TV or Not TV?

For stand-up comic Bill Engvall, that is the question. But even if he never gets a sitcom of his own, he’ll always be at home on the road.

April 1999By Comments

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 in Georgetown in the early eighties, producing impromptu shows at a bar he managed. (Born in Galveston and raised in Flagstaff, Arizona, he got to Central Texas as a teenager when his father, a doctor with the Public Health Service, was transferred there.) His first opportunity to perform, however, didn’t come until 1984. While in the audience for an amateur night at Comedy Corner in Dallas, a friend persuaded him to go up and do five minutes. He did, and he so impressed the club’s manager that he was offered the job of emcee. One of his duties was to pick up visiting comics at the airport, and so it was that he came to meet and observe such top-drawer talents as Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, and Jay Leno. He worked at that club for two and a half years, and by the end of his run, he had started to take his own act on the road. In 1988, after a year of touring, Engvall wanted to break into acting, so he and Gail, then married for five years, moved to Los Angeles.

L.A. proved to be a tough nut to crack. The Engvalls rented a house that was beyond their means, and he began to look for acting work while continuing to play comedy clubs across the country. When he got his first television audition, an unpleasant reality set in. He brought the script home and enlisted Gail to help him with his first read-through. He recalled her telling him years later what she thought to herself at the time: “Oh, my God, he can’t act. We have chucked all our money into this, I’m pregnant, and he can’t act his way out of a paper bag.” After a few classes his acting improved, but he was still unable to break through. “I went on plenty of auditions,” he said, “and they seemed to like me, but I never got the part.” Eventually, he landed guest spots on Designing Women and the Golden Girls spinoff, Golden Palace, as well as a few spots doing stand-up on Leno’s Tonight Show, but nothing permanent.

Then, in 1992, everything suddenly seemed to click. Engvall won Male Stand-up Comic of the Year at the American Comedy Awards, and when Delta Burke left Designing Women for her own show, Delta, she cast him in a supporting role. But that show was canceled after just one season, sending Engvall back on tour, where he was shocked and dismayed to discover that he had plateaued. “I was reaching a point in the club circuit where I was becoming my own worst nightmare,” he said. “I had hit the wall. I was popular, but I was not moving up the ladder of success. On the contrary, everything was just spiraling downward. I didn’t like who I was, and I started drinking a lot: tequila, like nobody’s business. I went home one night crying to my wife thinking that I was an alcoholic. To look where I was going was to gaze into a very dark place. I was desperate for a change.”

At about this time, Jeff Foxworthy was beginning to hit big. A comrade-competitor for years on the club circuit, the Georgia native had a down-home charm that was appealing to country music audiences during the early nineties, when country was the hottest thing going. Engvall’s friendship with the budding superstar paid off. Although it took some convincing, he finally warmed to Foxworthy’s advice that he ditch his manager of nine years and sign with Foxworthy’s manager, J. P. Williams, a former agent with deep roots in comedy. “It turned my career around,” Engvall said. “The first thing J.P. told me was, ‘I want you to stop drinking onstage.’ I asked why, and he said, ‘It’s not professional. People don’t come to watch you drink.’” Williams also softened Engvall’s Western look, encouraging him to lose the big belt buckle, the cowboy boots, and the Stetson he wore onstage. “Comedy’s a visual thing,” says Williams. “With that big hat you could never see his facial expressions, which are the key to his comedy.” Williams also got Engvall to stop laughing at his own jokes and to clean up his act, which by that time had started to get racier. As soon as Engvall listened to his new manager, everything improved. “The transition has been amazing,” says Williams. “It’s good that Bill is open to suggestion.”

“Bill is so deserving of success,” says Foxworthy, “and he always had the talent. He just didn’t have the direction. When he got it, he started opening for me in big theaters, and very quickly it wasn’t fun following him onstage. I would tell him, ‘Bill, you don’t have to be that funny.’”

Perhaps the most important consequence of the Foxworthy-Williams connection was Engvall’s deal with Warner Bros. Nashville, the company that struck gold (and then some) with Foxworthy. Engvall’s debut, Here’s Your Sign, not only established him as a commercial draw but also embodied the perfection of a routine that, like Foxworthy’s trademark redneck shtick, would catch on and become his signature. The premise of the routine, in Engvall’s words, is, “Stupid people should have to wear a sign that says, ‘I’m stupid.’ That way, you wouldn’t rely on them. In fact, we carry those signs around, and we just go, ‘Here’s your sign.’” That setup is followed by (1) the rapid-fire description of a situation in which someone asks a stupid question; (2) a cutting rejoinder from Engvall; and (3) his kicker, a guttural “Here’s Your Sign.” Even Engvall is mystified by the routine’s success. “Here’s your sign, the title, is simple,” he says. “I mean, there have been smart-aleck answers to stupid questions since the beginning of time, but I just turned it into something.”

Whatever the reason, his particular brand of good-natured comedy plays well to fans of country music, who’ve always embraced stand-up and skit comedy. Country comedy is almost always family-oriented in subject matter and clean in delivery, qualities that Engvall and Foxworthy put at the center of their own acts. “I keep religion and politics out of it,” Engvall said. “There are very few people who can do an hour and half of clean material for a country audience, but Jeff and I are bringing it back to that.” Country audiences are returning the favor. Foxworthy’s four albums have sold a total of more than 9 million copies. As of early this year, Engvall’s Here’s Your Sign had sold more than 750,000 copies, according to Warner Bros. And Dorkfish, which was released not long after Jerry Seinfeld’s first album, took only four weeks to surpass it on the charts.

How important is the country audience to Engvall’s success? Here’s Your Sign languished in the stores until he cut a single of comic bits backed by country star Travis Tritt’s music. The single became a radio hit and, according to SoundScan, finished the year as the third-best-selling country single on the overall singles chart. Still, Engvall is anxious to avoid being pigeonholed. “Country fans are the most loyal fans in the world,” he says, “but the thing I like about my album is that it’s all over the place. It could be put on a rock station, or it could be put on easy-listening.”

After our small plane lands in Beaumont and Engvall steps out onto the tarmac and into a cab, the hard part of his day is over. All he has to do now is get to his hotel, nap, eat dinner, and go out and slay the audience.

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