The Comedic Optimism of a Sexy Liberal. A Q&A with Hal Sparks

Never mind Covid, there’s an epidemic of pessimism these days. If you could inoculate yourself against pessimism, would you do it?  Well, you can! This Saturday, Stephanie Miller’s Sexy Liberal Save Democracy Tour arrives at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. The tour is the brainchild of Hal Sparks who makes a persuasive case that comedy is humans’ most optimistic form of expression. Hal, who grew up in both Peaks Mill, Kentucky and Winnetka, Illinois, is a graduate of New Trier Township High School and Second City.  

He is known for groundbreaking, unforgettable roles on screens big and small. He made history as Michael Novotny on Showtime’s award-winning Queer As Folk, portraying legal gay marriage, adoption, and a couple’s battle with HIV for the first time on American television. Highlighting his versatility, Hal also created the role of the divinely charismatic Zoltan who lit up the screen in Dude, Where’s My Car? (And yes, it’s true. Hal invented the famous Zoltan “Z” hand signal.) In Disney XD’s Lab Rats, Hal starred as inventive genius Mr. Davenport. As if all this weren’t enough, he became host of E!’s Talk Soup after competing against 5,000 other performers.

An impressive list, but that’s not all. He plays multiple musical instruments and travels the country with his bands ZERO 1 and Nerd Halen. No guarantees, but Hal, who is also known for his standup, may just be a surprise drop-in somewhere around town this weekend. 

In the earliest days of the pandemic, after returning from China (he speaks fluent Mandarin), Hal saw what was coming and launched the daily political commentary and comedy show Megaworldwide where he interacts live with viewers and emphasizes “radical optimism.”  Megaworldwide began with just a few dozen viewers, but audience numbers soon soared into the millions as fans resonated with his mission “to entertain and bring light to life’s uncertainties … [and] to use absurdity, silliness and fearless fun to confront the nonstop doom of the 24-hour news cycle and the anger of social media politics.”

At Stephanie Miller’s Sexy Liberal Save Democracy Tour, you can expect an uncensored, upbeat, energizing, interactive, very funny show with Hal, Stephanie, John Fugelsang and Chicago’s own Frangela (a/k/a beloved Second City alums Frances Callier and Angela V. Shelton).

“But wait,” you may say. “I’m conservative. Am I welcome, too?” Yes! Hal says, “Ultimately, I’m a voting purist. I don’t care if you agree with me. I don’t care if you like my politics. I want our differences to be settled through voting. That matters to me more than anything.”

Hal kindly spoke with me by phone, generously giving me double the time we had allotted. Please read on to discover what drives this multi-talented, uplifting, insightful comedian, actor, musician and political commentator.



Teme: What was it like to grow up in both Kentucky and on Chicago’s North Shore?

Hal: Kentucky and Chicago are polar opposite ends of the earth culturally, intellectually, financially. It was an enormous shock moving from Kentucky to Chicago. Yet, I felt more at home in a lot of ways when I moved to Winnetka than anywhere I’d been previously. I went to elementary and middle school in Kentucky and I went to high school in Winnetka. I consider Chicago my home to this day. When I come back to do a show, I get in a car and drive by the old neighborhood.

Teme: What were your years like at New Trier?

Hal: The greatest thing I could say about New Trier is that they had every opportunity to kick me out and every reasonable excuse to do so, and they didn’t. Because of that, I ended up making something of myself. Also, the sheer amount of resources that were available to me as a student at New Trier were life-changing. The theater department there is equal, in a lot of ways, to the kind of education you find at a place like Julliard. It is an enormous repository of talent in teaching, and room to grow. It was the springboard for me going to Second City and starting to do standup. My acting teacher there, Mrs. Adams, was the person who encouraged me the most when she found out I was interested in comedy. At the same time, she encouraged me to practice my craft as a performer. That is why something like Queer as Folk was able to happen in my career.

Teme: She sounds like a great teacher.

Hal: She’s amazing. I’m lucky to say I come from a family of teachers, so I’m very aware that certain teachers can set you on a path in life. I’m lucky that I’ve had two or three of them. She is clearly the one that has the greatest impact on my life.

Teme: Are you still in touch with her?

