Inside With: Kevin Allison

MAMA SAID KNOCK YOU OUT “In real life, I’m someone who always returned to chasing his dream, even after making a jaw-droppingly catastrophic mess of life on occasions”

Kevin Allison has been an influential actor of stage and screen for many years, most notably for his writing and performances on The State, and more recently in Reno 911!: Miami, The Ten, Flight of the Conchords and the sketch group Big Flux. In fact, Allison has never strayed too far from sketch comedy having joined The Peoples Improv Theater in New York in 2007 as an administrator and teacher, largely to “re-learn everything and then start learning new stuff,” he says. The Apiary recently sat down with Kevin to discuss his newest one-man show, “F*** Up,” and how else been passing his time these days.

Please update us as to what you’ve been up to.

Let’s just say it’s involved a remarkable amount of glue sniffing. When The State broke up, I went through a period where I was thinking, “Hmm … should I focus on writing instead?” I had this idea that that might be my stronger suit, so I should go full force that way. I started getting magazine jobs, writing articles, that sort of thing. I soon found myself saying, “I miss the crap out of performing!” It was totally irreplaceable. I felt it was a “confused-and-drunken-young-man” mistake to have veered from performing AND writing. Or, more specifically, performing my own writing.

So I did something very smart to warm myself back up for it, I started teaching sketch comedy classes. When you teach, you re-learn everything you know and then start learning new stuff. I started doing a lot of different kinds of shows at The PIT and was the Artistic Director there in 2007. I’ve also been appearing at various variety shows around town and doing bits on Reno 911!, Flight of the Conchords, Best Week Ever, the movie “The Ten.” I also write silent sketches for Blue Man Group on a weekly basis. But I really feel like my latest project, a one-man show called F*** Up is the “Mama Said Knock You Out” of stage shows, and who doesn’t want in on that L.L. action yo? Too many people in the film and TV industry were not even aware of The State when it was on TV, it was such a cult thing for high school and college kids. So this new show is my way of saying, Heads up motherfuckers! Even if you didn’t see me back then, you’ll damn well start seeing me now. On top of that, The State is doing a special for Comedy Central in 2009, and we’re finally releasing the box-set of our MTV series in the spring.

What are some of the things we can expect in ‘F*** Up’?

The tagline for F*** Up is, “Like ‘Fuck Up’ without the ‘uck’.” I hope that clarifies things. I haven’t been this excited about a project since The State. I’ve done a lot of one-man stuff over the years — character sketches like John Leguizamo’s or Whoopi Goldberg’s early stage work. But this show is my strongest stuff yet. I’ve always wanted to do material that had about 10 big laughs per minute but was still touching and thoughtful and intricately crafted. This is a bit of a tour de force that way, if I do say so, and I did say so, so it must be true. I think I write from the unconscious a lot, so you never know what the Hell is coming around the corner. And I grew up reading hefty novels, so there’s some real meat on the bones of this stuff in terms of story and imagery. The show is about me, but in the form of radically different nutjobs: A 90-year-old Jew, a monster, a salty sea dog, a Shakespearian thespian, a singing suicide and so on. There’s dancing, hallucinations, urination — all the ingredients of a hit. In real life, I’m someone who always returned to chasing his dream, even after making a jaw-droppingly catastrophic mess of life on occasions. There’s something magically funny and cheering about the guy who walks right under a falling piano but gets back up and plows ahead. It’s the reason we love Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Ralph Kramden. So this show is about daring dreamers who fuck up a lot along the way, then go once more into the breach. Comic heroes, I suppose.

How much do you get to perform these days in general? What’s your strategy?

It’s funny, these solo-character sketches work best in a show of stuff of the same format like F*** Up will be, for instance. So I do take these individual pieces to venues like Hot Tub, Sweet, Invite Them Up or whatever the current variety show is. But those set-ups are best for straight stand-up, where the performer plays with his or her own persona. When you have to have the host say, “Okay y’all, we have a special treat tonight! It’s my pedophile Uncle Morty,” and then I come out yelling at the crowd, people spend the first half of the monologue just getting used to the fact that I’m not Kevin right now, I’m Uncle Morty. The bottom line is, I should do it a Hell of a lot more often than I do just to keep my face and name in peoples’ minds. But I much prefer the evening-of-theater experience where you have the time and space to warm a crowd up and get lost with them.

How far do you want to take your show then?

I’d love to get F*** Up seen by as many people as possible. That will mean traveling with it — festivals and colleges. And it might mean letting the show evolve into something wildly different than it is now. Hell, I’ll shoot for an off-Broadway run if all goes well. There’s also a TV pilot script I’m working on with the director of my show, Joe Schiappa. It’s a truly brilliant idea so I really hope we can make something of it.

What do you think about the burgeoning gay comedy scene, with new shows such as Here TV’s Busted, Here TV’s Hot Gay Comics, Logo’s Big Gay Sketch Show, Dykes on Mics, The Back Room, Coming Out, On The Rocks and more popping up all over the city?

