Comedian, commentator, musician, writer, and Chicago-lover Hal Sparks talks family life, fatherhood, marriage equality, education reform, and how his wacky inventor role on new Disney XD series Lab Rats continues a lifelong love of gadgets.
By Zachary Whittenburg|
On February 27, the one-hour premiere episode of Lab Rats airs on Disney XD. Cocreated by Chris Peterson and Bryan Moore (That ’70s Show), Lab Rats stars Hal Sparks as short-tempered, wacky inventor Donald Davenport, whose ambitious works-in-progress—bionic siblings with superpowers—find trouble once Davenport’s wife Tasha and her brainy son Leo move in.
New Trier High School alum Sparks talked with us by phone about the Rats, how much fun he would’ve had on the Lab set as a kid, new fatherhood, magic tricks, fond memories and more. We also touched on a few grownup topics, including marriage equality, education reform, defense spending and algebra.
Hi, Hal. How are you? I’m spectacular, but I’ll get better.
Thank goodness. Now, first off: You were Chicago’s funniest teenager in 1987, according to the Sun-Times. It’s true! And I came in second, and first in my age group, in ’86. It was a standup [comedy] competition that WBEZ awarded with the Sun-Times. They took taped submissions of kids doing standup acts. I was just about to turn 16, but I was 15 and that put me in the younger category [in ’86]. The next year, they combined it all into one age group, and I won it, at 16 going on 17.
Only about a year after you moved to Winnetka, correct? Way to make a first impression. Yeah, I used to do Zanies and back then there was also the Funny Firm, brand-new, which I think now is a veterinary hospital. And then I was in the Second City teen troupe at the same time.
Was there a teenage standup scene at the time, or were you the youngest game in town? A lot of the guys who went to New Trier [High School] did Original Comedy in Forensics, which was competition acting and drama for schools. Original Comedy was originally After-Dinner Speaking, very old school, this-funny-thing-happened-to-me-on-the-way-to-the-Shriner’s-meeting sort of stories, with a lot of puns. I was into standup, so I wrote an act instead, and went to 27 [Forensics] meets. Never did any better than fourth place, once. But I won that funniest teenager award based on the routine I wrote for Original Comedy. By the next year, everyone was doing regular standup. [Laughs]
It doesn’t sound from some interviews you’ve given that your dad was thrilled at first with you wanting to pursue comedy. [Laughs] No, not really. There’s a career to be had there, if the person is really dedicated, but the chances of failure, statistically, are way higher than the chances of success. Any decent parent will be reticent. That said, when my acting teacher at New Trier, Suzanne Adams, called my dad two weeks into me taking acting classes there and said, “Hal’s really good and should be doing this with his life,” my dad hung up on her. [Laughs] Not a word. Click.
How did your dad go from hanging up on Suzanne to deciding it would be okay with him for you to become a comedian? A big part of it—and I think the scariest part of it for my dad was when I did [Bernard Pomerance’s play] The Elephant Man at New Trier, playing [John Merrick’s manager] Ross. My grandparents came up to see me in my first play—
From Kentucky? Yeah, from Kentucky. They’d never seen me act or anything close to it and during the intermission, my grandmother asked my dad, “When does Hal come onstage?” And he said, “He’s been on several times.” She didn’t recognize me! Other kids would sneak out of the house to go to parties and do untoward things. I was sneaking out to do standup downtown. It paid off.
Was there another profession that your father wanted you to pursue instead? Well, he’s an architect, worked for Federated Department Stores [now Macy’s, Inc.], did all of the MainStreet stores, which are now Kohl’s, I think. I did floor tiling at some of the MainStreet stores, so if you’re in a Kohl’s in the western suburbs, there’s probably still tile there that I laid with a glue gun over the summer during high school. [Laughs] The next summer I did an after-school special and made more in a week than I’d made all summer doing manual labor. It was hard after that for my dad to argue with me about how well [acting] was going.
What after-school special? It was called Frog, with Scott Grimes, Shelley Duvall and Elliott Gould.
