Will the real Hal Sparks please stand up?
If I had to describe television star, radio personality, stand up comedian and metal band leader Hal Sparks in one word, I would find it difficult to do so. Sparks, most recognizable as Michael on the groundbreaking "Queer As Folk" series on Showtime and past host on "Talk Soup," has amassed such a varied resume of work over the past 13 years even a chameleon might be a bit perplexed.
And, if you throw in his political activism and gay rights support the pot thickens. One may think that his current role on Disney’s "Lab Rats," which became Disney’s most viewed first season program, doesn’t follow any career pattern for Sparks. But, after spending some time speaking with Hal prior to his upcoming stand-up show at San Francisco’s jazz club Yoshi’s on September 22, it became apparent there was no pattern to follow.
Sparks shared with me the risks and gains associated with taking a gay character role on "Queer As Folk," his thoughts on the position taken by the Republican Party on gay rights, what having a varied career does for his future, and how funny he finds our journey into the future.
About Zero One
BeBe: Having followed your career from the early days of ’Talk Soup,’ then on to ’Queer as Folk,’ and now on Disney’s new series ’Lab Rats,’ I have always found the dichotomy of your career to be interesting. There are so many facets to your career that I don’t think many have taken notice of. You do your stand up comedy, you’re a television series guy, you’re on the radio (fill-in host on the Stephanie Miller Radio Show), and then you’re in a band, too? Wow! Can you tell me a little about your band Zero One and your new album release?
Hal Sparks: We’re a metal band. I’ve been in bands or writing music since I was in high school, and like a lot of songwriters, I only got good at it a couple of years ago (laughs). Enough of my friends like the material enough that they said I should put out a record, so we did, ’The Sacred Nothing.’ Now we are working on our second record and an EP. We did a mid-western tour because one of our songs from the upcoming record, not released yet, got out (leaked) and they liked it a lot in the Midwest, so we did a bunch of dates there. It was really amazing!
It’s got a life of its own (the band). I’ve seen how other actors who also sing have been received, so I make sure we don’t skip any steps. I don’t use my notoriety to get us anything other than maybe get us on a local radio when we are playing someplace. But for the most part, we’re climbing the ranks just like you should. I don’t think anybody’s a real band until they have three albums out, so we’re still in the growth phase in that regard. But, I’m proud of it.
All about ’QAF’
BeBe: I don’t know if a lot of people are aware that back in your high school days in Chicago, you were labeled as the ’funniest teenager in Chicago’ by the Chicago Sun newspaper. So knowing that, it definitely seems a natural progression that a funny teen would get a gig as the host of ’Talk Soup’ as a young adult. That is where most of us got our initial exposure to Hal Sparks. But, how does a funny guy go from a funny entertainment news show to a five-year stint on a TV drama show like ’Queer As Folk?’
Hal Sparks: I don’t think one does. I think it’s an oddity. The amazing thing about the switch from ’Talk Soup’ to ’Queer As Folk’ is that it doesn’t happen (naturally). That is one of the multitude of reasons I didn’t bat an eye at the idea of doing it. Even just to do a dramatic series, regardless of the content, is kind of bizarre step when you come off of ’Talk Soup.’ That anyone in the industry would let you do anything other than follow brand directly and end up on a sitcom or something is bizarre. You could disappear for 4 years like Gale Harold (Brian Kinney on ’Queer As Folk’) did and come back to do movies. But there is generally no bridge. You’re not allowed to do anything in the middle that isn’t directly on message.
I lucked out because I was fired from ’Talk Soup,’ and while I was waiting to figure out what I was going to do next, I got ’Dude, Where’s My Car?’ (the 2000 film), which even in itself was an odd transition. In the middle of filming ’Dude, Where’s My Car?,’ here comes the script for ’Queer As Folk.’ My agent and manager at the time were like ’hmmm, this worries me’, but they knew I’d want to read it, and they knew I wouldn’t care (about the gay content). I was one of the few clients they had that wouldn’t care. My agent basically came into my office and dropped the script on my desk wearing a Hazmat suit with salad tongs. Plop, there!
And, he ran away because he was unnerved by it. Now, keep in mind, this doesn’t make them bad people, it just makes them tentative business people. Everyone up to that point who had played a gay character, particularly at this level, their career was over. I mean Eric McCormack was still on "Will & Grace," but hadn’t done anything else. Just from a business point their thought was this might take this guy (Hal), who is on the projectory to becoming a sitcom star, and this might scuttle his career. That basically is what they were thinking. Even though it could be overly simplified to be a kind of bigoted act on their part, I understand their resonance, especially at this point. Keep in mind, ’Queer Eye For The Straight Guy’ wasn’t even on the air. So, the word ’queer’ had never been used in the title of an American show.
