When you see Bill Engvall live, that good-natured persona he projects is the real deal. The person on stage, he says, is the same guy you see at the mall, the library, or the gas station. When people come see his show, he wants them to feel like they are sitting around in their living room and he’s the funny guy doing the talking. The comedian and actor brings his laid-back, fun show to the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers on March 29. Here, Engvall talks growing up, film, and inspiration.
NI.COM: Have you been to Naples before? Will you have time to enjoy the area?
ENGVALL: It’s been a while since I have been there. For a while there was a comedy club in Naples, years ago. In this business the club is where you started, and I had a great time. But with my style of humor being kind of clean story telling, the theater provides such a better venue for me than a nightclub.
I tell my friends I’m like a high-priced call girl; I come in for 90 minutes, make you feel good, get my money, and leave. I wish I did have time to see the area. One of the downsides of this business is, people say what a great life, you get to see the country. You really don’t because either you are moving on to the next gig or you are in a hotel. You don’t know anybody, and it’s kind of hard just to go find your way around town.
It’s not much fun to do by yourself. My wife, Gail, will come with me sometimes, but we just moved so she’s busy getting the house all ready.
It’s a hard life.
Was there an aha! moment when you knew comedy was your destiny?
For me it was when I realized this is what I would be doing the rest of my life. I never thought about it being my job, like I’d do this a year or two then I’ll have to get a real job. My aha! moment came when I won the best male standup in a nightclub in ’91 I think, because it was the first time, I got an award at the American Comedy Awards (which unfortunately no longer televises the stand ups, which I think is sad, as that was what the award show was based on initially). But it was the first year the public got to vote, rather than just a board of people, and I realized that people had voted for me, I had struck a chord with the country. It was a very cool feeling, and also very scary—because I thought, do I have enough material to do this for a real job?
You had a thought early to become a teacher. Do you see crossover in talent between that and your comedy career?
Definitely. Teachers are entertainers in their own right. And my proof is this: If you think back over your years schooling, the teachers that made learning fun, you can remember them by name. I can go all the way back to Miss Chapman in kindergarten. The teachers that were able to get you to learn but also have a fun time learning. I think I would have been a great teacher. One that people would come back to see after they graduated.
The persona you project is everyone’s friendly next-door neighbor. How much is the real Bill versus stage Bill?
It’s very much the same. I’m not smart enough to have two different personalities on purpose. The guy you see on stage is the same guy you see at the mall, or the library, or the gas station. That’s part of what’s made my success in this business, I’m like your next-door neighbor. I always tell people when they come see my show I don’t want them to think I’m going to see a stand up show. I want them to think we’re just kind of sitting around your living room, and I’m the funny guy doing the talking.
Growing up, did people think you were hilarious? Did you?
I don’t know… you’d have to ask them. One of the reasons, what happened was my dad was in the public health service back then. It was a government job and you moved every couple of years. I wasn’t a jock; I liked sports, but I wasn’t that guy you would say, ooh, we’ll see him in the pros someday. To make friends fast, I became the funny guy. My whole family has a great sense of humor. I think I subconsciously had a step up on people because I didn’t know that was what I’d be doing. It definitely helped my path.
Any thoughts to retire from the tour grind?
I love the stage time. If I could do that Bewitched thing where you just twinkle your nose and be on stage it would be perfect. The traveling gets hard. As far as retirement, I’ve always said as long I’m having fun on stage and people are buying tickets I’ll continue. I don’t know if I’ll do it at the level of 80 to 90 shows a year that I do now. I’d like to get another shot at a television series. But television has become so watered down. There’s 800 channels… When I had my show on TBS, they said how do you want to do this? And I said I want an old-fashioned sit-com. Unfortunately, as a viewing audience we’ve become so jaded. It’s like, well, where is the gay neighbor? There is none, it’s just a family. Like the old Seinfeld show “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” We’ve gotten to this point where we have attention deficit. Nobody wants to just sit down and watch a show like that.
I’d like to do some movies. I’ve been doing a lot of independent films lately, which I really enjoyed.
I did one year before last called Catching Faith, a little family-faith-based movie. I just did another with them, out next Christmas, where I play a down on his luck street corner Santa.
A week later, I flew to Mississippi, and shot a movie that is just going to shock people. It’s not a comedy. Basically, I play a killer. I can’t wait for that one to come out cause it is just going to shock people. The title right now is The Neighbor.
Did you worry about your fans’ reaction?
People have to realize it is a job. It’s not like I am living this part. I always want to do things that stretch me, and stretch the way people think about me. This was really fun for me because I wasn’t playing the goofy dad.
When working on that role, was it hard to shake it off and go back to your life?
It was. It was two weeks of severe intensity. Your range of emotions is so up and down. We’d film until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and it would be 5 before I could go to bed because you are coming off this rush of energy you didn’t have to use before.
Did your wife say it affected your personality during the filming?
She wasn’t around! I even told her you don’t want to be around me on the set. Because of my training as an actor, once a scene was over, we joked around and stuff, but when the camera was rolling this different guy showed up. It was fun; I really enjoyed it.
What’s a dream role?
Since I was a kid I’ve always wanted to do a full-length Western. I grew up going to the drive-in with my dad and watching John Wayne and these kinds of movies. If I got that chance that would be a definite bucket list.
Where do you find inspiration lately?
It gets harder and harder. When I first started I had this well of comedy, and I had this pointy shovel and I was just shoveling material. I just filmed my eleventh special last year and the career’s taken a different path now. The kids are grown. When kids do stuff when they’re 4 and 5 it’s cute. When they are 24 and 29 it’s not so cute anymore. You think, yeah, you might want to grow up. Part of that is me. I won’t put stuff on stage just to put it on stage. It has to be funny, and have my seal of approval, being clean and being strong. So far it hasn’t been a problem.
We built a house. I’m going to market a new bumper sticker: If you think you know your spouse, build a house. When you buy a house, you don’t think about stuff like drawer pulls and towel bars because they are just there. When you have to go out and pick them it just sucks. There’s that piece coming in. I talk about the last year, which wasn’t great healthwise. Because of my being on Dancing With the Stars, I had to have my knee replaced, so I talk about that. And after that I got kidney stones, and then I got shingles. I told my wife I didn’t even want to go to the doctor anymore. I’m afraid they’re going to look at me and say, just sell him for parts.
Who always makes you laugh?
Oh, gosh, that’s a hard one, because I’m such an easy mark. I just love to laugh, and that’s an element of our lives, and something I think we are forgetting to do. Guys like Bob Newhart, older guys like that always make me laugh. I like the new guys, Kevin Hart. Seinfeld makes me laugh. I’m just such an easy mark. It’s hard to listen to comedy, because I worry, like in a year from now, I’ll go “I’ve got an idea for a bit,” and it would be something I saw. I think comedy is such a wonderful thing, I like anybody who really takes the art seriously. They respect it and they write stuff. I like everything from dumb humor to intelligent humor, even if you are doing dumb humor, as long as you are committed to it, I’m in.
Any plans to write another book?
Not as of yet. That little book I wrote, Just a Guy, unfortunately it came out the same time that my TV show. I said don’t release it at the same time because it’s going to get buried. They all seemed to know better. That was a good book and I wished more people had a chance to read it. I wrote it because I wanted to tell people that even people with normal lives can have an interesting story. You don’t have to have been beaten or drug abuse or whatever. They’ve had a normal childhood and it still is very interesting. I wanted to say it’s okay to be normal.