On his sitcom, The Bill Engvall Show, debuting its second season on June 12 on TBS, stand-up comedian Bill Engvall plays the kind of guy you’d want as your neighbor. After talking to the real Engvall in person, you realize he is the kind of guy you’d want as your neighbor.
Although he’s sitting in the lounge of the posh Four Seasons Hotel in New York City, he’s wearing regular guy jeans and orders a regular guy lunch: a burger– albeit, without the bun. And, when he offers you the fries off his plate, a good neighbor is not going to take no for an answer.
He smiles when he talks about his wife of 25 years, Gail, and their two children Emily, 22, and Travis, 17– his real family. And, he even smiles when he talks about his TV wife, played by Nancy Travis and the couple’s three children played by Jennifer Lawrence, Graham Patrick Martin and Skyler Gisondo.
“Im proud of this show and hope I’m not naive to think that people are thankful we are doing a show where they don’t have to worry about the content or language,” says Engvall about the sitcom wherein he plays a family counselor from the outskirts of Denver. “One thing we try to do is say it’s okay to be a family.”
As executive producer of the show, Engvall had a hand in picking the cast. First, he says, they wanted real kids. And while Jennifer, Graham and Skyler have some acting experience, this was really their first TV gig.
Choosing his television wife was the most challenging casting decision for to 50-year-old Engvall. “There had to be a chemistry like we’re married,” Engvall says, between bites. Travis, who co-starred in CBS’ Becker for two years and starred alongside Maria Bello and Amy Brenneman in last year’s motion picture The Jane Austen Book Club, was taping a pilot for another show at the time but ultimately signed with the Engvall’s show. “We just had so much fun and it was so natural we knew the minute she read the script that she was the one.”
And while Bill and his TV wife and kids have lots of laughs, no one in the cast can make him laugh more than former Saturday Night Live veteran Tim Meadows, who plays Bill’s best friend.
“I love Tim,” says Engvall. “When I see a scene we’re going to be in I know it’s going to be a blast. He’s just a master of improv.”
Bill proceeds to explain a scene where Tim teaches Engvall to salsa dance. “We just started doing this thing ourselves and it became hysterical.” Engvall acts it out a bit at our table without getting out of his seat, showing how Tim gingerly takes his hand despite Bill’s reluctance to dance. He then puts his hand in front of my face so I can get the full effect of how Tim shushes him so he can just learn the steps.
Although Engvall’s got his own show, he wouldn’t mind popping up on shows like Sesame Street and Celebrity Survivor (with his son, with whom he goes scuba diving). He also admits to wanting to be a contestant on Jeff Foxworthy’s Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader; it’s not as if he doesn’t have an in with Foxworthy who he had just spoken to that morning. “I think I’d do well on that show. I read a lot which I’m sure shocks a lot of people.”
He, Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy and Ron White are finding huge successes on their own these days, but together they had a great run on their sketch collaborative, Blue Collar TV and of course the Blue Collar Comedy Tour concert films.
“You won’t find better human beings than those guys,” Engvall says. He compares his time on Blue Collar productions, to “being married to a rich girl”: It’s great while it lasts, but at some point you want to prove you can go out and earn your own living.”
Despite the upward movement of his acting career, stand-up comedy is still an integral part of who Bill is; let’s not forget that the man has gold and platinum albums as well as a multi platinum DVD and he’s already got tour dates booked through December. He admits that he cuts back on the road while the show is in production, but with tapings on Thursday nights he still has Friday and Saturday for live dates and then six to eight months to “hit it solid.”
“Acting is something I’ve always wanted to do. You have that fantasy of your perfect little TV life,” he says with a little grin. “But I love doing stand-up because of the thrill of that live audience. It’s a high wire act without the net. You’ve got 2,000 people on the same wavelength as you. And it’s just me being Bill.”
You could say that playing a husband and father in the middle of his life who is just trying to keep the family unit together is Bill being Bill. His real life wife and real life daughter take his TV daughter shopping, and when his youngest TV son is running down the hallway and takes a spill, Bill will pick him up and ask him, “now what did we learn here?”
Identifying himself as a husband and father above actor and comedian, Engvall says what happens at home in Southern California (where he and his wife have resided for 23 years) is the most important thing to him. He is unaffected by the celebrity that surrounds him and makes sure the family is also untouched by fame. “If we go on trips, we go to our place in Park City, Utah and we we fly Southwest; we drive to ballgames. If you lived next door to me you wouldn’t know what I did for a living.”
Engvall leans back in his chair, offering me the last bit of fries before the busboy comes to clear his plate. He seems incredibly satisfied with both his meal and his life. Before we get up and say our good-byes, two men at an adjacent table look over; one calls out to Bill. “Hey, I’m sorry, you just look so familiar to me. Bill walks over to their table for a friendly chat. Maybe they used to be neighbors.