Q&A: Bill Engvall
Some people choose to be comedians, but Bill Engvall says comedy chose him. After finding his niche with clean humor aimed at Middle America, Engvall became part of the Blue Collar Comedy crew and made his membership with stand-up’s A-list a permanent one. Fresh off recording his latest comedy special, tentatively titled Just Sell Him for Parts, and newly shorn of his trademark facial hair, Engvall spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen. He’s in Vegas Oct. 23 to perform at Treasure Island during the PBR World Finals.
My phone says you’re calling from Utah. Is that where you are right now?
Yeah, we did our time in L.A. and my wife and I decided we’re going to spend the rest of our years up in Park City, Utah. We’ve been coming up here for years, and it’s kind of the perfect place for us because I can get back to L.A. when I need to for business but I’m out of the rat race.
You’re close enough but far away.
Yeah, it’s like an hour-and-change flight. What’s interesting is I’ve been getting more work since I moved up here than I did when I lived in L.A. I just got to the age where I thought, “You know what? It’s time now to start enjoying this life I’ve worked so hard at, and my wife has.” So we decided I’ll continue working and stuff but we were going to have a place with four seasons and beautiful mountains, and we love it up here. It’s been the perfect mix for me.
When did you first visit Park City and fall in love with it?
Oh, wow, probably 15 years ago, 20 years ago maybe. We came up here on vacation just a couple of time, then we got a condo up here to see if we would really use it, and we were spending a lot of time up here. so we bought a house. We really loved it, and a couple of years back, we decided to make it our home. We built our house on a golf course. The segue here is people are going to start hearing about building a house. I’ve never built one before, and I’ll never build one again.
I tiled a kitchen floor once and that’s what I say about tiling kitchen floors.
(Groans) I told my wife in a nice way, “Tell me what my opinion is and I’ll agree with it.” We always just bought houses and you never think about thing like towel bars and drawer pulls. We spent two hours looking at drawer pulls and she’s like, “Which one do you like?” I go, “I don’t care!” They all do the same job. It’s not like one shows movies and one plays music. You pull it and the drawer opens, you push it and it shuts. I don’t care! … My wife has good taste, and she wants me involved but in a way she doesn’t. When she wants me involved is when something goes wrong and I have to go to the builder and say “Hey, we need that changed,” because that way I get to be the jackass. But overall, I’ve got to be honest with you, it’s been a very enjoyable … I won’t say one of my Top Five enjoyable experiences, but I know what’s going to happen. It’s like when we lived in L.A. and we redid our backyard, halfway into it I thought, “What have we done?” But two weeks after you’re done, you forget all the bad stuff and you’re like, “This is awesome.”
I’m listening to you talk about this and I’m already hearing the next arc in the evolution of your material.
Yeah, and that’s one of the things about when you play Vegas a lot. I don’t know if other entertainers think this way, but I always feel like I have to have some new material when I come back in because I don’t know what the exact turnover rate is or how many people come back again and again. I always try to have some new material so people don’t go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Same jokes.” It’s different with comedy. Let’s say you see Aerosmith in Vegas. You want to hear the classics. But with comedy, you’ve already heard it, so you get a reaction but not nearly the same as the first time you heard it.
You also have the factor of playing here annually along with PBR. That’s a regular crowd, so you’d better mix things up.
Yeah, and so far it’s always worked out well. I try to add new material, and also you rearrange stuff. The fact that I’ve been playing Vegas for this long and been on the Strip from where I started … I think the first time I played Vegas I was at the Riviera, and I had billing less than “roast beef buffet.”
Were you playing the showroom?
It was some little room off to the side. But it’s funny, over the years I gradually moved to the middle of the Strip. The TI’s always been great to me, and I love that showroom. It’s a great room for comedy, so it’s just been really fun for me. Vegas is just such a unique, wonderful city in its own right. I love going there for short spurts of time. If you live there … I’ve got buddies who live there who say, “If you go off the Strip it’s just like any normal town, except for it’s 120 degrees in the summer.”
Do you get out of town during the Sundance Film Festival?
Oh, yeah, like (it’s the) plague, because I deal with those people all year long. I don’t want to deal with them where I live. On the other hand, my wife brings her girlfriends up and they all go do the movies, and I’ll go to the ranch and hunt.
The ranch in …
How much land do you have in Texas?
We have about 400 acres.
