Host Kevin Allison and the team behind RISK! offer an inside look at creating a show that celebrates coming out, changes the lives of both its storytellers and listeners, and always dares to share.
It’s closing night of NYC Podfest, a weekend of special live shows performed at Brooklyn venue The Bell House for the kind of hipster-heavy audiences who have helped contribute to podcasting’s continuing boom. Kevin Allison — sporting his signature red beard and elastic facial expressions — bounds on stage to begin hosting RISK!, a live storytelling show he says will run the gamut of human emotion.
“I compare it to drinking whiskey,” Allison explains to the crowd. “First, it’s a little bit like getting punched in the face. After a while, you start to think, ‘This is fun.’ And every once in a while, someone might barf.” Judging from the fervent applause, the audience is eager to take this ride — no matter how wild it gets.
COMING OUT ABOUT ANYTHING
There are other shows that tell stories. Savvy radio journalists do it on This American Life, and “real people” do it on The Moth; in both cases, content is sanitized to NPR-appropriateness. But RISK! regularly offers up the kind of stories these other programs would not dare to share: tales that are too sexy, too outrageous, too outside social norms.
RISK! was not necessarily conceived as a showcase specifically for the LGBTQ community. Yet because it celebrates outsiders, the show often ends up shining a spotlight on members of our tribe. Recent contributors include drag star Lady Bunny and activist Dan Savage. Notable trans people such as Ts Madison and Buck Angel have shared their bawdy tales. And comedians from pansexual provocateur Margaret Cho to avowed asexual Janeane Garafolo have taken the RISK! mic.
Of course there’s also Allison himself, who is the show’s host, founder and original openly gay storyteller. “I grew up knowing I was gay really from the beginning of consciousness,” he tells me. But in the conservative confines of 1970s Ohio, it was something that he felt obliged to hide. “It was where the Mapplethorpe trial went down; it was where Larry Flynt’s trial went down. There was an obsession with keeping sex out of Cincinnati.” So Allison grew up thinking, “If anyone finds out that that’s what I am, I’ll lose my friends. I’ll lose my family. People will hate me; people will hurt me.”
How did he cope? “I developed into a comedian,” Allison says. “It’s a really common thing for people who feel like freaks.” What started as class clowning led to a career as part of sketch comedy group The State, which rose to prominence on MTV in the 1990s. But once the group went their separate ways, Allison found the cartoonish characters he’d played with them didn’t work onstage anymore.
Fellow comedian Michael Ian Black suggested that Allison try telling true stories instead. “I’m too many strange things that I would have to come out about; it would just be too risky!” Allison remembers replying. But Black insisted if it felt risky, that would mean Allison was opening up, and audiences would open up in response.
A terrified Allison decided to give it a try. He promised a woman who ran a true storytelling show that he’d appear and tell a very revealing tale. But on the day of the event, he called to beg off — insisting it was just too personal. “That’s great news!” Allison remembers her saying. “‘On the day of, there’s usually someone who feels like their story’s too personal — too risky — but if I can convince them to actually go ahead and do it, that’s usually the story that knocks it out of the park.”
“I went and told the story that night,” Allison recalls — worrying about saying too much and sounding too gay. But he quickly realized that the more he revealed, the more people wanted. “I could see it in their eyes! I could feel I was conversing with the audience rather than reciting at them and all of a sudden I was like, ‘Whoa, something is happening here between me and this audience that I haven’t experienced before.’” He recalls thinking, as he left the theater, “That’s the word: Risk! I should create a show where people are just coming out about anything!”
THE TURNING POINT
“Early on, RISK! mostly focused on well-known comedians who were friends of mine,” Allison recalls, mentioning Sarah Silverman, Marc Maron, Kevin Nealon and a other notable funny folk. Though their celebrity brought helpful attention to the show (which still welcomes many famous faces), “a whole new level of raw honesty started happening,” Allison says, “when fans started wanting to share their own stories.”
“A young woman came to me and said that she wanted to tell the story of how she was molested by a family member,” Allison recalls. “We sat down; she shared this story with me and she got really graphic about what had happened to her as a kid.” She expressed so much raw emotion that Allison offered her the chance to reconsider. “I never want to exploit someone,” he explains. But they finished crafting the story together, and after the episode went out, the storyteller wrote to him. “I have been in therapy for over a decade talking about the same stuff,” she said. “I have never felt as much like I turned the corner, like I was owning it and mastering my processing of it all, as when I put it out there with you.”