Those tend to be cautionary tales or teach a lesson. What did Frog teach kids? About finding confidence, basically.… It’s a cute story. Shelley Duvall’s company [Platypus Productions made] it. That’s when she started doing kids’ [television] productions. I think it was one of the first.
Speaking of kids’ TV shows, how far are you into production for Disney’s Lab Rats at this point? It began about a year ago, correct? Yeah, [each step] takes a few months and we’re doing 20 episodes this first season.
How many of the 20 have you shot? Sixteen! We’ve got four more.… We’ve been in production since late September and have been shooting ever since.
How involved have you been working with Chris Peterson and Bryan Moore, from That ’70s Show, in writing and character development, and defining who exactly this Donald Davenport guy is? A bit, but only from stage. I have a lot of respect for writers and that [part of the] process, and the work that they do. As a genuine nerd, though, I have a lot of input on what [Donald] would use as far as technology. His phone, for example, is basically an iPhone shape but it’s a piece of Lucite you can see through. I basically designed it, with the prop master here. I try to do that with a lot of [Donald’s] gadgets and stuff. In the lab set, there are all of these [lights and control panels] and I walked around and gave each of them a [function] and they’ve been good about that. “What’s this one do?” and I’ll say, “Oh, that’s the hydrogen separator that runs the entire place, and that’s the power amp for the kids when they’re in their tubes.” Those kinds of things. I make sense of the set.
Sounds like you’re quite the techie. As a kid, would you build imaginary control panels and turn empty boxes into cockpits? It’s funny: In Chicago, one of my best friends, Tom, built the deck of the [Starship] Enterprise in his basement with plywood and paint, in Northfield, right by the New Trier West campus. I’m named after a computer and grew up really interested in them. About a year after we moved [to Winnetka], actually, my dad got a Mac, the original 128K Mac, which I still have and still boots up.
The Mac that you’re with in your Twitter avatar? Yeah, that’s her! There was a 512K model right after that but this was one of the first ones. It came with a dot-matrix printer and a mouse with a click button so loud you could hear it across the room. [Laughs] There was no way you could use the computer in a sneaky way.
Sounds like your younger self would’ve loved getting to hang out in that high-tech basement set for Lab Rats. Oh, no question! This is a show I would’ve watched repeatedly. I would’ve memorized episodes. I was an Inspector Gadget kid, and The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman. [Lab Rats] is totally in the same ballpark.
Donald does a lot of yelling in the first episode. He’s like a short-fused Tony Stark. Yes, absolutely. [Laughs] Which is great and appropriate considering what he’s dealing with. [Moore and Peterson have] a strong idea about how [Donald] should be with the kids and I try to make his anger at least a little more loving. He can be an angry dude at times. In the first episode, he’s reluctantly learning to love [the Lab Rats] as kids. Later on, there’s a bond there and I like to keep that obvious and on the surface, so that when he does get mad you know that he’s getting mad because he loves them.
Let’s back up: You’re named after the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Yep! My mom read the book the year before I was born.
Eddy, the mission-controller for the house in Lab Rats, is kind of like HAL, only always in the worst mood ever. Yeah. [Laughs] Eddy is a prototype. He’s not yet ready for public consumption. Donald’s working out the details. There’s artificial intelligence and then there’s Eddy, who’s like an artificial smart aleck.
Your girlfriend has a son who’s how old, 11? Ten, actually. Yeah.
And your character, Donald, is a stepdad on the show. Does this help you decide how to play Donald’s relationship with Leo, his stepson? A bit, although I’m a little more like one of the kids on the show than I am in a “dad role.” Davenport definitely tries to be a good dad but at the same time he’s almost more playful than [the kids] are, and has a great time with them as equals. He has a lot of respect for the joy [kids] have. I think that’s great, and it’s fun because I can be just as goofy as they are.
And you recently became a dad yourself as well, yes? Yeah! He’s ten months old.
