An addictive podcast created by The State alumni Kevin Allison, Risk! encourages both ordinary and famous people to tell their deepest secrets live on stage.
There is virtually nothing that has not been done or covered by a podcast at this point — from cooking to serial killer exposes. Even Levar Burton’s Reading Rainbow got in on the act. However, there is one podcast that dares to go where it’s audience never thought they would go: telling stories they never thought they’d admit.
Created in 2009 by Kevin Allison, a founding member of sketch comedy troupe The State (he was “the redhead gay”), Risk! is a podcast that invites us bare it all to people we never met and will never see again. The idea for the podcast came when Allison decided to start by daring himself. Well, sort of.
The story goes that Allison was doing a solo show on the west coast, after The State had ended. While doing a lot of character work during his show, fellow State alumnus Michael Ian Black suggested that he ditch the characters and just tell his own stories.
“The very next week I tried telling a true story on stage for the first time and per his advice,” said Allison. “I thought of the riskiest story I could tell, which I thought would be about the first time that I tried prostituting myself when I was 23 years old. A kind of comedy of errors story that I call ‘The Hustler’ now.”
Allison noted how he felt a kind of electricity with his audience, and how the story resonated with them. He found that being honest and raw with an audience elicited fascinating results that he couldn’t predict. He went home that night and immediately wanted to create a show called, well, Risk!
Allison knew that he wanted to hear other people’s stories. It didn’t matter if they were hilarious, scary, boring, whatever. There was just something appealing to this idea of telling strangers things you once swore to take to your grave.
“They can be hilarious stories, or scary or beautiful,” said Allison. “They can have any sort of emotional tone or feeling to them, but the key is that they are the kind of stories you might normally only share with your therapist. They are about those moments in your life that you were most emotional, or those incidents that you feel it’s most revealing to talk about.”
The show has featured many people, from everyday people to popular comedians like Marc Maron, Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and of course, fellow The State alumni such as Black and Thomas Lennon. Of all of the famous people that Allison has had on the show, his favorite has so far been the South African comedian and current host of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah.
A pre-Daily Show Noah had met with Allison to go over the show and its format. He originally wanted to tell a story from his high school years, but his mind completely changed after hearing the stories of the others before him.
“He went out there on stage and improvised this story about his mother, and how she got into a relationship with an abusive man,” said Allison. “[Noah’s story] escalated so much that he shot her in the head with a gun. It was such a shocking, and scary, but beautiful story. He talks about how much of an inspiration she is to him and how she rebuilt their family after that experience.”
Risk! has since become so popular that it has not only accumulated millions of downloads, but also spawned a live show, an ongoing tour, and a book filled with stories originally told on the podcast by various comedians and famous guests. If you ask Allison what his favorite version of Risk! is, though, he’s going to tell you to stick to the OG.
“I feel like the podcast is really the end-all be-all of what Risk! is,” he said. “It’s where the community gathers to hear the best of what we put out. But that said, nothing compares to seeing the show live. When the storyteller is actually looking into the eyes of the audience, there is just that much more of a human connection being made.”
They say that everyone has a story in them. If you’re wondering if you have a good story for the show, then honestly, you probably do. Most people would assume that the best stories come from the famous comedians and performers that make guest appearances on the show. However, in Allison’s experience, it’s usually the opposite.
“Oftentimes we’re very surprised that some of the very best, most memorable, most moving stories have been told by people with no background in public speaking or writing,” said Allison. “It’s not about who the storyteller is, as much as it is… does this person have a really fascinating, or profound, or compelling life experience to tell us?”
Part of what makes Risk! so addictive for listeners is that element of human emotion and vulnerability. A story could start out funny but end up leaving the storyteller in a mess of tears, or vice-versa, as a sob-fest ending in smiles and laughter.
“It’s almost like a support group at times,” said Allison. “If someone does trip for a moment the audience goes ‘You can do it!’”
We live in strange, uncomfortable times where its hard to say hello to a stranger on the street, let alone tell 75 people about the time you were the only kid in fifth grade without a partner on field day. To have an arena where humans can earnestly connect with each other through shared experiences and empathy is equal parts fascinating and encouraging. It provides entertainment and lets us know that our favorite celebrities are indeed “just like us,” but it also reminds us for a small chunk of time that we really aren’t alone in this vast universe after all.