The mark of any good comedian, Hal Sparks says, is one who can come up with a good joke when he’s put on the spot.
Good thing, because we think the mark of any good interviewer is to put people on the spot. So we did.
“It’s more of a prank than a joke,” said the 41-year-old who was raised in the Midwest. “Since the holidays are over, this one’s a good one. I recommend it for next year if you do it. Wrap a box and don’t label it and just watch and see who’ll stare at it. There’s always one relative who’ll just continue to look at it.”
Trick is, he said, to wait until the holidays are over — and then carefully unwrap the gift and fill it with something they’ve already received. Wrap it again, and give it to the staring relative. Sparks’ uncle will get a second book about curing hams this year.
“Who the hell would buy two of those?”
Having a quick wit isn’t all there is to comedy, said the former “Queer As Folk” and VH1 pop-culture list show star. We got a chance to talk to Sparks before he comes to Crackers Downtown Jan. 12-15. The comedian, who moonlights as a rock star, actor and talking head, had a lot to say (and ended his sentences with the phrase “as it were” no fewer than a dozen times).
You grew up in the Cincinnati area before moving to Chicago. Did you ever visit Indy as a kid?
This is my first time exploring Indy as an adult, so I don’t know if I still want to go play Airsoft or something. I’ll spend most of my time finding the healthiest place to eat, the most unique place to go and developing a habit that by the time I’ve left a city, it feels like I’ve been there a month.
I don’t drink, so I don’t end up going to bars, and a lot of times I have to protect my voice. After my show, I’ve had it. I pretty much go home. The visiting is nice, but the people who pay on Saturday deserve as good of a show on Thursday.
You don’t drink?
I’ve never had an alcoholic drink in my life, and part of the reason was that I saw it as a road to nowhere from contemporaries. Almost as a sign, it’s “oh, he’s drinking, shit is not good.”
You’re a pescatarian. Why?
There’s an element of major cruelty to it and I don’t want to participate, mostly, though, it’s because of health concerns. No thank you. I’ll pass. I find, quite frankly, I feel better with a largely fish- and vegetable-based diet. I’m 41 and people tell me all the time that I don’t look it.
Now for a serious question: How do you view your role as a comedian in society?
I’d rather make trouble than make peace as far as my comedy goes. And not trouble in the happy way. Real trouble is when you go after people’s worldview, and you can’t mince words — but the main goal is to be funny. You have to deal with huge topics in a really silly way. It has to be politics, sex and religion at the core.
The court jester used to have a very important role — he was there to entertain the king — because if the king got pissed at anyone in particular, he would execute them at will, and oftentimes those were the most useful people. That’s pretty much it. The only difference is in our society, the crowd is king and perceives itself as such. We’ve become a democracy of kings. Everyone sits on their thrones and flips the channels saying, “Off with his head, off with his head.”
The main thing is that you’re funny, and after that, all bets are off. Other than that I, I have no opinion. (Laughs.)
So you avoid making the “easy” jokes?
In the end, you end up saying something worth hearing instead of making fun of ethnic groups, making fun of gay people, making fun of women and leaving the stage no better than when they stepped on it.
You’re everywhere. You’ve appeared on eight “I Love the (enter decade here)” shows, had cameos in “Spider-Man II” and “Dude Where’s My Car,” hosted E!’s “Talk Soup” and appeared on several reality shows. What do you hope the public thinks about that?
I hope they think, “This man has got me surrounded.” Literally, come out with your hands up — I am at every window of your television set. I don’t mind whether they like me or not as long as they think I’m a smart son of a bitch. That’s a healthy place to be. I was raised by my dad to be a wise-ass. Better to be a wise-ass than a dumb ass.
How do you think those VH1 list shows (and you) will be remembered?
Pure pop-culture dissection is a healthy thing. Insofar as the American culture goes, we make up with width in what we lack in depth. We don’t have Mozart, but we have loooots of R & B singers. We don’t have baroque singers, but we do have the top country artists worldwide. In a very short time, we’ve had an incredible impact on the world’s culture.
