Hal Sparks Tackles Politics, Civil Rights, Radio, and... Disney?

by Sarah Toce

OUTview Online

Tuesday April 19, 2011

Comedian and political talk radio co-host Hal Sparks, 41, won our hearts as the charming "Michael Novotny" on the groundbreaking Showtime hit series Queer As Folk from 2000-2005. In the series, Sparks starred opposite fan favorite Sharon Gless and alongside Gale Harold, Thea Gill, Michelle Clunie, Randy Harrison, Scott Lowell, Peter Paige, Robert Gant, Jack Wetherall, and other notable actors who have since gone on to do incredible work in the industry - many on behalf of the gay community.

For Hal, being thrust into the gay community but not being gay himself was not so much a challenge for the Cincinnati, Ohio native, but an opportunity. He entered the civil rights movement for his gay brothers and sisters with grace, dignity, respect, and compassion. Okay...and a lot of humor.

Since the show's end in 2005, Sparks has continued to warm our hearts with roles on VH1's I Love the '80s series, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, Spider-Man 2, and Dude, Where's My Car? He regularly travels the country touring with his comedy (headlining across the U.S. currently - see here for dates) and music projects with his band Zero 1.

Hal can regularly be heard on the Stephanie Miller Show and, in this exclusive interview, he confirms a new project booked the same day we spoke...

Recalling QAF

Sarah Toce: Hey Hal, how are you?

Hal Sparks: I’m spectacular, how are you?

Sarah Toce: So, tell me - it’s pilot season. What’s going on?

Hal Sparks: I just booked a new series for the Disney Channel called Lab Rats. You’re the first person to get told. Congratulations!

Sarah Toce: Oh, thank you. I can die happy.

Hal Sparks: Aww, I prefer you didn’t die at all.

Sarah Toce: Well, thank you and congratulations, truly. Disney is a bit of a shift, isn’t it?

Hal Sparks: It’s interesting after being on Queer As Folk. It is kind of a blessing that I can go on to do family fare after being on that show. I think it shows a shift in the world of entertainment. It would’ve been impossible 10 years ago.

Sarah Toce: I remember watching Queer As Folk and recalling how it felt so much like home and a reflection of my LGBT friends and family, and how funny it was being that it was not mainstream American television at all at that time. It was, however, my reality in a lot of ways.

Hal Sparks: Right, exactly. If you’re involved in cases and causes like the LGBT community are, then it normalizes you very quickly. If you’re not, then every little piece of the story shocks you, apparently. I mean everything! You know, it reminds me of that old David Cross bit he used to have about being Jewish in Atlanta where he says, "Ya’ll eat oatmeal? I don’t know much about y’alls people. I know you killed Jesus, I know that." You know? That is how straight people treat gay people unless they are already allies.

Sarah Toce: I’m sorry, I’ve talked with you before and never even thought to ask... Did the show [Queer As Folk] turn you into an ally for the LGBT community or had you always been fighting for equality right along beside us?

Hal Sparks: Well, I think it made it [my commitment] more visible to the world at large, but by no means did it initiate my connection to the community. I had been working with Marianne Williamson for a decade before the show started. I started working with her when she started Project Angel Food and AIDS Project Los Angeles. She was one of the first board members and we did a lot of volunteer work for them. There were vigils and, in the depth of the AIDS crisis, we were right there. I think the reality of the situation you’re in changes you to some degree. I don’t think I was ever particularly insensitive to it, although, I was a redneck teenager so I would’ve been shocked if I appeared that way. I was lucky enough to be left alone to my own decisions at a very young age. I did not have "the gays are awful and blacks are bad" thing pounded into me. I think it was because everyone around me thought that I felt the same way they did so they didn’t bother to give me the hard sell. So, I sidestepped that, you know?

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Watch this Hal Sparks interview on YouTube:

Doing stand-up

Sarah Toce: I recently chatted with one of your co-stars from Queer As Folk - Thea Gill - about a new movie you’re both in called Slip Away (written and directed by openly-lesbian actress Michelle Bonilla). What was your involvement in the film?

Hal Sparks: It’s almost like an inside joke, actually. Michelle put a short film together and there is a scene where Thea is getting hit on by a woman and she’s sort of in a questioning phase and not knowing what her position is regarding her sexuality. I’m the bartender! It’s an inside joke that I am getting them liquored up, you know...it’s really just sort of a wink and a nod to Queer As Folk.

Sarah Toce: What was it like on the set?

Hal Sparks: It was pretty quick. I did one day on the set and I think the entire shoot lasted a total of five days. I’m just funny - it’s what I do. The only hard time I ever have is reining it in if the scene calls for it.

Sarah Toce: I’ve heard that about you. Thea mentioned the same thing in her interview. Do you ever feel like you’re jumping in between different mediums (comedy, stage, music, television, film, etc.) or does it flow seamlessly for you?

