ORONO – One of the most successful stand-up comedians of the past two decades will soon be making his way to Orono.
Bill Engvall, whose long career includes highlights such as the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, will be bringing his latest stand-up tour – “Just Sell Him For Parts” – to the Collins Center for the Arts on the University of Maine campus on Feb. 24.
Engvall is perhaps best known for his ongoing “Here’s Your Sign” bit – one that started with his early work and has continued to grow in subsequent years. He has also spent plenty of time on television – including his own eponymous sitcom “The Bill Engvall Show” in the late 2000s (a program perhaps best remembered for serving as an early career breakout gig for Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence). More recently, he made it all the way to the finals of Season 17 of ABC’s reality dance competition “Dancing with the Stars.”
He is also, unsurprisingly, a charming and affable interviewee.
Mr. Engvall was kind enough to take some time to speak to The Maine Edge in advance of his upcoming performance at the CCA.
“It’s always fun to do shows there in Maine,” Engvall said. “The people there definitely love to laugh and the crowds are always good. And honestly, I feel like I have a lot in common with you folks.”
While Engvall has performed numerous times in the state, this is his first time at the Collins Center.
“It’s always fun to play a new room,” he said.
There are a lot of different directions in which a comedian can go – different styles and different attitudes. And there are some comics who alter their acts depending on the humor du jour. But while Engvall has been doing this for a long time, his basic approach has stayed largely the same.
“It’s all about good old relatable humor,” said Engvall. “I don’t worry too much about political stuff and I don’t work blue. It’s just good, clean humor. Now, I’m not saying that this is Disney On Ice or anything; I just like to talk about real things.
“People seem to appreciate that,” he continued. “I’ll talk about anything and everything. I’ll talk about everything from kidney stones to cell phones to my time on ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ Really, I like to think of my show as almost a 90-minute conversation between me and the audience.”
Speaking of “Dancing with the Stars,” we weren’t going to let that go by without making mention of his time there. And it’s pretty clear that Engvall enjoyed his time on the dance floor.
“Man, that was fun,” he said with a chuckle. “Brutal, but fun. I was thrilled when they asked me to do it. And did I do any sort of preparation, working out or anything like that? No. No I did not. I said to myself ‘It’s just dancing – how tough could it be?’ Pretty tough, as it turns out. But yeah – so much fun. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”
Of course, there won’t be much dancing at the CCA. Just comedy. However, while Engvall has been at it for a long time, he had to start somewhere. And back then, he had some doubts.
“I always loved comedy growing up,” he said. “I listened to albums from guys like Bob Newhart, Steve Martin, those types of comics. And then one night, I was at an amateur night – a sort of open mic – just to watch … and after a few shots of liquid encouragement, I decided to give it a try.
“Things kind of went from there. Initially, I thought it was a pretty great job – you work at night, you can sleep late, you can drink on the job – but it wasn’t something where I thought you could actually make a living. And yet, here I am, 34 years later, still doing what I love.”
Obviously, what Engvall loves is making people laugh. His weapon of choice in that regard is to keep things real; he finds humor in relatable truths.
“I try to pull from real life,” he said. “We all do the same things; some of us just do them with different accents. I look for the material that will have people in the audience nodding their heads and saying ‘Oh God, yes.’
“Perfect example – talking about cell phones. I had a buddy who changed the autocorrect on my cell phone and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to change it back. I had to take it to the store, some 17-year-old is fixing my phone – now I know how my dad felt when the clock on the VCR wouldn’t stop blinking. Or stuff with my wife and I and our relationship – I can always tell when I’ve found a good one, because I’ll see people out in the audience looking at each other with that [recognition].”
But as easy as a pro like Engvall might make it look, there’s a lot of honing and crafting that goes into constructing a bit. It seems off-the-cuff, but these moments have been worked and worked to reach the point of being good enough – though very occasionally, lightning might strike.
“Every once in a while, you’ll have a bit that kind of writes itself,” he said. “Those are rare, though. Most of the time, you’ll have a funny idea and have to figure out where to go with it. You aren’t going to make a living on funny ideas. Besides, the fun part is creating the story to go along with those ideas.”
Engvall’s journey through the club circuit at the beginning of his career wasn’t necessarily an easy one, even though he was relatively successful in relation to many of his peers. His act back then was a bit different – because it had to be.
“When I started doing clubs, I’d be on for the midnight show,” he said. “Back then, you’d have to put together a set that was rapid fire jokes; in those clubs, you’d have drunks and hecklers and you couldn’t leave them any openings or you’d get derailed.
“Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about what works best for me. It’s so much more fun to be able to take my time and let the bits breathe a little, when there’s no need to rush. Like I said, I love to think of it as a conversation.”
But don’t let the easygoing tone fool you – just because Bill Engvall is aiming to have a conversation doesn’t mean that he isn’t working hard to do the best show he can, both for you and for himself.
“I like to think of it as us sitting around someone’s living room, a very relaxed setting,” he said. “I’ll explore a bit, but for the most part, I have a solid outline of what it is I’m going to do. It’s not so much a ‘They really liked this, so I’ll do more of this’ thing; if they’ve come out to see me, my show IS what they like. There’s no need to cram it down anybody’s throat.
“But there are certain things you can’t control,” he added. “Even when I feel like the show is good, every once in a while, for whatever reason, the crowd will have less energy. In those moments, I’ll ask myself ‘Where can I go?’, but 99.9 percent of the time, it all turns out fine.”
Plenty of comedians build their act around some sort of persona, an exaggeration or caricature that they can mine for laughs. Unsurprisingly, that’s not really how Bill Engvall rolls.
“The guy you see onstage is the same guy that you’d meet on the street,” he said. “I was never one of those guys who developed a persona. And I think people like it, because what they see is what they get and that’s who I am.
“Besides,” he added with a laugh, “it made it a heck of a lot easier. I never needed to try to be anything that I’m not.”
As someone who achieved a lot of success when teamed up with other comedians, Engvall’s approach to experiencing his fellow comics is perhaps a little surprising, although it makes plenty of sense when you hear the rationale behind it.
“There are definitely some guys that I really like,” he said. “I’m a fan of guys like Keith Alberstadt and Nate Bargatze. But the truth is that with where I’m at, I can’t really see other [comedians] work and I rarely seek out new comics. It’s not that I don’t want to have a good time or enjoy what other guys are doing; I just don’t want to inadvertently steal someone’s bit. Say I see someone’s act and then a year down the road I have this idea and don’t remember that it actually came from this other person; I don’t want to risk doing that to someone. But there are a lot of young guys out there working hard and doing great work.”
When asked for any advice he might give to those same young guys looking to make their way in the world of comedy, Engvall kept it succinct and simple.
“Do what you’re comfortable with,” he said. “You want to work relatable and clear. When I started, I didn’t realize how important that was. And don’t feel like you have to work blue; I love a dirty joke as much as the next guy, but you need to be true to who you are. That’s what I did, and yeah, I got passed over some early on in my career for not being “edgy” enough, but I’ve found that people tend to appreciate the time taken to create something that stands on its own.”
Also worth noting – suppose you leave the show on Feb. 24 and find yourself wanting to spend even more time with Bill Engvall? Well, you’ve got that opportunity as well, thanks to the “My Two Cents” podcast, which you can find in all the various and sundry places once finds podcasts (as well as at the comedian’s website at billengvall.com).
“It’s just a fun thing where I can talk about … whatever,” he said. “It’s just a blast. I can just cover whatever. There are no rules or constraints; when you’re doing a show, you’re looking to land a certain number of laughs in a certain amount of time, but with a podcast, you don’t have to worry about that stuff. It’s a great outlet, and it lets me talk about stuff I don’t do onstage. It’s really freeing. I mean, sometimes my wife will sit in and we’ll talk about our stuff. We just did one where I talked about this new vodka that I tried. It’s whatever I want to do.
“I always listened to podcasts,” he continued. “It was something I thought about doing for a long time. And in a lot of ways, it’s kind of the new radio, only instead of ads every few minutes, you get one ad in 45-60 minutes. It’s a format that people like and that I really like doing.”
Bill Engvall has been working the stage for big laughs for almost 35 years now and he’s still going strong. And his love for what he does doesn’t seem to have wavered one bit since those early days. He’s come a long way from that college kid who needed to do a couple of shots to work up the nerve to get onstage at an open mic, but in the ways that matter, he doesn’t come off as a guy who has changed that much at all.
So if you’re looking to have some laughs and enjoy a 90-minute conversation with a consummate comedy pro, head over to the Collins Center for the Arts on Feb. 24. It will be clean, it will be relatable … and it will most definitely be real.
(For tickets or more information about the Bill Engvall show or other upcoming events, contact the Collins Center for the Arts box office at 581-1755 or 800-622-TIXX (8499) or visit their website at www.collinscenterforthearts.com.)