"So I'm laying there pretending to be asleep as my brother jerks off across the room…" says Kyp Malone, multi-instrumentalist in the inimitable TV on the Radio, as a ripple of laughter titters through the room. Say what? Welcome to THE TELL, a storytelling evening that happens one Sunday evening a month at the National Sawdust in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Over the course of two hours four characters—musicians, artists, writers, filmmakers, oddballs—get up and relay a personal story. Every show also includes a musical performance, sometimes two.
For the past ten months everyone from actors Lola Kirke, Zoe Kravitz, and Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development), to musicians Adam Green, Matt Sweeney, Har Mar Superstar, the aforementioned Kyp Malone and more, have rolled through to tell their tales. Not to mention acclaimed writers Jenny Eliscu (Rolling Stone), Annie Correal (NYTimes), and Haley Mlotek (The New Yorker). Most recently I caught Kravitz's disasterous date story involving a famous actor… and a turtle. But my hands down favorite 15 minute moment came courtesy of Jack Dishel, who performs as Only Son, helms the hilarious web series Dryvers, and is married to Regina Spektor. Turns out he was a teenage graffiti artist running amok in 90s New York City. There's no way I could do this lengthy anecdote justice here because the whole point is these are their stories—poignant, personal, funny—and the beauty is in the telling.
The series is the brainchild of Michael Leviton, a Brooklyn-based musician, photographer, and author. Leviton is full of random, weird, and sometimes sexy stories, and as we all know: like attracts like. Each event kicks off with a story from Leviton's own experiences. In fact last year he took part in This American Life's "Need to Know Basis" episode. Apparently in his family privacy is considered deceptive and absolute honesty is tantamount. Leviton went on the popular podcast to explain the not so positive effects this diktat had on him and how he was approaching 30 before he learned how to lie.
“I like juxtaposing something funny and something brutal and sad, a dating story followed by something heavy and political—I like emotional whiplash," he says of THE TELL. "And if you set that expectation, when someone steps on stage, there’s no way to know what’s coming. The next story could be anything."
You might not always warm to the person onstage, or identify with the what they're saying, but there's something very life-affirming about hearing these stories shared.
“When I tell a story, it’s usually about a time I behaved foolishly or repellently," says Leviton. "Even when the story goes over well, many people still don’t understand why I’d tell it. They think I’m making myself look bad. Or they think it was very brave of me to tell it, to risk a negative reaction. They see storytelling’s purpose as strategic, a way of gaining approval. To me, it’s self-expression, showing someone else your experience, your way of seeing. I love people who tell stories they technically shouldn’t.”
I also feel obligated to point out that THE TELL is a great place to take a date and the audience is always extremely attractive. It's inexplicable! But if you don't live in NYC, don't be frustrated. Leviton is now turning this event into a regular podcast, cherrypicking a couple of the best stories per episode along with one musical performance, which brings us back to TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone and hearing his brother masturbate. Below is the premiere of episode one of THE TELL podcast, so you can find out exactly what happened in that particular situation, and believe the outcome is rather unexpected. Moreover Alia Shawkat has a seriously hilarious zinger about being a rebellious pot-smoking teenager raised by strict parents, plus there's a performance by Kelsey Lu, who plays with Blood Orange.