Engvall first tried his hand at comedy with a five-minute bit when he was in college. He landed two shows on campus in the basement of the Student Union building. "One went really well and the other one sucked," he said. The Texas-native then tried to be a singer but as he bluntly put it, he can't sing. Engvall knew he had the ability to make people laugh, so he abandoned singing for jokes. He dropped out of college, moved to Dallas and took a DJ job at a disco. "I didn't want a day job," Engvall said. "I tried them; I just couldn't do it."
One night at a comedy club, Engvall was coaxed to the stage. Totally unprepared, he quickly recalled bits from the school basement routine and added in some standard "joke jokes." Engvall said by today's standards, he'd likely freak out at how poorly he did. It must have been better than he remembers, though, since the club owner offered him the house MC job on the spot. The MC job paid $350 a week, $25 more than the disco paid so Engvall snapped it up. "My job was just to introduce acts and pick them up at the airport."
Engvall honed his comedic skills but didn't hit the touring circuit until he was prepared, two-and-a-half years later. Once he started touring, he was introduced to problems associated with getting paid. His first gig, in Tampa, Fla., was also his first dealing with a club owner. "And this was back in the '80s, so he was just as happy to pay you with cocaine as he was with money. And I'm like, 'Hey man. That ain't cool.' My airfare, I got in ones and fives."
That era in comedy was a boon for a lot of people. Popular club comics like Gary Shandling, Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno were taking big leaps. Engvall watched and learned. Acting as his own manager, he dreamt of the days when he could make $1,500 a week. "And now, I'm like, 'That better be the travel deposit,'" he joked. Engvall was itching to move up and people in the business knew it. The owner of the Funny Bone comedy chain offered him a headline spot at a club in St. Louis so Engvall and his wife made the move from Dallas. At the end of one year, they moved to Los Angeles. Engvall wanted to be an actor.
When he got his first audition for a sitcom, he asked his then-pregnant wife to help him read lines. "Years later, she said, 'You were sitting there on the couch reading this audition piece to me and all I could think about is, "Oh my God. What have we done?" She said, 'You were so horrible. I was sitting there looking at my belly going, we're having a baby. We have no money. And he can't act. What are we doing out here?'"
At the time, Engvall was one of the top five acts being booked on the club circuit. He'd spend Tuesday through Monday on the road and return home for a Monday night acting class.
He was finally getting that $1,500 a week he had dreamed of but his sights were set higher. One night, Engvall and his wife were having dinner with Jeff Foxworthy and his wife. Foxworthy and Engvall had become friends through the comedy circuit and by then, Foxworthy's career was accelerating. Engvall noticed that foxworthy's manager, J.P. Williams of Parallel Entertainment, had been doing well for him. Foxworthy said Williams had turned his career around and then asked Engvall what he was up to. "Man, nothing," Engvall replied. "I mean, I'm literally doing nothing."
About two weeks later, the two couples went out to dinner again and Foxworthy told Engvall, "J.P. said if you ever want to talk to him, just give him a call." Williams and Engvall put their heads together and within one year, Engvall had a record deal at Warner Bros. Engvall's first album came out a year ago and his signature bit, "Here's Your Sign," recorded with Travis Tritt, is a hit. "For so long, I was running ahead of my career and now I'm trying to catch up."
Engvall's ambition to be an actor is coming along too. He has appeared as a guest on many television shows and has landed regular roles in a couple of series, the most succesful being "The Jeff Foxworthy Show." Now, it's time to move out on his own. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't want a shot at my own show," Engvall said. "I've been the fifth banana enough now that I know I want to be the king."
Though Engvall wants a chance for his own show, his life doesn't depend on that opportunity. "For the first time in my life, it is OK because I'm really digging the live performance. And that's always been my first love. I live by the phrase, 'You dance with who brung ya.'"