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Rooftop Comedy Productions is proud to announce the release of Hal Sparks’ Escape from Halcatraz. Recorded at the legendary Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco, Halcatraz showcases Hal’s knack for hilarious voice work and takes you on a whirlwind tour from Ozzy Osbourne’s stint on American Idol to the very non-sexy appeal of a man with a Kentucky accent. Rooftop pal Nathan Timmel interviewed Hal to talk Peter Gabriel, the best comedy venues, and the greater role comics play in society.

If you understand the world of promotion, the spark behind an interview is tied to a product or pitch from the interviewee. The interviewer is supposed to mention the product (or pitch) as much as possible in order to drill the thought “Must purchase” into the reader’s head.

That stated, I, Nathan Timmel am a very bad interviewer. Instead of talking exclusively about his new CD release—Escape from Halcatraz—I spent most of my time talking with Hal Sparks about the concept of art, the role of comedy in society, and wandering down needless tangents involving Bloom County and the Billy and the Boingers single placed in one of the old books. In fact, when he not only played with my Peter Gabriel reference in the first question, but took it one step further by referencing Peter Gabriel live stage performances, I knew I was going to enjoy our time on the phone.

So, instead of saying repeatedly “Go buy the Hal Sparks CD!”, this interview is an end-around. Hopefully, by offering a bit of insight as to who Hal Sparks is as a person, there’s a good chance you’ll obtain a sense of who he is on stage, what his comedy is like, and therefore want to buy the CD after all.

Hopefully it all works out in the end.

NT: Your new CD release, Escape from Halcatraz, has the same title as your 2008 DVD release. Are you employing the Peter Gabriel method of artistic expression, where your product will all have the same name in order to confuse outsiders? [Peter Gabriel named his first 4 CDs the same]

HS: Yes. [Laughs] Actually, this is the first time that special has been available on CD, so I’m not actually putting out multiple projects with the same title, it’s just the CD of the DVD. I’m sorry it’s not more complicated than that, because, ironically, most of the things I do are to be as much like Peter Gabriel as possible. In fact, my next special will be done through a phone receiver as I walk on a treadmill.

NT: And then you’ll bring your daughter in to harmonize with you as you tell your jokes.

HS: While riding a bike upside-down on the ceiling, yes. For the record: Peter Gabriel concerts? Awesome. I think the Cirque Du Soleil people ripped him off. They were sitting around, thinking, “Can you sing? I can’t sing, but I can do all the theatrical stuff!”

NT: [Laughs] Well, since this is a re-release, that makes me ignorant of many of the specifics. Talk about the special you recorded, and what buyers are getting.

HS: This is my first special; I self-produced it. It was recorded at Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco, which is one of my—if not my single favorite—club in the country. I’ve been going there for years, and the audiences are just so smart there that I knew if I needed to tape something, there would be no delay between the smart punchlines and the laughter. Like, if you do the same joke in another room, they’ll still laugh at it, but there’s a delay between the punchline and the laughter, because they might not get it right away. Taping a special, you need the audience to be right there with you; you can’t wait around for them to figure it out.

NT: Unless you wanted to hire a very precise editor: “OK, we need to take out 3 seconds here, 3 seconds here…”

HS: Exactly, too much work.

NT: Since you mentioned having a favorite club, let’s talk about that. Now that you have a name for yourself, do you prefer working clubs—“This is where I got my start, it’s real and raw comedy”—or do you like theaters, where there’s no last call or a check being dropped during a punchline?

HS: There are still certain clubs I love to do because of how they’re laid out, and how they treat the performers… Obviously Cobb’s, Flappers in Burbank is that way… but truthfully, I do prefer the 800 to 1,000 seat theaters, because the audience is there for a reason; they’re invested in the show. No one dragged them there, they didn’t get a free ticket or it just happens to be “comedy night” at a place; they’re there because they bought the ticket, and they know what I’m about. In so far as being able to experiment as a performer, and go out on a limb, it’s much better when you have a room full of people who aren’t trying to flag down a waiter and who are already interested in what I’m going to do.

NT: God, we could go off on such a tangent here that I probably wouldn’t put in the interview [I have, but I’ve edited it like a TV movie: for time, space, and content], you talk about going out on a limb and experimenting: how do you feel about the fine line between experimenting and getting your words and thoughts out there vs. the fact people have paid to laugh and not hear someone rant their beliefs into a microphone?

HS: That’s actually a “conflict” I’m very comfortable with. Laughter is the dynamic that makes stand-up special, because otherwise you’re just a philosopher hoping people are interested in what you’re saying. If they’re not, you’ll lose them. That’s why I think that if you’re doing stand-up, comedy is job one; it’s not a compromise to go for laughs. If you’re doing something else, it’s performance art, which is totally cool, but it’s not comedy. I enjoy the concept of going, “OK, here’s an idea I have, and here’s an important point socially that I think needs to be made… how do I make it funny?”