JC Cassis (pictured), who has been part of Risk’s production team since 2011, tells me how rewarding it’s been when she’s told stories on the show. “Each time, the process was so revealing and enlightening and nerve wracking,” she says. Her proudest moment came in an episode called “The Downward Spiral” in which she shared the experience of dealing with the death of her uncle “who — unbeknownst to my mom and me — had been declining rapidly and living as a hermit for the previous 15 years.” Afterward, she got many messages from strangers saying her story had helped them cope with horrible deaths they witnessed. “It definitely feels risky,” she says, “but getting that kind of feedback makes it all worth it.”
Cassis also sees the show as a rare opportunity to change hearts and minds. “I’m part of the LGBTQ community myself, and a huge chunk of all the people I love are as well,” she says. “The great thing is, we get e-mails all the time from people saying things like, ‘I’m a straight, married father of two kids in the Midwest, and I feel like I understand gay people so much more after listening to your show.” She calls RISK! “that very unusual queer content that actually reaches a mainly straight audience.”
MONEY AND POLITICS
In a political climate that increasingly seems bent on silencing minority voices, Allison is intent on continuing to amplify them. “We need more people of color! We need more trans people! We need more people who have been incarcerated or homeless or fought in wars,” he says. “We’re always looking for people who might feel marginalized or whose stories you might be less likely to run into when you turn on the TV or the radio.” After the election, RISK! ran an all-immigrant episode and another episode with stories of people taking a stand against authorities. “We’re at this stage where political powers in America are suggesting that some people are more human than other people,” worries Allison. He wants to help those disenfranchised people “share their truth.”
Allison admits that the philosophical rewards of RISK! tend to outweigh the financial. “A lot of folks have podcasts where it’s just a smart person sitting down, having a conversation with another smart or funny person,” he says. By contrast, RISK! gathers some stories in studio, others at regular live shows in NY and LA, and still others at special live shows on the road. The required planning, coaching and editing can be a costly process. Still,“we continue to be more and more popular,” says Allison. (The podcast now averages about 2 million downloads per month.) “But we spend as much as we make, so it’s always just a little bit of a precarious thing.”
“RISK! can definitely feel like keeping a lot of plates spinning at once — sometimes with not enough hands,” adds Cassis. “But it always feels worthwhile.”
Allison admits he’s had mixed feelings about his colleagues’ success: “I saw my friends from The State go on to do things like Reno 911! or Red Hot American Summer, and some of them actually became multi-millionaires.” But when he hears from listeners who reconsidered suicide, parents who were able to understand children with drug problems and help them get treatment, or victims of sexual assault who learned not to blame themselves because of Risk! “it’s profoundly moving,” Allison says. ”It means a lot more than money.”
ALL OF OUR YUM
At Podfest, Allison welcomes to the stage an actor who shares a cringeworthy tale of losing his virginity, a hip-hop artist who narrowly avoided the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, a composer who struggled to keep his high-school sweetheart from killing herself, and a comedian who suffered multiple miscarriages while attempting fertility treatments. Harrowing as these stories may sound, they are delivered so deftly and mined for so much humor and insightful social commentary that their weighty subject matter doesn’t bring down the audience; on the contrary, they seem utterly engaged. There are nervous giggles and belly laughs. There are gasps of surprise and sighs of empathy. But above all, as Allison promised, there’s a sense of communication between each storyteller and those of us watching and listening.
Allison says that he still wonders sometimes whether certain stories may be too risky. “Last month — at the RISK! live show — I told a story about how I attended this all-male kink camp where it got really graphic,” he recalls. But the audiences were responsive as ever. “They were great!” Allison says with a laugh. “It’s amazing that RISK! audiences are so open!” That openness extends even to storytellers confessing they take pleasure in activities some audiences might not find so pleasurable. Allison says the rule of thumb is: “Don’t yuck on my yum!” — meaning that being truly open-minded includess appreciating someone else getting turned on by something that, for others, could be a major turn-off. In RISK!, Allison has created an avenue for people to come out about even their most scandalous pleasures without fear. And, as he puts it, “What do we need more than an opportunity to share all of our yum?”
Last modified: June 7, 2017