No joke: Comedian Bill Engvall becoming GCU grad
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
A comedian, an ordained minister and a college drop-out-turned-Christian studies graduate walk into a bar …
It could be the beginning of a comedy routine. Or it could be a lagniappe of comedian Bill Engvall’s life.
Engvall, an ordained minister better known for his “Here’s Your Sign” comedy routine, TBS sitcom and successful run on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, is among the largest graduating class in Grand Canyon University’s history this spring. Traditional students walked the stage at GCU Arena in April, and Engvall and other adult working students studying online are being honored with a virtual ceremony 10 a.m. Saturday, Arizona time, though they will have the option of donning their cap and gown for an in-person ceremony tentatively slated for September.
Ironically, Engvall, who will receive his bachelor’s degree in Christian Studies, said becoming a minister was something he did after he saw everyone else getting ordained online. He thought he would do it, too. Why not? The idea tickled him.
“But when I got the certificate, I was looking at it and thought, ‘Well, if I do this, I want to know what I’m talking about.’”
And so began his journey to finish what he never did 46 years ago.
Engvall’s quest for a college degree at GCU wasn’t his first.
The Galveston, Texas, native graduated from high school in the Dallas suburbs and attended Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, just a 30-minute drive down I-35 from Austin.
Going to college was just something he was supposed to do, though like many college students, he didn’t really know where he was going.
“While I was there, I had four majors in four years, so I didn’t really have any direction in my life at all,” Engvall said from Denver, where he was spending time with his first grandchild.
He thought for a time that he might be a teacher and even has an idea for a class for high school seniors. It would just be called “Life.” Students on the first day of class would pick a slip of paper out of a bucket with a job title, and they would learn about that job.
“It tells you how much you’re going to make a year, and then through the year, you bring in people, like credit card people, banking people,” he said. “ … (As a college student) I didn’t know what a checking account was. I didn’t know what a credit card was. … If they (the financial aid office) handed me a check for $4,800 at the beginning of the semester, I would have been like, ‘This MUST be party money.’”
Engvall ended up dropping out of college on his first try.
“I learned a lot about life and how to deal with people, but academically, I was not mature enough for college,” he said.
He found his way to professional comedy clubs and eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1990 to try his hand at television.
Engvall got his first big boost when he was named Best Male Standup at the American Comedy Awards in 1992, and his “Here’s Your Sign” routine secured his place in the comedy world. The comedy album of the same name in 1996 was certified platinum for reaching 1 million albums in sales, and it remained at No. 1 on the Billboard Comedy Chart for 15 weeks.
In 2000, Engvall and fellow comedian Jeff Foxworthy launched the first of six highly successful Blue Collar Comedy Tours with Larry the Cable Guy and Ron White.
Then in 2007, he starred in his own sitcom, “The Bill Engvall Show,” which debuted on TBS, and he would later place fourth on Dancing with the Stars in 2013.
His latest TV gig is playing Rev. Paul on “Last Man Standing,” the FOX sitcom starring Tim Allen – a role that seems apropos in life-imitating-art fashion.
Engvall said that, despite a successful career in comedy, going back to college was something he felt compelled to do. Everyone in his family has a degree, so why not him?
“The comedy started taking off, so I didn’t really have a chance to really think about it much,” he said of school. “But it just always kind of bugged me in the back of my head that I didn’t finish something.”
He remembered coming across GCU’s website, loved its mission statement and loved the idea of being able to complete a bachelor’s degree online.
“The next thing I know, I’m enrolled,” he said, and it wasn’t until he enrolled at GCU that he found the direction he lacked that first time he was a college student.
“I have a buddy who’s a retired priest, I kind of had some interest in theology, and I read a couple of books. I felt I really liked it,” said Engvall, who calls Park City, Utah, home when he’s not performing. “I was telling my wife, I wish someone had asked me what I was interested in.”
He said one of the things he enjoyed at GCU was meeting with his Student Services counselor. “They’d call. They’d check in, you know, ‘How are you doing?’”
He also loved the surveys of the Old and New Testament courses, his Christian ethics class, and one of the very first classes he took, the University Success class (UNV-103), which teaches students everything from how to write a paper to time management. That class would have helped him in his early school days.
Not that going back to college 46 years after the first try was easy.
Engvall told Kelly Clarkson on “The Kelly Clarkson Show” that he always had a tough time with math: “Now I had to get into a college math class, and it was hard,” he said, joking that he wondered why he needed math for a Christian Studies degree when all he needed to know was that there were 12 apostles, 10 commandments and that Jesus rose after three days.
There were a few times that he thought about giving up and thought to himself, “I don’t need this.”
“But I was proud of myself, because I stuck through it. There was this voice that kept urging me on, so we’ll see where that little voice takes me.”
Where it has taken him so far is a series of inspirational talks on his Facebook page called “Sunday Mornings with Bill.”
“I just feel like religion has kind of taken a hit lately,” Engvall said. “I think maybe a lot of it has to do with the internet and social media and stuff. Attendance in four-wall religions is on the decline, and I hate to see that because, personally, I enjoy going to church.”
The one thing he was looking forward to was walking the stage, since he didn’t get to do it the first time around. Although he’s disappointed not to celebrate in person, he’s happy to graduate virtually and say he’s a college graduate.
What he’ll do with his degree after that, he doesn’t know. He sees himself possibly doing guest pastor gigs at churches. He might even pursue a master’s degree and said there’s a 99% chance he would return to GCU.
“Where it leads to, I can’t tell you, but I’m sure it’ll be good.”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.
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