Arts & Culture

Hal Sparks on comedy, pop culture and ‘Queer as Folk’

Standup comedian and actor Hal Sparks performs July 9 at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo.
Standup comedian and actor Hal Sparks performs July 9 at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo.

By his own reckoning, Hal Sparks may be “the only comedian working in the industry talking about hope.”

“A lot of times, what I’m talking about in my act is disillusioning people about the past,” he said. “(Life) sucks and it’s frightening, but I have news for you: It’s always sucked, and it’s always been frightening.”

Sparks performs Saturday at the Fremont Theatre in downtown San Luis Obispo as part of Central Coast Pride, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. Standup comedian Leah Mansfield opens the show.

“If there was a primary viewpoint of my standup, it’s standing on stage yelling ‘Knock it off,’ ” Sparks said. “But for the high level of babbling and the small amount of scientific research, I’m not that different from a nutcase standing on a street corner screaming at people.”

Although he often pushes people’s buttons, Sparks said his standup isn’t aimed squarely at politics.

“Overtly political comedy is a lot of tree trimming,” he said, “and when the tree is rotten you have to go for the roots.”

Sparks, who studied with The Second City comedy troupe in Chicago before heading to Hollywood, has spent his career as an actor, comedian and television personality celebrating American culture while slyly poking fun at its failures and foibles.

In addition to appearances on several reality shows (“Hollywood Squares,” “Celebrity Duets,” “Undateable”), his on-screen roles range from a nonchalant elevator passenger in “Spider-Man 2” to an egotistical tech genius on the Disney XD series “Lab Rats” and its spinoff, “Lab Rats: Elite Force.” He’s also starred in the comedy special “Hal Sparks: Charmageddon.”

But Sparks, who got his big break in 1999 as host of the snarky E! clip show “Talk Soup,” is best known for two very different projects: the groundbreaking Showtime show “Queer as Folk” and VH1’s “I Love the …” series.

As a wise-cracking pundit on “I Love the ’80s” and its many spinoffs, he’s waxed nostalgic about everything from Kiss to Cabbage Patch Kids to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

“Pop culture is reflective of how we’re growing as a populace,” Sparks said. “All culture was pop culture at one point. Not to denigrate people’s religious beliefs, but Jesus was the Justin Bieber of the Bronze Age.”

Although some may abhor the comparison of the Christian Messiah to a pop star, Sparks argued that the serious and the nonsensical both play important roles in daily life.

“What’s the point of getting society together in a supportive environment … without being as silly or creatively expressive or absurd or obtuse as (we) want to be?” he asked.

“It’s the difference between a heart surgeon and an exercise trainer,” Sparks continued. “Both of them are doing the same job, trying to keep (the patient) alive longer.”

But while the former is trying to sustain life, he explained, the latter is working to enrich it. “Art and music and games and sports … those things add life to life, not just length,” said Sparks, the lead singer and guitarist of hard rock band Zero 1.

To illustrate his point, Sparks brought up the fact that the 2000 stoner comedy “Dude, Where’s My Car?” — in which he appears as cult leader Zoltan — premiered the same week as “Queer as Folk.”

“I launched both of those boats on the same day as a next-to-nobody,” recalled Sparks. “Both are equally important to me. I like complete human beings, and I like to be one.”

Sparks’ starring role on “Queer as Folk” came as a surprise. “After ‘Talk Soup,’ arguably the logical path was for me to end up on a pointless sitcom,” he said.

Instead, Sparks, who is straight, was cast as loveable gay nerd Michael Novotny on “Queer as Folk,” inspired by the British series of the same title. Over the course of five seasons, the daring drama — the first hour-long American television show focusing on homosexual men and women, and the first to feature a simulated sex scene between two men — dealt openly with such controversial topics as drug use, gay marriage and HIV/AIDS in a way that was “shocking and uncomfortable but important and of the time,” the performer said.

“Because ‘Queer as Folk’ existed, the number of human beings in the United States that think ‘Of course gay people should have the same rights as other people’ is much bigger,” Sparks said, noting that the show was particularly popular among straight women.

At the same time, he said, “Queer as Folk” gave gays and lesbians “a safe space and something to look at as a primer. It served as a platform for that life to bloom.” “That, in and of itself,” Sparks said, “is an incredible legacy.”

Asked why “Queer as Folk” was so effective, the performer pointed to the show’s frank depiction of everything from Internet porn to underage prostitution.

“We forced you to look at the parts that, at times, the gay community was upset or embarrassed by us showing,” he said. “The result was (people going) ‘Holy smokes, that’s just like us.’”

Sparks had already come to that realization. An active supporter of AIDS Project Los Angeles and AIDS Walk New York, he became ordained in order to officiate same-sex weddings.

“I’m about as liberal as they come in the LGBTQ arena,” the actor acknowledged. “‘Queer as Folk’ was a natural continuation of how I actually behaved. It was in line with my politics from the start.”

Sparks said his stand-up act is another logical extension.

“Comedy is necessary for debugging highly ordered social systems,” he said. “I think there’s an importance to standup. Without it, we are ruined.”

Hal Sparks

8:30 p.m. Saturday, doors open at 7:45 p.m.

Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo

$25 to $50

805-541-4252 or