All the jobs I ever had: Kevin Allison, creator of Risk! and middle child of ‘The State’

Kevin Allison. Photo by Gene Silvers.

Kevin Allison. Photo by Gene Silvers.

Kevin Allison is the self-described middle child of The State, the grungy 90s MTV show and the best sketch comedy troupe that has ever existed (a fact I am willing to fight anyone at any time over). He famously played the Redhead Gay and a mailman who delivered tacos instead of the mail in two bits that are among the highest comedy art ever produced. The State broke up after a failed move to CBS, and Allison fell off the hardest. While other members of the troupe went on to write movies, star in sitcoms or direct, Allison hit the bottle hard, and took a series of low-paying gigs. That included demeaning catering jobs serving the likes of Donald Trump and the Koch brothers and getting shade from Aretha Franklin, and otherwise wandering the city’s trenches of low-paying jobs before finally finding his way back to performing.

Allison is now host of Risk!, a live storytelling show and podcast he started in 2009. The show, which also tours the country, just moved its permanent home to the Bell House in Gowanus in January after years in Manhattan. In the show, storytellers tell tales they thought they’d never say in public. Allison moved to Harlem last year after fleeing bed bugs in his apartment on the Bushwick/Ridgewood border, but he’s thinking of moving back to Brooklyn soon. Some of Allison’s stories come from his long and winding job history, including a very brief stint as a prostitute and porn author. So before his show tomorrow night at the Bell House, he talked with us about all the jobs he’s ever had.

1. Movie theater concessions, circa age 15, outside Cincinnati

I got a job at a little grindhouse movie theater, a rundown little place called Westwood Cinemas. It was kind of on the poorer side of the tracks in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio. I managed to get a few of my friends jobs there too, and the manager quickly found out that we loved pulling pranks. Once during a showing of Children of a Lesser God, I took off all of my clothes and streaked down the center aisle of the movie, while the movie was playing, no clothes on, me dancing down the aisle, singing a Rodgers and Hammerstein song, “This Was a Real Nice Clambake.” Of course someone immediately came out to the concession stand and complained to the manager: “It was an employee here. It was the redhead guy who sold me popcorn earlier.”

2. Busboy, 17 years old

I could never graduate from busboy to waiter. Waiters have very stressful jobs in that they have to keep track of a lot of shit at the same time constantly coming at them. Once I tried doing the waiting shift. I came out with a tray with eight completely filled glasses of ice water. I accidentally dumped this entire tray on these four elderly ladies, virtually giving them heart attacks. 

3. Door-to-door dictionary salesman, 19 years old, Manhattan

After my freshman year at NYU, I decided to do something unlike what everyone else I knew was doing, going back [home]. I decided, I’m 19, I should be able to prove I can make it in New York. I got the most respectable job I could find which was door-to-door dictionary salesman. When I first saw the ad in the Village Voice, I thought, oh this sounds creative, because it mentioned a script and performing, but it didn’t mention the words “door-to-door dictionary salesman.” 

This is 1989 so the spiel starts, “Can you ever imagine that Madonna would be in the dictionary?” That was supposed to prove how recent the book was. I didn’t sell a single dictionary the first day. I got to this little place in the Flatiron building, it was just floor-to-ceiling stacks of VHS porn. He was a porn wholesaler. I knocked a stack over, and when I did, about a three-foot long stream of cockroaches came pouring out of the toaster oven he had and up the walls. To my shock he was the first person that day who was like: you know you’re right, a good business does need good spelling.

I ended up getting a plane back home to Cincinnati the next week.

4. Guard, Museum of Modern Art, circa 21 years old 

Lehmbruck's Standing Youth statue, sans Kevin's hand on the junk.

Lehmbruck’s Standing Youth statue, sans Kevin’s hand on the junk.

I did that job stoned out of my mind. I would have a joint before work and another joint at work. I remember one day, was in a gallery, thinking oh my god, it has been so long since anyone walked through the gallery. There’s this beautiful giant sculpture by Lehmbruck called Standing Youth, which is very much my kind of art. I was thinking, I wonder what it would feel like to fondle his balls? The next thing you know there I am stoned, tripping out, kind of massaging these huge stone gonads. When a couple and their two little girls walk right in on me. I just had to act like I was dusting without a duster. I was a disaster as a museum guard.

5. Prostitute, Manhattan

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, or gay hustler bar patrons?

Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix, or gay hustler bar patrons?

With The State, we were determined to get a job working as a group together right after college. We had actually made a pilot at MTVFor six months or so, they were just kinda starving us, and hoping we would give up on our contractual demands. I finally had a day when I broke down, and my roommate said, “Kevin, prostitution can be a lot of fun.” 

