Since starting out as house MC in a Southern California nightclub that featured stars like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld doing standup comedy, Bill Engvall has done it all.
He’s made movies, had his own television sitcom, written books, done concert tours and released albums and DVDs. A hardcore Los Angeles Angels fan, he blogged about baseball from a fan’s perspective last year for Fox Sports, and most recently he began working as a game show host, taking over the reins for Lingo. Engvall talked to the Hippo by phone after shooting a few episodes of the show (which debuts on GSN in June). The interview touched on his career, the upcoming Blue Collar Comedy Tour, which stops in Manchester on April 16, and his famous line, “Here’s your sign.”
Is there one thing you enjoy more than any of the other things you do?
I always live by the phrase, “You dance with the one who brung you.” Standup is what has gotten me to the point in my career where I’m able to do TV and books and movies and all that. Now I will tell you that it’s nice being home, but I love getting out and seeing the fans, and getting the chance to work again with Jeff and Larry. That’s about as much fun as you can get out on the road.
You’re back on the road with the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. Has it been a while since you’ve done that?
Jeff and I and Larry were talking and said, let’s get back together; we all enjoyed each other’s company, we make each other laugh and it’s a lot of fun. Ron [White] said he wanted to do something else, so we said God bless ya, and Jeff, Larry and I picked the ball up right where we left it and it’s almost like we never missed a step. I’ll tell you; the thing I’m most proud of with this show is that anybody can come … kids, grandmas, mom and dads. We’re not Disney on Ice but it’s a good clean show. You don’t have to go home and explain things to your kids. I’m not a prude; I like dirty jokes as much as the next guy, but my wife said, “I don’t want to sit through an hour and a half of nothing but cuss words.”
True, but in your last DVD, you told a pretty wild story about hiding naked in a closet for 45 minutes.
I wish I were making that story up!
The Blue Collar tour has a unified audience, yet each comic is very different.
You’re exactly right. I think one of the reasons the tour is so successful is because you’re basically getting four headliners for the price of one. One thing I love about this group is that if you gave us the exact same subject, we would all find different ways to talk about it. Which means you don’t end up with “oh, I’ve heard that joke before,” or “the other guy did the exact same thing.” Because we all have different outlooks on life, it makes it a really diversified show.
When you came up with “Here’s your sign,” did you know it was going to take you places?
You know, not at first. The joke originally started out when I said, “stupid people should be slapped” — and I still believe that [laughs]. And my wife said, “You know, you don’t look like the kind of guy that goes around slapping people” [so] I came up with this idea about a sign. In fact, I used to sell signs for a dollar apiece after the show. I’d come home and at dinner we’d count up the cash, all ones, and she’d go to the bank. One day she came home and said, “You gotta stop selling the signs,” and I said, “Why?” She said, “Because everybody at the bank thinks I’m a topless dancer!” ... I can remember one specific incident when I knew that I had found my hook. My wife and I were in the grocery store, and we were behind a couple of people in line and the cashier was having some problem doing something with the cash register. The manager walked up and did something, then said to the cashier, “Here’s your sign.” I said “Oh my God!” He didn’t know I was there; he wasn’t looking at me laughing. I thought, wow, when people are saying it, and they don’t even know that you are part of the conversation, you’ve got something there.
Do you ever get tired of it, like Skynyrd playing “Free Bird”?
No, and I’ll tell you why. Because I realized that’s what brings people to the party, or at least that was the initial thing that brought people to my show. It’s the “Here’s your sign” guy. Because who is going to remember Engvall? So I was just the “sign” guy and once they got to the show, much like Jeff and Larry — especially Jeff with “You might be a redneck if” — that’s only about five or 10 minutes of our show. They would realize, “Oh, this guy can do comedy”! And so I don’t get tired of that because I know that that’s what has gotten me to where I am.
Your material has evolved and shown different sides of you. Do you ever have a moment where you feel like, oh my God, am I going to be able to come up with something to follow this?
Every album! Funny, I was telling my wife, when my first album came out, it was like the well was completely full and I was just using a pointed shovel, just digging out material. But after 10 or 11 albums, now I’m just scraping to find stuff. The thing is, I don’t want to put out an album just to have an album out … I thought [his most recent CD/DVD] Aged and Confused was one of my best. I got to go back to writing comedy the way I used to before I had kids because my career was pretty much talking about my kids and raising a family and all that. So it’s been kind of fun to get challenged again, to say, “alright, can you go write some more material like you used to write?”
You took a scary subject, turning 50, and made it something that’s not maudlin. That’s a tough balance.
When I was only starting out, I was the MC of a club so I saw guys like Shandling, and Seinfield and Leno. I remember watching them and thinking, they’re so good and they just keep it fresh and every time they came back they had new material. So I strive when I come back to a place to at least have fifty percent new material because I’m not like a band. If I go to see Aerosmith, I want to hear “Toys in the Attic” or “Walk This Way.” But with comedy, once you’ve heard the joke, you’ve heard it. And you’ll get to laugh, but it won’t be a good as the first time you heard it. So it’s imperative that comics come up with new material just to keep not only the audience happy, but to keep me from getting bored with it.
You have been in a few sitcoms over the years. Do you miss that at all?
Yeah, I really loved the show we did. I did exactly what I wanted and, you know, I may a little bit of a throwback guy — I still like the good old-fashioned family sitcom. You don’t have the smart-ass kids cussing at their parents and stuff, and that’s not the way life works. If I ever cussed at my dad, he’d have backhanded me across the room. But these days, guys want a little bit more. You look at things like Modern Family and that edgier stuff; I may have to adjust my thinking. I did an episode of Leverage where I was a bad guy, and that was a forbidden fruit for me. I loved playing a bad guy, so for my next series, I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to play some sort of evil guy. I like to do things where people will go, “Whoa, I didn’t know he could do that!”