Comedian Engvall keeps it straight, likes it clean
Bill Engvall was “all in” on this comedy thing when he left Texas with his eight-months pregnant wife and moved halfway across the country to try his luck in Hollywood.
Engvall's wife, Gail, is the main reason why he is flying so high these days. They've been married since 1982, which is the half-life of uranium 238 by Hollywood standards.
“It feels good to buy her nice things, because I know she's earned it by taking care of kids all those years while I was on the road and she never once complained,” says Engvall, who will perform April 6 at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Musseum in Oakland.
In the beginning, Engvall found a home at the Hollywood Improv, where he was relegated to the traditional 12:45 a.m. slots. It proved tough for the young family man. Engvall did a unique thing: he went to the source, Bud Friedman, and told him he has a baby at home, and he started getting spots at 8 or 9 p.m.
Other comedians would say, “How did you do that?”
“I asked,” Engvall says.
His upfront-and-honest approach has served him well through the years. He also never takes his audience for granted — knowing the sacrifice they made to come to his show. “I was never one of those comic's comics who made the comics in the back of the room laugh. I always just wanted to make the audience laugh.”
The first thing that comes through in speaking to Engvall is how grounded he is, despite his success. It seems he would be this jovial even if he wasn't a comedian, but in his realistic alternate profession, a teacher, or in his fantasy alternate profession: a professional baseball player.
“If someone came to me and said you can have two years of comedy at your current level or one year as a professional baseball player, I would lean toward the baseball player,” he says. “Just to put on that uniform.”
Engvall still loves standup and, even though audiences throw him the occasional curveball, he hits those out of the park. In this age of the angst-ridden comic, Engvall is a breath of fresh air. He laughs and genuinely seems to enjoy himself onstage. “How can you expect the audience to have fun, when you aren't having fun?”
His comedy has always been highly reflective of where is in his life whether it's raising kids or being an empty-nester — like he is today. In his downtime, Engvall hunts, fishes and golfs, so that might explain why one of his biggest draws is in Pennsylvania.
Question: Was there a time when you knew you had made it as a comic?
Answer: Yes, when we sold 18,000 tickets in Nashville and I stepped out on that stage and that wall of laughter hit me. Wow, you just had to stand there and take it in. I thought, “This is what it feels like to be a rock star.”
Q: Is Pittsburgh just another city or is there something that makes you come here?
A: I love Pittsburgh; I like walking around town, seeing the football stadium and baseball stadiums ... and the rivers. Pittsburgh is one of the nicest cities. The people are just simple, like me. You'd think Texas would be my biggest draw, but no, it's Pennsylvania where the people really come out.”
Q. What's your comedy formula?
A: I think I just say what people want to say. That comedy pendulum has swung so far to the left we don't know what's real anymore. I talk about things that are real, like, for me, getting older, being an empty nester …
Q: Who were your comedy influences?
A: (Bill) Cosby, (Bob) Newhart, Steve Martin — all for different reasons. Martin was the consummate showman. Newhart for his timing. His one-sided phone calls showed the power of silence and letting the audience finish the joke in their head. And Cosby and Newhart together, because they were both so relatable, so solid and worked clean. That's why I tell young comedians to keep it clean. You can talk about it without spelling everything out. Like, if I say, “My wife and I were being romantic,” you get the picture. My act is not “Disney on Ice,” but I don't cuss for cussing's sake.
Q: What's next for Bill Engvall?
A: I scored a pilot called “Do It Yourself,” about people who work at a home-improvement store. I hope that goes. It would be great to have another series. Also, I would like to do a full-length feature. I would love to do a Western like “Silverado.”
Comedian Matt Wohlfarth is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.