Hal: Yes. She gave me one of the best compliments I ever got on my acting when I did Queer as Folk.  When I played Michael, I used what was in the script and people that I had experienced in my life and other character traits that I thought would fit him. When Mrs. Adams watched it she said, “I didn’t recognize you!” That is the greatest compliment you can get, especially from your acting teacher who set you on the path in the first place.


Teme: Michael has this beautiful, quiet energy that’s really magnetic and powerful. How much of him is you and how much is outside inspiration?

Hal: I gave him physical traits, how he eats with a spoon, how he walks, from people I knew in my life. I am in no way the innocent, open-hearted person that Michael is, but that was one of his defining characteristics. He was so beautifully naive about people that he could get hurt by the same thing multiple times. As a comedian, as an actor, and as somebody who’s gotten used to the rough nature of the road, those are not characteristics that, if I even had a smidgen of them, I would survive. So, wholly different human being.

I would not have been friends with Brian Kinney. Not in a million years. I would’ve met the dude, probably gotten into a shouting match or a fist fight and I’d never talk to him again. But Michael is a gracious human being. After you play a character, if you do it long enough, you absorb characteristics. You can take on positive characteristics. But there are also characteristics that you create that are fairly unhealthy. You can pick those up if you’re not careful. You can find yourself in a position where you give yourself anxieties and illnesses and all kinds of stuff when you play a character for that long that they would have had.

Whenever I talk to actors I tell them that guarding your mental health while you’re playing a character is crucial. You’re talking yourself in and out of real emotions. If you’re doing a movie, it’s a few weeks. You’ll shake it off. If it’s a series that you’re on for years, it will absolutely affect you.

Teme: What came up for you playing Michael?

Hal: Well, for about two years I had panic attacks from playing Michael because of scenes that we had done. I had sort of a low humming PTSD. In a drama series, your job is to convey true sorrow, true sadness, true misery when it happens. Then, the rest of the time, to be convincing in a normal state so that when it happens, it feels real.

One of the big scenes was when Michael is outed by Brian to Tracy, the girl at work. She doesn’t know Michael is gay. It is a cruel act. When you have a moment like that in real life, it’s bad, but it happens once. We had to shoot the scene from every angle many times in a crowded room full of a hundred extras. I sat down on the couch in Brian’s loft while we were filming. I was sobbing. I was gutted after doing that scene and coming to the edge of that emotion over and over. But I don’t regret it at all. It’s an occupational hazard.

Hal Sparks


Teme: How do you view comedy?  

Hal: I consider comedy a service industry. It’s like you’re an emotional massage therapist. I believe there are no tough crowds. The hardest crowd to make laugh is the crowd that needs to laugh the most. If you can focus on that, you never have a bad show. Ever.

Comedy is crucial to a functioning society. I have talked about every topic, even those that are supposedly off limits. It’s about the quality of the jokes. Heavy topics need heavy support. You cannot hold up a boulder with toothpicks. If you’re going to take on heavy topics, your jokes have to be that much better. Featherweight topics don’t require much effort at all. You can walk up there and say, “What’s the deal with that?” and get away with it because people are curious. What is the deal with that? They don’t really need to know.

But when you talk about giant, heavy, political, emotional, even ethical conversations, you’ve got to bring the jokes that hold it up. If you don’t have that, the bit’s not ready yet. It’s not that the audience wasn’t ready. Your jokes weren’t ready. If you’ve got the jokes, you can talk about anything, even if it’s offensive. If they’re that funny, you won’t have a problem because people will recognize the root of the humor that you’re building and you’ll be fine.


Teme: How did you become involved with the Sexy Liberal Save Democracy Tour?

Hal: Well, honest to God, it was kind of my idea. I’ve been on the Stephanie Miller Show for years. She has one of the most popular morning shows in L.A. [The first time I was on,] I was promoting a regular standup gig. Well, she left me on hold for a half an hour because she was still not used to having guests. This was during the [passage of] the Affordable Care Act. I had read the whole thing. And I’m waiting on hold and the debate was raging. People are calling in and saying “It’s socialism, communism, monstrous, terrible!” And other people were saying it doesn’t go far enough. They were both wrong.

I went on and I explained the Affordable Care Act for an hour. I never promoted my gig.  So then they started doing “Hump Days with Hal.” I would come in on Wednesdays and do a regular segment where I would get wonky about bills that were being passed because that’s sort of a hobby of mine.

