An Interview with Richard Sparks

Margarita Dreams Poster sm 2.jpg

Hello Richard, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
Hello Mumble, I’m originally from Gloucestershire, lived in London for twenty years and now live in Los Angeles.

Who are your comedy idols?
So many…  I just love people who can make me laugh.  How about a list of the ones I’ve met, or have worked with?  Robin Williams, Peter Cook, Billy Connolly, all the Pythons, Ken Campbell, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, Jack Black, My Oxbridge / Not the Nine O’Clock News contemporaries (Mel Smith was a very close friend from my university days, a lovely, generous soul and much missed) – Griff Rhys Jones, Pamela Stephenson, Rowan Atkinson, Douglas Adams.  Ones I haven’t met: Damon Runyon, Dorothy Parker, P.G. Wodehouse, S.J. Perelman, Terry Pratchett – writers with the gift of lightness who have all given me the gift of laughter.

What does Richard Sparks like to do when he’s not being funny?
Play the five-string banjo (bluegrass style); play Elder Scrolls Online; eat (I love to cook) and drink beer – if possible at my bar in Las Vegas, Sporting Life Bar.  It’s a neighborhood bar, for the locals, not a tourist joint: great world beers, great food, great people.  Every now and then, maybe four or five times a year, my wife and I jump into the car and drive to Vegas, listening to a book on tape (PLEASE read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One before the Spielberg movie comes out at Christmas.  Or listen to it read by the madly enthusiastic Wil Wheaton.  It’s a brilliant, exciting adventure story.  I played against Wil in a poker tournament once.  He’s a lovely guy, but an even worse poker player than I am).

You’ve been washed up on a desert island with a solar-powered DVD player & three films. Which would they be?
All British, all brilliant: Still Crazy, written by the great comedy team of Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, with a cast of comedy rock stars (very appropriate); The Life of Brian, which is a genuine masterpiece; and Withnail and I.  Bruce Robinson (its writer-director) is God.  He is also in Still Crazy.

What are the secrets of a good sketch?
Surprise.  You have to stay at least a step and a half ahead of your audience.  Laughter is, after all, a reaction of surprise.  If I tell you a great joke, you might well laugh.  If I then tell it to you again, you probably won’t.  If the audience knows where it’s going, and what is going to happen, you’ve lost them.  One tip: cut out the questions.  Lines like “Why is that?” or “What do you mean?” are dead wood.  A waste of a chance to cut across the grain.  A poor sketch is one in which one person asks questions and the other one gives answers.  That is very laboured, very ploddy.  I genuinely believe that audiences are intelligent.  They can take everything you can throw at them.  If some of them don’t get a joke, so what?  Don’t spoon-feed them pablum.  Don’t talk down to them.  Give them something to stretch for.

Rowan Atkinson performing the sketch Richrad wrote for him, The Schoolmaster.  This was his breakthrough moment, in The Secret Policeman’s Ball.  He went onstage an unknown, and came off a star.

You are heavily into the creation of Opera – do you see any similarities in the Opera performance & the Comedic, or are they poles apart?
Both demand the use of your wits.  Any libretto, any lyric, any script, needs as few words as possible.  It’s very easy to overwrite when you start out.  You learn that rewriting and cutting and polishing is where you get the gold.  To have had the chance to write major opera productions is an incredible privilege.  I’m not from a musical family – I saw my first opera aged about 25, and thought, wow, this isn’t cobwebby old fart fustian, this is… big!  The last one I wrote (and directed) for the Los Angeles Opera, Dulce Rosa, took thirteen years from concept to performance.  That was a romantic tragedy based on an Isabel Allende short story.  She is a writer I really like and admire.  It is the story of a revenge, an obsession; a two-pronged love story which takes us to some deep, dark places.  I remember trudging upstairs to bed in the mornings, brain empty, wondering what the hell they were saying to each other…  How do you sum up obsession?  She is haunting him, calling him to her, to atone for the wrong he did…  What is going through her head?  Through his?  And then, drifting off into that alpha state where the ideas can come, I got the lines: Day In, Day Out  / Night After Night…… And I was off to the races.  So basically: I love a puzzle.  A challenge.  I would much rather aim high and miss than aim low and hit.  I’ve actually done a lot of aiming high and missing!  My first poker book, Diary of a Mad Poker Player, was about me setting out to become the next World Champion of Poker.  I didn’t.  But in the failure, there was a story.  And a sequel.  And a fascinating world to explore.  And if it hadn’t been for that journey, I wouldn’t now own my lovely bar in Las Vegas.

