Schiappa (Nathan & Joe). It's such a great idea that I'm certain it will be made. But the way Hollywood works, it's more likely to be made by someone who currently has more hype behind them than me. If I had pitched Inception or Toy Story or Brokeback Mountain, I think I could have walked away from those pitch meetings saying, "Well, that will get made... by someone else." Same is true of auditions. Several times a week, I audition for something. Oftentimes, the casting directors love it and say, "That was it. Perfect." Weeks later, I see that someone who just happens to be the focus of gossip in US Magazine got it instead.

What's easier to teach, writing or performing, and why?

In storytelling, you have to teach people to let go of their insecurities and just be themselves. That's something we all spend our whole lives trying to do, so that's definitely the biggest challenge.

I'm sure I don't know the whole story but by and large it sounds like the members of the State have maintained a friendly relationship, which isn't always the case when artistic groups break up. Do you think there was anything particular about that group that kept you close after your history together?
The State was together for eight years. We did so much learning together -- learning by doing -- that we really were like a family. When I say that, I mean it in the darkest ways as well as the brightest. There was tons of love and joy and tons of fighting and cruelty. Our actual break-up was about a year-long process. I think anyone who's been in a break-up knows -- whether it be of a marriage or a creative team -- there are psychological factors that start to get too complicated to stay on top of anymore and keeping it together is like trying to control the weather. Keeping 11 psyches on the same page, that may be an impossible feat.

There were a few years after the break up where some members of the group -- myself included -- were really upset with other members. But like I said, we're family. We're older and we see how we all just did what we thought was the best way to keep surviving when things got rough. Of the 11 of us, I can say without a doubt that I handled the breakup the worst. I kept the rest at arm's length, stayed isolated, wallowed in resentment. I was killing my career in that process.

And the tragedy continues really, because fans point out that, even though we've all done amazing things on our own, there's nothing quite like it when the 11 of us come together. It's a particular chemistry that's just not like anything else. So it would be wonderful to re-unite for something, but we're all just so damn busy now on our own things.

What led you to freelance writing? That seems like a lot of serious boring hard work after the fun of performing and humor writing.
Stage fright. After The State broke up, I became terrified of getting up on stage by myself. I was psyching myself out, telling myself I couldn't go it alone. I had a therapist at the time who felt that "comedy is a frivolous waste of creative energy." I have a knack for landing bad therapists. For years I was wandering around Brooklyn, drunk, penniless and whining to God, "When will I find my voice? What is my voice?" Then I started teaching sketch comedy and found myself being a sweetheart, a loon, a debauched over-indulger, a strikingly candid person in front of large groups. Just being true to my moods. I began to realize that my voice... is my voice.

What's the last thing that made you laugh?

Me! I recorded an ad for Adam and for the "Dreams" episode of the RISK podcast and it was the first time I've done something on the show as a character. In this case, a Scottish fisherman type. I know comedic acting is all about subtle realism these days, but sometimes I like to go back to the old over-the-top silliness. I'm glad that I'm at a place with the podcast now where I can talk to the audience however I damn well feel like talking in that moment -- in heartfelt earnestness or as a clown.

How does it feel to be the 267th person interviewed for
Like a rolling stone.