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Bill Engvall: from Dallas comedy clubs to overnight star, give or take a few years

What a doll. A talking doll actually. Its official name is the Bill Engvall Blue Collar Comedy Tour Talking Plush Doll, part of a set that includes comics Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy and Ron White. Engvall in fine plush costs $15.95. Requires three AAA batteries. Chirps a dozen of his best lines. Sample: "The only reason I got married--my gym membership ran out."

A talking doll isn't an Oscar, but it's a nice trophy for a performer who started out 23 years ago DJ-ing and hosting open mike nights at the old Comedy Corner and Café Dallas. An early profile in the Dallas Observer was Engvall's first good ink, and he's never forgotten it. "You guys have been with me from the start," he says by phone from his second home in Park City, Utah (home base is Manhattan Beach, near L.A.).

Born in Galveston during Hurricane Audrey in 1957, Engvall started cracking wise as a precocious kid whose family "moved a lot" when he was young, he says. He got serious enough in college to graduate from Southwestern University in Georgetown, heading for Dallas and a teaching career (or so he told his folks). Instead, he was drawn to the comedy clubs that were just beginning to feature big-name headliners.

Engvall says he watched Garry Shandling, Robin Williams and Jay Leno work the club rooms. He studied their material and how they handled audiences. He soon became a regular onstage at the Comedy Corner, where, he says, he not only slung drinks as a bar back when he wasn't at the mike but also mopped floors and helped drunks stagger to their cars.

After two years of journeyman work as an opener and middle act, Engvall and wife Gail U-Hauled to L.A., "the mecca of comedy," he says. His goal was "to become a big TV star." Back in the '80s, that was the dream of almost every stand-up. But Engvall's timing was off. Jerry Seinfeld, Shandling and Roseanne had yet to score their long-running TV hits. Stand-ups weren't yet being tapped as potential sitcom stars.

Engvall says he remembers prepping for his first major TV audition. Gail was six months preggers when he asked his wife to help him run dialogue. "Years later I was to find out that as we were reading the lines together, she nearly went into labor," he recalls in his online biography. "Not because it was time to have the baby, but because I was so bad at acting that she nearly freaked."

A good acting class helped the comedian land a guest shot on Designing Women. He'd later work for a year on Delta, playing the role of Delta Burke's brother. Then came what he calls his "big break"--doing The Tonight Show with the master himself, Johnny Carson. "I was as scared as I have ever been," he admits. His act went over big. He expected the phone to ring with offers. Instead, crickets. Nothing. For two years.

So back on the road he went, honing the persona he'd started developing 10 years earlier. In 1992, the American Comedy Awards named him Stand-up Comic of the Year. He was booked year-round as a popular club act. He finally got what would turn out to be a bigger break than sharing the couch next to Carson's desk. A job as Jeff Foxworthy's opening act would launch a solid friendship and a still-booming stage partnership with the "You might be a redneck..." star.

Along the way, Engvall came up with his own signature catchphrase, "Here's your sign."

In his best-known routine, he offers "Stupid" signs to people who ask smack-the-forehead questions. Like the time he flew to a corporate gig on a tiny prop-jet: As the plane landed on an airstrip in rural Arkansas, it hit a deer. When Engvall called home that night and told Gail the story, her response was, "Were you on the ground?" Cue the catchphrase: "Here's your sign." The bit became the title routine on Engvall's first CD, which would become the top-selling comedy CD of 1997, selling more than half a million copies. He followed that with CDs titled Dorkfish and Now That's Awesome, selling more than 2 million of those. He made comedy music videos for Country Music Television that were such hits they made it onto the country music charts.

After all that success, Bill Engvall has somehow stayed the same twinkly-eyed guy-next-door he was when he first took the stage at the Comedy Corner. He works clean. He giggles at his own material as he performs it. And since teaming with Foxworthy and the Blue Collar comics, he's become known as the nice one who tells gentle wife-and-kid tales on the blockbuster Blue Collar Comedy tours. He costars on its half-hour spin-off WB series, just renewed for another 13 episodes. The third Blue Collar Comedy movie will be shot this fall.

"Being on TV has really jacked it up," says Engvall of his celebrity quotient. "I'm selling more tickets than I ever did." Blue Collar Comedy is one of this year's top 50 touring shows, "right up there with Sting," he says. (The tour returns to Dallas' Majestic Theatre April 14, 2006.)

Now 48, Engvall's writing a film in which he'll star, and he's on the road three out of every four weeks with the Blue Collar gang or soloing at lucrative corporate appearances.

Gail and two kids who grew up with a dad in showbiz serve as endless sources of new material. Even Engvall's trademarked line comes around to bite him now and then. "My son was playing a tune on the piano not long ago. I asked him what it was, and he said it was from the soundtrack of Harry Potter. I said, "The movie?' And he said, "No, the book. Here's your sign, Dad.'"

As a comic who's known lean times as well as fat success, Engvall says he takes nothing for granted. "The reality of stardom happening to me was pretty slim," he says. "I still get up in the mornings and think it's this dream that just keeps going on. Every goal I've set, I've achieved."

And is that plush doll a good likeness? "Nope," he says. "Looks just like Robert Goulet." --Elaine Liner

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1 comments
Mr. Personality
Mr. Personality

This is an extremely post-modern review of the DMA. Well done.

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