At this point in his comedy career, Bill Engvall doesn't really have anything left to prove. He's been a successful stand-up for close to three decades. As a member of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour alongside Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy and Ron White, he was part of one of the most successful comedy tours in recent memory and helped define "blue collar comedy" for a new generation of up-and-coming comedians.
Engvall will be the first person to tell you he is very content at this point in his career. Granted, if you could sell out a theater on any given night because of your fan base and name recognition alone, you would be too. But just because Engvall is content doesn't mean he's decided to coast — because Engvall is still a stand-up comic, a profession where no matter how popular you are, you always have something to prove.
"When I first started in this business, I had this well and I had this shovel, and I'm just flinging jokes," he says. "I think that's part of the challenge and the fun of the job is to try to come up with new stuff."
When Engvall started out, he was nowhere close to finding the style, jokes and delivery that would make him a household name for comedy fans. He was just a guy working the club scene trying to find his voice.
One of the keys to Engvall's rise in the comedy world has been his focus on being clean and relatable, with his marriage and family (Engvall is a father of two) being deep wells of material.
"I've learned in my comedy career just to keep it real. I've just kind of stuck to that principle," he says. "When they come see my shows, you're not going to see a stand-up comedy show. It's like we're sitting around the living room and I'm the funny guy doing the talking."
Engvall's brand of material might have been his decision, but the popularity of his signature "Here's Your Sign" bit was out of his control. He's had more than his share of burgeoning comics come up to him at shows wanting to know the secret to how they, too, can create a "hit joke" in their act.
"I tell them, 'You don't. The audience will dictate the bit they will remember you by,'" he says. "With 'Here's Your Sign,' I never thought that would be the phrase people would remember me by."
Engvall last performed in our area at Rupp Arena as part of UK Basketball Coach John Calipari's Comedy Mania fundraiser in November. He will be performing at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday. He remembers how he played Rupp Arena with co-headliner Foxworthy during the Blue Collar Comedy Tour's heyday and always enjoys coming back to Kentucky, but his fondness for the Bluegrass State extends beyond the receptive crowds.
Before award-winning actress and Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence became one of Hollywood's biggest and most likable and acclaimed stars, she played Engvall's teenage daughter on his TBS sitcom, The Bill Engvall Show, from 2007 to 2009.
Now, in addition to interview questions about his career, he's almost guaranteed to receive questions about working with Lawrence when she got her start. Even now, he can't help but gush over what she's accomplished and how she's the same person now as she was then.
"We were a family on that show," he says. "We were throwing a football around in the parking lot, and Jenny was right there doing it with us. Jenny is just like a second daughter to me and Gail (Engvall's wife), and we're just so proud of her.
"I hate this phrase, but it's the one that works. We knew she had 'it.' There was something special about her."
Even though his career has included stand-up specials, sitcoms, movies (2007's Delta Farce with Larry the Cable Guy) and game shows (as host of GSN's Lingo in 2011), Engvall is happy where he is now, hitting the road on occasion while making ample time for family, hunting, golf and fishing. When he is onstage, the audience is getting a sample of fresh material that he said will end up in a comedy special that will be released soon.
Because Engvall doesn't release a new special every year or every few years, like most of today's popular comics, he says he wants to take the time to make sure he gets it just right. At this point, he's learned the only standard he needs to live up to is his own.
"I don't try to keep up with people," Engvall says. "I did early on, and it's just an endless road. What happens is you stop doing what got you to where you're at and you're trying to be them. You have to just kind of say, this is who I am, and I've been doing this for 30-plus years, so something must be working."