Hal Sparks: Creatively, it all works together. I am more comfortable when there is more to do. I would find it creatively like a bottleneck, too, to have to focus all of my creative energies through one art only. I get asked a lot what I would do if I could pick one and, the truth is, I view myself as a performer. I use different venues to express myself, but it all feels very natural and necessary. It’s like if I were to ask you, "What do you like better, eating or breathing?" Do you like one more if you’re more focused on it? If you enjoy meditating, you might say that you enjoy breathing better and if you’re a foodie, then you probably enjoy food better, but neither one would last very long without the other.

Sarah Toce: That makes total sense. You’re coming to Seattle soon and I’d love to find out what fans can expect from your routine.

Hal Sparks: Well, it’s best to not have any expectations at all and to come in with an open mind and heart and just expect to laugh. It’s stand-up so I do have a job to do, but outside of that, my act changes all the time. Right now I have about three hours worth of material, but I can only shoehorn about 120-minutes into a live show. So, I rotate a lot of stuff and throw stuff in from what happened that day a lot of times. It’s hard not to! I’m just driven to kind of digest what I see and what I feel. That is how it usually shakes out. It almost wouldn’t even help to tell you beforehand because if you’re expecting me to be overtly political like I am with Stephanie Miller, you’ll be disappointed. Likewise, if you’re expecting me to talk about Care Bears like I do on I Love the 80s, you’ll also be disappointed.

The stuff I deal with is sociopolitical, but I’d rather choose not to name names because I’d rather get to the root of the issue instead of prune the branches. I noticed years ago that if I openly made fun of George Bush, for example, certain people in the audience would close their ears instantly and stop listening to the jokes. If I made fun of idiots who thought they were cowboys just because they wore the hat, suddenly the next time those people who wouldn’t have heard a word I’d said after the word "Bush" now when they see him go, "He’s one of those idiots who thinks he’s a cowboy just because he wears the hat."

Sarah Toce: Wow, that’s remarkable! That makes great sense.

Hal Sparks: You gotta sneak it up on them, especially if you want it to be legit change. Otherwise, I’d just be preaching to the choir everywhere I went and no one who didn’t like what I was saying would come out to the show. They’d avoid me like they do Bill Maher or Doug Stanhope or Bill Hicks or whatever.

Sarah Toce: It really does polarize people. I mean, I love Bill Maher. I may not always agree with everything he says...

Hal Sparks: That’s true, but essentially he is on your side.

Sarah Toce: Exactly. And, you know, the people who are on the inside of the joke will completely get what you are saying without you even having to name names. Like, my friends and I would hear the joke about the idiot cowboy and know that you were referring to George Bush.

Hal Sparks: Right, you’d be aware. People who like George Bush, if I were to say, "He’s a war criminal - at best he’s a sock puppet for even worse people than himself and at worst, he’s completely fine with the deaths of innocent people," then no one is going to listen to me past those sentences if they don’t agree. Those who do agree with me would be laughing too hard to hear the rest of the joke. Then it becomes political and stops being comedy, which is fine because I have a radio show.

Radio & CNN

Sarah Toce: Yes, you are on the radio a lot lately. How is that going for you?

Hal Sparks: Good, I do two days a week now. I’m on Stephanie Miller’s show on Wednesdays (Hump Days with Hal) and now I also do a political talk show in Chicago for two hours every Saturday. We’re moving to XM in a little bit so we’ll be national very soon. It gives me the outlet to name names and be very specific.

Sarah Toce: CNN is another outlet you’ve been frequenting as well.

Hal Sparks: Yes, I do CNN fairly regularly.

Sarah Toce: And you’re extremely eloquent during the discussions.

Hal Sparks: Thanks! I was originally brought on to CNN for comic relief. I ended up sitting there on this panel called "Your Money" where they were talking about the mortgage crisis and one of these nimrods - like, Wall Street punks - comes on and... then Richard Quest backs him up and says, "People bought homes they couldn’t afford," which CNN lets float all the time. I made the case that if every piece of real estate in the country was for sale and you bought it all for cash, it would be $11 trillion - which is the case. The yearly exchange in credit default swaps (insurance AIG was taking out on all of these properties) would be $36 - 39 trillion per year. They were trading $39 trillion in a 12-month period for an overt piece of property that, if you bought it in cash, would’ve been $11 trillion. Which means over the years, they are trading $500 - 800 trillion that, if you cashed it in right this moment, no one in the world would be able to afford. That has nothing to do with a bunch of people getting a loan they couldn’t afford and then losing their job and not be able to pay their mortgage. That was dead peasant insurance stacked on top of it the same way that Walmart used to take out insurance on their employees and then pray that they would die. So, that was when I started getting pissed and stopped looking for the cute thing to say. The positive fact was that they came back to me and asked me to come back on to CNN.

The math is out there, none of this is surprising at all. The information is so readily available.

