“The Set” With Kevin Allison


KevinAllison_credit-Gene.Silvers

[photo by Gene Silvers]

You might know as a member of MTV’s legendary comedy troupe, “”.  After a few years of soul-searching, Allison has now found his niche.  He’s now selling out theaters and winning awards with his Live Show and Podcast, “Risk!. ” The podcast features Allison and his guests telling stories they never thought they’d dare to share in public, and it’s the number 1 live podcast in NY.  It’s loved by critics everywhere and 11 million downloads prove that listeners are crazy about Risk!.  RJ Waldron got to talk with Kevin about “The State” and “Risk!” for “The Set” our series of conversations with great comedians.

RJW: In your early twenties you joined up with some amazingly hilarious fellow NYU students: , Michael Showalter, Ken Marino to name a few, and The State was born. How did you guys find each other and what was that like?

I decided I’m not stalking that boy anymore because I think he likes girls, but I AM going to start stalking that comedy group because I want in!

Kevin Allison: It was who noticed that there was a sketch comedy group that NYU had kind of put together. It was an official club and they had all of these rules. They could only allow a certain number of new members. Todd said, “Screw that! A creative entity should be it’s own organic thing. Why don’t I put together a group of people? A new group.” So, the original name of The State was “The New Group,” just based on Todd Holoubeck’s fliers saying, “Hey, who wants to create a new group?” It just so happened that those first eleven people that did that first show had such amazing chemistry and friendship and instant familial ties to one another, that everyone became best friends. The energy in that group, right from the beginning, was just uncanny. It was truly something special and even the folks in the group who were not religious or spiritual agreed that is seemed like it was meant to be. I was not in the group after the first set of auditions. I saw the group because I was stalking Joe Lo Truglio because I wanted to sleep with him. (laughing) I was following that boy around before I figured out that he only likes girls. I found out that he was going to be in this show, so I went to see him and then my stalking priorities changed. I saw that first show and just felt such magic energy in the air. The audience was laughing as if they already knew this group, it was so classic. I decided I’m not stalking that boy anymore because I think he likes girls, but I AM going to start stalking that comedy group because I want in! So, I started hanging out at all the same places they hung out and acting like a complete and total loon, taking off all of my clothes and running around at parties and stuff like that. Finally they decided that this crazy guy real is a character, let’s let him in the group.

RJW: You guys pretty much wrote, performed, directed, and edited all of your work on your own, at such a young age. How did that impact the comedy?

Kevin Allison: You know, we considered the chemistry between the eleven of us very, very precious. So, half of us were acting students and half were film making students at NYU, so we adopted this “do it yourself attitude” from the beginning. When we got to MTV, we said, “No, no, no, no, no we want to be the people literally sitting there editing the sketches because we know that even 1/24th of a second might make a joke funnier depending on how it is edited. And, since we’ve be doing that stuff at school we know how to direct because we’ve been taking directing classes and making our own projects. And we know how to find the costumes and…” We wanted our hands on absolutely everything. Now the only problem was that MTV didn’t really want to pay us to do all of those jobs, but we said “Whatever. We’ll take low pay, but still be the folks that are doing the directing, the editing, the acting, the writing, everything.” That sort of organic all-in-the-family approach meant that we were kind of living and breathing the show 24/7. It really gave the show an extremely distinct sensibility. You could really feel our personalities. The kind of joking around that we would do, the inside jokes just between us, were coming out in the show. I think that to this day, people still react to that. When people see the DVDs of the show they say, “Yeah, this does have a different energy than any other sketch comedy that was being done at that time. It’s very young, and creative, and smart, and absurdist and particularly kind of American.” To this day, we’re all still very, very proud of The State.

RJW: It’s so genuine, too. When you’re saying your inside jokes made it to the air, that’s what made it all so funny, so real.

Kevin Allison: Yeah, for example a sketch like “Barry and Levon: $240 Worth of Pudding” that came out of the fact that MTV gave us this huge catalog of all of their music videos that we could just press a button and access. At one point we just got addicted to watching everything that Barry White had ever done. We were just loving Barry White, just obsessed. Especially Tom [Lennon] and Michael [Ian] Black who began talking like him one day at the office until they just knew they had to write some of this down. It’s that sort of joking around together that really solidified the sketches that ended up on TV.

RJW: So, tell me about your podcast and live show, RISK!

I was also dealing with a tremendous amount of stage fright and social anxiety.

