Named Chicago’s Funniest Teenager at 17, Sparks’ career has included hosting Talk Soup, contributing to VH1 mini-series like I Love the 90s and acting gigs on Queer as Folk and his current show, Disney XD’s Lab Rats. Which experience has been his favorite? “They’re incomparable,” he says. His role as Queer as Folk’s Michael Novotny made the straight ally an icon in the gay community, and the event is being presented as part of Boston Pride month.
Sparks even wished Boston a happy Pride earlier this month – check out his video message below. We talked to Sparks to find out a little more about how he got his start and what to expect from his Thursday, June 20 performance at Johnny D’s.
Here’s what he has to say:
What advice can you offer for comedians looking to get started on the local circuit?
No amount of schooling can prepare you – there ain’t nothin to it but to do it. If you’re going to do stand up, and you have a 3-5 minute slot, prepare three times as much material as you have time on stage. That way you can alter your show [based on the audience’s reaction] and not be trapped in the five minutes of material you have.
You have to know 20 percent more than what the audience knows. You’ve got to know everything they know and enough to make jokes – whatever you’re talking about, you’ve gotta be ahead of them.
If you want to make a career out of something, you have to at least give it the amount of respect it deserves. If you want to be a stand-up, you have to be a student of stand-up. You’ve got to be schooled on what they do. It’s a job.
What was one of your biggest challenges or horror stories when you were just getting started?
They used to put me after the worst comic because they knew I could turn the room around. It was like lifting 50 pounds when everyone else was doing 20. But, the worst shows can be your best friend if you stay committed – especially if you can make the audience laugh.
You can’t blame the room [for a poor response to your act]. There’s three or four factors that go into your relationship with an audience; you’re performing three jobs at once. You’re performing material which you genuinely believe in. You’ve got part of your brain monitoring the audience at all times, manipulating the audience to get everyone on the same page. And you’re being an editor, bringing these two factors together and figuring out which pieces aren’t working and which are.
What keeps you excited about comedy?
There’s no top. There’s no glass ceiling in comedy. You’re always going to get better at it, and that’s not true of all arts. As a stand-up, you can always be a new version of yourself.
How does acting compare to stand-up?
You could be a fantastic comic actor and not a great comic stand-up. Every audience is different. Acting is like renting your soul out to another soul.
How has each of your TV gigs stacked up to the other?
[Acting on shows like Queer as Folk] is harder work, but it was worth it. All of them have their values. [Shows like I Love the 90s] have a lot of value for very little effort. They’re highly creative, really fun, and always on TV.
What got you into comedy in the first place?
My dad was traded some records to fix someone’s mandolin. One of the boxes was all comedy, all stuff from the 60s … Richard Prior, Shelly Berman, George Carlin.
I moved to Chicago, and Chicago treats comedy like a job. There’s no magic – you don’t get discovered because somebody sees you and says “you’ve got moxie, kid.” I made $200 for a 45 minute set in high school, and I drove to LA after graduating.
You’ve never performed in Somerville before. What have your past experiences in Boston been like?
Boston has a really great history as a stand-up town – tons of great people have come out of there. Because there’s a little bit of history, there’s an audience that’s a follower of stand-up comedy – an audience that likes seeing something that’s a little bit more of a high wire act than just doin “cat and dog” material, “men and women are different.” People expect a little bit more.
What can we expect at your June 20 show?
I’ve been dealing a lot with technology and futurism and social media. The best way to avoid overlapping jokes with others it to make jokes about where we’re going, rather than where we’ve been.
The whole goal of my act is that afterwards, people have three-hour parking lot discussions. They get in-depth and review their lives, in a fun way. They have long conversations about possibilities.
Have your own parking lot discussion after checking out Hal Sparks on June 20 at Johnny D’s, 17 Holland St. Dinner and drinks are served beginning at 6 p.m. and the show begins at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster for $22.