Sarah Toce: A lot of people are just afraid, plain and simple. You almost need another education on top of the one you may or may not already have so that you can understand it all and be able to make adjustments to pay the bills. Then, following the schooling, people are afraid that they will never be able to pay it off. Which, in turn, results in not being able to get a better job and now you owe more money...

Hal Sparks: Yeah , exactly. The truth of the fact is that we are not broke as a country. Michael Moore said this a few weeks ago when he was in Wisconsin - we are not broke. We have something in the area of a $13 trillion GEP. We could pay off every debt we have if we set about doing it in a sensible fashion and that means curtailing the defense department more than anything because it’s nearly 60-percent of our budget. We could pay that off if we treated it like a mortgage. $13 trillion per year with maybe a $9 trillion deficit going through it...over 35 years, we could pay that down as long as you’re not layering on stuff that doesn’t help. Funding wars, for example, where you never get anything out of it besides the satisfaction of blowing someone up you’ve never even met. If you build infrastructure or solar rays like the Obama administration is really pushing for, not only do you pay it off over time, but you get the benefit of having invented it in the first place. You get the profit of its existence and become a functioning business.

What the Obama administration is up against is a GOP who literally wants to cash out of America like it’s a hedge fund. They are treating America like a renter. They want to patch up the holes in the walls with toothpaste so nobody can tell that they punched holes in the walls and then they want to leave. They want to move their money to the Cayman Islands and live in an apartment in Dubai where they never have to pay tax on anything and have people bring them everything they want for a slave wage. That is really their dream. I mean, I am not mincing words about this.

Sarah Toce: Many people in America feel that President Obama has done more for the gay community than any other President in history. Do you agree?

Hal Sparks: Stephanie Miller and I, who, between the two of us are a legitimate gay and a gay adjacent, came out directly and said, "Look, if you’re going to fix Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), you want to fix it permanently," - which is what the Obama administration is doing and did - but the gay community walked away from the polls this year because they didn’t think it was happening fast enough. And then the republicans come in and literally work to put sodomy back on the books and eliminate any sort of protections based on sexual orientation put in place for the gay community right when teenagers are committing suicide. In truth, the Obama administration has done more for the gay community than any other president in history. He has done more for federal gay employees than any president in history. A big chunk of the gay community folded their arms because they were told something that wasn’t happening. The media told them that he wasn’t trying and that he gave up.

The Huffington Post ran 27 articles about how the President was abandoning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell leading up to the vote. And then once it passed and actually did exactly what he said it would do, they wrote one article and haven’t mentioned it since. That is not necessarily the gay community’s fault. We were all fed a line by people who wanted things to stay exactly the same. We all need to be a little bit more informed. People are now starting to recognize this pattern now with their position with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and they are starting to realize that it’s all happening the way he said. Serving in the military is as American as apple pie and propping up foreign dictators and, once you associate gay people serving in the military, people will start saying, "Oh, well, if they can serve in the military I suppose they should be able to get married." Whereas, if it were to happen the other way around, the logic wouldn’t really have worked.

Sarah Toce: He has done more for the LGBT community than any other president in history and it’s only been two years.

Hal Sparks: The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) gave him a list of 21 things that he could do as President without the help of Congress. I think so far he has done 19 of those 21 things by his first two years in office. Count up every moment from when the first President did anything towards gay rights...I mean, maybe Clinton? If we’re going to call DADT something good for the community...Then you have Reagan who wouldn’t even mention the word AIDS and privately told his wife that God sent it to eliminate gays. Then you arc to now where the President has publicly sent a letter to the republican head of the House stating that he would no longer support DOMA because he feels that it’s unconstitutional - which is completely within his rights as President. To me, I like the guy. I like what he’s done. I don’t like everything that he’s done, but he has done more for the LGBT community than any other President in such a short time.

Sarah Toce: Do you feel that, as a nation and a world, we are holding President Obama to a higher standard than we did President Bush?

Hal Sparks: I watch how everybody gave George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt leading up to Iraq when a lot of people knew that he had no proof of weapons of mass destruction. The one piece of evidence that he had to prove his case was forged by the French government two years before. Later on, it has been shown that everything he said was made up. So, you can look at our history of not looking below the line on the media and, arguably, holding Obama to a higher standard than we held Bush to.

Seattle Show Info:

Hal Sparks appears on Friday, April 29th @ 8:00 PM @ Nordstrom Recital Hall @ Benaroya Hall, 200 University Street, Seattle, WA 98101 (206-292-ARTS). You can listen to Hal Sparks on The Stephanie Miller Show (Hump Days With Hal) on Wednesdays, 6am - 9am PST and on The Hal Sparks Radio Program on Saturdays, 11am - 1pm on chicagoprogressivetalk.com. For more information about Hal Sparks, his music, his appearances and his radio shows, visit his website.

Watch this clips of Hal Sparks’ stand-up:

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