The notion of a 'stereotypical' comic is at best an oxymoron, at worst a misguided manner to marginalize the specific sparkle that is an undeniable talent of individual thought and phrasing, but comedian Bill Engvall owns a special knack for finding humor in everyday situations that in turn has catapulted him to the front lines as one of the busiest comics working the circuit.
On Friday, June 1st he will appear as part of the Matrix: Midland series in An Evening with Bill Engvall with shows at 7 & 9 PM in the Auditorium at the Midland Center for the Arts.
A native of Galveston, Texas and a founding member of the comedy revolution known as the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, Engvall has generated repeated success with TV shows, game shows and live tours. His first album Here's Your Sign was certified platinum and held the #1 position on the Billboard Comedy Chart for 15 weeks. Recently he reunited with Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy for Them Idiots Tour, which was filmed as a special for CMT to air in the first quarter of 2012.
Recently, Engvall sat down with The Review in advance of his Matrix appearance to discuss an array of topics pertaining to the specific type of comedy that Bill has invested countless hours and a lifetime of experience perfecting, which he says began in 1980 when he first decided to attempt stand-up comedy.
“I always liked comedy and used to listen to my Dad's Bob Newhart records when I was growing up, but honestly I never thought about pursuing comedy as a career,” reflects Engvall. “But then they opened a Comedy Club in Dallas and I went and climbed on stage for an open-mic night and I just fell in love with it. But mainly, I realized that I had a talent for making people laugh. The rest is history.”
As well know, there exists a galaxy of comedic styles ranging from slapstick, pantomime, gutter philosophy ala Andrew Dice Clay, and philosophical comics like the late George Carlin, who employ circular logic where laws of physics bend to create a new reality. How would Engvall define his own specific comedic style?
“I guess if I had to pick a style I would say that I am more of a story teller,” he reflects. “I like to take the people on a journey that winds through life's stages - getting married, having kids, watching kids go off to college and stuff like that. It's a journey that is relatable to a lot of people. I have never been a fringe kind of comic. It's always been right down the middle of the road for me, and clean.”
They say that timing is everything in life, and even more so for comedy. Does Engvall feel his talent is natural and intuitive, or did it take practice and experimentation in front of live audiences to hone his skills and ability?
“That's a great question,” pauses Engvall. “Honestly, I feel like it was a little of both. I had a natural ability but had to work at honing my skills. It's a lot like a guy who is really good at baseball but still has some rough edges. With time and work he polishes those skills and becomes an even better ball player. The more I was in front of live audiences the better I became; and learning how to craft jokes that normally would have gotten one laugh evolved to a point where I could turn them into a story that produces many laughs.”
Did Bill ever 'bomb' in front of an audience; and if so, does he feel audiences are different depending upon the geography of the club that he performs at, so consequently material works differently depending upon what part of the country he may be working?
“Any comic that says he has never bombed is lying to you,” he states. “We all have. Who knows why it happens. It could have been a full moon or maybe I wasn't on my 'A' game, or maybe the audience just wasn't into your particular type of humor. I keep my material middle-of-the-road because it plays all over the country and I don't have to tailor my humor to any particular region of the country.”
At this point the topic of 'stage fright' surfaces. A few years ago The Review had the privilege of interviewing Steven Wright and asked if he ever experienced stage fright. Typically, he answered this question with an even tougher question I've been pondering since: What happens if you get scared half to death twice? Does Engvall have any insights on that quandary?
“No,” he laughs. “Steven is his own man and I don't even try to be as deep as he does. As far as stage fright, I don't think I ever have experienced it because I don't think I ever thought about it. Maybe I was dumb or naïve, but it never really affected me. Now I have had stage anxiousness - being jacked up to get out there and maybe went a little too fast, but eventually I slowed down.”
Does Engvall feel there is any topical material that is 'off-limits' when it comes to comedy, or is it all linked to the manner in which the material is handled? “Well, that's a personal thing that all comics have to deal with. Personally, I don't do material about anything where people were hurt or killed. I also don't like to do jokes about somebody that can't help whatever their affliction is. Except stupidity - THAT is open season,” he smiles.
As a firm believer that a huge component of successful comedy is how well it helps us understand the insanity surrounding us, what are three things about contemporary culture that drives Bill the most insane?
“Sheesh,” he responds, “that's a tough one. Okay, let's have a go at it. Number one would be the lack of common sense that people seem to have now. Number two would be lack of respect for other people. And number three is that we rely too much on the information that is generated by news. Here's an example: I heard a newscaster say 'the details are sketchy'. Well, NO THEY AREN'T! Details are exact.”
Another thing I feel compelled to ask Bill - as I do of any comic that I have the pleasure to interview - is what exactly is their favorite joke of all time? “Hmm. Okay, here you go. A Grasshopper walks into a bar and orders a scotch & water. The bartender says, 'Hey, we have a drink named after you.' The Grasshopper says, 'You have a drink named Bob?'”
