A very busy Billy Gardell stops by Vegas for some stand-up
Billy Gardell may be experiencing the busiest phase of his career. Not only is he co-starring opposite Melissa McCarthy in the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly, Gardell also hosts the Monopoly Millionaire’s Club game show at the Rio, which premiered last month. But Gardell is never too busy to devote time to his stand-up, performing at Treasure Island April 10. He took time out of his busy schedule to talk to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen about his comedy origins while growing up in Florida.
We both went to Winter Park High School in Florida at the same time. I took a drama class as an elective and thought I remembered you from the theater crowd that was always hanging out there.
We might have had different periods, but that auditorium was like my second home.
So you studied under Mr. Haskett and Mr. Gordon?
Kit Haskett. Yeah, Mr. Haskett, exactly.
Yeah, I took a class from them.
That’s pretty wild!
It was the wrong thing for me to take, but I was really impressed with them.
I tell you what, man, you’re right on the money with that, and I still use things today that Kit Haskett taught me in the late ’80s. He’s a great teacher.
Do you talk to him? Is he still around?
Yeah, I talk to him about once a year. My brother’s in close contact with him. He had a big impact on my life. He was a dear friend of the family and he was a big influence on me. I was a kid that got bad grades and wanted to be a stand-up comic, and he was one of the three teachers in that school that took me seriously and actually told me I could do it. Sort of talked me into getting into show business.
He must be really proud. That’s the goal for a teacher.
He is, and he’s had a few people come out of his class. Ben Rock, who had a big producing part and writing part when it came to The Blair Witch Project. Keith Hudson, who’s a working actor now. He makes graduates that actually wind up doing this for a living. He’s a really cool dude.
It was hard to think of people breaking out of Central Florida at the time.
I never gave it a second thought. I was just going to get out on the road and travel the country and try to get paid. My first goal was to pay the rent by telling jokes. That was my first goal. I got to do that, and I did it for about eight years, and I had some guys talking about development deals. I didn’t know what that was. My manager finally said, “You’ve got to go to Los Angeles if you’re going to take a shot at this.” So I drove all over the country doing stand-up gigs in New York, Chicago, then finally moved back to L.A. after 10 years of being a stand-up, and it took 15 more before I got a break, so 25 total to overnight success.
When did you realize you wanted to do stand-up?
I knew at 9-years old I wanted to be a stand-up comic, and the first places I got to do that were the talent shows and the drama department at Winter Park High School. Those were the places to be a weirdo and express yourself in a different way. The thing I liked about the drama department at Winter Park … that was an affluent high school, teenagers with BMWs and stuff. I didn’t come from that background, and it seems most of the misfits were in the drama department. And they were always welcoming. To me, it was like the island of misfit toys, and I fit right in. I think about those people all the time. I truly do.
I haven’t interviewed many comedians who know they wanted to be comedians at that early of an age. They seem to usually be adults by the time their friends convince them to go on stage.
No, I always knew. I wasn’t sure now I was going to get to do it. I was working at a warehouse and I kept running my mouth to the guys I work with that I could do stand-up. And they bet me $50 that I wouldn’t. I had to do it because I couldn’t cover the bet, so that night Ben Rock and another friend of mine, Darren Fischbach, we got in Ben’s car and we drove down to Bonkerz Comedy Club on Orange Blossom Trail [in Orlando]. We snuck in and I got onstage for five minutes, and then I started hanging around on open mic nights and I finally told the owners, “Look, I’m under 21.” And they said, “Look, we know you’re under 21, just wanted to see if you were going to tell us.” So to make it legal for me to be in the club they gave me a job. So as soon as I graduated high school I quit the warehouse job and started working for the comedy club, and I did stuff like answer phones and clean the bathrooms during the day in the club, vacuum, barback at night, load ice into the bins, and hosting. In exchange, I got a little bit of money and I got to be on stage. It was the greatest time because it was the heyday of stand-up comedy. Watching the headliners that came in was like taking college courses to me.
Was Bonkerz getting national acts at the time?
Oh my God, yeah! They had some of the biggest acts in the country. They had Sam Kinison come through there. They had Andrew Dice Clay come through there. George Carlin popped in there. They had Jerry Seinfeld at the time. Even the guys that weren’t nationally known acts were top-notch comedians. It was at its peak. The late ’80s is when comedy peaked.