For me, comedy should be able to go anywhere. Getting so specific as to say — this is gay comedy or chick comedy or African-American comedy or whatever — to me that’s just boxing it in. When I was a kid, I never thought of Richard Pryor’s stuff as being comedy for black people, you know? Or comedy that was solely about being black. Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me, but I just never thought of it that way. Also, I’m probably not your most stereotypical gay guy. I’m a slob who listens to Dylan and Coltrane, reads John Fowles, watches westerns and crime movies. David Sedaris comes to mind as someone who doesn’t hide his sexuality but doesn’t make it his brand either. So I was happy to audition for the Big Gay Sketch Show a while back, but I tend to prefer a sketch show that has no set playing field. Oh, also, they said I was too “alternative.” I kind of love that I was too “alternative” for something called The Big Gay Sketch Show.

So would you say you don’t fit — or don’t want to fit — into any particular comedy scene, then?

Actually, that’s been one of my biggest trips as a comedian — the question where do I fit? It’s best not to work too hard at fitting into any scene or venue but just to do your Goddamndest to do your personal best even if people don’t know what to make of you for a while. Andy Kaufman is an inspiration that way. At that time, no one was doing what he was doing. But he just plowed ahead and kept doing his own thing as much as possible.

What’s your favorite performance style to do, and why? Standup, monologues, group sketch, improv, etc.?

It took me a long time to learn that it’s best to do a bit of all of them. Doing stand-up as me, Kevin, is something I’ve done the least of, which is a shame because it’s the easiest thing to do on the spur of the moment around town. For some reason I just like the infinity of weird places you can go when you push just a little bit beyond who you are. And I wish I had been raised on improv classes from like high school onward. It’s such a valuable skill and a really freeing way to exercise your creativity. But to get really, really good at long-form, you have to have been doing it for at least a few years straight. I’ve done it more in patches. Group sketch is what comes easiest to me in terms of the craft, especially when you’ve got a collection of people you like to laugh with, but keeping a group together and going above and beyond the call of duty is a real bitch. The State was obsessively, relentlessly devoted. Always pushing one another to try harder. And what I call character sketch, but others might just call monologues, that’s what I tend to specialize in the most. If I can do another show of this sort of thing after F*** Up, I’d love to. But really, career-wise, what I’d most like to be doing by 2010 is writing and acting in a sketchy sitcom.

Name a surprise maneuver you once pulled that panned out much more successfully than originally intended?

Oh boy, this is a moment I’ll always remember: It was probably 1996, round about there. That’s when Luna Lounge on Ludlow Street was ground zero for the burgeoning “alternative comedy” scene in New York. Folks like Galifianakis, Garofalo, Stella, the UCB crew, Colbert — everyone was doing stuff there and the place was always packed like it was where Jesus was preaching. That was when I started doing these character sketches. Now I’ve sometimes had to deal with horrifying stage fright. Sometimes it’s just there and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s when you’re so nervous that you feel like you’ve just overdosed on a bad batch of some awful drug. Also, I’ve always been a little weak on memorization, and these pieces I write are so specifically crafted that they pretty much have to be memorized word-for-word. That’s the irony of performing — improv should seem clever enough that it might as well have been carefully written and conversely, written stuff should be delivered as if it’s just coming off the top of your head.

Well, I had this piece where I’m teasing the audience about how I’m not really Charles Manson and where the hell would they get the idea that I’m Charles Manson and sure, technically I could kind of be Charles Manson just a little bit and so on. As the monologue goes on, I become increasingly insane and the words come straight out of Manson’s apocalyptic rants at his trial in the 70s. Well, Jeff Ross was hosting and he brought me up and I started into this piece, but I got done with the first paragraph and I completely blanked. Couldn’t for the life of me guess what came next. I was a deer in the headlights with a totally packed house. So what I did was a little odd. I went right back to the beginning of that first paragraph and did it again, assuming that this time, I’d get to the end of the paragraph and remember where things went from there. But I got right back to that same spot and blanked again. It was horrifying. It was surreal. Now if I was in that same position today, I’d probably just tell the audience, “Sweet bejesus people, I forget where the fuck this thing goes from here! Hold on, let’s figure this out.” But I was a real newcomer then and I didn’t think to be that frank. So I did the most cowardly thing I’ve ever done as a performer. I looked over at Jeff Ross and said, right out loud, “I can’t do this,” and started to walk off the stage. Here’s the thing, though. The only way out was to go through the crowd, to walk right over the first several rows of people who were sitting Indian style on the floor. So it was awkward as all Hell.

Now the audience, being kind of baffled by the opening of the piece — especially since I had repeated that first paragraph word for word — they were convinced that this leaving the stage business was just part of the act. So they started cheering and chanting, “No! Get back up there! Do It!” And I started to trip over people and they started to very awkwardly attempt to body surf me back up to the stage. They simply weren’t going to let me not finish this piece. And somehow, when I got back up onstage, the energy in the room jarred my memory and I could recall where the monologue was supposed to go from there. So I went back into it and finished it without missing a word and the damn thing killed. It was a total success in their eyes and everyone I talked to thought I had done the piece exactly as planned. So what I took from that was, even when you think the worst has come true, even when you’ve lost control of your performance entirely, it really doesn’t matter. There’s a way you can find — especially with the audience’s collaboration — to work your way through.