By Michael Casper
After a wildly successful sitcom run with Mike & Molly, and a short Monopoly Millionaires’ Club game show hosting stint, comedian Billy Gardell is back to doing what he was born to do…stand up.
In part due of his TV notoriety, he’s not having to slug it out in clubs in front of drunk hecklers who think they’re ‘helping’ make that third show on a Saturday night ‘funnier,’ rather he’s been afforded the good fortune of playing the “big rooms.” But it isn’t only because of his recognition as Melissa McCarthy’s better half from 2010 through 2016 on Monday night’s on CBS, it’s also because he is killer funny.
Born outside of Pittsburgh in Swissvale, Pennsylvania, Billy was raised in a middle class family with a sister and a brother, and his first time on stage was in a club in Florida on a dare. It was 1987, Bonkerz Comedy Club, he was with some co-workers and was running his mouth about how he could get up there and be funny.
Billy: Wow, you did your research!
Michael: I’m not so much curious about how you did that first time in front of a crowd, I want to know what you felt when you got off stage. Was it a sense of you knowing there and then, you needed more of this?
B: It was the greatest feeling. I knew right when I walked off stage that that was what I wanted to do the rest of my life. No matter what it took, no matter how long it took…this is what I want. I actually did really well that first time doing stand up, which was weird, like for the first five minutes, and then I was terrible for the next two years (laugh).
M: But then you found you own voice?
B: I started to get it around that third or fourth year, and this was while doing a whole lot of gigs, and maybe by the sixth year I started headlining the clubs. By the tenth year I thought I was seasoned enough to go to Los Angeles. And then it only took about another 15 years before I got Mike & Molly (laugh).
M: 25 years to become an ‘overnight’ success.
M: But you knew you had to pay your dues, and put in the time.
B: Yeah. And thank God my father prepped me for that. Again, it was that midwestern thought process. Before I left for California my old man said to me, ‘You ain’t pretty, and you ain’t smart. You better out work everybody.’
M: You were headlining, but what was it like the first time you were booked because people knew who Billy Gardell was?
B: There were plenty years where my name was at the top of the marquis, but nobody really knew who I was. It was probably after the second year of Mike & Molly, and one of the great gifts I’ve gotten from being on that show is that it took me out of the small clubs, and into theaters and casinos because of the popularity of that show.
M: The show was set in Chicago, and you mentioned the heartland sensibility.
B: My stand up crossed over, or played into the feel of that show. So it wasn’t as if fans would come to my stand up show after seeing me on TV, and be broadsided with a completely different brand of humor. Instead, I was lucky enough, that my humor and the show’s humor translated, and it gave my stand up career the boost I always wanted it to have.
M: Another Chicago comedian, Mark Roberts created the show. How did you two cross paths?
B: He’s a brilliant guy, and a brilliant writer, and I came in and auditioned for he and Chuck Lorre. And actually, before I got the part, I was ready to pack my bags and head back home. I was going to stay for one more pilot season, and if nothing happened, I’d have headed back. And the last audition I’d done was for the last pilot season I was going to be there, and it was Mike & Molly, and the tables turned.
M: You must have hit a home run in that audition.
B: Yeah, I did. A week later I got the phone call you wait for your entire career.
M: To back up a little, you once opened for George Carlin?
B: That was one of my crown jewels. I was 18 or 19, he was in Orlando and his opening act got sick, and I got the call. I got to open for him and watch him, and when I watched him…he was so good…I thought to myself, ‘Boy, I should just quit right now, because I’m never going to be that good.’ (laugh) He was a bar to shoot for, one of the best ever.
M: You also have great admiration for Jackie Gleason.
B: Growing up, he was one of my idols.
M: How often do you try new material, if you’re always ‘playing the big rooms,’ do you try bits out on your wife?
B: My wife? She doesn’t think I’m funny. (laugh) No…I’ll write down premises, and bring them up on stage, you know you do a little bit of the old stuff, and then you try some of the new. I’m working on a completely new hour right now, so I’m excited about that.
M: You also do character voice over work for some cartoons. Your son must think you’re the coolest.
B: That’s the reason I did and do that work. I was Santa in ‘The Ice Age Christmas,’ I was Mayor Chickenen in Phineas and Ferb. Oh, and I was the bad warden in Scooby Doo which I did strictly for street cred with my kid.
M: Was hosting the Monopoly show done on a lark?
B: No! I love game shows. And I think comics make great game show hosts, because the first thing you learn in a comedy club is how to host a show. It’s second nature to us which is why you see Drew Carey, and Wayne Brady…Craig Ferguson doing it. It’s an easy thing to do.
M: The show didn’t last very long.
B: Yeah. It was a great show, but we kind of bankrupted it too quickly. The grand prize was a million dollars, and we were only supposed to give a million away once every 25 shows, and we did it like eleven times!
B: Yeah…they were like, ‘Well I guess that show’s over!’ (laugh) I miss that show, though, we had a lot of fun doing it, we shot it in Vegas which was cool. And just recently I landed another show that’s got the word ‘million’ in it, and that’s The Million Dollar Quartet which we shot in Memphis over the summer. It’s an 8-episode limited series for CMT that’s going to come out the end of February, and I’m playing Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’s manager.
M: A dramatic role?
B: Yeah. I think you have to shift gears a little bit, and grow as an artist, and I hope this sticks.
M: Where will you be in ten years?
B: I’m 47, so in ten years I hope to be a few years from retirement, hopefully still doing stand up once in a while…and maybe travel with the wife.
M: Your son, is he artistic?
B: He is. He’s into singing right now, and doing the performing arts in school…the plays, and he’s developing a pretty good sense of humor in this house too, I think he’s been bitten by the bug.
M: Well, as you say in one of your bits…keep making him go outside and play.
B: That’s it, man. Put down the video games and get outside and find something to do…even if it’s wrong (laugh).
Billy Gardell will play the “big room” at the North Star Casino in Bowler, Wisconsin, January 28th.