Hal Sparks is no stranger to the stage. He has been working towards his stand-up special for Showtime since he was 15 years old imitating his hero George Carlin and soaking up every lesson into his I Love the 80’s future-soul. Sparks’ charm and zest for life, philosophy and comedy have taken him from the beloved set of Queer as Folk to Talk Soup and the new five-part VH-1 special Undateable. I recently chatted with the very busy Sparks before he joined the 25th Anniversary AIDS Walk in New York City (held May 16) to chat about philosophy, acting and comedy.WCT:
(Windy City Times) You have a lot going on right now. I took a look at your schedule and it is insane!HS:
(Hal Sparks) [Laughs] yeah, and this is it slowing down a little! It really is! I’ve got these things and then I go to New York to do the AIDS Walk. I’ll be streaming it live on my Ustream channel, which is the first time it’ll be live in 25 years so that’s pretty cool.WCT:
That is really cool!HS:
Then I am off for three weeks while I promote my stand-up DVD, which is about to come out, and then I go over to England.WCT:
What is going on over there for you in England?HS:
I’m doing the Download Festival and then I’ll be doing the Soho Theater in London for two weekends in a row.WCT:
You have an upcoming special called Charmageddon. Tell us a little bit about that if you can.HS:
Well, it’s my first full-length stand-up special, which is really cool. I’ve been doing stand-up since I was 15 years old, so to finally after all of this time (after 10 years of being known) to actually squeeze a special out of somebody has been really fun. It’s really interesting because when I was younger, I would watch those young comedian specials and everybody on there was 40 and I was like, “what the hell is going on?” and then I realized after awhile of doing stand-up that 40 is considered young in this business because that’s how long it takes to really get your wings. So, you know, I feel like I’m ripe.WCT:
Now that you’ve mentioned it, I do see that!HS:
The thing that makes it special is that it really is just one night. We didn’t tape five different shows and edit them together and pick the best one. You know, [George] Carlin is my hero and he is my biggest influence, much like Jim Beck and Jimi Hendrix are the heroes for many guitar players. You’re aware that you’re always just overlaying your own comedy over the chops you learned from the greats and he only did his specials live. So, to do it this way, for me, was really a big deal.
It was a lot like walking a tightrope because you don’t get a second chance. Most of the specials out there now are Frankensteined. When you come see my live, this is the quality. I’m not inflating it or deflating it—this is just what you do. My special comes out on June 29, and the cool thing is that if you pre-order the DVD and bring in the receipt, you can get a friend in for free. At the same time the DVD comes out, the album from the special will be available via iTunes and I’ll also have an iPhone app.WCT:
I have seen your comedy live and you are hilarious, man. I can see the homage to your mentor in your act, for sure. You’re relatable and adorable.HS:
You know what’s funny is that the name Charmageddon actually comes from a social technique that I use. Which is, you know, literally obliterating people with charm so that you can get away with saying stuff that no one else could ever get away with, you know? I’ve always been a huge fan of people like Carlin but I’ve noticed, as a fan and as an audience member, that sometimes he would lose people. I felt like he’d sometimes get too angry about stuff or too direct about the subject. Crowds would go, “Well, I liked him but he would get too angry about stuff.” So I thought, “Okay, how do I handle the same level of topics—human mortality, disease, life expectancy and ignorance—all of these things that are really tough to tackle in conversation. How do I handle them while remembering in the process that I am a comedian first and a philosopher second?” That really is the key.
The important thing is having genuine regard for your audience. The best thing I could ever do is confuse the two together. If I could sew comedy and philosophy together, then I’ve done a good job. The primary goal is always going to be laughs and the secondary goal is always going to be saying something without it being a lecture. I think it’s important to have substance for what you’re saying. It’s like the difference between pop music and legit music (for lack of a better word). Some people are totally comfortable doing pop music and some people aren’t comfortable doing a song unless they put their heart in a blender. Both sides ultimately leave something to be desired because it is music after all. The pop musicians often leave meaning in the dust and substitute it for cartoons. The deeper artists—the grunge artists in the world and the emoticon people—tend to leave all of the happiness out of life like it just doesn’t exist.WCT:
Finding the balance and blending it all together is very important. I can see that in your act.HS:
So, that’s ultimately the work of it and the challenge. More than anything else in stand-up, that is the ice skate uphill.WCT:
Since you’ve been on television and on the stage doing stand-up, how are the two mediums different for you?HS:
Stand-up, I am always me. So, I always feel the freedom to do that. There is never hesitation about doing stand-up. It’s just me doing my thing. Unlike being in a band or a play or something, I don’t have to rely on anyone else but me. If the mic goes out, I can still do my thing. There is a freedom to that, but also, it is 100 percent you, which means there are no excuses. I like that, but it is also a lot of pressure.
On the other hand, with acting, you are basically renting out your body to a character that other people have created. There are a lot of people with a lot of say about what you should be feeling at any given moment. I don’t think a lot of people understand the mechanics of that and what it is like. It’s kind of like living with three different sets of parents all the time telling you different stuff like, “You should be happy about this, you should be sad about this, you should be angry about this,” etc. Every one of them feels a different thing and they all feel like they can tell you how to live your life. Most of us leave the house and have fights with our families about this kind of nonsense. So, to have that go on professionally in your work requires a lot more stress than I think people realize.
So, when I hear the Christian Bale take, my real honest response as an artist is to shrug and go, “Yeah, it’s really hard sometimes and most people have no idea how hard it is sometimes”. That’s the issue with art anyways. The essence of art is speculation. If I dug a ditch for a living, would you tell me that you wanted a ditch that was six feet by five feet? At the end of the day it’s either good or it isn’t. You’d hire me, fire me, pay me or not based on the fact that it’s dug or it isn’t. But as an artist, you can dig the ditch all day doing art and, at the end of the day, some people will tell you that the six-foot-by-five-foot ditch is the Grand Canyon and others will tell you that it’s a puddle.WCT:
You need to write a book. I’m serious. You need to sit down and write all of this down because it is exactly the way it goes in this business. I can completely relate to what you just said. I also have so many questions for you, but I know that you have a show to do tonight in Detroit so I am going to let you get to it.HS:
We’ll do chapters. This can be chapter one! Talk to you again.Hal Sparks will emcee Center on Halsted’s Human First 2010 gala, to be held Saturday, May 22, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph, at 7:30 p.m. See www.centeronhalsted.org/humanfirst2010.html.Written by: Sarah Toce for Windy City Times