With a hit TV series making waves and a raucous stand-up special coming up, comedian and actor Billy Gardell is becoming a household name.
Swissvale native Billy Gardell is not an overnight success.
Despite his new smash-hit CBS series, “Mike & Molly,” serving as his introduction to most of America, this plateau is at the end of a long road. Gardell’s unbelievable trek includes nearly 20 years of stand-up—from an open mic in Florida to craft-honing years in New York and Atlanta—to a reputation as one of the funniest touring comics in America. There’s also a pile of film appearances opposite Sylvester Stallone (Avenging Angelo), Billy Bob Thornton (Bad Santa) and Owen Wilson (You, Me and Dupree) in addition to TV appearances on some of the best comedies of the last decade: “My Name Is Earl” and “The King of Queens,” to name a few.
In July, he came back home to film a forthcoming Comedy Central special. Normally when those shows are filmed in New York or L.A., the network has to give tickets away to ensure that every seat will be filled. This was not a problem in Pittsburgh. Gardell, 41, taped two sold-out shows at the Byham Theater—the audience was so ravenous that he often had to wait through a lengthy applause break just to get to the next joke.
The first commercial for “Mike & Molly” began to air as the two Byham shows were in production. Now, “Mike & Molly” is a confirmed hit with strong ratings and positive reviews. The show, which is about an overweight Chicago couple that met at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, could become a fixture on Monday nights for years to come.
And that special, by the way, is going to be called “Halftime.” You can see it the night before the Super Bowl on Comedy Central. If a certain football team keeps it up, the first weekend in February could be a pretty big weekend around here.
How’s the mood in the locker room now that you have a hit?
Really good, man. Everybody’s feeling pretty positive. Numbers have been good; response has been very positive. So we get to go another week.
The chemistry with Melissa McCarthy [who plays Molly] is great. Was that natural? Did you two just click?
Yeah, we got a “Honeymooners” thing going on; it’s really awesome. Both of us kind of just said, “Let’s try to make this is as real as possible.” We’re both on the same page.
You’ve got an incredibly talented crew behind the camera. How is it working for such an elite team?
You know what—the scripts are great when we get ’em. And by tape night, I can’t believe how good they are. [Executive producers] Chuck Lorre and Mark Roberts deliver the words, and then [director] Jim Burroughs puts them in a symphony. It’s really amazing to watch.
The character is so similar to your stand-up persona …
You think it is?
I think it is. Your stand-up persona is a little bit more gruff, I would say.
I think my stand-up is closer to who I am. I’d say Mike is closer to the Poor Soul.
When they cast you, did they say, “We’ve seen you onstage; we feel there’s a connection here?”
No, they had never met me before. I went in and auditioned, and two days later, they called me and said, “We want you to test tomorrow. We think you’re the guy.”
What television show do you want to be remembered alongside?
I hate to compare it because you don’t want to box yourself in. But I’d obviously say “The Honeymooners.” There’s a great relationship there. And I’d say the early years of “Roseanne,” as far as having those moments that are real on television.
Now that you’ve got the rhythm of things down, what’s the challenge for you?
The challenge is to keep it at that level—to continue to have great show after great show after great show. That’s all you can hope for: just to keep going.
Finally, the most important question: How far are the Steelers going this year?
I think [they’re] going all the way this year. The defense can take us anywhere we want to go. They’re just brutal. And also, my special—they’re gonna air it the night before the Super Bowl. So why not just have everything work out this year?