This was 1992 or ’93, at that time, before Giuliani shut down all of gay sexuality in New York City. There was a bar called Rounds, which was a hustler bar on the Upper East Side. You would walk in and half of thee people in the bar, they looked like they owned banks, they all looked like a room full of Rush Limbaughs. The rest of the room was guys who were about 21, 22 23. Everyone looked like River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves in My Own Private Idaho. 

My first night attempting to prostitute myself was a complete disaster. This guy tried to take me home in a cab and tried to have sex in the cab, and wouldn’t negotiate the terms of the transaction with me. So the first guy I got stuck with that night, we ended up almost in a fist fight in the back of cab, with him having my pants half down.

I did successfully do it one night. It was kind of bad. The guy was very nice, but there was something that was very very sad about him. It made me realize, oh my gosh, I get too emotional for this stuff. The guy paid me $275 to just kind of lay there one night. He did let me know in the morning I had totally fucked it all up. He had revealed he was in the Vietnam War; I was so anxious, I was stalling, kept asking questions about Vietnam, which really put a damper on his evening.

At the end of that weekend, we found out The State had been picked up by MTV.

6. The State, 1993-1995

The cast of MTV's The State, all grunge and irreverence. Allison is on the far right.

The cast of MTV’s The State, all grunge and irreverence. Allison is on the far right.

The State is kind of like a dream come true. It’s like just the best hit of fortune I’ve had in my entire life. The synchronicity behind all of us meeting each other in an audition process in our freshman year of college and then finding out which had such an incredible chemistry, an incredible friendship and group voice, that was really some sort of like divine gift or something.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun packed into so many days as that was. It was really so much fun it’s hard to keep track of all the laughs. But also there were days when the jokes were so biting, or the fighting over roles was so intense. I remember one day specifically when I came home, I lay down on the floor of my apartment and my whole body was shaking from crying and kinda in like a panic.

7. Catering, Manhattan 

The Metropolitan Opera House, via their website. Not pictured: Drunk caterers and Donald Trump.

The Metropolitan Opera House, via their website. Not pictured: Drunk caterers and Donald Trump.

The period after The State broke up, the whole 12 years after, was the hardest time of my whole life. The group had a real strong rivalry in it and was very, very just cutthroat about competing for roles and competing for power. And I didn’t fare very well through all that. I really kind of botched the transition period from being in a group to going on doing stuff outside of the group. I just became obsessed with, oh I guess I’m a starving artist again. MTV had paid us nothing, so it wasn’t like we had savings when that show went away.

In one of these first catering gigs I had, Trump was there, I think Limbaugh might have been there. The excess was so staggering. It was this wedding where a republican bigwig had privately rented the Metropolitan Opera House. There were topless women dressed as Marie Antoinette and you were supposed to pick hors d’oeuvres off their butt with toothpicks. The worst part is there were 10 black men, beautiful models, muscly guys who were wearing nothing but baby oil and loin clothes and holding spears around the perimeter of the dinner. And they were told they would not get paid unless they remained muted throughout the evening.

I remember Jo [Lo Truglio, a fellow State member who also worked the gig] said to me after, “Kevin, no one with self respect would do this.” And so I ended up catering for another four years.

I was consistently being recognized on the catering gig. There was an occasion I was pouring champagne at an after party for the Grammy’s. Sarah McLachlan walks into the room at the same time Aretha Franklin walks into the room. She says, “Aretha can I get you something? Can I get you a glass of champagne?”

So they come up to my bar. And then Sarah McLachlan looks up at me, and says, “Oh my god, what are you doing here?” And she says [to Franklin], “Oh he’s a very successful comedian.”

And Aretha just looks at me like, “mmmmhmmmmm.” I really felt like that was a sign. Uh, you gotta get out of here.

8. Porn author

I got so tired of the weird dominant and submissive vibe [of catering] I actually wrote a porn story about it. This story is based on a time I worked for the Koch brothers. You were always working for people like the Koch brothers. And you’re this starving, liberal artist. After I was finished catering, my revenge was to write a porno story of taking that dominant submissive vibe and turning it on its head. [You can read the story here-Ed.].

9. Mentoring recruiter

For a little while, I worked for an agency called Mentoring USA. I was trying to recruit people to mentor children. What happens was round about the time I was 30, I gave up. At that time I was really getting really serious about the drinking. And I also was just so frustrated with how poor I was and how fucked up I seemed to have made my career. I convinced myself, maybe I’m just suppose to run away from the performing arts all together.

10. Editor

And then I decided to become a writer. My therapist kinda colluded with me on this: “Yeah, you should be the great American novelist. Forget all this performing and stuff.”