The Los Angeles Times wrote about you selling your house.
Yeah, that’s one of those weird things. I don’t like to think of myself as a celebrity. I’m just Bill, but my wife said “Ooh, you’re in ‘Hot Properties,” and I was like “What? It must be really a slow real estate week.”
I think because it was blue.
Yeah, that was funny. “Oh, by the way, his house is blue.” Well, they identified it as a Cape Cod house and blue would look good in the layout, but if you look at it… It does look blue collar, doesn’t it (laughs)?
It doesn’t look like a gated, high-security house.
When our kids were growing up, that was the thing we both strongly agreed on: As weird as this lifestyle is, we’re going to try and keep it as normal as possible for the kids. That’s why we didn’t live in gated communities or have big walls around the house. If you didn’t know I was a comedian, I could be anybody.
It looks like a house owned by a lawyer or a high-income professional. It doesn’t look like a celebrity-tycoon’s house.
“Tycoon,” that’s a word they use with me a lot. When we first moved in, there was a lady down the street who was probably at the time in her late 60s or early 70s. She was one of those women who was wearing spandex when she shouldn’t have been, and smoking a cigarette comes up to the house and in this horrible accent goes, “So what do you do that you make the kind of money where you can afford a house like this?” I said, “Well, I’m a comedian,” and she said, “Good God, you make that kind of money telling jokes?”
Going back to Vegas, you were saying you have a 20-plus year relationship with Vegas. What do you recall about your first performance at The Riviera, which, by the way, you probably know is scheduled to be imploded soon?
Yeah, it’s funny. Except for The Orleans and TI, every hotel I’ve performed at in Vegas has been imploded. I don’t know what that means. I had a great long run at the Stardust, which was just a classic room. I guess some of my memories of Vegas over 20 years that are just so much fun for me are like at the NFR (National Finals Rodeo), when the Stardust used to book the cowboys and then they’d book a cross-dressing convention, and it was like that every year! At the blackjack table you may be sitting next to an old cowboy on your left and a dude in a dress on your right, and everybody’s having a great time. And I think that’s one of the things I like about Vegas—people are ready to cut loose. It’s almost like you have no repercussions there, and so you see people there doing stuff they probably never would have thought to do in their normal lives. I get to see stuff like—I don’t even know if it’s still here—the neon sign graveyard.
Yeah, it’s here. The Neon Boneyard.
Just people watching. This sounds stupid, but the Debbie Reynolds hotel … it was like, “What?” When I was a kid, Debbie Reynolds was like the queen. Then I saw her hotel and I thought, “That’s … not what I thought it’d be.”
It would be like Madonna owning a casino-hotel now.
Yeah, exactly. I just love Vegas. I don’t gamble that much, but just walking around and watching people, this look on their faces, the fact that you can get whatever you want whenever you want as long as you’ve got the money.
Vegas must be pretty eye-opening for the bull-riding fan crowd.
Some of those people come there and they go home with, “You wouldn’t believe what we saw!” The fact that you can walk down the street and some guy with a handful of cards is life, “Heeey, girls! I’ve got girls that will come right to your room.” It’s just like, “What? No!”
Do you riff off that when you do your PBR shows?
I did for a while. I do some Vegas jokes but not too many. They’ve seen it. They know what it is.
Cowboys and cross-dressers sitting at the same tables is a pretty vivid image.
My other favorite time in Vegas was when my wife and I renewed our 15th anniversary vows there, and we woke up the next morning and there was an inch of snow on the ground. And I thought, “Well, hell has froze over.”
Do you customize your comedy for the crowd when you do shows for PBR?
I’ve been real fortunate in the sense that when I started doing this what I would consider full-time, I wanted to write my show so it could be performed anywhere, that’s not regional. Even though it’s PBR there’s still a lot of people that don’t go to the PBR, so I try to keep my show middle-of-the-road for everybody. I try to keep the material where everyone can relate to it.
So you just recorded your latest special, Just Selling Him for Parts, in Rockford, Ill. When and where will this be broadcast?
Right now I know Netflix is looking at it. There’s other outlets. Hopefully Showtime or one of those people will pick it up. It’s probably the best one I’ve done, just because after 11 of them I finally learned, “Just take your time, do what you gotta do.” It really turned out nice. We shot it in this classical theater in Rockford, the kind they don’t make anymore with the facades. It really turned out to be a wonderful project and hopefully it will be airing next year. You come out to the TI you get to see it live!
