“The Bill Engvall Show”
Thursdays, 9 p.m.
Nancy Travis came a long way to go bowling. About 2,400 miles, in fact.
OK, she really made the trek from Los Angeles to Indianapolis to promote “The Bill Engvall Show,” the TBS sitcom that begins its second season Thursday night. It just so happened that one of the promotional events took place at Pinheads, a bowling "entertainment center" in Fishers, so Travis could meet, mingle and bowl with the regular folks who make up the show's audience.
"Bill calls this 'The Red State Show,'" she said. "And it’s true. You talk to New York, you talk to L.A. and they’re just 'eh.' You come to a place like this and people are going crazy for it. And for him."
“The Bill Engvall Show” is a throwback to the old family sitcoms, complete with precocious kids, sassy wife and goofball dad — played by Engvall, who made his fame as a member of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour (along with Jeff Foxworthy, Ron White and Larry the Cable Guy).
For Travis, it's a continuation of an acting career that began in 1985 and includes the films “Three Men and a Baby” (and “Three Men and a Little Lady”), “Eight Men Out” and “Married to the Mob,” as well as TV shows such as “Becker” and a fair amount of live theater.
In real life, Travis is married and has two sons, ages 10 and 7. So it seemed right to start the interview by asking whether the show mirrors her life.
"It’s a little early, but there are seeds of that," she said. "I’ve had the damnedest time trying to get my sons to do any kind of chore. It goes in one ear and out the other. So there are subtle ways like that."
Here's the rest of the conversation.
NUVO: One thing that rang true for me in the season premiere was when Bill punishes the kids and immediately wants to rescind the punishment.
TRAVIS: I’m out of town now and my husband’s at home with the kids. The second episode this season is about Bill saying, “How come the kids always go to you for permission?” In my house, the kids come to me and I’m in charge of their whole day. But now that I’m not there, my husband is calling and asking, “Who gets dropped off and picked up and how does that happen?” It’s interesting about the roles people play in the family and the marriage.
NUVO: When this job came up, did you know much about Bill Engvall?
TRAVIS: I didn’t know anything about Bill Engvall. This came up and I had actually done another pilot for TBS and was waiting to hear about that. Then my agent said while you’re waiting, read this show, “The Bill Engvall Show.” Usually, a show, before it has a title, is named after the writer: The so-and-so project. So I thought he was some showrunner I’d never heard of.
So I’m reading it and the character is called Bill Engvall. And I thought: The conceit of this writer to name the character after himself. Unbelievable. Cut to: I find out he’s in Blue Collar Comedy Tour — I don’t know much about that, either — and I begin my education by meeting Bill. I just found him to be really available and charming and down to earth.
Then I took my husband to see him perform his standup in a casino outside of L.A. Thousands of people, and he’s standing inside what looks like a boxing ring. I thought: These people all feel like he’s their best friend and he’s intimately talking to them about their lives.
NUVO: Has your career gone the way you expected?
TRAVIS: No and yes. Two answers. I got out of school and I wanted to have and be what Julia Roberts is. And that’s the trajectory I was on. Then I met the man I fell in love with and we got married. It changed my perspective on the business. My husband, at the time, was a studio executive and became a producer. And also, I knew that for the relationship to be healthy and survive, we had to be together. So I made an adjustment there.
Once I had kids, that sealed the deal and I just haven’t been as aggressive and ambitious as I was when I first started. A lot of my decisions are predicated on what’s best for my family — how can I have what I love and, at the same time, be around.
From the get-go, I wanted to be an actress and never wanted to be anything else. My dream was to be able to keep working. I achieved that, and hopefully that will keep going. And I changed the way I measured success. What I realized about this business is how hard it is to get work and to get good work. That’s an achievement in itself.
NUVO: I remember when “Almost Perfect” came out (in 1995) and everyone was talking about you being the next big thing. That sitcom didn’t quite happen the way people expected.
TRAVIS: It was a shame about “Almost Perfect.” That was a great show, and it fell between regimes at CBS and kind of got the kibosh. If that came at another time, it might have had another life.
NUVO: There’s a comment on imdb.com that says you’re a cross between Andie MacDowell and Julia Roberts.
TRAVIS: It’s nice. I’ll take it. But I have these visions of I’d rather be a cross between Vivien Leigh and Helen Mirren. I almost feel like this is a little parenthesis for me and then I’m going to go on and do all the great roles. But as long as the checks clear, I’ve got other plans too.
In this business, there’s what you do to pay the rent and there’s what you do for the love of the craft. And if the two meet, that’s kismet.
NUVO: Tell me some of the projects you’ve done for love of the craft.
TRAVIS: I did an Athol Fugard play called “My Children! My Africa!” at the La Jolla Playhouse. I did a play at the Geffen called “Boy Gets Girl.” I really loved working on “Internal Affairs” (1990) — I thought that was an amazing experience. I even loved doing “Three Men and a Little Lady” because it was challenging in different ways. And “Almost Perfect.” I loved “Almost Perfect” in terms of craft.
But sitcom acting — people underestimate it. To do it and to be real and funny and not farcical is hard. You really need to know how to listen and relax.