One of the reasons why post-’Talk Soup’ all of the talk shows, whom I was very friendly with while hosting ’Talk Soup,’ wouldn’t have me on their show was because they didn’t want a title with the word queer in it under my name (on the TV screen). They didn’t want to put the word queer in print on television. That was reason enough not to interview me. So, I get it. Even though I think people had pushed forward in their thinking, which is why I ultimately took the role, I understood where other people were in their thinking. So, with all that being said, the only reason I was able to get the role was because they (producers of ’Queer As Folk’) hadn’t been able to cast it for months. I wouldn’t have been able to get the job if somebody else would have come forward and said I want to do this. So, soft bigotry and fear actually helped me, career-wise. The same bigotry and fear we fought on the show was the reason I was able to do the show.
Pushing the envelope
BeBe: And forget about the characters within the show because putting them aside, the issues that were covered within the context of ’Queer As Folk’ are enough to compound exponentially the accolades for you doing the show. With the word queer was in front of the American audience because they were watching the show, that created dialogue. The show tackled gay marriage, HIV and AIDS, and gay couple parenting and adoptions. You tackled all this on one show!
Hal Sparks: We also talked about HIV positive/negative relationships. It’s one thing to say both people in a relationship are HIV positive and that’s the end of that story, and it’s another to say that these positive/negative partners have a lasting relationship forever. I had a real resentment, an honest and genuine one, when people would call us ’the gay ’Sex and the City.’’ You hear that a lot, even amongst the gay community. I don’t recall ’Sex and the City’ dealing with HIV, or domestic violence, or drug abuse. We opened the show with a lesbian couple having a child using a gay sperm donor. That’s just the opening of the show!
And then there’s Ben and Michael (Sparks’ role) characters adopting a grown child with HIV who was forced into homosexual prostitution by his straight mother. We did some stuff right out of the box that still, to this day, boggles my mind. Even today you watch all the legislation and the guys supporting Uganda to kill the gays. They live so miserably. With existence of ’Queer As Folk’ and of course the activists, Harvey Milk, the Stonewall Riots and the whole cascade of gay rights in the United States, their opposition to gays has failed so miserably that they are now exporting their bullshit to another country. They are hoping their philosophy will take hold in Third World countries because of the lack of education and understanding there, it will make it easier for their bigoted nonsense to take root, and the ironic part is that it isn’t, even with their help and money. And, that’s very reassuring.
Supporting LGBT rights
BeBe: Do you consider ’Queer As Folk’ to be a pioneer with its presentation of so many social issues related to gay rights, to what we now see on television? I mean a couple of years ago, which has now become somewhat of a gay community joke, every show on TV had to have a gay character on it. Do you think the success of ’Queer As Folk’ had anything to do with that?
Hal Sparks: I don’t think, I know it has. I’ve seen it. I’m sure producers, directors and show creators know that by blowing the door off the hinges as strongly as ’Queer As Folk’ has in dealing with these super issues, it certainly makes it easier to dial back and deal with normalcy. The extraordinary part of ’Queer As Folk’ is that you had these characters who were incredibly flawed, who were everything unmentionable in the gay community, and yet, you still loved them because you understood them as not that different than those who lead a similar heterosexual lifestyle, in fact, quite on par quite frankly.
BeBe: And, what is your commentary on the actors on the show who weren’t gay and were playing gay characters and were successful in maintaining a strong identity of who they really are?
Hal Sparks: Well there was a cost for everybody involved, including the gay actors on the show. There was a limitation of who would work with you after the fact, and whether or not they could see past that we were on this show and allow you to play something outside of that. I went on a strategic mission to define myself as a person separate from my character (Michael) that had nothing to do with the sexuality of the character.
I mean, if you are John Boy Walton and you play a farmer in your next two movies, whose fault is it that your career is fucked, and you can’t play anything but farmers or rednecks? And if I played a put-upon nerd, gay or straight, the next two series or jumped on something right after "Queer As Folk," I’d keep getting offers to play the same exact character as Michael, except straight. So, as an actor, as a business man, as a human being, I decided to reintroduce myself to people as to who I was for real. Who I am is a comedian. Who I am is a political activist.
And, who I am is a gay rights supporter as a straight man. That was really important because I’ve noticed one really specific thing, and I wonder if the leaders or people who deal with the issue a lot have noticed, that opponents of gay rights seem to be of the opinion anyone who supports gay rights must also themselves be gay.
The First Gay President
BeBe: That’s the same issue that those working hard against the AIDS epidemic and the education on HIV prevention. The assumption is that they are gay and infected.
Hal Sparks:: Exactly, which is absurd. Here’s the reasoning behind it (the assumptions) too. The idea is in the subtle to the LGBT community that you have no friends. This is the message of the Republican right. You have no friends. You have other gays and of course they’re on your side, but you have no straights. Anyone who is helping you are gay themselves. Look at the Newsweek cover, Obama is The First Gay President.
