The Silly Sitcom Jennifer Lawrence Did Before She Was an Acclaimed Dramatic Actress
I remember being vaguely aware of the existence of The Bill Engvall Show. Debuting in the summer of 2007, the series was part of a short-lived era in which TBS was trying to bring back traditional sitcoms, alongside My Boys and House of Payne. The Bill Engvall Show seemed as generic as the rest of them, led by Bill Engvall, one of the Blue Collar Comedy stand-up guys. I never tuned in, but it costarred Nancy Travis and Tim Meadows, both of whom I enjoyed. Like a lot of cable sitcoms, The Bill Engvall Show was something I felt very comfortable completely ignoring. Many of you may have never even heard of it until just now.
Jennifer Lawrence is one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. But in recent years, she’s taken more of a backseat, focusing on marriage and having her first child rather than worrying about chasing the latest franchise vehicle. (She’s done plenty of those already, having led The Hunger Games and being part of the relaunched X-Men series alongside Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy.) On Friday, though, Lawrence returns with Causeway, a stripped-down drama in which she plays a soldier recuperating back home in New Orleans after suffering a serious brain injury while serving in Afghanistan. It’s the kind of actor’s-actor indie that’s meant to demonstrate that years of walking red carpets haven’t changed this Oscar-winner. She can still deliver the goods.
At 32, Lawrence remains among her generation’s best actresses, garnering kudos for a series of serious roles from Winter’s Bone to Joy. Even when she’s in an ostensible romantic comedy like Silver Linings Playbook, there’s a grit and depth to her performance — a sense of soulfulness that made her damaged character prickly and heartbreaking. But as endearingly dorky and snarky as she is on talk shows, she’s never done a full-on comedic film. (I’m not counting her go-for-broke portrayal in American Hustle, despite how fun it is. And even last year’s satire Don’t Look Up was, deep down, a very despairing movie about the planet being destroyed by a comet.)
Which is why it’s funny that one of Lawrence’s first big gigs was on a sitcom. Specifically, in The Bill Engvall Show. Nobody tuned in back then because Jennifer Lawrence was on the series. But she’s probably now the most notable thing about it.
Growing up in Kentucky, Lawrence had wanted to be part of showbiz from an early age. As a kid, she played a prostitute in a church production, her mother later telling Rolling Stone, “The other girls just stood there with lipstick on, but she came in swinging her booty and strutting her stuff. Our friends said, ‘We don’t know if we should congratulate you or not, because your kid’s a great prostitute.’” At 14, on a trip to New York, she wound up landing an agent, eventually booking parts on Monk, Cold Case and Medium. But she wasn’t one of those aspiring starlets who took lessons or hired a coach. As Lawrence once put it in her trademark self-deprecating way: “That’s how I can go about life free as an idiot — because I have no idea what I’m doing.”
She knew enough to soon get cast on a sitcom which, like so many, starred a comedian who was making the transition from stage to the small screen. Engvall was a popular meat-and-potatoes stand-up, joking about marriage, Christmas, getting older and the washing machine. With his Texas accent and regular-joe attitude, he appealed to middle America, and TBS decided to give him his own show, in which he played a family counselor who, predictably, had to deal with plenty of hijinks within his own family. After Engvall had been part of other people’s sitcoms, like his pal Jeff Foxworthy’s, The Bill Engvall Show was meant to be his big break.
“I remember specifically standing outside the studio, the stage we were on, and they had these great big doors that slide back and forth so they could move equipment and stuff, and on it was written The Bill Engvall Show,” Engvall recalled. “I just remember staring at it going, ‘Wow, you made it. You got your hands on the brass ring.’”
Reviews were never that glowing — the show only lasted three brief seasons — but Lawrence (along with her costars Graham Patrick Martin and Skyler Gisondo) were singled out as “scene-stealers” playing Engvall’s kids. And although the sitcom’s one-liners are pretty, well, sitcom-y, you can sense the megawatt charisma emanating from this teenager. Sarcastic but also utterly comfortable and relaxed, there’s not an ounce of phoniness in the young Lawrence. Engvall certainly noticed. “Of my favorite scenes that I did on that show, one of them was with Jennifer,” he said in 2011, later adding, “We had a scene where she was mad at me, and I had to go in and apologize to her. We had that nice dad-daughter moment. I remember , ‘This girl’s good.’ She’s got it; she’s got what it takes. I think she’ll be holding that statuette before she’s done.”
The Bill Engvall Show had been canceled by that point, that early glimpse into Lawrence’s comedic side largely forgotten as she quickly pursued indie dramas such as Garden Party and The Burning Plain. Weirdly enough, though, you could make the argument that the sitcom helped prepare her for the breakout role that launched her movie career. On The Bill Engvall Show, her character Lauren was the oldest of three children, the level-headed sibling who was mature beyond her years. The sitcom, which was set in comfy suburban Colorado, felt like a sunnier version of the situation in which Ree, the rural teenage protagonist of Winter’s Bone, finds herself.
In that 2010 Oscar-nominated thriller, Lawrence’s character must keep her poverty-stricken family together by hunting down her missing father, experiencing all types of peril along the way. Winter’s Bone was harrowing — Ree’s brains and savvy keep her alive while dealing with some dangerous individuals — but Lawrence (who received a Best Actress nomination) gave the film a lively, empathetic core. Ree has had a tough life, but she hadn’t lost her surly sense of humor in the process. As Lawrence had proved on The Bill Engvall Show, she projected an all-American realness in Winter’s Bone that couldn’t be faked. The authenticity she brought on the sitcom was just as evident playing a desperate young person trying to survive in the Ozarks — there weren’t as many punchlines, but at least they weren’t as corny.
As Winter’s Bone started blowing up, premiering to raves at Sundance and then becoming an awards-season darling, Lawrence was tasting the spotlight for the first time. There might have been a temptation to distance herself from her cheesy sitcom past, but instead she said, “I’m so grateful for . I had so much fun on that show, and we all became like family. It funded my indie career, so I could do the movies that I want.” And even years later, after she’d won an Oscar and was part of some huge blockbusters, Lawrence didn’t laugh off her modest start. “When I started acting, I was totally satisfied when I was on a sitcom because I had a steady paycheck,” Lawrence told Oprah Winfrey in 2017. “And I was like, ‘Maybe I can just find a way to be on sitcoms forever.’ I was totally satisfied and good. I never dreamed that I could have this kind of career.”
Still, it is somewhat odd that she’s never really embraced her goofy side on the big screen. Lord knows she’s a comedy nerd: When she was 19 and attracting Hollywood’s attention, she actually took a meeting with Adam McKay, who years later would direct her in Don’t Look Up. “I got this call that the wonderful actress from Winter’s Bone wanted to meet me,” he recalled last year. “And she came in and just for an hour we talked about Step Brothers. And I’m like, ‘I like her. We’re idiots too.’”
While it’s unlikely she’ll ever go Full Ferrell, Jennifer Lawrence certainly has it in her to do broad comedy. (She and buddy Amy Schumer have talked about doing a project together forever.) You won’t go to the sensitive character drama Causeway for laughs, but the film (in which she costars with Brian Tyree Henry) is an excellent reminder of how naturally likable she is.
When will she finally let it rip? Maybe next year: Summer 2023 is when we’ll supposedly get No Hard Feelings, which was initially described only as an “R-rated comedy with a heart.” (There’s been a little more info leaked recently: Deadline says Lawrence will star as “a ne-er-do-well who is hired by a rich couple to befriend their socially awkward kid.”) So, stay patient: We may not have to watch Bill Engvall Show reruns much longer to get our fix of Funny Jennifer.