It was unusual during that period to see someone come out of someplace other than L.A. or New York.
Our open-mic night was actually a very talented group of guys. There was me, there was Larry the Cable Guy, there was Carrot Top, there was a guy named Fillmore who went on to do a lot of Nickelodeon stuff. Tom Rhodes, who’s out there still and who’s absolutely brilliant. Tom was like the guy that we all wanted to be. Tom was already on the road working as a comedian. He was really good. He would blow into town, but he was an Orlando guy as well. And Darrell Hammond from Saturday Night Live, he was in my open-mic crew. So we had a creative group, man, and we kind of prided ourselves that we weren’t city comics. We didn’t start in L.A. or New York. We started as road comics. We were road comics. We were guys who drove town to town, and we started in Florida.
Had Wayne Brady come up about that time?
Wayne Brady was there as well, that’s exactly right. I remember after open-mic night we’d all sit at Denny’s. We’d go, “Does this joke work for you? It doesn’t work for me.” And we’d try out each other’s jokes and help each other out. What a great group of guys, man.
How did you start to form your stage persona, or start to get a grasp of how you were going to approach comedy and deliver it?
You always gotta use your own words, but I think you took from personas, you know? You can hear it in rock ‘n’ roll bands. The Rolling Stones took from Muddy Waters. In the Black Crowes you hear Rolling Stones, and on and on and on. You kind of have that happen to you as you learn to tell jokes and then from that you learn your own voice, your own sound.
Do you free-associate? Do you say things out loud that come in to your head?
No, I’m not much of an offstage comic. I’m usually watching when I’m offstage, and I’m usually reporting when I’m onstage. It kind of works that way for me.
Did you continue to study theater as a stand-up?
When I left Winter Park I went out just as a stand-up comic and really ate that up for 10 years. When I got to Los Angeles I realized stand-up was going to be a good way to get into acting, but it really wasn’t a stand-up market at the time. You used your stand-up to get an agent, so it was all about the seven-minute set in Los Angeles. I knew once I had an opportunity to get an agent I had to make a good impression, so what I did was the first two years in L.A., I would go on the road for four weeks, come home, and me and two buddies of mine who I lived with, Joey O’Connell and Kevin Rogers, we were all in a one-bedroom apartment, and we would scrape together the rent, and with what money I had left over I would take acting classes, like on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I did that for two years, so when I felt like I was ready for an audition I used my stand-up to get an agent. Then when I got an agent I got an audition, and then I finally booked something.
So are you held up as the Bonkerz success story?
I think I’m one of them. I think there’s a lot of them. And what’s cool is my dear friend Joe Sanfelippo, who books Bonkerz Comedy Club and owns it, he’s now got a bunch of things out in Vegas. We work in collaboration … 25 years later we’re still doing the same stuff together and it’s really nice.
I saw a clip of you from ’95, and Louie Anderson introduced you, and now he’s the main Bonkerz headliner at The Plaza in Downtown Las Vegas.
Exactly right, exactly right. In fact, Joe promotes him quite a bit. And Joe is good friends with my manager Chris DiPetta, who I’ve been with for 25 years. Before Chris I was with Joe, and we work together in conjunction on certain shows. We’ve all remained friends through all this and my manager Chris and I, we went through L.A. together and we’ve gone through just about everything else together.
Have you been able to visit Bonkerz here?
Yeah, we did three of the specials for Showtime called Road Dogs, and we actually filmed one at the Plaza, which I thought was fantastic because it looked like a Vegas room out of 1968.
You’re actually spending a lot more time in Vegas now. Do you recall your first Vegas gig?
My first Vegas gig was at the Riviera Comedy Club, and that was in 1997-’98. I got booked as the feature act there and I remember I was walking through the showroom there, and I had gone to a thrift store to get a jacket. I didn’t have a jacket, so I bought a jacket for like eight bucks at a thrift store and I was wandering through there and just felt like I was Mr. Vegas. As I was walking through the showroom there was a band playing The Temptations’ “Get Ready,” so I had all that fantasy dancing in my head, and I got to the showroom and there was about 13 people in there.
You’re aware of the Riviera closing down, right?
I am, man. Some buddies are going on to see the place before it takes off, and if I can get to it I’m going to sneak off to see it one more time.
How do you feel about having that connection to an old-school casino?