I was just going to ask if you were bringing that material to Vegas.
Yeah, bringing a lot of that material, and then some of the new stuff I’ve been working on like building the house, and telling abut getting my son into a survival camp, which was idiotic. I realized if the world ever comes to an end I’m screwed, because there’s no way I’m going to live out in the desert.
Why Rockford? Do you have a special relationship with fans there like you did in Detroit? (Engvall filmed his first special Here’s Your Sign in Detroit in deference to his following there.)
I wanted it to be a town that was Midwestern, kind of in the central part of the country, and I wanted to do it in a town where it was an event as opposed to doing it, unfortunately, in a town like Vegas, L.A. or New York where there’s shows all the time. I wanted it to be in a town where people would think it’s a big deal, and it turned out to be exactly what I wanted. People lined up for the show. It was the talk of the town, and that’s what you want. It made it very special.
Most comedians reflect the culture of their audience and vice-versa, but I think your audience sees itself in you more than most comedians.
I hope so, I hope so. One of the reasons this little train’s kept rolling for 35 years is I work clean and I keep my material relatable to my audience. Nobody walks out going, “I have no idea what …” I love Dennis Miller, but he gets into those words and I have no idea what they mean. I want my audience to leave my show and go, “Aw, that guy’s life is just like mine.” As much as it can be.
Has it been like that from the get-go?
That’s one thing, whether its naiveté or stupidity, the Good Lord took the reins. I’m sure early on I was dirtier than I should have been. I realized this was the way to go, and I get a lot of work because of that. Whether its people at the TI or another theater, I get booked a lot they know who’s going to show up. I’m going to show up, I’m going to be sober. I’m gonna do my show, it’s going to be a good show and I’m not high maintenance. It’s an easy booking for me.
Is it safe to say you got your comedy genes from your parents and practiced on your sisters?
My dad’s very funny, so I think I got my sense of humor from him. But my family’s always loved to laugh, and my sisters, yeah they did pay for some of it. To be honest with you, I didn’t know I wanted to be a comedian … hell, I never wanted to be a comedian. That wasn’t something where I sat down and, “Yeah, I want to be a comedian.” I fell into it, then fell in love with it, and that’s all I’ve done.
What were you doing in your 20s? Were you kind of free floating?
I had every job from being a DJ at a nightclub to pumping gas as a gas station to working at a delicatessen as a bus boy. There was no career path for me, really. Thank God comedy showed up because I don’t know what I’d be. I’d probably be the guy in front of 7-11 going “Dude, do you have a dollar?”
What do you think that was? You come from a family your father was a doctor, so even if there wasn’t overt pressure you probably felt it from yourself.
I think that may be why I was that way, because Dad always had everything planned out and it may have been my way of rebelling without being the problem child. My dad always said, and I tell this to my son, too … my son’s 24 and he’s like “I don’t know what I want to do. And I said, “You don’t have to.” I think that’s one of the problems we have as parents these days. People are trying to guide their kids too early. Life will show you what you’re supposed to do. Just be open to it. The fact that there’s sixth-graders with college counselors … really? Just let kids be kids.
How did your signature “Stupid people, here’s your sign” routine originate?
You know, it’s funny because I get these young comedians all the time asking me “How do you write a catch phrase?” And I say, “You don’t. The audience dictates whatever that bit is going to be.” I didn’t know that the sign bit is what everyone would hook into. I think I did go through a period after “Here’s your sign” where I thought “Let me find what the next one is,” and sometimes you only get one of those little nuggets, and you just gotta run with it. Thankfully, “Here’s your sign” got big enough to where I didn’t have to. People began to know who I was and because I backed it up with clean, strong material, “Here’s your sign” has kind of become a minor part of the show.
Will your mustache and goatee be back by the time you get to Vegas?
You know what? I think they might be gone for a while. It just gets so white, and I don’t want to color it. Who knows? I might show up in a full beard at some point (laughs).
Does it feel weird seeing Jennifer Lawrence as an A-list actress now, not long after the end of The Bill Engvall Show?
No, because I’m really proud of her. When we hired her, I knew she had something special. I didn’t know it was going to be Oscar-winning, being the highest-paid actress ever, but God bless her. She’s a great gal, just really proud of her and, bless her heart, every interview she did for a long time she’d mention my name.