A Loser's Success Story

Comedian Bill Engvall botched his big break, but just look at him now

September 14, 2006|By Sam Sessa | Sam Sessa,Sun Reporter

Before he became famous for his album Here's Your Sign, comedian Bill Engvall bombed big-time.

It was 1980-something, and Engvall was living in Dallas and regularly performing at a comedy club there when he got a call from Star Search. They wanted him to perform on the show.

"I thought, this is the break, this is my big break," Engvall said.

Engvall told a joke about tornado-proofing Texas with fake trailer parks and got a great reaction from the crowd (you can watch the clip at youtube.com). He thought he killed 'em. Then the judges voted him off stage.

"I remember when they gave out the scores, you can see a noticeable gasp on my face," Engvall said. "At that point, nobody thought I was going to do anything, so you've got nowhere to go but up."

Which is where he went. Slowly.

Engvall plays the Great Frederick Fair on Saturday night, but it took him a good 15 to 20 years to become a nationally renown comedian.

Since the early 1980s, Engvall has worked only in comedy. He started as the house MC for a comedy club in Dallas, then started telling jokes there. Then came the Star Search fiasco, some touring and a similar experience on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

"I went on, and I had the set of my career," Engvall said. "It was just great. The guy said, `This is not just a one-shot deal, this is going to be regular.' And I sat back and waited for the phone to ring. Nothing."

No one called right away, but when Engvall released the album Here's Your Sign in the mid-1990s, he started attracting serious attention. In the routine, he proposed every stupid person should sport a sign that says "I'm stupid." That way, we know not to rely on them.

Engvall thought up the routine years before.

"The bit used to be that I said stupid people should be slapped -- which I still believe," he said. "But my wife said, `You know, you don't look like a guy who goes around slapping people.' ... I started working on this bit about a sign that said `I'm stupid,' and people hooked into it, man."

When Engvall's manager -- who also managed Larry the Cable Guy and Jeff Foxworthy -- suggested they bring on Ron White and do a quadruple bill, he said sure. Originally, the Blue Collar Comedy Tour was supposed to last for only 10 dates. It ended up running about four years, spawning CDs, two DVDs (a third is on the way), a TV show and tons of merchandise.

Now, the foursome is performing separately around the country and probably will not reunite anytime soon, Engvall said. But while he misses hanging out with the other three, Engvall is still having a great time.

"For me, it's always been fun, because this was never a job," Engvall said. "I never ever thought this would be what I would end up doing. I thought at the time it was just a cool hobby. It was like hey, I could drink on the job, work at night and sleep in late. Hell, that's the perfect job. The perfect work conditions."

The guy who bombed on Star Search has come a long way.

"I look around my office and I go, `Good Lord, from a guy who lost on Star Search, I guess I have done pretty good,'" Engvall said. "When I got two gold records and a platinum one -- [and] I'm the guy who lost."

Bill Engvall performs at the Great Frederick Fair at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The fair is at 797 East Patrick St. in Frederick. Tickets for his show, which are not included with fair admission, are $30-$35. Call 301-695-3928 or visit thegreatfrederickfair.com.



Great Frederick Fair opens tomorrow and runs through Sept. 23 at 797 E. Patrick St. in Frederick. Admission is free for children 10 and younger.


5 p.m.-10 p.m. tomorrow: There is no admission or parking fee.

9 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday: Parking is $5 and admission is free before 3 p.m. and $5 afterward.

9 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Sept. 23: Parking is $5 and admission is $5. Admission for senior citizens is free before 3 p.m. on Monday through Sept. 22.

For more information, call 301-663-5895 or visit thegreatfrederickfair.com.

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