Comedy Preview: Billy Gardell
The veteran stand-up comedian and star of "Mike & Molly" and "Million Dollar Quartet" is celebrating thirty years on stage this weekend at the Columbus Funny Bone
“Sorry, can you hear me now? Is that better?”
The mobile gods were not smiling down on me when I interviewed Billy Gardell a few weeks ago as I flailed around our office building looking for a signal like an unhinged Muppet. Luckily, my subject took it in stride. “Listen…it doesn’t matter what I pay AT&T, I can’t have cell coverage in my house, so I feel your pain. See, I have a theory that if you keep moving, it stays clear – but if you stop, they triangulate on you and you’re not allowed to talk.”
Gardell was as gregarious and down-to-earth as you would hope he’d be — a persona that made his character Mike Biggs so effortlessly believable opposite Melissa McCarthy in the successful CBS sitcom Mike & Molly. He previously co-starred as Vincent “Vinny” Sticcarelli in FX’s dark comedy series Lucky, which added to his already robust résumé of acting gigs on Yes Dear, Judging Amy, My Name is Earl, The Practice, Heist, The King of Queens, Bones, and Monk. In 2002, Gardell scored his first major film role in Martyn Burke’s Avenging Angelo, while led to additional roles in the Cohen Brothers’ Bad Santa, You, Me & Dupree, Room 6, and Jersey Boys.
After Mike & Molly wrapped in 2016, Gardell was cast as Colonel Tom Parker in the CMT dramatic mini-series Million Dollar Quartet.
But before he would land his first on-screen roles, Gardell worked for 13 years as a stand-up comic, a training ground that kept him constantly on the move.
“I was a road comic, man. I started in Florida, and then I did the road. You know, you open mic for about a year-and-a-half, two years, and then you start getting booked on the road. I did a lot of Florida clubs, and then you kind of start creeping north into Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, and then Alabama and Texas. Then I started to get a good reputation for doing a decent job at the clubs. The more clubs you’d do a good job at, the more clubs you’d get booked at back then — that was how it worked. You know, there was no Twitter, no Facebook – it was just ‘Hey, that guy does a good job and he’s really funny,’ you know what I mean?
And so I kind of drove all over the country, and four years in I moved to New York for two years and was given the biggest piece of humble pie I could swallow (laughs). And then I realized that I still had a lot of work left to do, and I moved back to Florida for a short time and regrouped. And then I moved up to Atlanta and I sort of based myself [there] and I met my manager, Chris DiPetta, and he owned The Punchline. We started crafting when I was gonna head out to L.A., and so…I guess it was probably six years, seven years in.
I did another couple of years in Atlanta, you know, just working the Southeast and some of the Midwest, and eventually I moved to Chicago for a little while — and then from there out to Los Angeles. So I did probably 10, 11 years on the road before I came to Los Angeles. I was one of those comics that drove city to city to city.”
Friday and Saturday, Gardell will take the stage at Columbus Funny Bone for four sold-out shows as he looks back on 30 years in the business.
You mentioned having to work harder on your stand-up material when you arrived in New York as a stand-up comedian. What were the aspects that were most challenging for you as you developed your craft?
“Well, I think every comic at the beginning is struggling to find their voice. You have to find out what kind of humor you want to do and what it sounds like when you do your humor. The best way I could put that is…you know, in music there are only so many chords, and in life there are only so many topics. Finding your voice is really a journey of kind of finding out who you are — what you like, what you don’t like, what you love, what you hate, what you believe, what you don’t believe. And then how is it funny and relatable to your audience — how do you convey that?”
Jackie Gleason is someone you’ve discussed frequently as one of the comedians that had a major impact on you when you were young. What about him specifically spoke to you?
“Gleason was a big influence on me because as a chubby kid I saw this guy on TV — and the reason why I saw him was because my father used to laugh at that show quite a bit and we’d watch it together, and I’d watch it with my grandmother, who was also a fan of his. I was a big fan when I was a kid…Smokey And The Bandit was a big hit and I just thought ‘Wow! That guy makes people laugh, and he’s a big guy and he’s powerful.’ But he also has this charm and warmth about him, and I identified with that — I really, really liked that.”
With 30 years behind you in the industry, you’ve certainly seen how it’s metamorphosed over the years. How have you had to adjust to performing in an era where audience engagement, especially now, looks completely different?
