It was clear in reading through the comments section of the first Guide to Comedy Podcasts that I had inadvertently ignored a lot of tenderly beloved examples of the format. In an effort to rectify the oversight, I’m now taking a weekly look at which of these are worth your valuable time and which should just be ashamed of themselves. This week’s featured podcast is Risk!
One of the great things about living in New York City is the sheer amount of comedy available on any given night. I’m not talking about the unintentional comedy of drunken subway pratfalls or ridiculous garment combinations – I mean funny people on some kind of a stage. New York comedy aficionados take a lot of regional pride in what they’ve got, just as New Yorkers in general do with pizza. Lots of residents don’t just claim that their city has the best pizza or the best comedy; they insist that there is none of comparable quality to be found anywhere else. This is, of course, deeply false. Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles all have robust comedy scenes, and there are incidents of great pizza all over the map. The reason New Yorkers have bragging rights on both pizza and comedy is not because their city produces the best anywhere, but because the quality is spread out with such variety and such breadth that if you pop into most any random venue for comedy and/or pizza, you will likely not be disappointed. (I promise no more mentions of pizza from here on out.) All of this is a very roundabout way of explaining that the live show, Risk!, which for the past year has been conveniently available in podcast form, exemplifies a lot of what’s great about the comedy scene in New York City.
Risk! is one of those gems like Jon Friedman’s The Rejection Show, which bring together a diverse group of performers who are unafraid of embarrassing themselves if it means making a connection with the audience. While The Rejection Show features comedians, writers, and various film and TV people unveiling work that has been rejected (sometimes unjustly, sometimes for hilariously good reason), Risk! has a similar talent pool sharing personal stories they never thought they’d reveal. “True tales boldly told” is the tagline, and the resulting show comes off like a cross between This American Life and a series of ASSSSCAT monologues.
The podcast is hosted by Risk’s creator, Kevin Allison, who hails from densely populated comedy troupe, The State, and who is still in possession of the fun, goofy energy he brought to The State’s MTV show in the 90s. Incidentally, fans of that show, and specifically Ken Marino’s “Louie” character, will no doubt appreciate that one of the Risk! stories climaxes with its teller literally dipping his balls in something (and the fact that this ‘something’ turns out to be Tom Arnold’s milkshake is the icing on top of the milkshake.) Kevin Allison welcomes listeners to each show, introduces the guests, and often shows everyone how it’s done with entertaining, inspirational, awkward stories about himself.
Each episode has a theme, like Dreams, Awful Jobs, or Strange Sex. Although some of the stories tie only loosely into the theme, it doesn’t really matter as long as the product is funny or at least interesting. Some of the stories are even touching, none so much as Christian Finnegan’s account of the passing of his brother, which somehow skirts any hint of cheap sentimentalism en route to both laughter and poignancy. Don’t worry, though, plenty of the stories are just straight-up funny too, like Michael Showalter’s account of realizing he didn’t want to be a theater actor—which is worth listening to just for his very Showalterian pronunciation of the name, “Dan Castellenetta.” Some of the performances are recorded in a studio, with sound effects and background music added later on to heighten the beats of the story; others are taken from live shows in New York, and the sound of an audience brings the podcast to life by lending it an air of spontaneity.
The focus in selecting talent for the show seems geared toward finding the best raconteurs with the best stories, rather than just going after big names (although there are some of those too.) The guests range from veteran comics like Janeane Garofalo and Marc Maron, neither of whom, it can be said, probably have any stories they wouldn’t share, to relative unknowns who impressed the show’s curators with their storytelling abilities. In fact, anyone who has a way with words has a fighting chance of appearing on the broadcast alongside NPR lifers and humorists like Andy Borowitz, by submitting their tales to the Risk! website. Thankfully, several of Kevin Allison’s cohorts from The State make appearances too, including both Michael’s in top form, and a lot of New York fixtures like Leo Allen and Joe Mande frequently show up and win whatever episode they’re in.
Not every story is one you’ll find worth listening to—they can’t all be winners—but when the quality dims, quantity is there to even things out. At least four guests are featured on each show, and the fact that Risk! is made up of so many short vignettes means that if you don’t like what you’re hearing now, the odds are you’ll get a kick out of the next bit. Ultimately, the hit-to-miss ratio is strongly weighted toward the hit side, which is probably one of the more accurate ways of describing the New York comedy scene itself.