Kevin Allison, the self-proclaimed black sheep of comedy troupe The State, is returning to SF Sketchfest to give a “RISK!”
Allison, who teaches storytelling, will host an evening of comedians letting go of the safety of their act and sharing tales that might be at once ridiculous, shocking or even heartbreaking.
“It doesn’t have to be something that would ever be able to air on NPR,” Allison said, laughing. “It doesn’t even have to be funny. Just take a risk, and say something that is truly, authentically you.”
“RISK!” will be performed with guests Caitlin Gill and Chris Garcia of SF’s The Business as well as Greg Proops and Glenn Wool at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday in the Eureka Theater.
Before creating “RISK!” a few years ago, which travels the country and is also a weekly podcast at risk-show.com, Kevin was literally the red-headed stepchild of The State, whose members also include “Reno 911!’s” Tom Lennon, “Burning Love’s” Ken Marino and best-selling author Michael Ian Black.
“I had always been the gay guy, the guy who was a little too weird with his sketches. We were always absurdist, but my stuff was usually absurdist to the nth degree,” Allison said.
One such absurd sketch—considered a classic by many State fans—sees Allison’s postman take to depositing tacos in boxes instead of the mail. The quote “Great tacos today, Jake!” likely gets yelled at Allison from time to time on the street.
The State is an 11-member comedy troupe that was born in the late ’80s at New York University and ended up with a short-lived, but still revered among comedy fans, sketch comedy show on MTV. Even though the members have performed all together only a couple of times since going off the air in 1995, the legacy of The State continues to grow and inspire contemporary comedians.
In fact, the last time The State reunited was in San Francisco at Sketchfest four years ago. That fest was also an inspiration for “RISK!” when Kevin performed a one-man sketch comedy show called “F___ Up.” In it, Allison performed as five characters who had all failed horribly at their careers—and they were all thinly-veiled versions of him. Allison asked his State mate, Michael Ian Black, what he thought of the show.
“‘I felt like we in the audience wanted you to drop the act and start speaking as yourself,’” Allison said was Black’s reply.
“I feel like I’m too weird. It’s risky.’ Allison said.
“Exactly! The risky stuff is what’s worth it,” Black said.
When The State was on MTV, Allison said the rivalry was strong among members to get material on the air, with a lot of roasting and cut-throat humor being the norm. He suggested that once per week, the members would get together in the morning to just share what was happening in their lives and how they were feeling.
Allison’s “check ins” became famous within The State, he said.
“Everyone else was hanging out 24/7. I was the guy who was heading out and having these crazy sex club adventures,” Allison said. He was urged by Black to start telling those outlandish tales on the stage, but Allison felt he was too Midwestern, too polite and too Catholic to be that honest with anyone but close friends.
That night in San Francisco four years ago was the turning point, he said.
“Look, this is the one thing you haven’t tried. Maybe your voice is quite simply your voice. I had been praying at that point, ‘Dear God, please help me find my comedic voice,’” Allison added.
Once Allison shared onstage a sad and funny story about how he almost prostituted himself before The State took off, a light bulb appeared and “RISK!” was born. Other performers instantly latched on. Maria Bamford, Kevin Nealon, Lisa Lampanelli, Janeane Garofalo and other comics have left their comfort zones for “RISK!”
Soon, Allison started to get feedback that “RISK!” was changing lives. One of the riskiest stories told was from Philadelphia-based comic Becca Trabin. She shared about the time while out-of-her-mind on mushrooms and opium, she repeatedly stabbed her mother almost to death.
“She got so into the moment of recreating the lines of dialogue from her and from her mother, some members of the audience said they felt they almost had to get up and leave,” Allison said.
But, after the show, both Allison and Trabin got feedback that “RISK!” finally urged people to seek help. “The worth of hearing stuff like that is priceless,” Allison said.
This week brings “RISK!” back to San Francisco for a third time at Sketchfest, and Allison credits fest co-founder David Owen for being outstanding at assembling talent for the show. The first year featured local legends like Peaches Christ and members of sketch troupe Kasper Hauser.
Oakland-based comic Caitlin Gill is ready to share details about the most awkward time ever spent in a car with an ex. “The heart of my story is the best letter a lady could ever hope to get from her ex,” she said.
For Allison, the show continues to inspire and influence his life—and was even the catalyst for his first-ever sexual situation with a member of the opposite sex at the age of 41. It was at a camp for kinksters.
“That camp introduced me to the kink community. This side of me was always there, but I didn’t know what quite to call it—and I didn’t know people did camping trips around it!” he said.
Visit sfsketchfest.com for more information about “RISK!” and the dozens of other SF Sketchfest shows being performed over the next two weeks.
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. He recently published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family several years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.