I started going to school to maybe get a master’s in English and maybe become an english professor or something. In the meantime I started taking jobs doing editing work. Eventually I ended up as an assistant editor at a small book publisher. They made books by librarians for librarians. It was the first hardcore 9-5 job I was in for four years. It was really a Bartleby the Scrivener sort of existence, where I was really like a little guy in a little room no one ever knows about, just proofreading books no one is ever going to read.

11. Sketch comedy teacher

One day I got an email from a woman at MediaBistro, she said, “hey I would like for you to teach a sketch comedy writing class at our school.” At first I was like, god do I want to do that? I’ve kind of left the performing arts altogether.

That first night of teaching, there were 15 kids sitting in front of me. In a moment in class, when you’re brainstorming on sketches, I told them: “Always think of the craziest stuff you’ve done. Like, one time I blew one of those transit workers in his yellow and orange jumpsuits in the middle of the night in the New York City subway system. And what was ironic was, I was coming from the catering gig so I was the one on my knees but I was wearing a tux!”

Afterwards, I realized holy shit, I’ve just done this job where I stood in front of a room full of people and I was able to be as absurdist or vulgar or sincerely revealing as I felt like being from moment to moment. Without that eureka moment that night, I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing today.

12. Artistic director, the People’s Improv Theater, Manhattan

I was a terrible fit for that job. I would get 80 emails a day of people proposing things and wanting an answer back about something. That kicked my ass because I am not a business-oriented person. [But] finally after all those years, I started taking the improv classes at the PIT. I just became engrossed in workshopping again, kind of having fun with a young community of people trying different things. It was really kinda of amazing for having my appetite for getting up on stage and doing things totally supported by that. I started my own sketch comedy troupe again called Big Flux.

I had a one-man show called F Up. I did that show in 2009 at SF Sketch Fest, only 10 people showed up in the audience. But [fellow State member] Michael Ian Black was there. Afterwards he said, “I think the audience just wanted you to drop the act and just start speaking from the heart yourself.” But Hollywood doesn’t seem to know what to make of someone who is kinky and raunchy and gay and yet also polite and friendly and midwestern and yet also kinda spiritual at the same time; that don’t seem to make sense together for casting agents. I said to him, “It feels too risky.” And he said “That’s the word: If it feels risky, then that means you’re opening up, and people are going to open up to you.”

I went back to New York that very week. I did a show called Stripped Stories, true stories from people’s sex lives. I decided the riskiest thing I could talk about was the first time I tried prostituting myself at that bar Rounds. I was looking into the audience’s eyes and seeing reactions and feeling this kind of electricity running back and forth between us.

13. Creator, producer and podcast host, Risk!, August 2009-present

Risk is now a hit podcast and live show.

Risk is now a hit podcast and live show.

I was so excited with the connection I had made that night that I literally walked away and said to myself, that’s it I’m going to create a show called Risk. It’s going to be true stories that people feel like, “holy shit I would ordinarily not be sharing this anywhere else.”

Risk totally changed my life. It gave me a career again, it made it easier to keep a roof over my head. What’s fascinating about it is that so many of the things that I went through in my life I now incorporate in this job. What I tell a lot of young people: You might feel like you’re totally lost in the forest sometimes but some of the skills you’re gaining, your experience you have in these little odd jobs along the way often give you insights that will end up contributing to the career you end up making later in life.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity)

BONUS MATERIAL!

The State gets back together every now and then for a live show or an appearance on @Midnight. But in the era of Fuller Houses and Wet Hot American Summer prequels, could a full State reunion happen?

“I really wish there would be,” Allison said. I’ve always said we ought to try an animated show together. That might be a little bit easier to not all have to be in the same room at the same time.”

“There definitely was a lot of tension in the group and it just kinda grew worse as our careers grew,” he said. “Its absolutely true that we all still dearly love each other. We all still consider each other like family. We get together for weddings, we reunite as a group sometimes, we’re always joking around with each other via emails.”

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If nothing else, an oral history of The State is due out in May (exact date still TBD) it’s out on May 3 as an e-book!. Allison is hosting a special Risk in celebration at the Bell House on May 20, featuring State member Kerri Kenney-Silver, Janeane Garafalo and possibly more State members.

He’s got some advice for anyone who feels like they’ve hit a setback in their career. His biggest regret after the State was thinking he was too good to go back and learn new skills by taking improv classes or the like.

“I didn’t balance out all the catering with lots of just getting up on stage and not being worried if something was perfect or not and just playing [around],” he says. “In order to know people, you have to be out there playing or doing something.”

Find more about Risk here; Follow Kevin on Twitter here: @TheKevinAllison.

Follow Tim who dressed as a Bearded Man of Space Station 11 for Halloween two years ago: @timdonnelly.