As he’s growing up, will you specifically want or not want him to see you on set, to spend time behind the scenes? I won’t mind him being on set. It’s what I do for a living. It’s what his dad does. These days, it’s as safe a job as any. I’ve always said that I benefit, as an actor, from not having the illusion of security. An office job or a corporate or a factory job, there may be the expectation that [that job will always be there]. As an actor and as a standup and a writer and a musician, I’m always on the hunt for the next thing. You may earn a level of security over time [in those careers], but you also learn to keep at it, and keep pushing. That’s a fairly safe business model for a kid to learn and to be around, whether he wants something that insecure for himself, later on[, or not]. And I certainly wouldn’t discourage him from being a part of the arts. They’re an invigorating part of my life. [Son Camden] will have a bit of an odd life, because he’s around me, and I’m not going to try to normalize it or give him a false sense of normalcy.… There’s no such thing as normal when your mom is driving you to school in her bulletproof Escalade, jamming to one of her nine Grammy Award–winning hits, on the way to a public school where everyone knows Beyoncé is your mom, you know? [Laughs] Just be yourself and acknowledge the situation. If I was a traveling salesman and we lived on the road, same thing. You’ve just gotta be honest about it.
Since before Queer as Folk, even, you’ve been a consistent ally and champion of progressing gay rights. You’ve said, “I don’t do marriage. I don’t think the government has anything to do with my relationship.” Has having a son changed any of that for you? Do you and Shelley Alters see eye-to-eye on that subject? No, that’s not changed any of that, although Shelley and I don’t have that kind of a relationship, at all, so it doesn’t come up in that context. I do think everyone should have the right to [marriage] if they want it. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs and I don’t smoke, but even so, I don’t think [those things] should be illegal if someone else wants to do them. It’s their business.
You said before the 2008 election, “I’d hate to see all the work we’ve done for gay rights just get flushed down the crapper.” Primaries have shown that Santorum has about the same amount of support as Romney among Republicans. How substantial is the progress made since Queer as Folk went off the air? I think we’ve made tremendous progress in several areas, and that’s actually what’s caused the Republican Party to refine into a more apoplectic, small-minded group.… There unfortunately are baby steps in every civil-rights fight but that’s how it has to be and, the question is, do you skip the baby steps because you think it should already be [over], or do you make the messy choice of taking all the steps, climbing every rung of the ladder, to make sure you’re making stable progress that won’t fall back? Do we have a huge way to go? Absolutely. Are we where we were five, ten years ago, at the beginning of Queer as Folk? Absolutely not.
Are precedent movements helpful? If people can connect progressing gay rights to the women’s movement or to battles that nonwhites have had to fight, do you think that helps the LGBT cause? Or is this movement fundamentally different? I think there’s a mechanical connection there that some people immediately grasp but, if they don’t get it right away, they’re not going to. Then, you have to [present it] from the point of view of blanket equality. Some people just don’t have the sympathy, but they can deal with it logically. We’ve been driving our political discourse, for the last three decades, largely on emotion. The only issues that really move are ones based on fear or on greed.
Why do you think that is? Because you can measure them. I can’t measure how many happy moments I’ve had in a day, but the FBI can put out a list of how many terrorist acts have been committed.
You said last year after the announcement of Lab Rats that it’s “a blessing that I can go on to do family fare after being on Queer as Folk. I think it shows a shift in the world of entertainment. It would’ve been impossible 10 years ago.” That said, will you have to be more judicious on certain issues now, such as your support of the Marijuana Policy Project, as the star of a show on Disney XD? I don’t think so. If you look at my appearances [on CNN], for example, there’s nothing untoward about them.… Insofar as encouraging kids, I legitimately come from a point of view of, Don’t drink, don’t do drugs, don’t smoke. All of my work with [the Marijuana Policy Project] is about, Why are we incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders when, for the cost of one [in prison], you could put two teachers in classrooms, every year? It’s absurd. For me, their message actually lines up quite well with the well-being of kids, and an honest conversation, you know? I am more sensitive [now], but my standup doesn’t change as a result of being on [Lab Rats]. It’s for grownups, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Parents have different conversations with their friends when their kids are in the room than when they’re not. And I have different spaces that I have different conversations in. If Disney were to come to me and say, “For the time being, could you just lay off [some topic] for a bit?” I would have no problem saying yes. I can pick up the fight at any time. These are all choices that I’m making. I have no problem putting certain things on hold if I’m asked, with the exception of the marriage equality thing, because that’s at such a crucial point. But I don’t think [Disney] would ever ask me to [do that].
