"This is a true story," insisted Bill Engvall during a recent phone interview. "I was on a plane, and the flight attendant was asking about people who needed a wheelchair. And she actually said to us, 'If you requested a wheelchair, please walk up front and . .. .'" The comedian laughs. "People never cease to amuse me."
Had that flight attendant realized who, among the passengers, she was making that verbal slip in front of, she might never have uttered a word. For while Bill Engvall is most familiar from his performances on the WB's popular sketch-comedy series Blue Collar TV, his most beloved stand-up routine - the one that fans scream for at every performance - is called "Here's Your Sign," which, which not so coincidentally, is the title of the solo comedy concert Engvall will perform at Davenport's Adler Theatre on Saturday, June 11.
For those not in the know, the "sign" in Engvall's "Here's Your Sign" segments refers to what he believes people should be forced to wear after doing or saying something inconceivably idiotic: a sign that reads, "I'm stupid." (Engvall has observed that if people actually did wear these signs, you'd know in advance not to rely on them.) Throughout his "Here's Your Sign" routine, Engvall responds to our everyday, often accidental, moments of sheer dopiness with the mixture of sarcasm and disbelief they deserve:
· To a service-station attendant who sees Engvall's flat tire and asks, "Tire go flat?": "Nope. I was just driving around and these other three just swelled right up on me."
· To a neighbor who sees Evgvall loading a U-Haul with boxes and asks, "Hey, ya moving?": "Nope. We just pack our stuff up once or twice a week to see how many boxes it takes."
· To a bystander who sees Engvall and a friend return from an obviously successful fishing trip and asks, "Hey, y'all catch all them fish?": "Nope. Talked 'em into giving up."
Yet Engvall's on-stage responses to the hopelessly dim were initially much harsher. "I started out by saying that stupid people should be slapped, but my wife said, 'You don't look like the kind of guy that would slap anyone." As a result, Engvall's hugely popular comedy routine was born. His performance trademark has also provided him, and legions of fans, with an endless source of mirth. "It's never hard to find things worth laughing at," he says. "As long as there are people in the world, there's comedy. People are always saying and doing stupid things."
Yet Engvall isn't a mere smart-ass; he's quick to add that he, himself, isn't immune from our tendency to speak before we think. "That's what makes the routine work," he says. "Stupidity is universal."
Beyond the "Here's Your Sign" pieces, fans will have the opportunity to hear many of their favorite Engvall routines at the Adler, including tales of the comedian's life with his two children and wife of 24 years; his family, says Engvall, "is a source of never-ending comedy." However, with his kids currently spending so much time away from home - his daughter is a college student and his son a high-schooler - Engvall now has the opportunity to experiment with his comedy, and at least 30 minutes of the "Here's Your Sign" show will feature completely new material, comedy "more along the lines of where I started from," he says.
That would officially be Galveston, Texas, where Engvall was born in 1957. But his comedic rearing began when performing stand-up at the Dallas Comedy Corner in the '80s, where he watched such performers as Robin Williams, Garry Shandling, and Jay Leno command the stage. After years working cross-country on the stand-up comedy circuit - including headlining several times at Davenport's comedy club The Funny Bone - Engvall eventually earned an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and in 1992, he was named Best Male Stand-Up at the American Comedy Awards.
Despite his more recent success as a television personality, Engvall has no plans to abandon live performance. He admits to "a very laid-back storytelling method" in his comedy that a solo venture is ideal for, adding, "It's hard to get a roll going with only 20 minutes on stage. But if I have an hour-and-a-half, it's a lot easier to get people on my rhythm.
"I'll never give up stand-up," he says. "As the saying goes, 'You dance with who brung ya.'"
Engvall admits that although a lengthy, solo comedy concert is daunting - "You have to walk that fine line of trying out new stuff but also giving the audience what they came for" - it's also invigorating, especially after having shared a stage, for much of the past four years, with the likes of Jeff Foxworthy, Ron White, and Larry the Cable Guy.
When Engvall initially signed on for the Blue Collar Comedy Tour in 2000, he couldn't have guessed where the experience would lead him; after all, Engvall says, when the tour first originated, "we were supposed to do 10 dates.
"We're still doing it four years later."
Blue Collar is now a brand name: The film version of the comedians' tour received the highest ratings ever for a movie on Comedy Central, and the WB's Blue Collar TV is currently the network's second-highest-rated comedy series. The show's success even led to a WB special for Engvall, whose Mobile Home Disaster - a comedic make-over show in which lucky families get a complete overhaul of their rather questionable surroundings - was a ratings hit in April, though there are no plans to turn the special into a full-time series. ("This is one of the things that drives me crazy about television," Engvall says. "The show got great ratings, it was a bit hit...", and, as of now, it's going nowhere.)
The comedian is by no means at a loss for work, though. With the second season of Blue Collar TV already filming and numerous other projects - including a screenplay he recently wrote - in the wings, Engvall has emerged as a bona fide star, yet admits that many who approach him still aren't sure they're really recognizing who they think they're recognizing. "People tend to stare at me when I go out," he says, "and I usually respond with a 'What the hell are you staring at?' look. But I understand it. It's surprise. When people see me out in public somewhere, it's like they're saying, 'I know who you look like, but what are you doing here?"
When he returns to the area for his "Here's Your Sign" concert, Engvall says that he's looking forward to seeing Davenport again after those early gigs at The Funny Bone - "back when the riverboats actually sailed and you only got to gamble $200 worth." Clearly, despite his considerable successes, Engvall hasn't strayed too far from his origins as a struggling comic, and don't expect him to ever do so. "You don't want to forget where you started from," he says. "It's important to remember your roots. You don't learn anything from a huge crowd screaming at you. You learn from a midnight show on a Friday night where there are 20 people in the audience and no one cares who you are."