Out comedian Kevin Allison brings award-winning podcast to Tampa and Orlando

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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Comedian Kevin Allison knows a thing or two about coming out. As one part of the hive-mind behind MTV’s cult classic sketch series “The State,” Allison publicly came out in the mid-’90s. He says it was an easy decision because he knew he was gay with his first conscious thoughts.

Since then, he’s dedicated his life to helping others come out, not just as a member of the LGBTQ community, but about anything—utilizing his award-winning live show and podcast “RISK.” With over two million monthly downloads, it highlights real people (and the occasional celebrity) as they share real stories in public that they never thought they’d dare to discuss.

Watermark spoke with Allison ahead of the show’s Florida tour stops to talk MTV, casting local storytellers in Tampa and Orlando and the risks behind “RISK.”

WATERMARK: It’s been years since “The State” aired on MTV. Why do you think it still resonates with fans?

KEVIN ALLISON: I love that people still know “The State” and still love it. I think the reason it’s still resonant is because of what made it special in the first place: it was a group of very, very close friends.

We just loved each other. We spent all our time partying together and creating work together, and for a period of eight years we were with each other almost every day. I think that’s what made it so special.

We were just 11 people who had grown up watching “Saturday Night Live” in the 1970s and “Monty Python,” and just kind of through osmosis started to jam with each other based on our own sort of, “what if we did this? what if we did that?”

What was your writing process like?

We didn’t have formulas or rules about how to write comedy. We were just a bunch of people who loved joking around together. I think that a lot of it was once the audience kind of got used to us, they began to feel like they were in on an inside joke amongst a bunch of clever, silly, childishly fun friends.

What led you to create “RISK”?

My philosophy about creating “RISK” was that this should be a show where people should feel free to be whatever side of their personality they’re currently feeling. So if you’re feeling like breaking down crying, break down and cry; if you’re feeling like being completely inappropriate and goofy and silly, go ahead and do that.

So I do that myself on the show and a lot of people tune in for the first time and they’re like, “holy shit, who is this super corny, over-the-top ridiculous guy hosting the show? I can’t stand him.” But then people listen to it and after a while, they’re like, “okay, at first I didn’t know what to make about that lunatic host, but he’s gotten really endearing to me,” y’know what I mean?

There’s really something to be said about art that you have to get used to… that might throw you off a little bit at first. Once you start to come back to it and get used to it you realize, oh! There’s something really special about that.

You’re getting millions of downloads now. How risky were those early days?

I wasn’t sure how long it would last or how long I could keep it going, because I had 12 years of failure behind me and I had no money when I first started. I was maxing out credit cards just to upload it, keep the website up and all that kind of thing. It was very touch and go for the first few years.

But, we started getting these emails on a daily basis from people writing in saying like, “oh my gosh, I was feeling suicidal but then I heard your show and it really restored my faith in humanity.” Or “it made me feel like if that person lived through that I can live through this,” or “oh my gosh, I’m not such a freak after all.”

Y’know, it’s funny, we run a lot of kinky stories on the show, and we’re constantly having people write in saying, “oh my gosh, I thought I was the only one who liked that.” For people who it’s really meaningful in their lives—that is worth more than any money we might make.

It’s clear to fans that you’re unapologetically yourself.

Well it’s funny; I’m unapologetically myself but then I will also just completely let people know how distraught I sometimes get about hearing nasty things said about me. I’ve had a couple of check-ins on the show itself where I’ve said, “holy shit, I just read these people saying this nasty stuff about me.” Sometimes it does get to me and other times it’s like water off a duck’s back.

We’re all human. I think we all have to deal with haters. But the artists who really grow and flourish are the ones who sometimes are hurt by it but just keep going on anyway.

Do you think that philosophy factored into your decision to come out so early in your career?

Y’know, it’s so funny. I am one of those rare people who knew I was gay at the beginning of consciousness. I talk about this in many of my stories, about how my first conscious thoughts that I remember having were sexual thoughts about other boys my age.

In fact, the people who lived next door, they had a boy my age. We were friends when we were kids and [his parents] in my adulthood have been able to joke with me that, “oh yeah, we had to keep our son away from you even when you were in diapers.”

Once I was about 4 or 5 years old, I started to understand what the word “gay” and “fag” meant. I started to hear those words used so much by older kids in a really pejorative, nasty, slur-ish way. I began to be terrified of what I was, y’know, I began to realize [that] what I am is hated and feared and I could lose all my friends and family if anyone ever figured this out.

What was that like?

Even though I had an otherwise happy childhood, I grew up terrified about people learning this secret. And Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1970s—it was very Republican, very Roman Catholic; it was kind of famous for being sex-negative.

I grew up feeling rather suffocated, like I was very aware that there was this incredible conformity and suppression around sexual expression. So I think having grown up that way made me, it made such an impression on me that I think that it ultimately caused me to create the show “RISK.”

How so?

