Comic Brings A Diverse Resume To His Stand-up Act

August 06, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,

At 15, after getting a roomful of people to laugh at a joke he'd made up about pureed bug parts being sprayed on tobacco leaves, Hal Sparks knew he wanted to be a comic. Two years later, when he was named "The Funniest Teenager in Chicago" in 1987, he decided he had made the right choice.

"I had come in second the year before, and I had spent the last year really working on my act," says Sparks, who will be appearing tonight at Magooby's Joke House in Baltimore. "Chicago's a funny city, so it really meant a lot."

The 22 years that have passed since Sparks' big win (for which the prizes included an appearance onstage at The Laugh Factory in Hollywood, "if I managed to get out there on my own") suggest he chose his career path wisely. Besides stand-up, Sparks has spent two years as the host of E!'s "Talk Soup," spanned decades by appearing in VH1's "I Love the '70s," "I Love the '80s" and "I Love the '90s," and even served as a judge on Nickelodeon's "America's Funniest Mom." He's also appeared in a handful of movies (including "Spider-Man 2," "Dude, Where's My Car?" and "Dickie Roberts, Former Child Star") and spent five seasons as comic-book creator Michael Novotny, a pivotal character on Showtime's "Queer as Folk" series.

And to think, it all started with a teenager's realization that he could make people laugh, and the ensuing revelation that you could get paid for doing so.

"I didn't know that 'comedian' was a job that you could do," Sparks says over the phone from his Los Angeles home. "When I grew up, listening to a comedy album was like listening to an album of bird songs - somebody just captured it. Nobody makes a living doing it, that idea was absurd.

"But then I moved to Chicago, and Chicago, they treat comedy and acting and the arts like a blue-collar profession, like a vocation. You study, you go to Second City, or you go to Improv Olympics, or you go to the Piven Theatre Company or Steppenwolf, and you work on your art and you get better. That changed everything; that was the end of the discussion. At 15, I was like, 'I'm going to be a comedian and an actor.' "

Visitors to Magooby's tonight can expect about 90 minutes of material, Sparks says. Being the inclusive kind of guy he is, Sparks doesn't plan much political humor. "If I wasted my time lobbing bombs at Bush and Rove and that ilk, even though I was right, certain members of the audience, their ears would shut instantly, because these are sacred things to them."

Instead, Sparks says, look for a lot of social humor - barbs aimed at the supposed differences that separate us. Of late, he's been mining a lot of humor from the growing urban vs. rural dichotomy - a division, he says, that politicians have been playing for a lot more than it's worth.

"I'm dealing a lot with the idea of 'Southern' as real," Sparks says, "the idea that 'down-home' people are more real than people who live in a big city. Which is not true at all - country people are just as full of it as anyone else, if not worse.

"I mean, small towns are small for a reason," he continues, warming up to his material. "The majority of people go, 'What the heck am I doing here?' Small towns, they're a great place to grow up if you're a serial killer, because there's no one really to stop you."

Although his resume certainly qualifies as eclectic, Sparks isn't about to pick any favorites. TV work, movie work, stand-up, hosting -- it's all part of being an entertainer (he even plays in metal band Zero 1).No one facet of the job, he insists, is more important than another.

"It's a little bit like being asked, 'What do you like better, eating or breathing?' " he says. "I'm sure you could do without one for a little longer than the other, but if you go without any of them for any length of time, you're going to be in dire straits."

If you go

Hal Sparks performs at 8 p.m. today at Magooby's Joke House, 9306 Harford Road. Tickets are $12. Call 410-356-1010 or go to

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