IT'S THE PEOPLE, STUPID : Foolish Folk in Everyday Life Give Bill Engvall an Endless Supply of Material

Dennis McLellan is a Times staff writer who regularly writes about comedy for OC Live!

As fans of Bill Engvall know, nothing rattles the good-natured comic's cage like stupid people.

Take the time he pulled into a gas station back home in Texas with a flat tire and the attendant looked at the tire and said, "Tire go flat?"

"Nooooo," Engvall drawled back. "Hell, I was driving around and those other three just swelled right up on me."

Engvall, who headlines at the Improv in Brea through Sunday, would like such people to wear signs that say, "I'm Stupid." That way, we wouldn't have to rely on them to demonstrate it to us, says the comic, who views his job as "making fun of stupid stuff, and there's a lot of it out there."

One of Engvall's favorites is Preparation H, the hemorrhoid medication that comes with the warning, "Do not take orally."

And then there's the warning on the blow-dryer Engvall saw in a hotel bathroom: " 'Do not use while sleeping.' . . . I'm thinking, 'Has this become a problem?' I can't count the number of times I've been sound asleep, woke up, and I was doing my hair."

Engvall's act, which earned him the 1992 American Comedy Award for best male stand-up comedian, includes material on kids, family life and animals. But it's his "stupid people" routine that most audiences remember, Engvall acknowledged by phone from his home in Culver City last week.

And, he said, the bit continues to evolve, although it's difficult finding new examples that are as strong as the original ones he found. He struck gold again recently, however, when he read the directions on a fan belt package: "Turn motor off before installing."

Engvall--who dreamed of becoming a teacher while studying at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Tex., in the late '70s but instead discovered he had a flair for stand-up comedy--said he started talking about "stupid people" in his act about six years ago, but with a slightly different twist.

"I was doing a bit that stupid people should be slapped ," he said. "But the more I did it, the more I didn't like that connotation, the violence and all that. The more I thought about it, I thought they should just wear signs. And, man, it just took off."

Engvall's concern over the slapping reference is indicative of his overall approach to stand-up.

He's a gentle, low-key performer with a good-ol'-boy-next-door demeanor and a fun-loving, good-natured delivery in which he appears to be having as good a time as his audience. As he has said in more than one interview, he wants to be a guy everybody likes.

"I just think that with the economy and all, that when people are going to spend money to see the show, they want to see someone they're going to like," he said. "I'm just a really a very down to earth kind of guy--I'd just as soon be driving a truck as riding in a limo--and I think that that sense goes through the whole show."

Engvall--who had a regular role on Delta Burke's canceled sitcom, "Delta," and is currently working with Warner Bros. on a deal for a sitcom of his own--said his stand-up act "is the kind of show where you can just sit back and enjoy it.

"I don't pick on people. I don't do religious stuff or political stuff. I just feel there's enough out there that's funny. You start getting into those fields, you start stepping on people's toes."

He acknowledges that "in a sense I think that has hurt me as far as HBO specials and stuff like that because I'm not on the edge. Then I look at someone like (Bill) Cosby and (Bob) Newhart and if I can work as long as they have, I can be a happy man."

Engvall, who has been married 11 years, has two children: a daughter who just turned 7 and a son who just turned 2.

"Two birthday parties in one month," he said, adding with a laugh: "That'll put you over the edge."

Family life, needless to say, is one of Engvall's favorite parts of his act.

On marriage, he says on stage: "I learned that you don't take dishes from the table to the dishwasher; you have to rinse them first. I think that's stupid because I don't go out in the back yard and hose off before taking a shower."

Noted Engvall: "One of the things that's nice is I don't cut the family down. I keep it on a real light note, and I tend to turn it around a lot on myself. I get people saying, 'Do you have a camera at our house?' What I want is for people to walk out of my show thinking, 'Man, something like that happened to me!' "

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