The Cincinnati native left town in 1988, and his comedy career launched into overdrive even before he graduated from New York University four years later. Allison now runs a storytelling podcast out of New York City called Risk!, which encourages people to tell stories “you never thought you’d dare to share.” Enjoying an average of 225,000 downloads a month, it began in 2009 and includes stories that are often edgy and occasionally riddled with profanity. Unlike The Moth and similar podcasts, Risk! tries to focus on this central idea: people stepping out of their comfort zones.
“The only real agenda of the show is to encourage people that if there’s something they want to express or if there’s something they want to try, to walk through the fear and try expressing it or try doing it,” Allison says by phone from New York City. “If there’s a philosophy to the show, that’s it. If there’s anything you feel a bit of a need to express, kick yourself in the butt a little bit and take a risk and do it.”
Many of Allison’s contributions to the show are stories set in Cincinnati. One is about stealing a pumpkin from the porch of the Werk Mansion in Westwood and almost causing a car accident by placing it in the middle of the street. Another is about getting caught sending a condom, loaded with his own man juice, through St. Xavier High School’s inter-classroom mail system.
His Catholic upbringing also plays a role. He says priests had a big influence on his storytelling technique.
“Every now and then, there would be a priest who was just really good in the homily, not just sermonizing but really shaping it as a narrative,” Allison says. “I just love it. And there’s another guy, Mike Daisy, a very well-known storyteller here in New York. He did Risk once. He just had the audience spellbound, and I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, Mike’s a Catholic.’ The music of the homily was coming through in his story. I think I’ve got a lot of that in me, too.”
Many stories are also about his experiences as a gay man. He recounted in an early podcast a story about hooking up with an Asian man while in college at NYU. Allison readily admits in his podcast that he has a thing for Asian guys. After bringing him back to his apartment, the man demanded that Allison remove his shoes and pants, tie his shoes to his balls and just stand there. The stranger furiously masturbated while staring at him.
“Whenever possible, I think it’s good to just let the events and your own personal experience speak for itself,” Allison says. “If there is a broader political point to be made ... hopefully it just resonates to people from how it happened in your heart.
“I think it’s perfectly wonderful and great that people do use storytelling to accomplish political goals,” Allison continues.
“There’s just a part of me that doesn’t have a big enough ego to tell you how to live your life.”
Risk! is currently in the throes of its first big fundraising effort. Following the lead of public radio, there are gifts available for donors: Lisa Lampanelli can insult you over Twitter; Margaret Cho will answer your relationship questions; Janeane Garofalo can make you a necklace; or Allison himself will receive your shoes in the mail and photograph himself with them tied to his balls.
A West Side start
Allison attended St. Catharine of Siena Elementary School on Cincinnati’s West Side, where at young age he realized he was gay. After graduating from St. Xavier, he went on to college at NYU where he joined up with The State sketch comedy group. The State’s successful collegiate run continued after graduation when the group landed a spot on the MTV sketch comedy show. A year later, The State was given its own show, but in 1996 the group’s growing aspirations caused them to quit the channel.
“It’s a huge part of my story that after the group broke up, I blew it,” Allison says. “I was too fearful of the whole comedy community. I thought that because The State had been so tough on one another that the whole comedy community was going to be kind of nasty. I was just afraid to get up and perform.”
This rough period lasted nearly 12 years. During that time he became involved in teaching sketch comedy while he was still taking the stage. His last character performance was in San Francisco in 2009.
“I walked away from the show with Michael Ian Black … and he could tell how dejected I felt,” Allison says. “He said, ‘Kevin, I think you and we in the audience wanted the exact same thing: For you to put down the act and start talking as yourself.’ I said, ‘I know, it just feels so risky. I’m so afraid of it.’ He (Black) replied, ‘The risky stuff is the juicy stuff, that’s what they respond to.’ ”
The next week he started telling true stories as himself on stage at some of the early storytelling venues in New York City. The Risk! podcast started as a way to force himself to tell stories more regularly.
“That’s the thing I was so afraid of for so many years,” Allison says, “feeling so vulnerable on stage being myself and not realizing that the audience actually loves that. When the audience feels that someone is allowing themselves to be vulnerable, allowing their imperfections or idiosyncrasies to show, they really warm up and start rooting for you then.”
The storytelling movement
Cincinnati is now home to its own live storytelling show, True Theatre, started by Dave Levy and Jeff Groh, which is hosted at Know Theatre. The new True Theatre season kicks off on Nov. 7 with the theme of “trueHunger.” The trend is moving inward from the coasts and seems to be well received.
“I’ve heard some journalists say it’s all of part of the whole Oprah-ization of the country, where everyone is sharing too much,” Allison says. “I think that’s a really unfortunate, two-dimensional way to think of things.”
He’s also not upset that he wasn’t the first person to think of the idea.
“The Moth is really the granddaddy of this storytelling movement,” he says. “It’s so well established that I think it has a little bit of a problem of being too revered. People in New York City talk about The Moth in almost, like, religious terms.”
Allison actually likes being compared to bigger shows.
“People on iTunes will be like, ‘I’m not sure if I like this (Risk!) quite as much as This American Life,’ ” he says. “I have to laugh. You’re talking about a show with a huge budget and huge staff, whereas we have a budget of zero and it’s just a bunch of starving artists giving their time for this out of love. It’s a huge compliment.”
In addition to the fundraising effort, Risk! has started touring, organized a storytelling school called The Story Studio and expanded the podcast to deliver something new every week. Allison is now getting a few dozen story submissions from listeners each week, and is happy to share some of them with the public, always keeping in mind that “risk” is relative.
“There was a girl who shared a story very early in the podcast about just how shy she was and how difficult it was for her to play a game of charades in high school,” Allison says. “She’s surrounded by all these other people in the episode telling about doing insanely risky things ... But we get it. You can feel that for her that was a risk. So you feel that the stakes are high for her, and you totally get on board with it.”
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