It's hard to believe, but 2020 marks 20 years since the first Blue Collar Comedy Tour barnstormed the country, making household names of Bill Engvall, Ron White, Larry the Cable Guy and ringleader Jeff Foxworthy.
The success of the tour and its follow-ups over the next six years — and affiliated movies and TV specials — proved that Americans beyond the South would go for the quartet's "good 'ol boy" comedic stylings in much the same way they went for NASCAR and Popeye's chicken.
"It put me on the map," Engvall, 62, says now, calling the Inlander from a Southern California golf course. "It made me a household word. And just imagine being on the road with your three best friends, they're paying you stupid money and you're selling out arenas. And I did not let one minute go by that I didn't appreciate it."
At the same time, while his newfound stardom opened a lot of new career doors 25 years into doing stand-up comedy, being so strongly associated with the Blue Collar tour "was also a curse."
"Hollywood has no imagination," Engvall says, "so they just assumed that because we were on the Blue Collar thing, all we could do was redneck stuff. And I'm a very good actor, and I was probably the least redneck of all of us."
That's certainly apparent in Engvall's comedy. Sure, he's got a trace of twang in his voice from his Texas upbringing, but his act relies more on life with his family and storytelling than set-ups like Foxworthy's "you might be a redneck if" schtick. His style earned Engvall the Best Male Stand-Up prize at the American Comedy Awards a full eight years before he hit the Blue Collar road. On Saturday, he'll headline a show at the Coeur d'Alene Casino.
Engvall got his start in Dallas when he was a not-great college student who dropped out when he discovered "women and beer." He worked as a deejay at a nightclub and the owners opened a comedy club down the street. Having grown up in a house where his father played Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby comedy albums, Engvall kind of figures comedy was "in his blood" thanks to his dad being funny himself.
One night Engvall and some buddies wandered down to the new comedy club where "we figured we'd go to amateur night and watch people suck it up."
"After a couple rounds of liquid encouragement went through us, they talked me into getting up on stage because I was always the guy [saying] 'I'll try anything,'" Engvall says. "And I started talking about being a deejay, and people were laughing! I remember thinking, 'This is really cool.' I never thought you could do it for a living."
That was the start of now more than four decades of making people laugh, but the seeds of his style were right there at the beginning. Telling stories about his life earned him bigger laughs than a typical set-up-punchline approach, and he's been honing that style ever since, even though through the years he'd occasionally try to keep up with other comedians who worked in a more rapid-fire way than his longer stories.
"I finally have gotten smart enough or old enough to realize that 'laugh every 15 seconds' [style] was wearing me out," Engvall says. "I finally just embraced being a storyteller and the shows have been so much more enjoyable."
At this point, Engvall has pretty much checked off every box in a comic's to-do list. He's been headlining for years. He wrote an autobiography. He had a sitcom with his name in the title. He's hosted a podcast. Considering what's next, Engvall says, isn't easy.
"I say this with humility, but I've achieved every goal I set in front of me," Engvall says. "I was just telling a friend yesterday, I don't know what the next goal is — unless it's Bill Engvall On Ice, and I don't think anybody wants to see that. I'm actually at a point in my life where I don't know what's next."
Is that exciting or scary?
Bill Engvall • Sat, Jan. 25 at 7 pm • $40-$60 • 18+ • Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort Hotel • 37914 S. Nukwalqw Rd., Worley, Idaho • cdacasino.com