Q&A: Bill Engvall
Bill Engvall is best known as the Blue Collar Comedy Tour member with the “Here’s your sign” catchphrase, but the Texas-born comedian has had little difficulty filling theater seats own during the most recent arc of his career. He may have left his recording days behind, as he tells Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen by phone from his home in Park City, Utah, but he’s far from done delivering his characteristically clean material to his fan base. He appears at Treasure Island on March 2.
Did you leave Park City during the Sundance Film Festival this year?
Oh yeah. Gail does her thing with her girlfriends and I go to the ranch down near San Antonio.
In your home state?
How much time do you spend at the ranch?
Not enough, my friend. Not enough. I try getting down there three or four times a year. I go down there, and it’s the best. Cell phones hardly work, and I can walk out on my back porch with a cup of coffee, and pee off my back porch. It’s awesome.
You just played Nashville Saturday night, right? Isn’t that one of your favorite cities to perform in? How was the show?
It was great as always. Nashville’s so much fun, plus I get to see old friends and stuff. I kind of started in the country end of this, so it’s fun to see old friends and make new friends. And I just love Nashville.
If you’re talking about starting out we’re talking, what, late ’80s, early ’90s?
Yeah. In fact, Here’s Your Sign, this is the 20th anniversary. Here’s Your Sign came out in ’97. It was my first album. I’d been doing the bit a lot longer than that.
Do you consider that your first career landmark?
Yeah, that was huge. It ended up going platinum. Of course, that was in the days of records. Now it’s a whole different ball game.
With your latest one, this was a different experience for you. It went from comedians mostly dealing with HBO and Showtime, then trying to make a deal with Netflix. Just Sell Him for Parts is available through numerous platforms such as Vudu and iTunes, but I got it through Amazon.
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t understand those platforms. I’m old school. I like the record or the CD.
There have been significant shifts in the culture in the past several years. Do you feel like the comedy climate has changed a lot?
I do, I do. Kind of like what Seinfeld said, I just feel like the whole country’s become über-sensitive about everything, and I don’t know why we’re that way now. I’ll tell you a funny story. I was doing a show one night, and there was a guy sitting in the front row that had the most god-awful shirt you’ve ever seen in your life. I just playfully, not in a mean way at all, made fun of his shirt: “Was your wife with you when you bought that thing?” A week later on Facebook I got a post from the guy. “I was at your show, and I just want you to know it hurt my feelings when you made fun of my shirt.” And I go, “Oh my God, what has happened to this world?” So I wrote him back and said, “Look, I’m sorry if your feelings were hurt by me making fun of your shirt, but if that hurt your feelings you probably don’t want to know what I think about your haircut.”
How has social media’s impact on leveling the playing field of communications, with people feeling more connected to entertainers due to online platforms, affected you?
The thing I don’t like about it is there’s no accountability. Some guy who’s a mama’s boy at 44 can say whatever he wants about me but he won’t come up on the street and say it. So I think we have a lot of armchair quarterbacking going on. I’m not a fan of it, and I know you can reach a lot more people in one hit, but I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of it.
Have audiences been emboldened? Are they calling out more during your set?
No, I’ve been lucky because my show doesn’t lend itself to letting people do that. The show I’m doing now is kind of a one-sided conversation. There are some comedians that will still want to go out and ask questions, but I figure my job is to entertain you, not ask you what you want to hear. The other thing about social media is that I think people have this false sense of security that we care what you think. (Laughs) I had a guy write something today: “I really didn’t care for it.” That’s fine if you didn’t care for it. My show’s not for everybody. I try to make it as general as I can, but it also doesn’t give you the right to go on social media and talk about how bad the show was because there was a lot more people there who enjoyed the show. That’s the problem that kind of sums it up right there: The only people you really hear from are the Negative Nancys. The people who enjoy themselves are the silent majority.
Yeah, I was going to say, your audience is kind of like that silent majority, not like Nixon era, but …
You’re right, you’re right. I will say, after that one guy posted that, there was a ton of people posting, “You’re an idiot.” They came to my defense. It’s funny, they don’t really chat with you that much, but if somebody’s slamming you, buddy, they’ll get on ’em.
In Just Sell Him for Parts, and your audience is much more “Entertain us!”
