From Billy to 'Mike & Molly'
Swissvale-born Billy Gardell plays a titular role in "Mike & Molly," which debuts on CBS this fall and is likely to be one of this fall’s breakout hits.
On the night of Thursday, July 22, I was fortunate enough to be in the back room of the Corner Cafe. That establishment—a small, unassuming neighborhood joint well into the South Side Slopes—has a well-kept secret in that back room. Hidden through a doorway next to the pool tables, you can find the most perfect comedy venue in Pittsburgh. A small, dimly lit room with only enough room to fit about 60 people comfortably, it’s an intimate, custom-made labor of love, perfect for local comics.
And there was plenty of Pittsburgh talent present on the night of July 22. I was fortunate enough to perform that evening, alongside a who’s who of the Burgh’s best funny people. And the audience was ravenous—supportive and entertained by every comic that appeared, even as the show stretched into a second and third hour of stand-up.
They laughed, loudly, at every joke. They roared with applause at every introduction. On the way out, they thanked us honestly for being there, and we did the same.
The perfect crowd in the perfect venue, on a random Thursday night in the South Side Slopes. Perhaps the best show I’ve ever been a part of. All because of the headliner—a local guy named Billy Gardell.
Billy Gardell as Officer Mike Biggs and Melissa McCarthy as Molly Flynn share a scene from the
Photo by Richard Cartwright/CBS
The following night, Billy would film two shows at a sold-out Byham Theater, taped for an hour-long Comedy Central special. Thousands would fill the historic venue to be a part of the most energized and supportive crowd Comedy Central would ever film.
But, like all dedicated performers, Billy had to practice. So at a tiny bar in the South Side Slopes, one of the best comics in America was holding court. I stood in the back of the room with the other comics, feeling the satisfied buzz of a good show for a great crowd, and it hit me: Is this the last time that Billy Gardell will perform in a bar?
His ascension from road warrior to household name is just about complete, after all. The Comedy Central special was his second, the first having debuted after a string of movie roles (Avenging Angelo, Bad Santa and You Me, and Dupree) and TV spots (Yes, Dear, The King of Queens, My Name is Earl and Desperate Housewives) had helped him move into the upper echelon of touring comics.
That first special was filmed in New York. When this one was conceived, Levity Entertainment, the production company, made the unusual call to pack up shop and head to Pittsburgh for the weekend. Normally, these specials are filmed exclusively in New York or L.A., and without the benefit of a rabid crowd (in fact, Billy told me that Comedy Central usually has to pay people to fill the seats.)
Proof of that was evident at the show: Before the taping began, the production company had the crowd feign applause and laughter, so they could get some shots of us reacting. This is done, apparently, in the event that they don’t have enough evidence of laughing and clapping patrons in the normal footage.
That would not be a problem on this night.
The two shows were met with so much raucous laughter and applause that Billy frequently had to pause for unexpected bursts of approval from the capacity crowd. Once again, every joke hit. Toward the end of the set, he snuck in the new hallmark of every Pittsburgh comic’s set—a Big Ben joke.
“I just heard he got in trouble for peeing outside on the golf course,” Billy said. “You’d think, of all people, he should know how to find a bathroom.”
The crowd roared. “That one was just for us,” he said.
Mike & Molly is a comedy from Chuck Lorre ("Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory") about a working class Chicago couple who find love at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting.
Photo by Richard Cartwright/CBS
Just as Billy was returning home to prepare for that second special, commercials started to air on CBS for a show called Mike & Molly, staring Billy as the titular Mike. The show is likely to be one of this fall’s breakout hits: A working-class comedy from Producer Chuck Lorre, who made mega-hits out of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory after working on Roseanne and Grace Under Fire. The resume of director Jim Burroughs is more than impressive, as well (Taxi, Cheers, and Friends, among others).
The show is about an overweight couple who meets at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, perhaps the most realistic couple in prime time since the aforementioned Roseanne and Dan Connor. Buzz is running high for Mike & Molly, not just locally, but nationwide. Esquire Magazine already said that the premiere had scenes that “amounted to good stand-up.”
After that performance at Corner Cafe, I asked Billy if he was going to stay on the road, keeping up the familiar grind of the touring comedian, now that he was being beamed into every home in America every night. He laid out a plan for me: Film in the fall, tour in the summers, see how long the show lasts. Hopefully take some time to relax if the show hits.
But would he still come back here, I asked?
“Every chance I get,” he quickly replied.