TBS's 'Bill Engvall': Leave It to a Father Who Knows Best

Bill Engvall, flanked by Graham Patrick Martin, left, and Skyler Gisondo, two of the kids that dominate the stand-up comic's TBS cable series.
Bill Engvall, flanked by Graham Patrick Martin, left, and Skyler Gisondo, two of the kids that dominate the stand-up comic's TBS cable series. (By Danny Feld)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Every stand-up comic in the world would surely like to emulate Jerry Seinfeld, who turned his act into one of the most popular and highly praised sitcoms ever -- and himself into probably the richest comic ever. And yet few if any comedians have actually tried to imitate his show. "Seinfeld" was so idiosyncratic, so singular and so -- what is the word? Oh yes, brilliant -- that even attempting a copy is too difficult.

Bill Engvall, one of today's breed of blue-collar and blue-jean stand-ups, has sensibly tried to follow not in Seinfeld's footsteps so much as comic Ray Romano's: Do a family sitcom in the classical mode, a form that has prevailed since the days of radio and always includes domestic situations meant to strike responsive chords in the audience.

Hence "The Bill Engvall Show," a family-friendly series premiering tonight with less of a bang than a whimper on the TBS cable network.

Engvall hardly equals Romano -- either the star or the eponymous show -- but it's reassuring in some foggy way to happen upon an old-fashioned and innocuous sitcom set in Anywhere USA (supposedly the Denver suburbs) and having nothing more to say to us than, haw-haw, dads can be such dorks! But aww, bless their hearts, they try.

There's a sort of comfort that comes from knowing you won't run into anything disruptively unconventional in a sitcom, and that would make "Engvall" as pleasantly lumpy as a dying couch. The show is filled with contemporary references to laptops and iPods and such, but the plots are basically generic. Tonight's show is about Dad interfering too much when teenage son Trent gets a chance to be first-string quarterback on the high school team, and that could have happened to Wally and his father on "Leave It to Beaver" a half-century ago.

A subplot in which the family's teenage daughter threatens to get her navel pierced wouldn't have popped up on, say, "The Brady Bunch," true. But that's just a sign of changing times, not really changing sitcoms.

As it happens, the three cute kids on "Engvall" dominate the show, and children 10 and older are probably the show's best potential audience, more likely to find it funny than their folks are. Occasional sexual references -- the daughter walks in on her parents and finds them, to her revulsion, naked -- are bland and seemingly harmless. Besides, wouldn't we be way up in triple-digits if we counted all the kids who have walked in on their parents at indelicate moments in sitcoms? Have parents in these shows ever thought of locking the door when they feel like getting funky-wunky?

Engvall appears just barely to have a personality. He plays Bill Pearson, a "family therapist" who gives advice to distressed couples and their kids but (O, the irony) meanwhile has lots of problems at his own house -- minor problems, at least for now.

Nancy Travis has considerable natural appeal as his wife (called, for the record, "long-suffering" in a TBS press release), but the three children are all scene-stealers: Jennifer Lawrence as Lauren, Graham Patrick Martin as Trent and Skyler Gisondo as Bryan, who is the only pre-adolescent and thus the most likely to spout a sarcastic wisecrack -- or have a snake as a pet.

Tim Meadows, versatile veteran of "Saturday Night Live," is supposed to be in the cast, but he doesn't show up in the first two episodes submitted for preview. Guess who does show up, though: Steve Hytner as Bill's friend Bob Spoonerman. Hytner is much, much better known as Kenny Bania, the achingly unfunny comic who was one of many nemeses to Jerry on "Seinfeld." Nothing Hytner is asked to do on "Engvall" is remotely as funny as things he did on "Seinfeld," of course; his voice seems lower and his face jowlier. In fact, he's really quite unremarkable in this new context, but he stirs happy memories.

Kept fairly brisk by director James Widdoes -- whose recent work includes "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," the last sitcom to star John Ritter -- "The Bill Engvall Show" minds its manners and behaves itself, and might even elicit a chuckle or two. Michael Leeson created the series with Engvall, so the comic had plenty of accomplished help -- and needs it.

One of the companies involved in the show is called Very Funny Productions. That's overstatement, but then the more accurate "Almost Funny Productions" wouldn't look very good in the closing credits.

The Bill Engvall Show (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 9 on TBS.

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