What “RISK” is about is coming out about anything; anything that you’re keeping hidden away in the dark or trying to suppress, or feel like, “I don’t know if I can talk about this in mixed company.” It could be some traumatic thing that happened in your family… or it could even be something as harmless as like, believing in god.

From time to time, in different contexts or circles, different things are considered taboo or too risky to talk about. So I wanted to create a show where people could just talk as honestly as they possibly could in the way that they might talk to their therapist, and really dig into some of those peak experiences in their lives where they were the most emotionally wound up [to] lay it all out for us.

Do you think that’s why it works so well as a podcast?

Oh, absolutely. It’s so funny because when I created “RISK” in 2009, I had desperately been struggling for 12 years after “The State” had broken up to reestablish a career.

I was getting up on stage and playing cartoonish, sketch comedy kind of characters; I was basically trying to do sketch comedy alone and it just wasn’t working. I was hiding behind these masks, and it was Michael Ian Black, who was a member of “The State,” who came to see me and afterwards said, “y’know, the stuff you’re doing is funny… but I wish you would just drop the mask and start telling some of your own true stories.”

And I said, “oh, I’m too many things that people might not get. I’m too gay, yet too kinky and yet too polite and Midwestern… and yet too goofy and yet too serious sometimes. It feels like it would just be too risky.” And he said, “that’s the word. That’s the idea.”

What’s it like bringing “RISK” to places like Tampa and Orlando?

Y’know, it’s the funniest thing. Some people might not believe this, but our shows in places like Tampa and Orlando are usually a lot better than our shows in New York City or Los Angeles.

People in those cities tend to be in the entertainment industry. They tend to be actors or writers, they tend to have experience with public speaking and things like that. So they have some habits of putting on masks.

Whereas when we come to cities anywhere else in the country, those folks are usually people who have listened to the podcast a lot. So they get it, they get how raw and real it can be. And what happens is we’ll say hey, Tampa, or Orlando, we’re coming on such-and-such a date… and we’ll give prompts.

What prompts did you give for your Florida stops?

Orlando, the themes that people can choose to pitch about are “Brilliance” or “Sacred” or “Corruption.” And then Tampa… the suggested themes are “Worst Case Scenario” or “Intuition” or “Dreams.” We’re not sticklers for these themes, that’s why we give people a choice, just to help people brainstorm.

So Tampa is on June 8, then Orlando is on June 9. What’s most important for us is that people think of times that they were most emotional or times that felt the most meaningful. The kinds of experiences in your life that you do feel like unpacking with a therapist.

What’s the submission process like?

People hear me announce this on the podcast and then they go to the submissions page at “RISK” and it tells you how to pitch a story. We’ll usually get around 20 or 30 pitches from each city and the ones that sound most interesting to us, we’ll contact those people and have them send us more.

Those that we cast, we’ll have them do at least two drafts for us where they speak it into a recorder and get our notes, and get our notes again, and there’s a real relationship that’s established before the show.

Why is that so important?

We want to make sure that a person is ready. A lot of times, people have PTSD about whatever they’re talking about… or maybe it’s too recent. Maybe they wanna talk about their mother dying and it only happened like three months ago. And we’ll be like, maybe next year; you have to feel all that stuff out with people.

I should also point out that we also make a point whenever we’re casting the show of having a couple of stories in it that are just purely hilarious, because we like an evening to be a bit of an emotional roller coaster ride. So there’s often just as many laughs in an evening of risk as there are gasps or tears.

Scary stories, funny stories, heartbreaking stories, we like you to feel like you went all over the place emotionally.

Are there any risks you haven’t taken with the live show and podcast that you’d like to?

Yeah, definitely. I’m always thinking of types of stories we haven’t yet run. I know that, like I talk to my therapist all the time—like am I ready to tell this story, or should I put this one off?

I was married for nine years, and I’ve always wanted to tell the story of my marriage to my husband… but when you do tell stories about other people, you don’t want to hurt them in the process. I think I’ve always been worried about sharing that story because once I really get knee deep in working on it, then I’m probably gonna have to look at some parts of myself and then I’m gonna feel bad.

Storytelling is a very psychological experience. There are kinky stories of mine that I’m like, “I dunno, maybe I’ll wait 10 years on that one… that might be too weird for people,” but there’s also emotional ones.

Do any come to mind?

I’m in the midst of working on my story about 9/11, because I was right down there in the financial district on that morning. I’ve always been afraid to tackle that story. When you do work on stories like that it’s like, whoa, I had forgotten.

Once you really start working on a story, it’s amazing the things you start remembering. That always takes me by surprise, that details start falling back into place once you literally have to sit down and think about them.

That’s the risk, right?

Exactly. I feel like we could do this show for another couple decades and never run out of new risky stuff to be sharing.

You can join Kevin Allison and local storytellers during “RISK! LIVE” on June 8 in Tampa and June 9 in Orlando. Performances will be held at The Attic in Tampa and The Abbey in Orlando. To purchase tickets for $20 or for more information about the live show or podcast, visit risk-show.com/tour/.

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