THERE’S NOTHING FUNNY ABOUT THE LIFE of a comedian. He travels year-round (only a flattened squirrel knows the road better). He tells jokes late into the night at dives with corny names like the Funny Bone and Yuks. He is a denizen of the transitional world of cheap motels and bad restaurants. His clothes always reek of cigarette smoke. He is regularly heckled. The average amount of time a comic can endure this wretched existence seems to be about ten years, and if by that time the clouds haven’t opened up, allowing his ascension into the blue glow of his own prime-time sitcom, à la Jerry Seinfeld and Drew Carey, he quietly packs up his jokes and settles into another line of work.
Bill Engvall can tell you about thresholds. When the native Texan talks about his past few years in the business, all the mirth drains from his eyes and a tinge of bitterness surfaces in his voice. “People call you an overnight success,” he says, “but I spent a lot of time in the clubs, man—a lot of time.” After almost reaching his breaking point on the circuit five years ago, he has finally made it, sort of. His first album, Here’s Your Sign, a collection of stand-up bits, went gold in May 1997, a year after its release, and his follow-up, 1998’s Dorkfish, went as high as number sixteen on Billboard’s country chart. He’s sufficiently well known that he performs in venues with two thousand seats, not two hundred. He has been a cast member on two network sitcoms, most recently the short-lived show bearing the name of his good friend Jeff (“You might be a redneck if . . .”) Foxworthy. But the last piece of the puzzle is missing: a sitcom of his own, preferably one with his name in the title.
Can a stand-up comedian be considered a success today if he doesn’t have his own TV show? It’s a question the 41-year-old Engvall is wrestling with, though he doesn’t let it consume him. By nature he’s funny and charismatic, not dark and rueful. Still, the road taken by a comic is a long one, and he’s still on it, albeit in much better shape than he used to be. And if you want to catch up with him, you have to be prepared, as I was, to hit the road too.
I met Engvall early one Monday morning last November in the studios of radio station KVET-FM in Austin. He had just driven in from a ranch he’d recently purchased near San Antonio, and he looked like someone who’d been off work and out of the city for days. His eyes were a little puffy from getting up early, and he hadn’t shaved. With his fleshy face, solid build, and blond hair—long in the back, shorter on top—he resembled a modern-day Barney Rubble. His faded Lee jeans, his black print shirt with cartoons of fifties-era drive-ins and diners, and his white baseball cap from golf’s Doral-Ryder Open pegged him as distinctly New Country—not surprising, since his act is peppered with wry, quizzical observations geared to the family-oriented suburbanites and ex-urbanites who keep Hat Act Nashville in business.
Perched on a stool, legs bent up, back arched, head leaning over a microphone, Engvall slipped easily into the patter of KVET deejays Sammy Allred, an acerbic radio comic from the old school, and Bob Cole, his deep-voiced, straight-faced counterpart.
Cole: “Our special guest in the studio, the ever-popular, ever-present, our hometown boy—”
Allred: “Oh, yeah, when you go out of town and make it big, then you’re a hometown boy.”
Cole: “ — Biiillllll Engvall! So, Bill Engvall from Georgetown, Texas, makes all his big money, moves to Hollywood, and now occasionally visits Texas. Why did you leave?”
Allred: “If you made $10 million, would you move to Georgetown?”
Engvall: “Well, it’s always great to be back, but, you know, the area’s changed since I used to live here. On my way into town I passed the outlet mall. Why do people shop there? It’s where companies send their rejected products. I once saw a place selling rejected Bibles. Who’s going to want a book proclaiming the Word of Gob?”
And so on. Engvall was quick to tell a story or launch into part of his routine—anything to keep things moving. He knows that the secret to good radio promotion is to keep the pace lively and avoid even the faintest whiff of dead air. Allred and Cole clearly enjoyed his easygoing presence, and they all laughed comfortably and often as they fielded calls from listeners—including Engvall’s mother, who still lives in Georgetown. Engvall just enjoyed being home. He and his wife, Gail, and their two children, Travis and Emily, live most of the year in Los Angeles—specifically the Hollywood Hills, where everyone knows his pickup by the bumper sticker that reads “American by birth, Texan by the grace of God.” But if he had his druthers, he’d be back here. “L.A.’s been great to me,” he said, “but it’s not Texas. I can’t wait to get my kids home to Texas.”
A little after nine, we said our good-byes and left to catch a flight through Dallas to Beaumont, the site of his concert that night. In the Austin airport people recognized him, and he was extremely outgoing, offering cheerful greetings to everyone from the woman at the ticket counter to the man x-raying luggage. Though he is instinctively polite, he also knows being friendly is good for business. “He spends a lot of time with his fans,” says his manager, J. P. Williams. “He signs anything and everything. Even when someone comes up to him at dinner, he doesn’t just go, ‘Here, what do you want this to say?’ He looks him in the eye, says, ‘What’s your name?’ and shakes his hand.”
On the plane Engvall explained that he got his first taste of stand-up as a student at Southwestern University