Let’s turn it into a routine for Johnny Carson’s turbanned seer Carnac (who, let’s never forget, was ripped off from Steve Allen’s “Answer Man”).
The answer to the question is “Bill Engvall.”
The question: Who is prime-time television’s greatest living illustration of the fact that you can indeed be too popular?
I feel terrible for this guy.
He’s one of the finalists on Monday and Tuesday night’s “Dancing With the Stars” season finale and he has about as much business being in the finals of a dance competition as I do or you do. (I don’t know about you but there are, no doubt, Yukon moose who dance better than I do.)
But there’s Engvall. And that is one of the many reasons that “Dancing With the Stars” is one of the most subversively educational shows ever put on network television.
By all means, sneer and snort if you want. It won’t get you anywhere with me. No weekly TV show that I know of has tested the American television audience as regularly – and sometimes as profoundly – as “Dancing With the Stars.”
To give Engvall his due as a “dancer:” He’s a high-octane klutz but he tries hard to be respectable every week and he gives the show every bit of his personality, which makes him everyone’s genial, big-hearted laughing Uncle Bill, the fellow almost no one minds seeing at family reunions.
He’s a gamer, that boy. And he’s a funny and decent sort too.
It’s just that on the last two weeks of the show, he has somehow gotten more home audience votes than a couple of female contestants who could clearly dance circles around him with a broken ankle – famously tough-gal comic actress and ex-Scientologist Leah Remini and tall, lissome “Showgirls” star Elizabeth Berkley.
What Engvall clearly has – and knows he has – that the two of them don’t have is a fan base that’s gigantic and tireless in its inclination to vote to keep the dude on the show.
If you’re one of those asking yourself “Bill who?,” a thumbnail dossier on Engvall: On Jeff Foxworthy’s Blue Collar Comedy tour, he was probably the most lovable in a foursome of comedians including Foxworthy, Scotch-swirling Ron White (my personal favorite), and Larry the Cable Guy. The genius of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour is that it appeals directly to anyone who might, even if only for a millisecond, feel disenfranchised by the “lamestream media.” It’s a comedy tour for backwater America and for anyone who thinks the people on Jay Leno are too sophisticated.
What’s important to say is that they’re all professional and highly proficient comedians. Which is to say they’re funny. And they are, no doubt in life, less than even money to resemble at all their comic personae. In fact, Larry the Cable Guy, in life, is known to be a good friend of “The Daily Show’s” beloved ranter-in-chief Lewis Black.
But on the road and on cable TV, they hit a big, fat sweet spot in the audience and they hit it hard. It resulted in Engvall getting his own sitcom which no one ever watched – except for the people who did – who then took it to heart and developed still more affection for the lummox in the middle.
The result is that on “Dancing With the Stars,” the guy could stumble around like a fool weekly and even fall flat on his face and there would be folks all over the country ready to put their digits and thumbs to work to call and vote for him to come back week after week.
Which has led to the most exciting spectacle in all of Reality TV for the year 2013.
At the end of “Dancing With the Stars” in the last two weeks, Engvall and his partner have been introduced as one of two couples slated to go home. Their judges’ scores are always that low.
Everyone in the audience and on the show assumes at that moment that the lummox’s time is finally up, that it’s his turn to dispense farewell kisses and hugs and get back to the wildly lucrative business of making sure that no one in the boonies feels deprived of comedians who understand and support them.
Surely, we’ve all felt at the end of those shows, the time has come to give “the stars” whose dancing is wholly respectable the upper hand so that Bill can take his sweet-natured avuncular grin back to the real world.
But no. For two weeks in a row, the surefire loser has been spared. He has, then, been a winner.
And here is part of the secret genius of “Dancing With the Stars”: When the week’s final winner and loser were announced in the final minute, the director didn’t merely make sure we saw a tearful, crestfallen close-up of the losers going home but, seconds afterward, lingering tearful close-ups of Engvall and his partner who, both times, looked infinitely more stricken and miserable than that week’s “losers.” There’s nothing in life that’s quite like being a wholly undeserved winner.
And that’s what this crazily subversive show taught us in the past two weeks: that if you are, indeed, a truly decent human being with no talent whatsoever but have a gigantic fan base willing to ignore that, popularity is a shame and a curse.
We’ve seen, on “Dancing With the Stars,” where the glory of victory and the agony of defeat have been turned upside down. We’ve seen “winning” make people unhappier than losing.
In the Entertainment Industrial Complex of the 21st century, the values of spectacle reign supreme. Big-time sports have never been bigger, wealthier, more popular and more influential in their rudimentary winning-or-losing mentality. Rock has become so transcendent that bands touring in the summer expect hugely compensated arena and stadium gigs to provide the income that records used to provide.
And here, on “Dancing With the Stars,” where identifiable human values triumph (one year’s winner was burn-scarred Iraq War veteran J.R. Martinez) we’ve watched a survivor and now finalist become utterly stricken with the misery of knowing that he was unjustly spared for one more week while someone infinitely more deserving was given the boot.
“Dancing With the Stars” can tell you more that you didn’t know about your country and your species in the 21st century than most editions of the nightly news.
I can’t wait to see how Engvall fares on the season finale.