Kevin Allison, an alum from ’90s MTV sketch show The State, is returning to Philly this weekend to host a live recording of his popular podcast, RISK!, at the Philadelphia Book Festival. If you’re not familiar, RISK! is a storytelling show similar to The Moth or This American Life, but it stands apart from those other guys by asking real people — and some celebrity types — to tell “true stories they never thought they’d dare to share in public.” The content ranges from hilarious and heart-wrenching to inspiring and downright kinky.
When I found out I’d be interviewing Allison this week, I took to the web to do a little research, where I discovered very little coverage about his experience as a gay man. He came out at age 24, when he was on The State, and he’s never been shy about discussing his gay life. (You should hear some of the stories on RISK!.) But most interviewers seemed to skirt the issue — until now. Before we even started the chat, I told him I wanted to talk about all kinds of gay things. He was happy to oblige. And, boy, does this guy have the gift of gab. Keep reading for his thoughts on being queer on MTV in the ’90s, how his gay past inspired the creation of RISK! and which Philly storyteller rocked his world when he was in town last year.
G Philly: Tell me the story of your coming-out experience.
Kevin Allison: I didn't come out to the public until I was 24. … After the first season of The State, I was interviewed by Out magazine and the Advocate and that was my official coming out in public.
GP: What was that like for you?
KA: It was a rather awkward time for someone to come out — the early '90s. It wasn't nearly as commonplace as it is now. And The State was such a cult phenomena … so I'm not sure how big of a ripple it ended up making in my career. What was interesting to me was … my mother absolutely freaked out, because she thought I was ruining my career and opening myself up to being attacked by people. My father was very supportive of it.
GP: What was it like being the only gay member of The State?
KA: It was definitely challenging. It was a group of 11 — 10 guys and 1 girl — and I was the only gay one. All those guys had a lot to prove about their masculinity, because they had all grown up being called "theater fags." So they felt like they had to make jokes about gays to show that, "no, no, no, we're straight guys." It was daunting for me, because the group had a very … roasting style of humor, where everyone would kind of pick on each other for whatever made them distinct: David Wain would get the brunt of the Jew jokes, Ken Marino would get picked on for being Italian. Eventually, we created a sketch that made fun of stereotypes and the joking that we did about each other. It was called "The Jew, the Italian and the Redhead Gay." … That was the ultimate coming-out for me. … Clearly suggesting right there on the television show that I am the redhead gay.
GP: RISK! debuted in 2009. What was your reason behind starting the podcast?
KA: The thing about RISK! is, we differentiate ourselves from other storytelling shows like The Moth or This American Life, in that the whole idea is ... encouraging you to talk about parts of your personal life that may raise an eyebrow, that might be censored on NPR. That largely comes from my having grown up gay. I was very conscious that I was gay from the beginning of my life. By the time I was 5, I understood completely what the words "gay" and "fag" meant, and I knew that it referred to me, and I knew that it was considered something hateful and loathsome and lame. I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio ... very Catholic. I basically grew up convinced that I was going to hell and that if anyone found out what was inside of me, I would lose the people I loved in my life. … All these years later, a huge impetus of my creating this show is saying, "You know what, 'no.' There are way too many things that we grow way too accustomed to not talking about in public, and [therefore] we don't explore them as explicitly as we might when we're alone. The thing about storytelling is … about exploring your life. It's taking a look at your experience and saying, "Wait a minute, how did I really feel about that? What were my ulterior motives? What might I not have understood was going on then that I see now? You make sense of the things that happen to you, and some of it comes out hilariously funny and some of it comes out shocking and brings tears to the eyes. But I think it's the ultimate form of entertainment, because it really goes back to the basics — the way we started entertaining each other millions of years ago. It's still the most essential way for human beings to connect.
GP: What's the toughest story you've ever told?
KA: For the first couple years, I was focused on stories from my past. Those stories can be a little bit easier to tell, because you've already processed all that. … But one day I went to Provincetown … and I met this much-younger guy. I was 41 and he was 19. We had this weekend-long romance, this very brief thing that often happens to people when their on vacation. What happened was … I was shocked to be the age I was and to be completely be swept off my feet, to be turned into a puddle of mush by this much-younger guy and to have just let my feelings get carried away over the course of what was only 48 hours. Sure enough, toward the end of the second day, he broke it off with me in a very rude, mean-spirited way. And I was so devastated ... that when I came home from Provincetown, I wished I could talk to a therapist about it. But then I was like, wait a minute, "I have my recording booth." So I sat down and started speaking what had just happened … walking through it and sharing it with the RISK! audience as if they were my therapists. I really tried to get into the nitty-gritty about how it felt when he said this, what it was about the way we laughed together that made something happen in my gut — all those intimate little details. ... People were so moved by that story. … That was when I really started to understand that when you share a story that is especially revealing and especially dear to your heart … that often times, once it's out in the world, it's no longer just about you. It starts to become about what other people get from it.
GP: If you were to do an all-gay episode of RISK!, who would be your dream lineup of guests?
KA: I've never even thought about that … One person I admire in a huge way is Andrew Sullivan. I read his blog every day. I was raised very Catholic and he, to this day, is very Catholic. I love how he comments on not just what it's like to be a gay man, but what it's like to be a gay man who's spiritual. Another person I admire hugely is Dan Savage. One of the reasons I'd love to have Dan on the show is … he does share a lot about his own experiences, but I think he feels like he has to hold back a little in order to be the voice of someone who can advise anyone ... about their sexual and romantic lives. So there are areas that I'm sure he's never really pulled apart and unpacked in public about his own experiences, and I think that would be fascinating to hear from him. And Tristan Taormino — she's a lesbian and she wrote the book Opening Up, about polyamory. That's an area I find utterly fascinating.
GP: Do you like coming to Philly?
KA: I love Philly. To me, Philly is such a great, down-to-earth, very hearty city. It really does feel a little bit like a smaller version of New York in its personality and attitude. I love going down there.
GP: Do you have any favorite Philly storytellers, comedians or sketch troupes?
KA: I'm a big fan of the Philly Improv Theater. Greg Maughan, who runs PHIT, is a friend of mine and the sweetest guy in the world. The shows that I've seen there have been really fun, and I think it's a really supportive, sweet community. I actually feel the same way about First Person Arts [who's hosting his event at the Philadelphia Book Festival]. Both of those organizations are just filled with really good people who are very supportive of artists.
GP: Any Storytellers?
KA: The story that people talk about the most when they talk about RISK! coming to Philly is from my last show. Becca shared a story about how when she was 20 years old, she was doing a lot of mushrooms and she heard the voice of God tell her to kill her mother. … She was having a psychotic meltdown and she took a steak knife and stabbed her mother many, many, many times. When she told the story, she really relived it. … It was just the most tear-jerking, shocking story. And in the end, it becomes about how her mother helped her to get well again. It was her mother's forgiveness and love and support that helped her become … healthy and functioning. That will go down as one of the most memorable stories that was ever told on RISK! (Hear it here.)
This weekend's live recording is happening on Sat., April 20 at 7:30 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia (1901 Vine St.) You can find more information and snag a $20 ticket here.
OTHER GIRL TALK GAB SESSIONS:
- RuPaul's Drag Race winner Jinkx Monsoon
- RuPaul's Drag Race's Alaska Thunderfuck
- Project Runway's Mondo Guerra
- The Biggest Loser's Jackson Carter
- Johnny Anastacio from Kimora: House of Fab
- Casey Donegan from What Not to Wear
- Matt McWilliams from Temple web series One of the Guys