Bill Engvall treads once-abundant turf, the family sitcom

[16 July 2007]

By Robert Philpot

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Bill Engvall doesn’t even wait for the first question about “The Bill Engvall Show,” his new TBS sitcom, before he expresses his frustration at not being able to do this interview in person. He was looking forward to coming to Dallas-Fort Worth to promote the show—after all, he got his start as a comedian in Dallas and he used to hang out at the Fort Worth Stockyards. But fate and weather intervened, canceling his flight from Chicago.

Of course, this IS a comedian and air travel we’re talking about, and you can practically hear the gears turning in Engvall’s brain. He knows he’s going to get material out of this. He’s made a nice career from observational humor that points out many of life’s idiocies, and he seems to be developing a routine about this experience on the fly.

THE BILL ENGVALL SHOW Premieres 9 p.m. EDT Tuesday TBS

“So now I’m on a 7-ish flight that goes to Phoenix and then comes back to Dallas,” the Galveston native says. “So I go up to the girl and I go, `Are we still on time?,’ and she turns around and looks at the plane and says, `I think so!’ About 10 minutes later, I see the Jetway pull away from the plane, and the plane backs out. So I walked back, and I said, `Was that my plane?’ and she goes, `Oh, no, we don’t know when your plane’s gonna land.’ So I said, `So we’re really not `on time,’ are we?’ And I swear to you, she just stood there with her mouth open.

“So I kind of smiled and I walked away and I thought, `in the interview process, when she was applying for this job, what was it that made them say, `Yes—we’re going to hire you’,” he continues. “And then it finally hit me that she’s The Closer. When everything’s going good, then there’s another girl there. But when there’s a delay, they send this girl in to just stare at you.”

You can relate, right? Engvall’s ability to capture and spin such everyday irritations also figures into “The Bill Engvall Show,” an amusing comedy featuring Engvall as Bill Pearson, a Denver-area family counselor whose own family—a wife and three kids—has its own levels of nuttiness. TV Guide recently disparaged the show, which premieres Tuesday, as the kind of thing ABC used to crank out in its sleep, but Engvall says that’s part of the point: Sitcoms about traditional families, once a staple of network television, are becoming an endangered species.

And Engvall, who turns 50 on July 27, doesn’t want to break new ground. He wants something that will show viewers things that they recognize in themselves and their families.

“I kinda took it as a throwback to the old shows,” Engvall says, name-checking “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” “I don’t want the dysfunctional, finger-wagging, overbearing wife and the Bundy kids. There are millions of families in this country who have completely normal lives, and stuff happens on a day-to-day basis that’s just very funny. You don’t have to have that big issue or the wife calling the husband an idiot every other word.”

Not that the show is totally square. In the two episodes sent for review, the funniest gag is a risque joke involving certain fruits and vegetables, and there’s another bit in which Bill persuades his wife, Susan (“Becker’s” Nancy Travis), to argue naked. Engvall says the arguing-nude scene is based on a true story.

“It comes from the idea that women will always win the argument,” Engvall says. “So I had a friend who said, `Well, I’ve figured it out.’ I said, `Well, please—inform me.’ And he said, `Next time your wife wants to argue, just tell her that you want to argue naked. ... Because if she’s naked and you’re naked, argument’s over.’

“The problem is, women are very literal. One night, my wife and I got in a little spat, and I said, `All right, you want to argue about this, let’s argue naked.’ She goes, `Fine.’ ” Once they got to that point, Engvall was ready to do something other than argue. “And she said, `No, you wanted to argue naked, let’s argue naked!’”

Engvall is both nervous and giddy about this show. He has had No. 1 albums, Grammy nominations and comedy awards, but he calls having a sitcom with his name in the title his “crowning achievement”—and despite a strong following for his style of blue-collar comedy, he worries about whether the show will succeed.

But then, this is a guy who was really looking forward to talking about his career on a local Dallas TV show, a guy still in touch with his old self enough to know that he’s the local boy made good, the kid who went from being the emcee at the Comedy Corner at Park Lane and Greenville to being the sitcom star.

“When I started at the Comedy Corner back in 1981, I had a dream of what it was going to be like,” Engvall says. “When that comes true, why would you not enjoy every second of it? ... When I drove up on the set one day, and they’d put up a sign that says `The Bill Engvall Show,’ I stood there for 20 minutes just staring at it. The director, James Widdoes, came up and said, `What are you doing?’ And I said, `Look at this! There’s my name on a stage door in Hollywood!’”

But then, there may be even bigger deals than that. A billboard for Engvall’s show looms over Interstate 30, with Engvall in his easy chair, staring toward downtown Dallas. Informed that he’s reigning over Tom Landry Freeway, Engvall is almost sheepish.

“I’d love to see that,” he says with a laugh. “Over Tom Landry Freeway! Oh, my God! That IS an honor.”

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