Q&A: Hal Sparks
Hal Sparks spent 10 years on stand-up stages before getting a break hosting Talk Soup, then taking a lead role in Showtime’s 2000-2005 series Queer as Folk. The actor and comedian currently stars as an inventor in hit Disney XD family series Lab Rats when he isn’t on radio or prolifically podcasting, but the stand-up stages are never far away (he appears at Red Rock Resort Jan. 23). Sparks spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen recently.
I tweeted your Red Rock Casino show today and you retweeted it, if that was actually you doing your own social media.
It was, yes. I do my own stuff, otherwise I feel it’s not social media when you do that.
I wouldn’t have thought it was, judging by the posts. You’re a social media maniac. There are 10 more posts on your Facebook page since I last looked at it two hours ago.
Yeah, there’s a little bit of playing with your free time. I’ll have what I call “hot spots” during the day where I’m like “OK, I’ve got a moment so I can go hard for a little bit because I know later on I’m going to be really busy and not be able to, so I can make sure there’s activity. I think a lot of people, if they lift that window, they just kind of blow it off entirely, especially if, you know, as important as it is these days … I’m trying to get better at it. That’s me being a machine.
It seems pretty natural for you. Does it allow runoff for excess thoughts and ideas?
You always have a feeling of what I call “orphan jokes” when you’re a comic, where you’re like, “This is a great joke or a great moment, but re-creating it onstage, it’s going to be very difficult.” It’s funny, if you listen to stand-up acts in the ’80s ,there was a lot of “So I ran into this guy and he said this … he’s wearing a shirt that says this, and I said this.” There’s a lot of ’80s standup that is exactly that moment, but now that’s a tweet. You used to have to reconstruct the entire circumstance onstage to tell the story just to save this joke that was worth telling, but now has to be shoehorned into your act. And now with things like Instagram and Facebook, and Twitter especially, these orphan jokes don’t get left alone. They’ll get the attention they deserve, they’ll get a good laugh, they’ll promote what your style of comedy is—your comedy stylings, if you will—and so they just don’t go dry. I find that actually really great. I really love that I now have these jokes that have someplace where they’re useful.
There’s a pressure release valve for comedians that didn’t exist before.
It’s great for headliners and touring comics, because when you have these thoughts, and you’re surrounded by your comic friends or other people that think like you, you can just rattle them off and there’s a satisfaction and the momentary laughter of the people around you. As a touring comic, most of your contemporaries who you may have come up with or hung out with a lot, who you used to joke with, like schoolyard joking that had no other place to go, they all tour, too. It’s funny, but as stand-ups get more known, the less they see their friends, because everybody’s across the country. I’m playing someplace, they’re playing Boston, and then I’m in Seattle. It’s a pretty peculiar lifestyle.
Social media seems to have affected comedy more than any other related art.
But from what you just said, I get this image of all the stand-up comedians that you only used to cross paths with when you were on tour …
… you’re all together all the time now.
Yeah, there was a sub-community, to me, of one-upmanship where you’re used to sitting around joking and everybody’s trying to come up with the better punchline or the better joke. And that’s just kind of a natural part of cutting your teeth and being a comic. That disappears once you’re a pro. All that vanishes. To some degree, certain markets have it a little better. New York comics obviously have moments where they’re all at the same club, like if they’re at Caroline’s or something like that, but anywhere else in the country you’re just spread super thin.
You would almost think it would be the same way in L.A. as in New York, but those guys are always on tour.
Right. L.A. is the launch pad. As much crap as it gets for being L.A., the reality is it’s the sales floor of the industry. It’s not where stuff is sewn and designed, it’s where you go to sell it. And so there it has tremendous worth, in that regard. It gets hit because it’s not where you write. It’s where you sell, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just what it does.
Podcasting is a huge thing for comedians now, and you’re very immersed in it. How do you divide your time now? Is most of your focus on stand-up, the podcasts or the new Disney XD series, Lab Rats?
Definitely Lab Rats cuts into the stand-up time. Podcasting never had to be a negative overlap. I do a live radio show every Saturday (Hal Sparks Radio Program Mega-Worldwide on Chicago’s WCPT 820 AM) from 9 to 11 Pacific, so I have to actually be on the air during that time. Podcasts you can do whenever, so I don’t understand when people … there’s a great focus on podcasting. It’s an industry unto itself. You don’t have to be a stand-up to have a successful one, and just because you have a successful one, it won’t necessarily make you a better comic. But they do feed each other fairly well.