You’ve said your childhood in Kentucky was hard, and that you didn’t have a lot growing up. It sounds like you expect things would’ve been different if you hadn’t been exposed to theater at New Trier and been allowed to pursue comedy. A poor kid today, who isn’t around any good schools, many resources or positive role models: Does he have a fair shot? I think that access to the arts and languages in schools plays more in a kid’s intellectual and character growth than [the arts and languages] get credit for. It builds sections in your brain while it’s in development that allow you to be more adaptable, more capable and more accepting of change.… I would go back to Kentucky to visit my mom, and I’d see old friends and could tell that they weren’t quite where I was mentally, in how they dealt with issues, how emotionally comfortable they were, or how they interacted with each other.
People think that the arts are optional and they aren’t. They teach a level of emotional depth that’s equally important to mathematic skill. You can replace some math skills with a calculator if you know how to operate the thing, but there’s no calculator for human interaction. There’s no machine that replaces dealing with social hierarchy in a boardroom. We focus on teaching kids the most mechanical, most machinelike things, while we live in a society where machines are replacing a lot [of those things]. What is important [is] the ability to interact, to create and solve problems. You do that more with an artistic and linguistic mind than you do with a mathematic one.
Now, that said, math at a higher level, when you get into algebra and calculus and trigonometry, is more important than we give it credit for. Those higher-order maths start firing up those parts of the brain more akin to art, more akin to deeper problem-solving. Yeah, you might not end up using algebra a whole lot, but you do use the parts of your brain that learn how to solve problems without all of the answers being available, and that’s what algebra is.… Whether or not [a kid] uses a foreign language later in life or not, [learning one] rewired his brain to accept different input.
Every time education comes up, people say, “You don’t solve a problem just by throwing money at it.” But that’s exactly what we do with the Department of Defense. Apparently [there] that rule doesn’t apply. Education, ironically, is one area where we’ve never tried it: There has never been a time when we’ve quote-unquote “thrown money at the problem.” And we need to, quite frankly. We need to blanket [education] with money the same way we [spend it] on bombers that never fly, on building bases that are never used strategically.
Other than that, I have no opinion. [Laughs]
Well I can’t thank you enough for your time and your candor. I just have one last question. Sure.
C. Thomas Howell beat you in the final round of Celebracadabra and I was just wondering whether you’ve gotten over it yet. I’m the only one on that show who still does magic! So draw your own conclusions there.
What’s your signature trick? I do the equivalent of coin magic or handkerchief magic with SuperBalls, you know, high-bounce balls, because they’re harder to hide. A coin can go flat behind a finger, but these are like doing magic with a cue ball, or a tennis ball. They’re substantial. I’m actually adding magic to my Vegas show, starting in the fall.
You’ll be at the Chicago Theatre for the Sexy Liberal Comedy Tour on March 3, correct? Yeah! And my band Zero 1 is playing at Reggie’s Rock Club the night before.
Looking forward to being back? Oh, definitely. My girlfriend’s never been to Chicago and I get to drive her around and show her all of the places I fell in love with. It’s my favorite city in North America, hands down. I want to take her up Sheridan Road, go get a Green River at Ed Debevic’s. [Laughs] Take her to the museums, go Ferris Bueller the Sears Tower…
What do you miss the most? The Indian summers. The lake, after warming all summer, heating the air. That glow and that stillness where the streets almost look fake, like a movie set. I moved to Chicago in August and it became so beautiful in September and October. I have a song called “Indian Summer” on my band’s first album that has a lot to do with stuff that happened while going to high school in Chicago. It’s such a great city, with such great charm and personality. It can be lively and patient at the same time.
Lab Rats premieres on Disney XD on Monday, February 27 and is available February 28 on multiple on-demand and gaming platforms in addition to iTunes. Check out Lab Rats games and other content online at disneyxd.com. Zero 1 plays Reggie’s Rock Club on March 2, and Hal Sparks appears March 3 at the Chicago Theatre with Stephanie Miller’s Sexy Liberal Comedy Tour.