Comedian-actor Billy Gardell

Mike & Molly star discusses the show’s success and explains why the audience identifies with the characters, which he describes as a “hot mess.”

Billy Gardell started early in stand-up, writing directing and starring in his own well-received sketch comedy show while still in high school in Florida. He was headlining clubs before he turned 21 and has opened for such established comics as George Carlin and Dennis Miller. Ending up in L.A., Gardell parlayed his talent into acting roles, with regular guest appearances on hit primetime shows and performances in several films. His humor can also be heard on CD and seen on Comedy Central specials, and he currently stars in CBS' hit sitcom Mike and Molly.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: Billy Gardell is a standup comedian, a talented comedian, who now stars on the very popular sitcom, “Mike and Molly.” The show recently began its second season on CBS and garnered its biggest audience to date, I might add, airing Monday nights at 9:30. But, obviously, you know that since the ratings were so huge on opening night. Here now a scene from “Mike and Molly.”

[Clip]

Tavis: [Laugh] First of all, Billy, you did not get the memo. You do not come dressed sharper than the host.

Billy Gardell: Come on, man. I told you, it’s rented.

Tavis: [Laugh] Got the nice tie, the pocket square; you got that thing working, Billy.

Gardell: If I don’t wear this kind of stuff when I come to the studios, there’s a guy that’s usually going, “Sir? Sir?” I got to let them know that I’m here to see you, that’s all.

Tavis: First of all, congratulations on the success. Nice to meet you, first of all. Congrats on the success.

Gardell: It’s amazing. What an amazing journey.

Tavis: Those numbers on the first night back were huge.

Gardell: That’s a big deal, man.

Tavis: That’s a very big deal. How does that feel? Does it feel good? Does it feel like pressure? How do you process 14+ million viewers on the first night?

Gardell: I think all of that. I feel very blessed to have the job that I have at the age and the appearance I have [laugh] to have all of this at this time in life. It’s been a real blessing. And the fact that our show has translated to the rest of this country where there’s somebody for everybody on our show, I think that’s the heartbeat of our show and I’m very proud of that.

Tavis: I want to come back to that notion of somebody for everybody. Before I do that, though, let me start with what you said a moment ago that you feel very blessed to have had this success at this point in your life. What do you mean by that, Billy?

Gardell: Well, I’m a grown man and, at 41, it’s nice to have success because you’re grateful. There’s an attitude of gratitude on our set, you know, with myself and with Melissa McCarthy and Reno Wilson who is one of my dearest friends. You know, me and him have known each other eight years and we ended up on a show together. So to be able to share that every day is great.

The rest of our cast, Katy Mixon, Nyambi Nyambi, Swoosie Kurtz, and our peripheral players, Lou Mustillo and Rondi Reed and Cleo King, whom I love as Grandma. You know, there’s an attitude of professionalism and people that have been through it long enough that we know it’s special. I think that comes across when we do the shows.

Tavis: The other piece of your comment that I want to unpack, you made a joking reference to it, but seriously, your size.

Gardell: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: How has it helped or hindered? Because you obviously made reference to it for some reason.

Gardell: Sure. Well, yeah, because it’s amazing to me that Mark Roberts, the creator of our show, and Chuck Lorre, thought, you know, we’re gonna get a 300-pound guy to be a romantic lead. That’s a pretty big deal in Hollywood, man. That’s huge, you know.

I always thought, you know, my goal as a standup was always to get on a show. You know, when you’re a big guy in Hollywood, you’re the buddy, the neighbor or the bad guy. You’re either saying, “You kids get out of there!” “Frank, she’s gonna kill both of us!” or “Bring them to me!” That’s your whole wheelhouse, which is a good living, which is a great living.

But when this came along and I got a chance to audition for Chuck and Mark and they called me and said, “You’re gonna be the guy and we’re gonna put you opposite Melissa McCarthy,” it was like wow, that’s that phone call you dream about, but you don’t ever think is gonna happen and it did.

Tavis: Now the third part of your statement, that you think part of the reason why it’s resonating so much is because it’s very clear that there is somebody for everybody in this world.