After a while, especially around the election, I was like, “We need to go do standup. We need to go on the road and start doing this in a way that promotes our politics, is funny, and pushes back against the stuff that we’re seeing everywhere else.” There were a lot of red-side comics that were out on the road doing these big tours. There was nothing to answer it. I said, “Let’s go answer it!” We became the biggest comedy tour of the year when we launched.

It is my goal to go out on a regular two-year tour schedule leading up to elections to get people interested, to get people laughing, to give them a sense of hope, and to know that their vote will matter. Especially post-January 6th, especially what’s going on in Ukraine. We see what the alternative is. It’s terrible.

Teme: What will happen during the show? What will the audience experience?

Hal: The main thing is we’re there to do standup. Steph has an enormous fan base of radio fans and listeners. She does a sort of “Carol Burnett opening” where she answers questions and jokes around with people.

John [Fugelsang] is a craftsman. He is a writer of the Carlin School of crafting jokes. I have what I would call a pseudo Robin Williams approach. Because it is so topical, I perform on the fly. We did the Sexy Liberal Virtual Tour during COVID. I started doing musical parodies and characters. So, I’ve got a couple of songs that people have been asking me to do live.

Teme: What makes comedy a good approach to political discourse?

Hal: Not only is comedy a good approach to political discourse, it is the root of stability. Comedy is a shared misunderstanding or a moment of awe that people have in their experience of life where we collectively don’t get what’s going on. The way humans used to process it was violently. Now, we can process it by being quizzical, silly, mocking. All topics need to be open for comedy. People who feel that some topics are off limit are actually rooting for violence because that’s the alternative.

Human beings have evolved to use comedy to maintain our social cohesion. Everywhere along human history, people have gotten into cult-like cul-de-sacs of behavior where they believe the wrong thing. They get caught up in a psychological or ethical or religious trend that’s bad, ultimately. They refuse to leave it because their ego and their sense of self is tied up in it.

Comedians talk people off those ledges by saying, “We’ve all fallen for bullshit before. Join us back on the road forward. You have nothing to be ashamed of. We’re all suckered by our own dumb ideas on occasion.” I think that’s the purpose of comedy. That release from the trap of your own ego is what keeps us from destroying each other.

 Teme: When you say the show is topical, does that mean a different show in each city?

Hal: Yes. It has to be. There’s so much going on. It’s exciting to be able to create new stuff on the fly. And the quality and the standard has to be such that we’re talking about major issues in depth. That’s the challenge in many ways of this particular show. It’s the beauty of it as well. I love doing it.  It’s very different from my regular standup, which is not topical and more about the human condition.


Teme: Do you have a favorite moment from the tour so far?

Hal: Yes. We did the Chicago Theatre a few years ago and Lily Tomlin came up on stage with us. She had come straight to the theater and was going on to the hotel. But she accidentally left her travel bag in the theater dressing room and they’d locked the door behind us and everybody had left. Don’t tell anyone, but I broke into the Chicago Theatre, climbed in through a vent and got Lily Tomlin’s bag for her. I was a dirty mess, but I’m proud to say I was able to commit a small crime for Lily Tomlin during the Sexy Liberal Tour. That goes on your bucket list… that you didn’t even know you had.

Teme: Whew. That’s fantastic. Is it okay if I write that?

Hal: Yeah. Statute of limitations being what it is and I think my fingerprints are gone by now.


Teme:  I also wanted to ask about Zoltan and one of my favorite movie scenes. That’s when you first appear in Dude, Where’s My Car? You come running down the stairs with so much energy and verve that you lift the film into a whole new level of good energy from there all the way to the end. Did you have a backstory for Zoltan?

Hal: Yes. I have to say, I have a profoundly powerful ego. I’m very happy with my level of confidence in my skill level and who I am in life. It’s because I know it comes from something I built, not from something I was born into. Being egotistical about your height seems really stupid to me. But, if you’re a great piano player, I want to hear about it. Don’t ever hold back. Tell me what a great piano player you are. I love that. Because you did it. You worked on it. It matters.

