If Bobby Slayton is “The Pitbull of Comedy” then I think it’s fair to call Hal Sparks “The Pomeranian of Punchlines.” I admit that may not sound like the most flattering of comparisons, but it’s not meant to be a criticism or putdown. Where Slayton is rough, gruff, and comes right at you, on his new album Escape From Halcatraz Sparks is full of happy energy with a manic desire to please. He desperately wants to entertain and he pours everything he has into telling a story, his excitedness turning into yippy fits that wreak havoc on his throat (I can imagine vocal coaches everywhere cringing as they listen to Sparks destroy his voice with his uncontrolled-yet-strained shrieks, wails, and attempts at an operatic falsetto).
The album begins with a grinding guitar riff that gets the audience riled up and ready for a comedy rock and roll show. Sparks is out to capture the essence of an anything-can-happen Dane Cook-esque extravaganza and he goes all in; his physicality and penchant for voices and imitating sound effects such as explosions and rapid-fire paintball guns only add to the high octane level of the performance.
It doesn’t take much to get Sparks going. Something as minute as baseball players’ uniforms, plastic bags in the road, or the names of TV reality programs can set him off like one of those fireworks you nail to a board and watch spin crazily out of control, bright sparks shooting out in all directions. Digressing back to the Pomeranian analogy, when Sparks digs his teeth into something, he doesn’t let go. He holds on with all of his might and shakes the hell out of it, growling the whole time with the fervor of a canine guarding his favorite chew toy.
On ESPN broadcasting poker tournaments: Rrrrawwwarrrrrrr!!
People who yell “Get a job!” at bums: GrrrrrrrrrrrrrARRRggghhh!
Tiny little bugs that fly around for no reason: Arrgggh!!! Rarrrrgh argggghhhH!!!
Of course, most of the fun comes from watching Sparks whip himself into a frenzy. At times he seems to lose track of where he is as his ravings appear to spiral out of his control (we get it, you love doing an impression of a dinosaur), but that’s just part of what is actually cleverly-organized pre-programmed chaos and Sparks is always able to tie everything together and get back around to his original story.
That’s not to imply that Sparks isn’t able to focus on the task at hand. In fact, my favorite moments of the album come when he digs in and goes into his lengthier pieces. His bit on his Kentucky accent (or lack thereof) and the South in general and all it encompasses is very funny. Sparks is able to breathe new life into such topics as NASCAR, tornado alley, and tackling an automated phone service such as 411 armed only with a backwoods drawl.
I think it’s safe to say everyone knows there are trends in pretty much all branches of entertainment. One successful volcano movie sparks another and for each popular throwback to a bygone era like Mad Men comes The Playboy Club and PanAm. Stand-up comedy is not immune to trending and two little words — airline food — are a perfect example. Right now, for whatever reason and of all things, the opening movement to composer Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” (I. O Fortuna”) seems to be popping up all over the place. Sparks’s take on it, however, sets itself apart from the others I’ve heard recently and, as funny as it is as part of his opener, when it pops up again later in the CD the callback is a well-executed hit.
The last track, about Sparks’s adventure on a paintball course and how it transformed him into someone mad with power (“I hate guns, I’ve always hated guns, but after playing paintball for 10 minutes I was like, “I don’t even need my dick anymore!!”). Sparks excels at recreating the tensions of war as he walks us through his vengeful capture the flag mission. As the final minutes of the game tick away, the suspense mounts and we cling to his every word. By dialing back a bit, the crowd naturally leans forward to take in each detail. We’re there with him and before long we want Sparks to emerge victorious just as much as he does.
Before listening to this project, I was familiar with Sparks’s work as an actor and performer through various TV appearances but not as a stand-up comedian. After listening, I think it’s a fair statement to say stand-up comedy is where I feel he belongs. It lets him be just who he needs to be and doesn’t confine him; Sparks thrives the most when he is left to his own devices. Sure, Pitbulls are fun because they’re dangerous; you never know when they’re going to suddenly snap and bite your face off.
But there’s also something to be said for a Pomeranian. They’re spontaneous and cute and they let you hold them in your arms.
And that’s when they snap and bite your face off.
Cue: “I. O Fortuna.”
FADE TO BLACK.
Escape From Halcatraz is available from Rooftop Comedy Productions