Gardell: Absolutely. You know, Mark Roberts, when he created the show, the idea that these people met at an Overeaters Anonymous place where people are struggling to get healthier is just the beginning of their relationship. The true story about this is two people falling in love who thought they were never gonna fall in love, and people root for that. If you can’t root for that, you’re dead inside.

It’s just about two people trying to keep it together. While that might be Mike and Molly’s flaw, their health, they’re trying to get a little healthier. The true “hot mess” surrounds them. They’re actually the two most together people on the show because there’s just a mess around them.

You got a borderline alcoholic mother; on my side, you got a mother where, if the phone rings, it’s bad news; you got a sister that’s out of control; my best friend in real life and on the show, Reno, who plays a guy – I mean, who doesn’t have a best friend who wants to give you advice on stuff he’s never done?

This is real life, you know, and I think, if you don’t identify with Mike and Molly, you identify with Carl or you identity with Victoria or the mother. I have people come up to me after my standup shows and everybody has a different favorite character and that says a lot for what’s happened in our show.

Tavis: Tell me how your standup career – I got a few questions about your standup career. How was your standup career going, how was it moving along?

Gardell: Slowly [laugh].

Tavis: [Laugh] Before the TV show.

Gardell: It was good, man. I was a good headliner in the clubs, you know, and I had a small pocket of people that would come see me. But I would play rooms that were maybe, you know, 250 to 300 seats and I would fill them up maybe Friday for a show, both shows Saturday. And then the rest of the week would be like 85 people, 65 people, depending on where I was at in what city.

Tavis: And now?

Gardell: It’s amazing, man. It’s like lightning hit because it’s all the “Mike and Molly” fans. About 20% of my audience are people that knew me from standup. The other 80% are “Mike and Molly” fans. I just headlined at the Mirage over the summer in Vegas.

Now the last place I worked in Vegas before that was a lounge with 68 people who had won a coupon to come see me to get their mind off the fact they had just lost their kid’s college fund [laugh]. So it’s much nicer to pull into the Mirage and see my big dumb head on that poster and people actually wanting to come see the show.

Tavis: For those who have not seen your show, to use your words, what’s your comedic wheelhouse when you’re on stage?

Gardell: Definitely, I come from a very working class place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Tavis: Which means you’re a Steelers fan?

Gardell: Oh, man, obsessed, obsessed. I’m that kind of fan like where, if you try to tease me about my team and say something’s wrong, I’ll go, “I know, and you know what’s really wrong?” They’re like, “All right, man. I don’t really want to talk with you anymore.” You want to open this can of worms?

So back to the standup, though, everything is from my roots. All the guys I admired when I was coming up, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Cosby, Bill Hicks, these were all guys that wrote what was permeating through their life and their opinions.

I always thought what a brilliant way to keep your act evolving, to write what’s happening to you now. So my act has gone from being crazy in my youth to becoming a husband and a father and trying to be an example for my child. So that’s my arc, but it’s rooted in blue collar common sense.

When I say blue collar, I don’t mean out on the tractor. I mean, lunch pail guys. That’s my version of blue collar where I grew up. It’s the lunch pail newspaper guys, you know, the guys in the corner bar that were just trying to keep their families together.

Tavis: Maybe I’m in too deep. If I am, you tell me. How much of your success in the standup now has to do not just with “Mike and Molly,” but given the kind of humor, the kind of comedy, that you do, that it resonates with people in that genre who are catching the most hell right now?

Gardell: Well, I think the reason that our show is such a hit is because Melissa on the show is a teacher and I’m a cop. Those are two very working class sensibility jobs. Those people can identify with those people. Then what happens is, my standup is rooted in working class also, so I got lucky where the show I got on matched up with the humor I tell.

Tavis: Kind of like Roseanne Barr back in the day. Her timing was perfect.

Gardell: But it matched up perfect. Like I heard when Bob Saget when from “Full House” out to standup, his standup act is very blue and he was very squeaky clean on the show. So that’s a hard transition to get the same audience into. I’ve been lucky because it kind of crossed the board for me.