“I think you have to keep evolving — that’s a constant in the industry no matter what year it is. And it’s hard — it’s hard, man. You get used to doing something a certain way and you have to evolve into the next thing. But I also think it’s very important. I’m not very technologically savvy, but I’m doing my best to join the Twitter nation and to join the Facebook nation. I’m trying, you know, because that’s where people are now. Sadly, to me, people don’t rely on newspapers ad much as they used to, and they don’t rely on television or radio as much as they used to. Everything’s a digital blip now, and I think you have to embrace a part of that, but without completely letting those other things go.”
Your Pittsburgh roots have shown up regularly throughout your comedic career. What are some of the values you gleaned from your upbringing there?
“I think the unifying thing in my comedy is that I try to have some compassion, and I think that comes from the humor that I got from Pittsburgh, which is ‘Try not to take yourself too seriously.’ You can miss a lot of your life trying to take yourself too seriously. The problem is, you don’t learn that until you’re in your 40s and everything hurts (laughs).”
After Mike & Molly, you took a risk on a dramatic role in Million Dollar Quartet. What was it like to shift gears so quickly, and in a direction that was so decidedly different?
“Again, I think it’s that thing of you have to keep evolving, you know? As much as I loved and adored every minute of Mike & Molly, it was time to change and do something different. And I think Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager who was this guy who was just such a stark comparison to Mike from Mike & Molly — Mike was this guy who did everything right and was super kind and super sweet. But the Colonel would just lie where the truth would work, and it was kind of fun to go so far on the other end of the spectrum. Plus it was a dramatic role, and I really appreciated the break Leslie Greif gave me. He’s the executive producer on the show, and I was fortunate enough to work with Roland Joffé, who directed it. And of course Gil Grant penned these beautiful monologues; these huckster monologues for the Colonel.
It was really nice to stretch as an actor, and I really enjoyed it. I got to work with a lovely young cast, who were amazing and did a great job as the young artists Elvis, and Jerry Lewis, and Jimmy Swaggart, and we had Ike Turner and a young B.B. King, and Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. And then, of course, Sam Phillips was the real story of that show. So it was just an interesting thing to go do after Mike & Molly, and I think it gives your fans a chance to see you in a different light. I am also a big fan of John Goodman, and I think it was the kind of choice he would have made. So that’s kind of the template I shoot for. Look, you know, I don’t know that I’ll ever get to that level of success, but I certainly admire some of the choices he’s made. And as a big guy in Hollywood, it’s not easy – ‘course, he’s not big anymore, he’s little – so I’m working on trying to drop some weight, too. But some of the turns he’s made with Flight and the Cohen Brothers movies are, to me, just wonderful. I was hoping this Colonel Parker role would be a step in that direction.
But I’d also, at some point, like to return to sitcoms. — I just don’t think you can come back to a sitcom after a year of having been on a hit one. You’ve got to get a little space in between.”
And I think you’re a really gifted sitcom actor. The chemistry of the Mike & Molly cast was so evident — I always got the feeling you all really enjoyed working together.
“That cast was just…I can’t say enough lovely things. There was nobody that was crazy; everybody loved and respected each another, and I think that was what came across on the screen. Plus we had this amazing writing staff. It was just the perfect storm over there. It really was.”
So now that you’re three decades into your career, what are aspects of life and work that you find particularly funny lately?
“There are a couple of things I’ve been on lately. Being married for 16 years and having been together for 18…I think if you can stay together that long, you begin to see some real funny hypocrisies that you both put upon each other, and I think they’re really fun to write about. I think the hypocrisy of being a lunatic when I was young and then trying to give my son good advice without being a hypocrite is funny.
And then lately I’ve been on this thing where I think it might be time for us to concede that women should probably run the entire world, because men just seem to come up with dumb ideas. You know, women don’t come up with ‘Let’s store gas bombs!’ You never read ‘Woman killed by vending machine,’ you know? Maybe it’s time we give the girls a chance (laughs).”
I couldn’t agree with you more.
“I only know this and I only understand this from the 16 years of marriage. I’m not a guy who’s good unsupervised.”
Oh, definitely. My wife is way smarter than I am.
“It just takes time to learn that.”
She is a much better linear thinker than I am. When there’s danger pending, my wife can see it miles away. It has to be right in my face before I’ll even acknowledge it…
“It has to be smashing me in the back of the head with a hammer. I would agree with you 100 percent.”