Last night I had the immense pleasure of meeting actor and comedian, Hal Sparks. Most people know him either through his stand-up, or through his appearances on the VH1 series, “I Love the 80s.” I grew to admire him under very different circumstances. I first knew him as Michael Novotny on the five season run of the US’s Queer as Folk.
We all know that comics are, at the heart of things, story tellers. They take anything– however dull or boring, or absolutely outlandish– and paint the story in such a way that by the end, you’re clutching your sides, trying to see through the tears in your eyes– if they do it right, that is. We know that they combine physical movement, vocal range, facial expression as well as choice vocabulary to get their story across in the funniest way possible. But I think that most of the time, writers and novelists don’t necessarily look to comics for writing advice. Or inspiration.
During his show, Hal’s topics ranged from a trip to the Pentagon, to why we shouldn’t hate on babies and teenagers, but just old people, to the physics of space travel and life on other planets, to the old stand by of genital humor and vomit jokes. During his act he said, “I did an algorithm joke. Do you know how hard that is to do?”
Afterwards, Hal was amazing enough to stand and chat with me and my beau for several minutes despite the line behind us. I was able to reign in my fan girl enough to marvel at how absolutely cool and down to earth he is. But during our conversation, my beau, who is an astrophysicist, complimented Hal, saying that topics like physics, math and space travel can be very dry, but he found a way to make them all funny.
Hal’s response: “You have to know 20% more about the topic you’re joking about than your audience, or you won’t be able to surprise them. Otherwise they’ll just say they saw it coming.”
One word: RESEARCH!
He went on to talk about timing and pacing, saying that you have to give the audience a break from all the tougher material– give them a second to breathe. He mentioned George Carlin, saying the man could give you thirty minutes of intense political talk and then would do three minutes of fart jokes just to give the audience a reprieve.
Hal wove historical/scientific/rarely known facts into his act in ways I admired and laughed my face off at. He used flashbacks, repetition and an amazing vocabulary to paint incredibly vivid images for us. I don’t need to analyze them further here, but it’s just food for thought that when you feel like you need one more write tip, maybe you should go see some stand-up.