You are bringing your show, Margarita Dreams, to the Fringe this August, can you tell us about it?
We go inside the head of young Dave, on his holiday on the beach in Mexico, who has one margarita too many.  Or nine.  In the sun.  It’s a freewheeling kaleidoscope of sketches that  weave in and out of each other, all somehow weirdly making sense.  I hadn’t written sketch comedy in decades, and had completely forgotten what a joy it is.  It all came pouring out in just a few weeks.  I can’t thank these kids (Bella, Jack, Jason and Sophie) enough for being the inspiration that got me to come up with all this strange and unexpected stuff.  I’ve been lucky enough and, okay, stubborn enough, to just do exactly what I want in life: which is to write.  I was never going to do anything else, and never have done.  In my early days – and I’m grateful and happy as hell to have “been there and done that” – I had to write quite a lot of “crap for money”.  Fixing misfiring sitcom scripts.  Doing your best with other people’s ideas, trying so hard to make them work.  One week, in a motel in New Zealand with orange carpet squares for wallpaper (yes, really!) I wrote three complete half-hour scripts from thin air.  We were so behind schedule I didn’t see daylight for a month.  I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world.  That gig bought me my first house (well, one third of it, the rest was mortgage).  And now, when something like Margarita Dreams comes along: it’s like jumping on a roller-coaster.  So exciting!  If you’d told me back in February I’d be coming to Edinburgh with an all-new sketch comedy show: I’d have slapped you until I woke up.  So, tip to young writers/artists/actors etc: keep your eyes and your mind open.  You never know what’s coming your way.

Can you sum up your show in a single sentence?
Welcome to the world of Margarita: where peculiar is the new normal – and a good, if unexpected, time is had by all.

What emotive responses would you like from your audience & what do you expect?
Belly laughs.  All we want to do is give you a good time.  The actors are the age I was when I did my first fringe show.  My life as a writer really began here in Edinburgh.  I hope good things now happen for them.

Oxford Revue Edinburgh 1973 (2).JPG

It’s been some time since you were performing in Edinburgh – four decades in fact – can you tell us what the Fringe was like in those days?
My memories of the fringe in the 1970s are of a freewheeling, enthusiastic, theatre-counter-culture month-long happening.  The vibe was part rock concert, part chaos, part This Is The Real Damn Thing (as opposed to the commercial crap of the West End).  And the things I saw!  Ian Holm and Patti Love in Caravaggio Buddy at the Traverse, followed by Lindsay Kemp’s Les Fleurs du Mal dance/movement/weirdness extravaganza.  The Polish director Tadeusz Kantor’s The Dead Class at the Richard Demarco Gallery (where we also performed).  The Great Marcel’s one-person puppet show in a motorcycle sidecar (you, the audience, were the one person).  Billy Connolly’s The Great Northern Wellie Boot Show – damn that was amazing!  I bought the T-shirt.

What does the rest of 2017 hold in store for Richard Sparks?
Finish the new opera for the Los Angeles Opera – The Kugelmass Episode, based on the short story by Woody Allen.  I’ve completed the first draft, and heard nothing back from my composer, Lee Holdridge, in two weeks!  This I regard as a good sign.  Lee and I have been writing partners for 25 years, so I know he’ll let me know right away if I haven’t given him stuff he wants to work on.  Placido Domingo is going to sing the lead role – this project was his idea.  We present a full sing-through workshop to him and the LAO bigwigs in October.  In other news – just like coming back to Edinburgh after 41 years – 25 years since I last wrote TV, I’ve recently completed the scripts for the first season of a new series in L.A., to be produced by Jonathan Sanger (producer of The Elephant Man, Vanilla Sky etc).  Just as with Margarita Dreams, it was a case of – hey, why not?  Watch this space.

And Another Thing

I get two questions all the time from young “Should I’s”:

Question 1:  Should I go to L.A. / London and try to be a writer / actor / director / producer?
Absolutely!  You don’t want to be looking back in your 80s thinking, I could have been a contender.  Go, try, succeed, fail, damn the torpedoes!  Give it your best shot.  Over and over and over again.  Until you have nothing left to give.  Live it, love it, settle for nothing else.  Follow up question:  “Oh, right well, so how do I go about – ”  I have no idea.  That’s up to you.  Every case is different.  They don’t need you.  You have to make them.  Easy?  No, but who the hell cares?  If you have to do this, then do it.

Question 2:  Should I go to Las Vegas and be a professional poker player?
Absolutely not.  It’s a wretched way to make a living: pillaging other people.

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Margarita Dreams will be playing at the Fringe this August

Underbelly Ermintrude

2– 28 August (14:00)

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