Bill Engvall, <EM>The Bill Engvall Show</EM> Bill Engvall, The Bill Engvall Show
Blue Collar comedian Bill Engvall will join the ranks of Bob Newhart, Bill Cosby and Ray Romano, each of whom has segued from the ranks of stand-up performer to sitcom star, with the debut of TBS' 

The Bill Engvall Show, which premieres tonight at 9:30 pm/ET. Paired with veteran sitcom writer/executive producer Mike Leeson (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, Rhoda), Engvall's goal is to return the family-friendly sitcom to the airwaves.

Indeed, this type of program has taken a hit in recent years with the loss of such shows as Everybody Loves Raymond and My Wife and Kids. As Engvall tells, "After we shot the pilot, this 70-year-old lady came up to me and said, ‘Thanks for bringing family back to TV.'"

"Is there an audience for a [new version of] Married... with Children?" Engvall rhetorically asks. "Probably — but that's not my audience."

Ironically, though, the comedic chops of Engvall's TV daughter Jennifer Lawrence call to mind a young Christina Applegate. In an upcoming episode, a hunky grease monkey takes a shine to Lauren. While Al Bundy would have encouraged a union in exchange for free spark plugs, Engvall's Bill takes an overprotective stance. It's a case of art imitating life. "Jennifer had a young man come to the set one day," recalls a chuckling Engvall. "We didn't know if he was a boyfriend or not, but I became her ‘dad' anyway. I said to the guy, ‘She's got two dads now.'"

Engvall says the familial rapport he established with Lawrence and the rest of the Pearson TV family, which includes Nancy Travis (Becker) as wife Susan, Graham Patrick Martin as son Trent, and Skyler Gisondo as youngest son Brian, happened right off the bat. "Executives saw us throwing the football around in the parking lot the day we had our first table read," says Engvall. "[TBS comedy vice president] Nina Howie walked up and said, ‘This just doesn't happen.'"

"We jelled so fast," recalls Engvall. "I told them, ‘This is going to be the most fun job that you've ever had.'"

As creator and executive producer, Engvall had a big say in casting Travis as his TV mate. He also received a creative thumbs-up from his real-life spouse. "We read several people and they were all great, but when [wife Gail] heard that Nancy was available, she said, ‘Oh, get her,'" says Engvall.

The comedian was thrilled that Travis, who's worked with such Emmy-winning funnymen as Michael J. Fox (Family Ties) and Ted Danson (Cheers), came on board. "I told her my name's on the show, but this is a family show and you're just as big a part of it as I am," says Engvall, warmly adding, "Nancy keeps me real. She has this ability to look at me like my [real] wife does."

For the TBS series, Engvall will draw from his routine and also his real-life family — like when he compliments his wife on her sexy thong, only to learn that it really belongs to his daughter. "That was a true story," he says. "My daughter came home from school one day and said, ‘That's enough.' Some senior had said to her, ‘Hey, I heard your dad talkin' about your underwear!'"

One of Engvall's goals with the show is to present heartwarming scenarios that audiences can relate to without finding them sappy. In one episode, the Pearsons have to decide whether to spend money on a trip to Hawaii or surgery for the family dog. "My favorite shows [growing up] were The Dick Van Dyke Show and Leave It to Beaver," Engvall shares. "Shows where kids don't say ‘bitch.'"

The comedian hopes to give audiences a break from the daily grind when they tune in to his show. "People are trying to figure out how to pay bills and make ends meet," he notes. "They don't want to turn on the TV and say, ‘What is this crap?'"

Engvall's aware that some comedians who are invited to do TV are then asked to change the very style about them that executives found attractive in the first place. Has that happened at TBS? "Excellent question," he says. "No, [my voice] hasn't been stifled. You don't want to see ‘Dark Billy.' TBS and I have the same vision for the show, and we've had it from Day 1. If I feel there's something [in a script] that I shouldn't say or that Nancy or the kids shouldn't say, I'll say no. It might hurt [a writer's] feelings, but it's not like the viewers at home are going to say, ‘Oh, well, that writer just didn't get Bill.'"

Another consistent voice in The Bill Engvall Show is veteran sitcom director Jamie Widdoes (aka Animal House's Hoover), who helms all of the initial episodes. "Jamie's great," raves Engvall. "He knows my moods and he can pull things out of me. I have [an emotional] scene with [Jennifer] and a doll. He said to me, ‘Try not to cry,' and that made it so much stronger."

"If I could have Jamie as the sole director, I would," Engvall adds. "Everyone wants him. I'll fight for him and get him if I can."

For Season 2 Engvall also has a wish list of guest stars that includes Reba McEntire (Reba) and Danny DeVito (Taxi). "The ultimate jewel in the crown for me would be to do a scene with Bob Newhart in my office," says Engvall, whose TV alter ego is a family therapist. "That would be great. I think people would go crazy. There are so many fun things you could do [with him]."

Use our new Online Video Guide to go surfing for some Bill Engvall Show clips.

Get a look at TV's "fresh faces of summer" in the July 16 issue of TV Guide. Try four risk-free issues now!

Send your comments on this feature to