When Mike & Molly hit its 100th episode in January, Billy Gardell wasn't gifted with a fancy Ferrari or a brand new beach house in Cabo.
"There wasn't a lot of gifts," said the CBS sitcom's eponymous Mike. "The network sent us all really nice watches. Back in the '80s, it was cars. But, you know. Inflation."
All kidding aside, 100 episodes still is a massive milestone. The film success of Gardell's on-screen wife, Melissa McCarthy, had a lot to do with that. But it took more than a breakout star for Mike & Molly to become a genuine hit, going beyond its one-note premise — two overweight lonelies meet cute and fall in love — to deliver a sitcom that resonates.
"The gift of that was being able to join that rare fraternity of syndicated shows, like Seinfeld and Cheers and Friends," Gardell said. "To be in that routine where you're with people when they're coming home from work or getting ready for the night shift or dinner, that's a big accomplishment for a sitcom."
Mike & Molly's success has given Gardell's career a huge boost. A Pittsburgh native whose family moved to Central Florida when he was a kid, Gardell spent years on the Florida standup circuit, struggling to gain a foothold in Hollywood. Since Mike & Molly, he has begun hosting a syndicated game show, Monopoly Millionaires' Club; guest-hosted The Late Late Show; and moved up from standup clubs to theaters like St. Petersburg's Mahaffey, which he plays Friday.
Calling from home in Los Angeles, Gardell talked about Mike & Molly's longevity, the allure of standup and more.
You hit the Florida circuit pretty hard back in the day.
Oh, yeah, man, I was a road dog, absolutely.
What was the seediest place you ever played in Florida?
I think Crystal River. There was a little dive bar that I played up there that was pretty shaky.
In the beginning, despite the pedigree of the people involved, Mike & Molly was a very simple premise: Overweight people meet and fall in love. How do you think the show has evolved since then?
I think it's always been a love story, and as long as we keep that as the centerpiece of the show, that's why people root for it. The crux of it was always two people who thought they would never fall in love. They get to fall in love. And that's what makes people really root for it. Plus the friends and family and surrounding cast, you can tell everybody loves everybody. When you put great writing on top of that, you get something that people really want to tune in for.
Was your weight ever a big part of your standup?
I never talked about being fat. I just happened to be a big guy who's trying his best to get a little better.
Why not? Did you feel it was a crutch?
Nah, I think as you get a little older, you need to bring your weight down. Everybody has a different reason for their weight. Nobody wakes up and says, "Boy, I'd just like to be overweight today." There's always stuff underneath this stuff, and when you start to examine that, you start to heal.
Was there a point in your life where you realized that?
A couple of different things started me trying to get a little healthier. I wanted to be around for my child. And my knees can't take it anymore, man. I've got to take some of this weight off. I've lost 70, but I still got 80 to go.
How's the production schedule on Monopoly Millionaires' Club?
It's awesome. Every six weeks we get to go to Las Vegas, and we do six episodes in a weekend and we get to fly back out of there. I get a free trip to Vegas, and I get to give people money that's not mine. It's a wonderful job.
Do you ever see yourself sliding out of standup entirely, now that you've got a sitcom and a game show?
No. I'll do standup as long as I can. Don't you know that standups that keep going live to be about 90?
Yeah, keeps you sharp, I suppose. But what motivates you to keep generating material?
The live response. Nothing beats that instant response of a live audience. Nothing. When it's just you and your words and then they give you the laugh? Nothing better.
Has the spotlight of the sitcom made it more challenging to get a laugh, or are the laughs the same as they were when you got them working clubs?
The first 10 minutes after you walk out, if you're on TV, you get a little bit of give, a little bit of credit. But after that, they remember they paid $45 to see you. So you better be good.