Kevin Allison: Risk came about because after The State broke up, I spent so many years as a starving artist. Facing eviction notices, going from one horrible waiter job to another. I just really wasn’t sure how to break through to the next phase of my creative career. What I was trying to do was sketch comedy as one. I was trying to get up on stage as kooky, crazy over-the-top characters and telling stories as these characters. It was going… ok. But it never really caught fire. I was also dealing with a tremendous amount of stage fright and social anxiety. It was this time in my life when I was like, “Oh my gosh, now that I no longer have this group behind me to catch me when I fall, do I have what it really takes?” So, I was letting that psych me out a lot.

It was Michael Black who had always suggested to me that I start sharing my own true stories on stage. We used to do these “check-ins” in the morning at MTV. It was the first half-hour of the day, where we would all say how we were feeling about our lives. It was a half hour that we could be genuine and emotional because we spent the rest of the day kind of roasting each other and mean-spiritedly competing with one another. Everyone always said that I had the best check-ins because the group would hang out 24/7. They would hang out at night after work. But, since I was the only gay one, I’d be out “adventuring.” I’d be checking out sex clubs and stuff like that. Just getting myself into all kinds of crazy trouble. So they loved my stories and Michael would always say that I should just tell those on stage. I always thought that seemed way too risky. In 2008, I did another show of characters and at that point I was 39, and I thought ‘I don’t want to turn forty and not have found the next thing after The State’. Everyone else has found their next thing and here I was out in the wilderness. After that show at the San Francisco Sketch Fest, and afterwards Michael said to me, “I still think, after all of these years, that you should drop the act and start telling your own stories.” And I said to him, “Michael, there are too many parts to me that aren’t what Hollywood would get or like. They don’t add up to a nice palatable, accessible guy. I’m too raunchy and kinky. But at the same time, I’m too Mid-Western and friendly and polite. And then at the same time, too absurdist. And then at the same time…” And I finally just said, “It’s too risky.” And he said, “Kevin, that’s the word. If it feels risky, then you are probably opening up and the audience will open up to you.”

I told my prostitution story. And she was right, the audience lit up.

The very next week, I said, “Ok, when I get back to New York, I’m going to tell a true story on stage and it’s going to be risky.” So, I contacted Margot Leitman who had a storytelling show. I had never been to a storytelling show before, I had never seen The Moth or anything like that. Her show was all people sharing stories about their sex lives. And I thought, the riskiest story I could possibly tell would be about the time that I tried to prostitute myself just before The State got on to MTV. The day of, I was so nervous, I started freaking out with stage fright like never before. I called Margot and said, “This just feels too risky, I have to pull out and not come tonight.” And she said, “Oh my God, that is great news!” I said, “WHAT?!” She said, “There is always someone who calls and says, ‘I don’t think I can do it, I have to pull out.’ But when I convince them to do it, that is always the story that is the biggest hit of the night. The audience feels like this person is really revealing something and they light up.” So, I gave it a try. I told my prostitution story. And she was right, the audience lit up. Afterwards people were grabbing me and saying, “Oh, that reminded me about something that happened to me.” And, “I’ve never heard anything like that before, but boy did I feel your pain.” That sort of thing. I just knew that I had to force myself to start doing this on a regular basis, because I had found something. I decided to create a show called RISK! where the theme is different every time we do it, it might be about moms, might be about sex, might be about death, whatever. Everyone who gets up on stage, I tell them, “Look, I really want you to step outside of your comfort zone here, I want you to ask yourself tough questions that a really tough therapist might ask you and really put your balls on the chopping block here. The result is this show that is just so psychologically and emotionally loaded. Sometimes it’s hilarious, sometimes it’s frightening, and sometimes it’s tearjerking. But it’s always the truth, and there is something very powerful about it.

RJW: So, I know that you do storytelling coaching with The Story Studio. I’ve always been told that I tell horrible stories. Do you have a quick tip for me?

Kevin Allison: There are a lot of common problems that people have when they are new to storytelling. What I suggest is that before you start telling the story, you quickly say to yourself, “What is the main event? What is the incident, the bit of drama that will make me arrive somewhere slightly different in the end?” For example: the moment of achieving success, or the moment of facing failure, or your eureka moment when you realize I’ve been doing the wrong thing all along. Think of that climactic event and then make sure that everything you are saying as you walk toward that event is setting your audience up so they know emotionally and logistically more and more why that happened the way that it did. Thinking of where you are going to arrive will help you stay focused on building in the most relevant and the funniest moments.

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4 Comments

  1. FrancisStevens

    April 21, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    I’ve become a huge fan of the set and this is a great interview.  I had never heard of Risk! and it sounds like a great concept.  Fez should check this out.

  2. BigMikeAris

    April 21, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    Great interview!

  3. shortbusdriver

    April 21, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    I totally forgot about the Red Head, from the Redhead the Italian and the Jew.

  4. FatassTitePants

    April 21, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    shortbusdriver A Red Head Gay, if we are going to be precise.