That being said, I’m doing one that’s new called Superior Podcast with my buddy Frank Prather, and we just carve out time when we have it, and we mail it out and that’s that. Whereas a bunch of comics, their way of doing it is, “I’ll just do it in the dressing room before my show or actually doing it onstage in lieu of a stand-up show.” Carolla and some other people have literally done comedy club tours where they’re doing a podcast onstage. Kevin Smith is another example of that, and obviously it is a machine of its own. To me, I have my Youtube channel, I have my radio show … it’s much more political a lot of the time. As a policy wonk, it’s arguably more serious than my stand-up, so it’s a different animal entirely for me. The Superior Podcast is meant to be a self-actualization exercise, not necessarily comics talking about action figures and whatnot.
What’s the motivation behind Superior Podcast? Your partner is a casting director. How did you get together and why the aspirational/actualization direction?
He and I just had those conversations when we got together and a lot of them, when there were people standing nearby, they tended to gather and listen and say “Good point.” And that is the reason I think you should record anything and share it. That’s the primary reason. It’s also an exercise in standard bearing, whereby talking about that stuff you kind of set yourself up for “You can’t slip below this line.” It’s like posting pictures of your workouts. It really keeps you honest, and I like that aspect of it: If you talk about it, you have to live it a little more. That’s what attracted me to that entirely. He just essentially approached me like, “Why don’t we just do this,” and I was like, “I’m totally game.” And I’ve been on a decent number of other people’s podcasts over the years, to a varying degree of success and varying levels of success. Personally, I find them a peculiar exercise, from a comedic standpoint. It’s almost like morning zoo people that had no place to go. “I can’t get a morning zoo show, so I’ll do my podcast version of that.” Or have a bunch of stand-ups that again, like tweets, can’t deliver onstage with the justice they deserve because of the amount of information necessary to understand if you’re just listening to it.
There’s tremendous value as a delivery system for both thought and comedy. Quite frankly, it’s also replaced comedy albums to some degree. It’s just comedy albums without the prep.
Do you think it’s bitten into making comedy specials as well?
Sort of. I think there’s an element of … comedy specials, unfortunately, started to look very similar no matter what the artists was like. There’s this weird, almost music- and dance-oriented sign of success that goes with them, where it has to look like a bigger, shinier theater. And I don’t necessarily think stand-up was built for that kind of a space. It’s beautiful when it is, but it’s not the indicative … one of my favorite stand-up specials—besides my own, ha-ha—is Doug Stanhope’s Deadly Hero, and that looks like the other Lenny Bruce film that they found archived. It’s black-and-white, low-ceilinged club. It’s the Seattle Underground, which physically is not the best-looking place, but it’s engaging, and it is stand-up. It’s realistic to what you would experience. To me, that adds a little more oomph to it. Even when specials went from HBO to Netflix, they look identical.
I would agree with that. I was thinking earlier that Charmageddon is the only comedy special title I can remember since Eddie Murphy’s Delirious.
That was my goal. Some of them are so generic as to be completely invisible, and some of them are so peculiar as to be unmemorable. Like any other show, you have to explain to people what they’re coming to see. Half of the specials you see are called One-Woman Guy, Big Eater, Am I Alone on This? Making a question out of the title—Do I Like People? These kind of cast-off lines … and I wanted to avoid that.
Charmageddon was your last special, correct?
Yeah, every time you shop one, the idea is that, “Well, they’re hard to do and nobody’s buying.” … The circumstance surrounding most comedy specials has to do with the artists producing it themselves, which increasingly on the high end, that’s what happens. You do five nights, sell the tickets, then the tickets pay for the production, and you’re done. That’s a business model where you can shoot the thing. When you’re asking for an upfront on these, it’s like trying to get an indie album off the ground, because the production money that they want to allegedly produce the thing is quite a lot. To me it doesn’t fit the medium.
Now that I’m thinking about it, I don’t think you should even do a comedy special if you can’t come up with a great title.
Right. I think somebody would do well to “volume” them. … I almost want to do a Charmageddon, Vol. Two, and keep naming my shows that as a catalog of comedy, because really that’s what they are. It’s an off business model anyways because it should be the cheapest thing to film in the world. It’s the zombie equivalent to horror films, because zombies are the cheapest monsters in the world. Actors are just extras with cornflakes and fake blood on their face. None of them are getting paid well, so of course you can just make zombies all day. Vampires have to be good actors. Werewolves are born out of CGI, but zombie … put on a casting call and they’ll show up. Most of them already dress the part.
