STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
Since gaining fame in the mid-’90s with “Here’s Your Sign” — a series of stand-up observational jokes wrapped within a song by Travis Tritt — Bill Engvall has managed to make a pretty good living in show business while trying new things.
He was part of the “Blue Collar Comedy” legion of all-stars with Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy and Ron White, and appeared in several solo stand-up specials on Comedy Central. In 2007, Engvall released his autobiography, “Just a Guy.”
Then he took an odd 180-degree turn in 2013, coming in fourth place on season 17 of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” partnered with dance professional Emma Slater. “That was such a godsend. Probably a lot of (the DWTS viewers) didn’t know I did stand-up,” he said in an early morning phone interview from his Southern California home. Engvall, 58, said he had been through a knee replacement surgery, as well as groin and hamstring injuries, prior to going on the show.
He hypothesized that he lasted so long because viewers perceived him as a sincerely good guy, with no underlying sexual tension with his dance partner. Being a comedian that steers clear of profanity probably also helped Engvall’s cause. “You don’t see comedians on (“Dancing with the Stars”) that are dirty,” he noted. “I don’t think enough comics put enough effort into it. Give your audience credit — they know it’s hard to write a good, clean, funny joke.”
Engvall has a show scheduled for Nov. 14 at the Sands Bethlehem Event Center. “Being from Texas, you’d think that would be (the state with) my biggest draw. But it’s been Pennsylvania since day one,” he said. “Come on down and have a good time, and let’s have some laughs.”
Just as Foxworthy keeps refreshing his “You Might be a Redneck If …” jokes, Engvall has to keep coming up with new “Here’s Your Sign” jokes. “You gotta keep pumping the well. If you and I go see Aerosmith, man, I hope they play ‘Walk This Way’ and ‘Back in the Saddle’,” he said, mentioning that he saves the “Here’s Your Sign” segment for last so “they realize there’s more to you than that bit.”
It was in the late ‘80s when Engvall’s plans to become a teacher got off track. “I’d gone to college and discovered women and beer, and studies went out the window,” he said.
While working as a club disc jockey to earn some money, he took to the stage at an open mic. night — there was alcohol involved, he confessed — and found that making people laugh was his forte.
“Teachers are entertainers in their own right,” Engvall said of the career path he didn’t take, adding that it’s usually the best teachers whose names you remember years after you leave their classes.
Engvall has also found some success as an actor. His endeavors include some radically different roles — Coach Z in the Christian film “Catching Faith,” Gary Martin Hays in “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!” and a serial killer in a movie by one of the “Saw” writers. “I’ve been the goofy dad … and I want people to see me in a different role,” he said, referencing the 2007-2009 TBS sitcom “The Bill Engvall Show,” which co-starred a not-yet-famous Jennifer Lawrence as his daughter and future “Major Crimes” star Graham Patrick Martin as his son.
Perhaps it was because Engvall was also that show’s executive producer that he felt the need to personally call a critic from “The Sacramento Bee” newspaper that had written a particularly scathing review of “The Bill Engvall Show.”
“‘The worst show on TV?’ … you’re talking about (worse than) fishing shows!,” Engvall remembered saying to the surprised writer.
He also silenced a Twitter heckler that repeatedly complained that Engvall was “knocking off all the cool dancers” on DWTS. “No one on the street will walk up to me and say: ‘You suck.’ We’ve become so jaded that it’s like people don’t know what they want,” he said of the sense of online anonymity that causes people to behave in uncharacteristic ways.
In 2012 Engvall reunited with Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy for the “Them Idiots Whirled Tour,” which aired as a special on CMT. Engvall said that he’s become cautious about not overdoing teaming up with the Blue Collar guys (see also “Blue Collar TV” and Engvall’s appearances on “The Jeff Foxworthy Show”) because of the risk of diminishing what made that combination special and popular. “It was such a perfect storm — the timing and the style,” he stated.
Engvall said he has a new comedy special coming out next year called “Just Sell Him for Parts,”and that his new material deals with marriage, getting older and, because his children are in their 20s and have started their own lives, revisiting what he did before fatherhood.
More information is available at www.billengvall.com