I also feel compelled to ask Bill what he feels the biggest challenge is that a comic faces professionally. “As the late Rodney Dangerfield so eloquently put it, RESPECT!' For some reason people feel like comics can just get up anywhere and do their material. I can't count the number of times people will say, 'Just hop up there and do your act.' People have to be focused on the stage and listening. Another pet peeve is when they say, 'What else do you do?'”
As we wind down our conversation, I ask Bill if he has thoughts on any topics that we might not have touched upon, at which point he bestows upon me a most unexpected compliment. “Thanks for being the interviewer that finally asked good questions,” he smiles. “Nothing drives me crazier than when interviewers ask questions that they think will lead you into a bit. Like, so Bill - what about dogs? Or what do you think about hurricanes? Idiots.”
Tickets for An Evening with Bill Engvall on Friday, June 1st are $52, $46, and $39. Performances are at 7:00 and 9:00 PM and can be purchased by calling the Ticket Office at 800-523-7469 or going to MCFTA.org.
Other upcoming MATRIX: Midland Events include:
Larry J. Sabato's Crystal Ball
Wednesday, May 30 * 7:30 pm - Little Theatre, Midland Center for the Arts
Called "the most quoted college professor in the land” by the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Larry J. Sabato's “Crystal Ball” electoral analysis accurately predicts political landslides, nail-biters, and everything in between. Founder and head of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, he bridges the gap between the rhetoric and the reality, showing audiences how the art of politics and the science of the American voting psyche come together to produce our nation's next batch of leaders. Dr. Sabato will turn his “Crystal Ball” to the 2012 election, addressing the important issues, the key states, and the leading characters in the race for the White House, and taking a look at the future of the Senate and House in 2012 and beyond. Co-sponsored by SYM Financial Advisors.
Tickets: $27 Adults | $18 Students
Jack Hanna's Into the Wild Live!
Thursday, June 14 * 7:30 pm - Auditorium, Midland Center for the Arts
Animal expert Jungle Jack Hanna's hands-on approach has won him widespread acclaim as Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, conservationist, author, television personality, and lifelong adventurer. After 12 years hosting “Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures,” he launched his latest syndicated TV series, “Jack Hanna's Into the Wild.” Recognized around the country as America's favorite zookeeper, Jack has made countless television appearances on the Late Show with David Letterman, Good Morning America and Larry King Live. Jungle Jack's live show features many of his favorite animal friends, as well as fascinating and humorous stories and footage from his adventures around the world. Audiences give “Jungle Jack” rave reviews. The youngest child to the oldest adult will be entertained - and inspired! A hand-held camera on stage and video screen will ensure that every seat has a great view. Co-sponsored by Dow Chemical Employees' Credit Union.
Tickets: $25 Adults | $18 Students
A Conversation with P.J. O'Rourke, Mo Rocca and Peter Sagal
Friday, June 15 * 7:30 pm - Auditorium, Midland Center for the Arts
Best known to public radio listeners for their appearances together on NPR's “Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me!”, P.J. O'Rourke, Mo Rocca and Peter Sagal are each a force of wit and wisdom in his own right. Together, this trio of satirical geniuses provides colorful and insightful commentary on current events that will have the audience in hysterics and cheering for more. P.J. O'Rourke has established himself as America's premier political satirist, and both TIME and the Wall Street Journal have labeled him “the funniest writer in America.” Mo Rocca is a well-known humorist, actor, writer and National Public Radio contributor best known for his off-beat news reports and satirical commentary. He is currently a correspondent for CBS's “Sunday Morning News” and the host of “Food(ography)” on The Cooking Channel. Peter Sagal is best known to National Public Radio audiences for his work as the quick-witted and hilarious host of the hit weekly news quiz, “Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me!”
Esperanza Spalding: The Radio Music Society Tour
Friday, June 22 * 8 pm - Auditorium, Midland Center for the Arts
Esperanza Spalding has emerged as one of the brightest lights in the musical world. Her stunning 2008 debut album, “Esperanza,” and her best-selling 2010 release, “Chamber Music Society,” proved that the young bassist/vocalist/composer from Portland, Oregon, is the real deal. Her unique and style-spanning presence, deeply rooted in jazz yet reaching far beyond the jazz realm, was rewarded on February 13, 2011, when she became the first jazz musician to receive the GRAMMY® Award for Best New Artist. Her latest recording, “Radio Music Society,” is her most diverse, ambitious and masterful recital yet. Now, she unveils these brilliant compositions into a dynamic “big band” format with her world-class, 12-piece orchestra! Spalding's dynamic performances are nothing less than exhilarating!
Tickets: $45 | $38 | $32