It’s like being an artist, and saying, “I paint paintings, and within the ‘confines’ of this canvas, I can do anything I want; I can go anywhere.” I think the same thing goes for comedy, except the canvas is laughter. As long as I’m getting laughter, it allows me to go however deep I want into any psychological or spiritual area and hold on to people. Where if you’re just philosophizing, their minds will wander.

NT: Or they’ll start to think about why they disagree with you, or why you’re wrong…

HS: Exactly. In the most recent show I did in Edinburgh, Scotland, I ended the show with a bit about a Jewish person and a Palestinian in a cave coming to the conclusion, “You know, we’re a lot alike.” And I almost wanted to avoid the joke because the conflict has been going on so long, and on a socio-political level the joke could be the equivalent of “Dogs and Cats are different” or “Men and Women are different.” But, at the same time, is there a responsibility on the performer to gain a new perspective on it? Obviously the conflict hasn’t been solved, so if you create a bit that doesn’t take one side or the other and you make jokes that ridicule the whole thing you actually do help—in a way—to chip away at the reasons for the fight.

NT: I would agree with all of that, and go one further that even if you are re-treading old ground or doing a “Men and Women are different” joke, as long as you bring your personality and perspective to it, you can give the bit some vitality and originality.

[Interviewers note: I brought up Doug Stanhope much earlier in the interview, and then Hal and I went down what would be several pages of transcribed paths were I to have included all our ramblings about him, Carlin, Eddie Izzard, and comedy with commentary.]

HS: Exactly, you brought up Doug a while ago—and while I should be promoting my own stuff, I love the art of stand-up comedy so I don’t care and love talking about this—Doug has a bit about politicians running on getting the unemployment rate down, and wondering where the guy running on 100% unemployment is. Where’s the politician saying “Let robots do it! Spend more time with your family!” And while a lot of comics are talking about the economic climate right now, that’s Doug bringing his own unique voice to it. And I talk about economic and job frustration in my act and on Halcatraz, and do so from my point of view and using my voice.

NT: Which goes all the way back to the idea of the comedian as the court jester, who poked fun at serious subjects and at the king in order to get a message across, but with a feather-touch, so to speak.

HS: Yes, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer that in America, a vast majority of people are not seeking democracy; they’re seeking individual kingdoms. They want to sit in their TV-chair thrones, with their remote control scepters, and change channels, going: “Off with his head, off with his head” until they find something they like, then watch that until they grow bored and “Off with his head…” As a stand-up comedian, it’s your responsibility to call attention to that so it doesn’t grow out of control. You get people to laugh at themselves, that they not take themselves too seriously.

NT: I would agree with everything you said, except for one part where you said it’s becoming more and more obvious, or clearer and clearer about how “Now this is happening…” I think people have a tendency to say “It’s worse now than it’s ever been,” when in fact it was probably fairly bad in the past, we just tend to gloss over the negatives in history and paint it as a shining example of “When things were better”.

HS: Oh, sure. I’m not a big believer in “The past is better than the present.” I just think that because of the comfort level we have today, there’s a good segment of society that says, “Well now I can have everything I need, I don’t need anyone else.” They fail to remember how inter-connected we all really are.

NT: OK, that I agree with; I think I confused your point of “We have more access to apathy now than before” with what I thought you had said.

HS: Because we live as “kings” more than we ever have… I mean, 600 years ago, ice cream was a near-impossibility for over 80% of the populace. Now you can barely drive a block-and-a-half without seeing some form of it. A lot of life is the normalizing of experiences; we take it for granted.

NT: And to take your historical example and modernize it: 10 years ago having a plasma-screen TV would mean you were rich; today everyone has one. So, let’s try and take the fact that how we’re speaking right now will give people a good sense of who you are and how you think—now that they have that foundation, describe your comedy to someone who hasn’t seen you. You’re obviously intelligent and well-spoken; take the “armchair king” we’ve been talking about, someone who might think you’re just going to be speaking over his head, and draw him in.

HS: Well, that’s my job, isn’t it? I take things that are of “higher concept” and boil them down to their most palatable and understandable version. It’s not my job to be the encyclopedia, I’m the Cliff’s Notes; I don’t end the conversation, I start it.  While my stand-up isn’t political in nature, it can’t not affect politics, and while I’m not sociological in nature, it can’t not have a sociological effect. I’m basically deconstructing your life in a way that if somebody else did it, you might get mad at them. But in the way I do it, you go, “He’s doesn’t mean any ill will.” So I’ll go from the sublime to the mundane, all in order to progress the conversation a little bit.  A lot of what Halcatraz is about is ego; about how completely full of shit we allow ourselves to be, myself included—when you see the opening and ending, and how they tie together, that will make more sense.

Escape from Halcatraz is currently available on iTunes.