With Zoltan, everybody else is confused in that movie. The movie itself is a question! I was like, there’s got to be somebody here who has no questions. He’s totally convinced of his word. Zoltan literally is the guy that saves the world because he understands how the Continuum Transfunctioner works. If he isn’t an evil maniacal dipshit in his own way, everybody dies. So he’s proud of himself. I felt like that was crucial to who he is. This guy convinced everybody to wear bubble wrap! He’s obviously got some social skills even in his sort of pathetic, still lives in his mom’s basement mentality. That was so much fun.

That was also the great thing about playing Mr. Davenport on Lab Rats. If you ask what character I was born to play, it was Mr. Davenport. The only joke I have about him is that I actually have the ego that they wrote for him. It’s super fun to play somebody who loves themselves. It’s really rare. People don’t write characters like that. They’re ashamed to do it.  I’ve often said that, as an actor, the hardest emotions to play are joy and happiness. Anybody can do fucking anger. Anger and sorrow, it’s almost all you learn in acting school. But try coming to work on a day you’re feeling miserable and the script says happy. People don’t realize that’s more work. That’s why I say that we should hand out more acting Oscars for people who are doing CGI and working with Jeff Goldblum with a tennis ball on a string and pretending it’s a dinosaur. That’s way harder than being in a Meryl Streep movie. Honest to God, after Dude, Where’s My Car? I could do a Meryl Streep movie standing on my head. (interview continues after the video)


 Teme: What keeps you optimistic?

Hal: I have a kid and it’s my duty to not only hope that the world spins on, but to let him know that the world is going to continue to spin on and that I’ll do everything I can to make sure the world spins on in a way that sets him up for the best possible life he can have. That remains true of even kids that are not my own. That’s what keeps me optimistic. The responsibility.

Comedy itself is an optimistic act. What are you telling jokes for if it’s too late? The cellist on the Titanic was not cracking jokes. If you’re bothering to make the joke, you’re telling me there’s going to be a tomorrow. Even if you think it’s going to be fucked, it’s going to still actually exist. That’s an act of optimism. The fact that you think you have room enough to change society or make people laugh or be politically relevant or socially relevant in your comedy, the fact that you’re telling me you think you even have the room to do that, means that you are counting on the world being functional for at least the foreseeable future.

Even the most nihilistic comic is still an optimist. Whether they’ll admit it or not, fuck them. But that’s the truth. It’s also one of the reasons I chose comedy as my preferred way of expressing my gripe with life, my gripe with society, my gripe with religion or any number of thought forms or people. It’s a great outlet because, on the one hand, it takes the subject seriously enough to be spoken of, and it also recognizes that they are not immutable and permanent. That’s crucial. That’s necessary for life. My belief is comedy, a lot of times, is the only thing that keeps humans from choking the shit out of each other.

I do my daily live stream at and my Twitch channel. I started doing that stream at the beginning of COVID because everyone was so scared. I spent a month in China leading up to the COVID outbreak. I saw the reports and knew it was coming this way. When they started talking about possibly having a shutdown for a few weeks, I was like, “Nope, it’s going to be months and months.” I knew it was worse than they were saying.

When the lockdown was happening, my girlfriend and I were going to ride it out at our house in Vegas. I live in L.A., too, so I went back to L.A. and  picked up a bunch of stuff. On my drive back, I broke down. I started crying because I knew that what was coming was going to be a lot of heartbreak. It was going to mean the deaths of a lot of people. It was so bad, I had to pull over on the side of the road. And then, I decided, “Okay, now I’m done. I’ve gotten it out of my system. If I can make people laugh and help them get through what I know is coming, then I’ll have contributed.” I started my daily live stream the first day of lockdown, on a Monday, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

I’m really proud of it. I keep making fun of these idiots and of the situation we’re in because I know there’s going to be a tomorrow. I look forward to being funny about it. I don’t have to get mad. I don’t have to get bitter. I don’t have to rage and scream and wag my fist, because I know it’s going to be alright. I’m playing my part in making sure that it is. That’s what comics do, ultimately. Without comedy, our world collapses.


Stephanie Miller’s Sexy Liberal Save Democracy Tour comes to The Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St., Chicago on Saturday, September 24, 2022 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets and details:

Follow Hal Sparks at

Tune into Megaworldwide daily at and on Twitch:

The Hal Sparks Radio Program is Saturdays on WPCT. Listen:

More on Nerd Halen at

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