Tavis: Obviously, we see how funny you are on the show, but how does your comedy, if ever, work its way into the show?

Gardell: I think just all those years of gigs and knowing how to tell the joke. What I’ve had to learn doing this show is that the beautiful part about this show, it’s so well constructed in the writer’s room that there’s always a moment in “Mike and Molly” where there’s some tenderness or there’s a very real moment.

Like I’ve had real moments with everybody on the cast where you have to admit an awkwardness or admit something that you’re scared of. I think when you do that, when the laugh comes after, that laugh is twice as hard. So I knew how to deliver the joke.

What I’ve learned from my cast, my director and my writers is how to take that moment and be vulnerable. Because, if you can be vulnerable, people will identify. They go, you know what, I’ve felt like that and, if you’re not afraid to say that, I can root for you, I think.

Tavis: You been a big guy most of your life?

Gardell: Yeah, oh, yeah.

Tavis: So are you one of those guys who were maltreated by kids in school back then and now you’re the success and they’re looking at you like, “Oh, guess Billy won?”

Gardell: No, you know what, man? I was always the big dude that was at the party. I was the last-named kid. You know, “Wear your shin guard, Dell?” Some fat kids get pushed around and then some fat kids are just that fat kid that gets to roll with everybody, and I was kind of that. I didn’t really fit in anywhere, but I was okay to go anywhere, you know?

Tavis: I can see that. So, on the show specifically, you’re engaged now.

Gardell: Yeah, yeah. The last episode last year, we got engaged and then I believe this year we’ll be planning the wedding. They don’t tell us too far out what’s gonna happen. They give us the script on Wednesday nights and then we know what’s gonna happen the following week, but they kind of keep us in the dark, which I like because it keeps us on kind of a real time schedule. You know what I mean?

We’re just worried about that week, you know. They believe in very small, real moment stories as we go. We don’t really know what’s coming.

Tavis: You got a genius on your team named Burrows. Speaking of last names, Gardell, Burrows.

Gardell: That’s my man right there.

Tavis: Is there anybody better? This guy’s awfully good. Jim Burrows is pretty…

Gardell: I love him. I can’t say enough about the guy. It’s literally like playing for a Hall of Fame coach. He has more knowledge about how to be funny than I will ever. He’s forgotten more about funny that I’m ever gonna know. But the thing about Jimmy is he’s a real director in the way that he doesn’t tell you how to read the line.

He tells what the intention behind the line should be and then he’ll give you little directions. They’re like little brush strokes and you’re like, “Well, if I just pick my coffee up when I say that, why is it gonna be funnier?” Then you do it in front of the audience and they scream and you go, “God, how did he know that?” He just knows.

But the real gift about Jimmy is his demeanor. Jimmy is a great coach because he’s that coach that expects you to do good, but when he compliments you, it’s like your chest puffs up twice as hard because you think, “Oh, he saw what I did.” And he resonates a confidence and a calm on the set that everybody reflects. The ship is always calm with Jimmy and that’s a beautiful thing.

Tavis: Let me close on this show. When this show first came on, as you know, a year ago, the waters were rough initially because there were people who were taking shots at you guys for the fat jokes.

Gardell: I remember clearly. I went on “The View” and they asked me about it. I sent her a cake [laugh]. It’s like I said, man. Everybody’s gonna have their own opinion and that’s okay, man. You have to face that in life. You know, that’s just how it is. But if more people like you than less people, hang out with those people.

Tavis: Yeah, I like that [laugh]. Enough said. You answered the question. I was about to ask what do you make of that they didn’t like you at first and now they do, but…

Gardell: Go where you’re loved, man.

Tavis: I like that. Can I quote you on that?

Gardell: Absolutely.

Tavis: Go where you’re loved. Good to have you on, Billy.

Gardell: Pleasure, Tavis.

Tavis: Billy Gardell, “Mike and Molly,” great show on Mondays at 9:30. Check it out.

Narrator: Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

Narrator: Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

Narrator: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 24, 2011 at 1:21 pm