Stand-up should be nearly the cheapest thing ever. … Honestly, I think my next special will be shot on iPod touches at this rate.
You should shoot it yourself. Just film yourself with a phone the whole show.
I should periscope my show and just make money off the hits when it’s posted to my Youtube channel.
You’re doing a series on your Youtube channel that looks back at Queer as Folk, the QAFAQ videos. I can’t figure out how you’re working the camera.
I was getting so many questions, the same questions so much, on social media, I was tried of tweeting it.
How did you film it?
I’ve got it on a selfie stick. It’s a four-man Steadicam.
It was great, because I got to watch it and figure out exactly what not to ask you.
So you did that on your own because you were being asked the same questions so much?
The answers were too long. I have to make five tweets to give somebody a satisfactory answer, and if I get asked again and again if becomes an impossible use of your time. It was just equity. I want to answer this question fully because I want everybody to know the answer. The next time someone asked me the reunion question, I was like, “Holy God, look through my string, I’ve literally said ‘Yes’ a hundred million times.” So now, I can just tweet the link and then it answers everything about it. If they have a follow-up, I’m glad to just do a single tweet, but most of the basics are covered. And I think that has tremendous value for quote-unquote celebrities and people who are being asked those kind of story-related and plot-related and character-related and actor-related questions all the time.
The question that came to mind at this point was, “How many times have you been asked one of the questions?” Like how many times have you been asked about sex scenes? You must have been asked that 100,000 times.
Right, and the problem with a question like that is it’s not an honest question. It’s 10 questions, so no matter how you answer it, it will seem like a dodge to 90 percent of the people who ask you, you know? “He’s not answering the part of the question I’m asking,” which is, “Are you gay?”
That’s really what is was about, so I was like “OK, I need a full answer. Twitter is not the place for this, a Facebook post will get lost, but a Youtube clip I can always refer to. And I think that helps immensely, so I’m going to continue to do those. If you notice, the one about the sex scenes is Vol. One, strictly because it beats giving long-form answers to these things. Then if anybody asks anyone else, that person can also share the video.
That show and that character in particular, I think you can look back on it and now and … “iconic” might not be the appropriate word.
I’m comfortable with “iconic.” You can use that word all you want.
Well, he’s iconic in relation to the way we looked at sexually in the ’90s and 2000s, albeit there’s a British precedent. But you can really look back at the character of Michael and that show in the context of television history now. There’s a lot more tolerance and understanding than there was when the show started in 2000. It wasn’t just groundbreaking. It was historical.
Yeah, it was a law-changing show in reality. That doesn’t happen very often, and I agree that it was part of that shift. To give credit where credit is due to the American people, I think the vast majority of human beings are more understanding, are more openhearted about this issue. The question was not posted to them in a human way up to that point. Once you started reframing the question as talking about human beings, instead of some idea of “Should a gay person have tax rights,” that kind of mechanical view of life, without seeing who that person is, it’s an unfair question even for somebody that’s regarded as new to the concept. I think it served that purpose as well, and I think a lot of people were already there. I think there’s a lot of great American human beings who were just waiting for the day when they could bring that topic up to their neighbor and not have that neighbor talk ill of them in church.
You’ve lent your voice to a show that’s in post-production with the first animated trans character, right?
When are we going to see that?
It’s up to the producers and how they’re able to sell it. I just lent it my voice. It dragged it out of the kind of indie world to “Oh, this might actually be a sellable thing.” They’re still working on the first full pilot, but I did their sales sizzle (reel) and agreed to voice that character as it goes to help it along, and will continue to do so. The fact that it’s given me an opportunity to act as an ally to the LGBT community is invaluable, just as a human being wanting to contribute to life on Earth.
How has the changing political climate affected your comedy? You’re unabashedly progressive on your podcasts. How do you not alienate a segment of an audience?
Comedy is meant to aid people into accepting a thought, not force them into it. That’s why it’s comedy and not just standing on a street corner yelling through a bullhorn. It’s comedy for a reason. It’s inclusive. My stand-up is hardly political at all. It’s social-political, in that I deal with the politics of being human and what level of interaction we have as human being to that which is different than us. Politics tends to codify in legislation and law, and that’s where you get into the fighting aspect of it. But as far as winning of hearts and minds, that’s the realm of comedy.