Boston Comedy Arts Festival takes a ‘Risk!’
It’s like any other 30th-birthday celebration: filled with laughter and maybe a tear or two, a few embarrassing sexual anecdotes, and a visit from the Crime Solving Bear.
ImprovBoston turns 30 this year, and a highlight of the schedule is next week’s fourth annual Boston Comedy Arts Festival. This year the fest, which runs Tuesday through Sept. 9, is expanding beyond the two stages at ImprovBoston’s home in Central Square to the Brattle Theatre. One hot ticket there is next Friday’s 8 p.m. installment of “Risk!”
Hosted by Kevin Allison, formerly of MTV’s “The State,” “Risk!” is both a live show and a popular podcast, featuring folks, famous and not, telling stories that they feel are risky to share.
You can liken “Risk” to “The Moth” or “This American Life,” Allison says, but in contrast to them it’s not polished, not cleared by a standards-and-practices department, not necessarily palatable to everyone. It occupies the same genre as “Mortified,” the comedy show that returns to Oberon Sept. 20-21.
“I tell the audiences at live shows that nothing is inappropriate until it is,” Allison says with a laugh. “We’ll know when we get there.”
It’s not all a barrel of laughs. Episodes of the New York-based show have included tales of meth addiction, the death of a sibling, and childhood molestation. But like previous “Risk!” road trips to comedy venues, this one will lean toward the humorous. “More of ‘I pooped my pants on a date,’ ” he says, mentioning another well-known installment.
Not surprisingly, the story of “Risk!” begins with embarrassment for Allison.
After the comedy group the State broke up in the 1990s, he says, he spent years trying unsuccessfully to get career traction with solo performances of stories told by characters such as a crusty sea captain and a crazy Southern aerobics instructor. In 2008, he took the act to a San Francisco comedy festival, and “it was a disaster,” he says. “No one showed up, really, and the microphones weren’t working, so I’m screaming the whole show, and it was just the actor’s nightmare.”
Among the few in the audience was another ex-member of the State troupe, Michael Ian Black, who delivered a postmortem.
“He said, ‘We all wanted you to drop the act and start speaking as yourself.’ And I said, ‘I feel like I’ve been hearing that in the back of my head all my life, but it’s just so risky.’ And he said, ‘Exactly. The risky stuff is what ends up being worth listening to.’ ”
The very next week, back in New York, Allison got up on a comedy club stage and told a story about himself.
“There’s a side of me that’s super-polite and friendly, a good Catholic Midwestern boy from Ohio, and there’s another side of my personality that is a totally debaucherous, kinky, gay party animal into bizarre humor,” he says. “And I just thought, they’ll never get it, it’ll be too much of this or too much of that.
“But I tried it. I told a story that was about my sex life, and I was sure it would be the most humiliating thing ever. But sure enough, the audience leaned forward, and there was this feeling of listening in the room like I have never quite felt before,” he says.
Within a few months, he’d started “Risk!” in a local punk dive, and despite the plethora of storytelling events in New York, it soon had to move to a larger venue. Celebrity participants have included Black, Janeane Garofalo, Sarah Silverman, and Andy Borowitz. And there’s now a second “Risk!” in Los Angeles.
In New York, Allison says, he now often just hosts, but he’ll kick off the Cambridge event with a full 10-minute story of his own. Jonathan Katz is the only one of five or so other participants he is ready to name.
Other Brattle shows in this year’s fest include a reprise of local comic Joe Wong’s recent sold-out evening of stand-up performed entirely in his native Mandarin Chinese, Sept. 8 at 4 p.m., and an appearance by Two-Man Movie, a.k.a. Neil Casey and Anthony Atamanuik of New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, headlining that day’s 8 p.m. show.
Casey and Atamanuik “get suggestions from the audience — title, genre, et cetera — then do a full-on [improvised] movie,” festival producer Jeremiah Jordan says. “It’s not them just doing a bunch of scenes. They literally act as camera for you. ‘We zoom in to a close-up!’ And between their body movements and staging, it feels like you’re seeing a close-up shot.” The pair will also do a Two-Man Movie workshop for local performers who want to try some of their techniques.
Shows at ImprovBoston’s home venue in Central Square kick off with 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. performances Tuesday by the Cambridge Footlights, a troupe from that other Cambridge across the pond. Alumni of the group, formally known as Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, include Sasha Baron Cohen and several members of Monty Python.
Other nights will feature returning hits from the last few years, including “Harry Roasts America,” “My Dark Love” (roasting “Twilight”), and the aforementioned trenchcoat-clad bear and his crime-fighting team of woodland creatures (roasting “CSI,” among other things).
ImprovBoston has roughly 220 active members who hit the stage at least once or twice a month, says Jordan, who is also director of talent development for ImprovBoston. Many of them will be featured in the festival along with former regulars returning to town. Nearly 100 local and guest acts will perform overall.
Boston, of course, has long been known as a starting place for stand-ups, but Jordan says the festival has helped raise the city’s profile in the improv and sketch-comedy world. That’s also good for ImprovBoston, which he has been a part of since 2006.
“I think it’s kind of incredible when you think that a local, nonprofit theater like us has been able to stick around for 30 years and thrive,” he says. “Early on, it was clearly a bunch of friends who were like, hey, let’s do some of this improv stuff once a week and maybe our friends will come see us. And 30 years later it’s a thriving theater with two performance spaces, shows five nights a week, and kind of pushing a lot of artistic boundaries in the Boston area, in terms of the type of shows that go up.
“One of the biggest downers of the festival,” Jordan says, “is how few shows I actually get to see.”