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With the hit Mike & Molly under his substantial belt, the comic returns to the area for a standup gig.

As a teenager, Billy Gardell's second home was a beat-up Delta 88 steered from one comedy club to the next, trying to get his career off the ground.

"I chewed up a lot of Florida highway when I was starting out," Gardell said from his Los Angeles home. "Used to come to Tampa two or three times a year for about 10 years straight."

"Billy the Kid," as comedians called him then, is 41 now and returning tonight for two shows at Side Splitters, where he recorded his first comedy CD years ago.

Gardell's ride will be nicer this time, and he'll have someone else doing the driving - a perk for starring in the popular CBS sitcom Mike & Molly.

Gardell plays Mike Biggs, a cop whose expansive waistline suggests a deep affection for doughnuts. Mike also loves Molly Flynn (Melissa McCarthy), a plus-sized woman he met in a weight-loss support group. Millions of viewers tune in, making Mike & Molly one of the highest-rated new shows on TV.

In a telephone interview, Gardell talked about achieving every stand-up comedian's dream, said nice things about Mike & Molly co-creator Chuck Lorre (take that, Charlie Sheen), revealed why he works cleaner on stage now and why he's pulling a Christian Bale to prepare for next season.

Any doubts ever that you'd make it this far?

Oh, my God, yes. The last two years in L.A. (before Mike & Molly) were probably my hardest as far as trying to book a job. Then this script came and it was, like, wow.

Do people show up at comedy clubs expecting nice guy "Mike" and getting down-and-dirty Billy?

These days my act matches up pretty good with the show. ... I made a conscious decision about five years ago to just not be too offensive. I try to not offend anybody anymore.

Did becoming a father have something to do with that?

Fatherhood had a lot to do with it. Growing up had a lot to do with it. You start realizing that maybe you're the one night a month that people have out, and they don't need to hear your political views or how dark you can get. They just want to laugh for an hour and go home. Once I wrapped my head around that, my act evolved accordingly.

Your show's co-creator and writer is Chuck Lorre, whom we've heard plenty of bad stuff about lately from Charlie Sheen. Tell us something good about him.

Well, Chuck Lorre was the one who talked me into this part. I was afraid to really commit to this because I had something else going on and (Mike & Molly) was a maybe; they were pushing it uphill. ... Chuck knew how to put this thing in a launching position, a position to win. ... Then they brought in Jim Burrows to direct, and that's like playing football for Joe Paterno: Friends, Cheers, Taxi, Will & Grace. He has forgotten more about TV comedy than I'll ever learn.

Mike & Molly has broken ground in plus-sized romance, but what's next? Could we see some infidelity like "attractive" people often experience in sitcoms?

I don't know, man. They are so secretive about our scripts. They don't let us know until the day of the table reading when we see the scripts. We're always in the dark until we get them. Then we can't believe they topped the week before.

As far as the weight thing goes, I know we're going to go up and down with it. I'm going to lose weight, I'm going to fail and succeed, just like in real life. That's going to be a neat journey to take. I'm working with a trainer and nutritionist right now, trying to take off 30 pounds before next season, so they have some room to write about that.

Ever get in touch with comics from the old Florida circuit?

Yeah, I've done Jim Breuer's radio show a couple times, and I heard from Larry the Cable Guy when I got Mike & Molly, wishing me congratulations. I'm always the last one to the party, man. But that's okay. I got there.

Steve Persall can be reached at or (727) 893-8365.

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Billy Gardell

Tonight at 7 and 9 at Side Splitters Comedy Club, 12938 N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. Tickets are $23 to $28, available at Call (813) 960-1197 for information.