We get embarrassed by it because we picture people wearing Snoop Dogg and Justin Timberlake T-shirts in Iran, and I think we’re ashamed and we don’t need to be. We have a lot to be ashamed of on the world stage, and that ain’t it.
Why’d you do so many of those VH1 shows?
To be completely mercenary about the whole thing, I had people pointing at me and saying “‘Talk Soup’ guy.” And when I was on “Queer as Folk,” there was a lot of “Mikey!” so I sought to reconcile that and take any show that would print my name under my face. I’m of the belief that most typecasting when it occurs is your fault as an actor, because you took the role instead of you saying no when you should have.
Tell us something we don’t know about those shows.
You shoot from a room by yourself. It’s just green screen behind you. There’s nothing else. No one’s waiting just off camera waiting for their turn, we’re not sitting around a table shooting the shit. I look like I’m just dicking around with friends, and that’s my intention, and that brings a bit of joy to the show itself. That’s the way standup has to work, it can’t look like effort.
Speaking of, do you ever get nervous to go on stage?
It’s sort of a Zen practice. Whatever work you do, if you do it long enough, it should be effortless. Pro-athletes should get to the point where game day is their zone. I’ve been doing standup for 26 years now, there’s a certain point where if I can’t come up with a joke if you ask me something, it should be fairly sad. I guess I just kind of relax into it and really try to make a game out of it, make it fun, otherwise it’ll come across as work. And you can see that’s really hard for me.
“Queer as Folk” sort-of put you in the role of gay civil rights leader or activist. Do you see yourself in that way?
I think that’s someplace I found myself accidentally because of the show. The important thing was to seize it and service that experience and to be up to the task. Once you’re in that position, then you have a responsibility to work to make it more positive. In my way of thinking, it can’t not have an impact on the community; how can I best turn this into a positive?
I’ve always said that the benefit of “Queer as Folk” would not be seen until four years after the show went off the air, and that’s true almost to the date. Our civil rights struggle is one of age and death. It did exactly what it needed to, and going in, I knew it would. That was the best part of it, was knowing you’re making history. I wasn’t necessarily necessary keen on kissing a man or simulating sex with a man, but it was too important to pass up. Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.
I’ve done every AIDs walk in the country. I’ve raised money and done shows for multiple equality organizations. Because I can. There’s worth in it. Continuously, I still get asked if I’m gay or straight. What they’re really asking, “Are you gay yet?” Which either means that I’ve been lying about who I am or I haven’t figured it out yet. It’s important to me to let people know who I am fully. It’s important to have straight allies who are turgid in their sexuality.
You’re in a rock band called Zero 1. What are you guys like?
Oh, we’re awesome. (Laughs.) It’s metal. Melodic metal, along the road of Skid Row and Ozzy meets Alice In Chains. I like elements of complexity in my music, while still keeping it gutteral and fun.
What’s next for Zero 1?
World domination. I want to make honest music that I really love and that the fans can really get into. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to write hit songs and play large places. I like arena rock. I like a lot of people smiling and having a good time.
You’ve given CPR to three people in your life: once at a public pool when you were 15, once about 12 years ago and again this last May when a man had a heart attack at LAX. Why does this stuff keep happening around you?
I was a Boy Scout, so I don’t run from those circumstances. My mom’s a nurse. I tend to live in high-stress environments because of the way I live. So maybe that’s why?
You’re in a small, but memorable bit part in “Spider-Man II.” Why’d you take that part?
A fan e-mailed me that on one of the spoiler websites, they were looking for a comedian to do an improv scene with Spider-Man. A, it’s in “Spider-Man,” B, it’s going to be a blockbuster and it’s an improv scene. I went in and heard all the comedians before me. It was some of the worst improv I had ever heard in my life, and it really made me angry. Everybody who went in there went “Spider-Man in an elevator, what?” “Why are you in an elevator, Spider-Man?” I thought, oh my god, I’m going to kill someone.
That was really fun. It was the only time Toby was in a suit the whole time. He improvised with me. He’s a really good guy and Sam Raimi said it turned out to be his favorite scene in the film.