I feel that it’s a great honor. I love that kind of stuff. I love the old school, I love the Rat Pack, I love Jackie Gleason, and that’s one of the reasons I love coming there to do the game show. I’m doing a game show called the Monopoly Millionaire’s Club, and they built a sound stage right outside the Rio, and it’s big and it’s loud. It’s lights and it’s Vegas. I’ve always enjoyed that entire slice of the country, to be honest with you.
When did you sign the deal to host the Monopoly show?
We signed the deal about six months ago and we’ve filmed 12 episodes. We going to do six more in August and six more in December, and it’s just been an absolute rush to be able to give away life-changing money. I’m hoping the game show takes off, and if the schedule works I’ll be able to finish Mike & Molly on Friday and fly to Vegas on weekends to do the game show, then fly back for Mike & Molly.
You can see how much you love Gleason. You can see the influence.
You can even see The Honeymooners in Mike & Molly.
You can see The Honeymooners and you can see I Love Lucy. We’re kind of a classic throwback television show.
Is watching The Honeymooners something that goes back to childhood?
My dad turned me onto The Honeymooners when I was about 8. My grandmother turned me on to Johnny Carson. Some older kids in the neighborhood turned me on to George Carlin, so I was turned on to some very hip things very early. And my grandmother was responsible for Sinatra and Dean Martin.
It’s interesting to see how your parents shape your comedy tastes. My dad was into Peter Sellers …
Peter Sellers, genius.
… and Groucho Marx. I remember doing them for him to try and make him laugh.
Of course. It was smarter entertainment back then as well. More subtle.
There’s a physical resemblance to Gleason, even your eyes sometimes.
You know what’s funny, we’re both in uniforms too. He had the bus driver uniform and I think the cop uniform kind of resembles that Gleason-esque thing as well.
Is the The Honeymooners Broadway production on your radar or does Mike & Molly make it impossible to even consider?
I don’t think I could do that with my schedule right now, but if I had enough time, boy, to do that for even a couple of weeks would be a dream come true, man.
It’s hard to not see that in your future. You must have had thoughts about playing Gleason in a movie.
That would be the ultimate dream, but you never know what’s going to open for you, man. Right now my stand-up is at a peak level because of Mike & Molly, and I’m doing a new game show, the Monopoly Millionaire’s Club. You go where the doors are open. Hopefully one day some films roles will open up, that would be wonderful. I’d love to turn and do a drama after Mike & Molly’s over, and then we’ll see. We’ll see what’s in the cards.
I want to give you the names of four comedians and have you tell me immediately what comes to mind. John Candy.
Heart. The thing I loved about Candy if you could always see his heart in his acting.
Maybe the best ever.
I would say he’s the working-class standard comic. He really represented the working class in a funny and smart way. I like him. I’ve always liked him a lot. Our kids actually go to the same school now so we see each other at the gym every once in a while. Then we both look at each other and realize we shouldn’t be in that school.
What was it like working with James Burrows on Mike & Molly, knowing you were working with the guy that directed Taxi?
He’s a legend. He’s a wonderful man and he’s one of the greatest teachers on Earth. The first two years with Jimmy Burrows is probably the reason why I got better and better. That, and working with my castmates, because my castmates are all pretty great.
[Creator] Mark Roberts and [writer-producer] Alan Higgins are both really amazing talents too. Was there any contrast in the way they both worked? I mean, Higgins is the Malcolm in the Middle guy.
I think we went in a different direction smartly with Chuck [Lorre, writer-producer], because Melissa, we wanted to get her going with what she does, which is physical comedy. We were heading towards a pregnancy with Molly, and it was too soon for that. Chuck very smartly turned the direction of the show and said, “Let’s make the show about her not knowing what she wants to do,” having that moment of “Oh my god, I’m having a midlife crisis,” and let’s let the family react. And that puts her in the center of the show.
It doesn’t seem like Mike & Molly is anywhere near a “jumping the shark” phase.
Yeah, you know, our writers are very wonderful at keeping the show grounded. Me and Melissa, at the beginning of this thing, we said we wanted to play these characters as real as possible. So we find these human stories, and we’re allowed to have these tender moments on top of the funny moments, and I think that’s what keeps the audience interested. We haven’t had to have some miraculous super powers yet. We’ve been able to stay on the level of human stories.
Treasure Island, 9 p.m. April 10, starting at $54.95 plus tax and fee. 702.894.7722