STORY WRITTEN BY DAVID KLEINMAN
For 21st Century Media
Every hungry comedian is looking for their elusive “big break.” Before the launch of the hit CBS sitcom “Mike & Molly” you could catch Billy Gardell sweating it out in the city of Los Angeles; racing to on-screen auditions during the day and performing stand-up comedy late at night, trying to make his nut to go towards the next tour stop.
Years of steady work came and went with nary a starring role for Gardell until the script for “Mike & Molly” fell into his lap at the tail-end of the 2009-2010 pilot season. The role of Officer Mike Biggs fit Gardell like a glove, as a humorous working-class Joe trying to lose weight. He was cast, the pilot went to series and as they say, the rest is television history.
Gardell says he had $7.18 in his bank account at the start of “Mike & Molly” and without getting into specifics, he says there’s more stashed away now. “Mike & Molly” recently debuted it’s fifth season and soon he’ll follow in the footsteps of comedians Drew Carey and Craig Ferguson when he begins hosting duties for a new game show, “Monopoly Millionaires’ Club.”
All of Gardell’s success could disappear in a moment’s notice if he were to ditch his blue-collar demeanor and “Go Hollywood,” losing the essential qualities that make him so relatable. Fortunately, a conversation held in person puts to rest any risk of Gardell disconnecting with his firmly planted Pittsburgh roots.
“It’s a Diet Coke, a cough drop and some peanuts for me, that’s it. Man, I wish I had some better stories for you,” Gardell chuckled from backstage at the Keswick Theatre prior to a performance. “I only eat peanuts when I’m out on the road because my kid’s allergic to them.”
It’s a rare snack for Gardell, who spends most of time with his family in Los Angeles when he’s not filming. Spending time with his wife and son gives birth to the creative process for his live shows, which he bases on his real-life experiences.
Locally, Gardell will be on stage at the American Music Theatre on Jan. 23 and at the Sands Bethlehem Event Center on Jan. 24.
“My life has gotten very successful, that doesn’t change who I am,” he stated. “That identifying of life, that’s what I try to stay with. Fatherhood, being a husband, being crazy when I was young, slowing it down when you don’t want to, the elements of middle-age. You hit 45 and you go ‘Ugh, everything hurts.’ That’s what’s funniest to me.”
Funny is the name of the game as fans of Gardell’s and “Mike & Molly” alike filed into the 1200-seat auditorium for a night of laughs. On a particularly chilly night in Glenside Gardell spoke of his intentions to grant ticketholder’s an evening to forget their troubles. “That’s my goal,” he said. “See if it works out tonight.”
And surely enough, the auditorium was soon filled with gut-busting laughter. It’s a potentially hazardous predicament for Gardell to elect a friend to open the show, luckily Joe O’Connell roused the crowd with Grade-A material taken from a varying slice of life.
“Well [Gardell’s] married with a kid, he does a lot of that stuff. I was married, now I’m divorced,” O’Connell said. “I don’t want to say bitter but I do a different view of things. We’re alike in a lot of ways but I guess his act has a lot more positive view of things and I’m more of a self-deprecating kind of ‘You think your day went bad, listen to this’.”
O’Connell, who also serves as stand-in on “Mike & Molly,” moved cross-country with Gardell in 1996 with a month’s rent and $50 between them. They’ve been together through thick and thin and even after all of the time that’s passed they still haven’t lost their sense of humor between one another.
“It’s fantastic touring with him,” O’Connell said.
“He’s only saying that ‘cause I’m standing here,” Gardell retorted.
“I can’t say too much, he doesn’t let me. I usually wait in the car.”
IF YOU GO
What: Billy Gardell
Two area shows next:
Where: American Music Theatre, 2425 Lincoln Hwy East, Lancaster.
When: Friday, Jan. 23 at 8 p.m.
Info.: Call (717) 397-7700 or check www.amtshows.com
Where: Sands Bethlehem Event Center, 77 Sands Boulevard, Bethlehem.
When: Saturday, Jan. 24 at 8 p.m.
Info.: Call (610) 297-7400 or check sandseventcenter.com.