Yeah, exactly. That’s what I tell people. When I’m there at the TI and stuff, I always tell people, “I don’t want you think you’re going to see a comedian. That just conjures up a different … we’re just sitting around the living room and I’m the funny guy doing the talking.” The thing about stand-up that fascinates me is stand-up is very personal. If you and I go see a band and they play a song we don’t like, we don’t get up and walk out, because we think we might like another song. When you do a joke that someone doesn’t like, all of a sudden they don’t like you. They don’t like the way you think, they don’t like the way you lead your life. And it’s none of their business, really.
You can’t come at hecklers like you could 10 years ago.
No. No, you can’t. And that’s why I pattern my show so that it doesn’t invite hecklers. I don’t ask questions, and I stay away from subjects that are gonna invite hecklers. That’s why I don’t do, like, Trump jokes or stuff like that. People are paying good money to see my show. I want them to just sit back, relax, laugh and have a good time.
You reveal that part of your formative education as a comedian was listening to Steve Martin records in college.
Oh, yeah. Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart. I listened to them all. I love comedy.
What do you think of Steve Martin’s career, how he parlayed comedy into …
Listen, there’s two parts. One is the selfish part of me that wishes he was still doing stand-up, because I would see him every time he performed. But there’s the other side of me that respects him because he got tired of it and stepped away from it. That’s one of the bars that I set for myself. If this job stops ever being fun onstage then I’ll stop doing it, because I don’t want people to pay money to see my show and then go, “Ah, he didn’t look like he ….” I don’t want them to think I just walked through it. You’ve seen performers do that. I’ve seen them. If that ever starts to happen I’ll just step away.
Do you get a sense of catharsis after a special is released? Like, does it lead to a reset where you start coming up with a lot of fresh material?
Yeah, I guess it does, because you’ve worked on that material for a couple of years to get it right. That’ll probably be my last one I ever do, mainly because unless you’re Kevin Hart or somebody at that level, Chris Rock, people just aren’t really buying them anymore. They do the Spotify, the Pandora, the iTunes. They just pick what they want. I don’t know. I never say never, but there’s a good chance it’s going to be my last one.
Do you still have the instinct or drive to come up with a lot of fresh material?
Oh, yeah, for a number of reasons. One, for my fans, but also for me. I don’t want to get bored. If you’re doing the same stuff over and over and over, you’re going to get bored real quick.
Did you ever have a period where material you didn’t write down started to come back to you?
Oh, God. I probably have two or three albums’ worth of material just because I don’t write stuff down. The plus side of that is, when I do my show it’s always stuff that I really love. Sometimes stuff will come out of the blue even in the middle of a show. It’s always fun when that happens.
The last episode of your My Two Cents with Bill Engvall podcast posted in December and was titled “The End and the Beginning.” Was that a cryptic message about what to expect for 2018?
The podcast was really fun for me to do, and for me with my schedule I can’t commit to doing more than one a week. I’m just not able to do that. The other thing is, like anything, when podcasts first started, that’s when I should have gotten into it. Now it’s just flooded. Everybody’s doing a podcast. To really stand out it has to be something unique, and if I came up with a really unique idea I’d probably start it up again.
Are you going to continue to participate in Byron Allen’s game show Funny You Should Ask?
Yeah, long as they’ll keep having me. I love that show. It’s kind of a modern-day version of Hollywood Squares, and it’s really fun to do and it’s fun to see old friends cut up. I think Bryon really hit on a piece of gold there. It allows comedians to do what they do. A lot of times these days TV puts these cuffs on you and you can’t do really what you do, and he said, “I want to celebrate comedians,” and buddy, what a great way to do it.
Do you guys get to hang out after the tapings?
Yeah, I’ve reconnected with Louie (Anderson) and Jon Lovitz. There’s regulars, and I’m kind of a semi-regular. It’s always fun when there’s somebody new on that you haven’t seen in a while. We hang out after the shows and talk and gag, and see what’s going on.
What is your participation in Monster Party?
Monster Party is an indie film. I did a movie a year and a half ago called The Neighbor where I played a bad guy, and he really liked it so much Monster Party writer-director Chris von Hoffmann put me in as an abusive father. I’m not in it a lot but I’m in the opening and the closing. I like doing those, because it’s fun for me. It’s something different, and I think it’s something different for my fan to see. I like the fact that they can look at that and go, “Good God, I can’t believe Engvall did that.” I like it because it’s something completely different than what I do for a living.
This is where you usually get asked if you keep up with your Blue Collar buddies, but as a departure, if Jeff Foxworthy, Larry and you were all marooned on a lifeboat, which one would get eaten by the other two?
Ooo. Ahh, I would probably be the one eaten. I think I would be the one that would go first.