By Richard Gubbe
Bill Engvall has never forgotten his first trip here. Playing to one of his first sellout shows as a stand-up comedian, his foray into Rockford left a lasting impression so much so that his show was chosen for a Netflix special.
“We’re coming back because Rockford was one of the first cities I had a sellout show and we wanted to do a special in a town that means something,” Engvall told The Rock River Times Monday. “It would have been just another show in New York.”
Rockford, he says is the type of city that fits his style of comedy – more family and less raunchy.
“People of Rockford have always been nice to me,” he says. “They have the same family values as I do.”
His first appearance at the Coronado Performing Arts Center with a limo ride from Chicago came in April 1997. He rode past a man with a cardboard sign that read “Need a Bill Engvall Ticket.”
The sign left a lasting impression and then…
“Then we turned the corner and they misspelled my name on the marquee,” he laughed.
Rockford is a good fit, he said, because it has “a lot of closet country people who, when you go to their home, find they listen to George Strait and Alan Jackson.”
Engvall is one of the four country horsemen, Jeff Foxworthy, Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy who barnstormed the country with country humor in the 1980s. Their “Blue Collar” tours were big hits and put each of them in a category. Foxworthy was super clean, White super drunk and Larry a super hick. Engvall started a little toward White and Larry, only to gravitate toward Foxworthy with family humor.
The strategy worked with hit comedy album releases, a family sitcom and concert tours with and without his friends that made him a tour bus full of money. His humor on relationships and his observations aren’t as pristine as Foxworthy, but he’s become a master of spinning short and longer tales of marriage, children and life in general.
“My career has been a steady climb,” Engvall said. Now he can admit he always wanted to be like Jeff.
“I’d be lying if there wasn’t a little bit of jealousy,” he said of his friend and rival. “I finally have gotten over trying to be Jeff. He’s not a bad guy to aspire to be though. He’s a good man. He set the bar. I had to get over that. You need to know who you are. I’ll just be Bill Engvall now that I know who he is.”
Success hasn’t taken the county out of the boy.
“I still go campin’ and huntin’ and fishin’,” he says. “Jeff said that blue collar is more of an attitude than just a moniker. That’s why I do so well in places like Rockford. They’re the same way. We all have our issues and things we have to deal with. But it’s still family. Just hard-workin’ folk.”
He’s made enough now. He fled the madness that is Los Angeles a few years ago to reside in the affluent ski community of Park City, Utah.
“I had done Los Angeles for 25 years and we decided we’d make it our home,” Engvall said. “I enjoy the lifestyle here. They’re so laid back.”
He’s moving to a new home soon on a golf course but has noticed the secret of Utah is out after hosting the Olympics.
“I moved here to get away from folks and now they’re all moving here. I’m making a bumper sticker that says, ‘Try Aspen.'”
A native of Galveston, he moved to Dallas and worked as a disc jockey with plans of becoming a teacher. He tried his hand at stand-up and thought he made people laugh easily. He made the move and snared the Showtime special, A Pair of Jokers. He hosted A&E’s Evening at the Improv and appeared on The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman.
When he started in 1980 he was a “typical club act, with jokes probably a little dirtier than they needed to be. They’re more lean now.”
He evolved and now creates more from a story and weaving in and out of different subjects.
“I have really been blessed I have achieved what I wanted to achieve,” he said.
“I’d like to be able to do this as long as I can.”
Although he said his club days are over and he has certainly made enough not to have to go backward, he still has a desire for a national TV talk show and to do live stage acting.
“I haven’t been approached yet (for a talk show),” he said. “I think TV is looking for the younger guys. It’s all cyclical and hopefully someone will tap me on the shoulder and ask me.”
Engvall would love to do a full-length western and recently completed a role for Catching Faith, a faith based family movie.
Next up he plays a serial killer in Neighbors, created by the people who wrote Saw.
“I am really looking forward to playing this role,” he said.
As long as people are buying tickets he will do venues like the Coronado.
“You’re not up there just telling jokes; you really affect people,” he said. “And as Jay Leno told me, don’t ever talk about things you don’t know about. I have to experience stuff to put it on stage.”
Engvall didn’t know dancing when he was a contestant on season 17 of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. A fan favorite, he made it further than expected, although in a recent show he said he was hoping to get axed long before that.
He’s doing a Stars bit in Rockford.
“All the material in Rockford will be new,” he said. “I’m like a high-priced call girl. I come in for an hour and a half, make you feel good, get my money and leave.”
He’s not concerned about the marquee spelling of his name.
“I kinda think they will get it right and if not I’ll get a big chuckle out of it,” he said.
His comedy appeal spilled over into TV when he starred in and executive produced the TBS sitcom The Bill Engvall Show.
“Having your own sitcom was the holy grail. I didn’t realize you had to study acting to be really good at it though.”
His first album, “Here’s Your Sign,” is certified platinum and held the top position on the Billboard Comedy Chart for 15 straight weeks. His second album, “Dorkfish,” also debuted at the top of Billboard’s Comedy Chart, as did his subsequent works. CDs are no longer moneymakers.
“They used to be but people don’t buy albums anymore. Not as big of revenue as it used to be. It’s more to keep your name out there. It’s all downloads now.”
In 2012 he reunited with Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy on the Them Idiots Whirled Tour, which stopped in Rockford aired as a special on CMT.
But touring has been his biggest moneymaker since beginning in 1982. No rags-to-riches stories or any need to sleep in his car. He now prefers the intimacy of venues the size of the Coronado and weekend shows. His new special will be filmed at the Coronado at 8 p.m. on Friday.
“It’s awesome. I love that place,” he said.
Tickets are $30 at the BMO Harris Bank Center Box Office, located at 300 Elm St., by phone at 815-968-5222 or online at ticketmaster.com.