That wasn’t some accident. That wasn’t because of how pro-gay he is. And, it wasn’t a direct reference to Clinton is The First Black President reference. But the point of the Newsweek cover that the super right Republicans are trying to push is that Obama’s gay and was once married to a man. They want this floating idea around because they hope that it will scare away straight allies, and hope that it will remind the gay community that nobody but you cares about you. And, that is certainly not the case! It was very important for me to go and say I was straight before, straight after, and straight during the show. I played a gay character, and nothing is going to change who I am, so why would you Republicans expect to change who gays are? If I’m allowed to be who I am, gays should be allowed to be who they are. Period. End of story. People will be happier, safer and more healthy if they were allowed to be themselves. That was the purpose of me doing ’Queer As Folk.’
Showing his range
BeBe: With all the dichotomy in your career, which you have spoken about here, do you think you have two maybe three different fan bases out there, or do they meet somewhere in the middle?
Hal Sparks: There are certainly schisms where some people don’t intermingle or are confused about that intermingling, but they are very rare. I think I have a career kind of like the Obama presidency. (Continuing under some chuckling) I have a huge cache of progressive and forward thinking and contemporary, futuristic looking people. People who think we’ll be around in 1,000 years, and want that to be the case.
And then, I have some really hard core activists who think it (being gay) shouldn’t be an issue. These days, because of social media and those kind of things, I’m way more able to overlap audiences than I was able to initially 10 years ago. The confusion is easier to abate by a twitter, you know I mean? It really is. Millions of people can see who you really are in a short bit (of time).
BeBe: There was some time between your roles on ’Queer As Folk,’ and now, ’Lab Rats’ where we didn’t see you on television. Take me through what was going on during that interim period, and how you came to be in a Disney series?
Hal Sparks: Well as a new Dad with a lot of friends who also have children, I recognize the need for children’s programing in a positive and fun way that is important to me, too. I think you can have old conversations, you just don’t have them in the same place. You can talk about sex openly and honestly in a comedy club, and then have a conversation on other topics that’s appropriate around children. It always amazes me that some people think you can’t, for whatever reason, do both. That’s always funny. People go,’how can you do a special like ’Charmageddon’ (Showtime), and be on Disney, and do ’Queer As Folk’ ’? Well, because you talk differently to your grandparents than you do to your children than you do to your partner, don’t you?
A versatile performer
BeBe: I thought Bill Cosby had put that question to rest some time ago. No?
Hal Sparks: I’ll tell you who really did, it was George Carlin. He was the conductor on (children’s show ’Shining Time Station,’ and has probably the most direct conversations about sex, race, politics, and religion in his stand up,I think more than anyone, including Lenny Bruce. So with that, I don’t think it strange a thing I’m able to play and have fun in the company of children and not be inappropriate. In between ’Queer As Folk’ and ’Lab Rats,’ I had a children’s cartoon on Nickelodeon, ’Tak and the Power of JuJu,’ that I voiced. If you look at it, there has been an intensely dense amount of work between the two shows. I was doing stand up, working on my television special (’Charmageddon’), touring with my band and all that. But, sense it wasn’t on television people didn’t have the direct linkage.
BeBe: I want to share with you that in my discussions about you with my friends, I found it interesting how people were responding positively about you based on your show now on Disney than your series on Showtime in the past. I think that show’s progression in how people can take you at any point in your life or career and look at you at that moment without going back and trying to make sense of a puzzle that has some pieces that just don’t fit.
Hal Sparks: The cool part about that is I can cut a slice of my career going forward in any direction I want, quite frankly. I can make adjustments to my career in anything because, at this point, it would shock no one (laughing). Though I’ll take all the kudos of being a versatile performer, I think the variety of work I’ve done speaks very well to how far the culture has come.
BeBe: With all the facets to Hal Sparks that we’ve come to know, what will the audience you’ll be facing in your upcoming two shows at the legendary San Francisco jazz club Yoshi’s on September 22nd see on stage?
Hal Sparks: Well, my stand up is more social and cultural than political when I do my regular set. So, I really won’t be in sex liberal mode naming names and doing topical stuff. Most of my stuff from a much deeper and cultural understanding of where we’re going and trying to really extrapolate from that where we’re going in the future.
A lot of my jokes these days are about where we are headed, and the hilarity in comparing where we are culturally now, and where we will be in 20 years. To be able to make fun of us in this process, I just find hilarious. Maybe we will be okay, maybe we are going further and faster than we think and don’t have to live in fear of it.
Catch Hal Sparks stand-up comedy his two show evening at Yoshi’s San Francisco on September 22. Go to www.yoshis.com/sanfrancisco for more information and tickets.
Find out about future shows and follow Hal Sparks at www.HalSparks.com or on Facebook www.facebook.com/HalSparksFangPage or on Twitter www.twitter.com/HalSparks.