Q&A: Billy Gardell
Billy Gardell starred alongside Melissa McCarthy in hit CBS sit-com Mike & Molly for 127 episodes before the set was struck in 2016. Gardell made time for stand-up throughout six-season series, but the Pittsburgh-born everyman comic is now freer to perform dates like his Aug. 11 appearance at Green Valley Ranch. He spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen by phone while visiting his father in Orlando, where Gardell started his career.
How is life after Mike & Molly?
It’s been good. It’s been real good. I did a mini-series for CMT where I got to be Col. Tom Parker. That’s still up on their website, on the streaming service for CMT. It’s called Sun Records. It was a nice dramatic turn. I did a piece of audition tape for the next thing. I’ve been doing some guest-starring on Young Sheldon, which I’m going to do again when they start in September. I’m very excited about that, and then I’m touring. I’m doing stand-up, working on a new hour (of material).
How was it the first time you didn’t have to get up in the morning at the same time every day to go to work?
I didn’t want it to end. I think the show could have lasted another four or five years, but we were very blessed to get as many years as we did. I did miss it horribly for about the first six months, and then you kind of accept: “Okay, I was part of something really amazing. I’ve got these amazing friends throughout this process and we still talk to each other.” Then you have to move forward and say, “What do I go after next?” Nothing lasts forever.
Why did it end? Did Melissa’s career just outgrow TV, or did it have to do with hitting the six-year mark for syndication success?
No, no. She wanted to stay and then there was a bunch of nonsense on the Internet, that she had lost too much weight. The truth of the matter is Warner Bros. and CBS just decided that was enough episodes, and that was that.
It took a slight ratings dip in the last year, but with Melissa’s profile so high you would think something else was going on.
She wanted to stay, man. We would have done it as long as they would let us. Our ratings were still very strong. They kept moving us around that last year. They moved us time-wise around a couple of times and that always … I don’t think that helps a show, but overall we did pretty well.
Did you immediately think about spending more time on stand-up stages when you got the news Mike & Molly was ending?
Well, yeah. I never stopped doing stand-up all through Mike & Molly. Throughout the filming of that every Saturday or when I had a hiatus week I went out and did a show. I knew that’s what I’d be doing after the show ended, and standup is not just something you can quit and go back to. I just want to stay sharp so I just never really stopped doing it, and yeah, I knew that once Mike & Molly was done I could go back to standup. Because of the show I could do casinos and theaters. That’s a pretty big privilege.
Did having looser time affect they way you created material? Did you start to get more ideas?
I’m not a guy who sits down like he’s in a laboratory and writes. I’m a guy that gets an idea and takes it up onstage, tries to work it out onstage, tapes it and gets it just right. And then it’s a set piece, ya know? I kind of walk through life looking for clues. That’s probably the way I write, yeah. (laughs)
I just imagined since you’re not in the routine of a weekly production schedule you have more room for ideas to float into your head because you’re not completely absorbed by learning lines or doing a scene.
Yeah, I would say it definitely frees up that part of your brain, but then again I am married with a honey-do list, so … it’s given my wife a lot of time as well.
Where do you work out new material? Are you more of a Laugh Factory guy, or a Comedy Store guy?
I don’t usually do any of the clubs in town because usually after I’m on the road I just want to be with my family. What I try to do is I’ll sneak 10 new minutes in the middle of my set somewhere and see how it does, whenever I’m out on the road. And then once in a while I’ll go to the Flappers Comedy Club in Burbank, and the once in a while I’ll do the Icehouse and Pasadena. I’ve done the Improv and the Comedy Store so rarely. I’ve done the Comedy Store for a benefit and I’ve done the Improv and Laugh Factory for different situations like that, but when I’m home I just want to be with my family, although I hear the Comedy Store scene is probably right now the best. A lot of amazing comics down there. Marc Maron goes down there, and Bill Burr and Ron White. Steve Byrne. Those are really great comics and great guys, so that’s a scene I should probably be hanging in, but like I said I’m old and lazy. (laughs)
Most comedians I’ve interviewed like to get onstage informally and try out new material when they don’t have gigs on the road, but for some reason it seems like there’s more desire to do that right now.
I think comedy’s booming right now. Any time the world seems insane, comedy seems to do well because people need relief. They need to be able to laugh, you know?
Is that palpable right now from your perspective? Are people coming out because they need relief?
Well, look at the world right now. I don’t have to be in the clubs to see that. I do a lot of casinos and theaters for my shows, but the world’s crazy right now. People don’t know how to talk to each other. There’s a lot of cruelty. You gotta find some humor and some common ground somewhere. Comics can provide that, some of them anyway. (laughs)
How have your experiences on TV and film informed your comedy?
I think it’s made each skill set stronger. I think my acting helps my stand-up, and my stand-up helps my acting.
Did you have fun playing Col. Tom Parker? How much time did you spend in that role during production?
Oh, it was superb fun. We filmed in Memphis for three months, one-hour episodes. I thought a perfect mix for him was Foghorn Leghorn and Walter White. He was charming and charismatic but had no soul. It was fun to do.
So you created your own Tom Parker instead of emulating him via whatever archive footage is available?
There’s so little on him that you kind of have to create your own. I got to meet a bunch of people that knew him and none of them had the same description. So I thought, “Hmm, this guy was just what he thought the situation demanded.” That’s who he was. Nobody really knew that guy.
Who is Herschel Sparks? Tell me about the chicken-raising neighbor of the Coopers in Young Sheldon.
That was a wonderful gift. Chuck Lorre asked me, he said, “Hey man, you wanna play this kid’s dad? I think you’d be perfect and you get to be a redneck.” And I said “Absolutely.” It happened that simply. The cast was nice enough to be welcoming, and I love working with Lance Barber and Zoe Metcalfe (Perry), who are just lovely people and play Sheldon’s parents. The kids are really funny, and it’s just fun to get in their headspace and be the nutty neighbor.
The Internet Movie Database indicates you’re in pre-production for a movie called The Italy Boys.
They haven’t full on pulled the trigger on that one yet. I believe they secured their financing but they’ve been working on that for a while. I’m in it, and if they get their financing secured then it’ll happen, but that happens a lot with movies. It’s “Hurry up and wait.”
Your Personal Quotes page on IMDB says: “You need a wisecracking buddy standing next to you? That's the role for me. You got the guys who are knock-down, drag-out handsome. That's what people want to see. Let that guy be the hero.” Do you get a lot of everyman offers, and what is the everyman to you?
I think you gotta be who you are. You can’t be delusional. Nobody’s asking me to do a love scene or jump out of an airplane but they do want me to make funny comments and be the buddy, so you gotta be realistic about that. Be realistic with yourself when you go to Hollywood. Know what you’re gonna do. … I think the more honest you are about who you are the more people connect with you.
Do you think you’ll return to Funny You Should Ask?
I’d love to go back. I had a blast with those guys, and like I said, all of those comics, I like being around. Howie Mandel and Louie Anderson and Natasha Leggero. They’re just a fun group a people to be around. … it’s a nice fraternity to belong to.
Who comes to mind immediately when you talk about people who came up at the same time you did?
I came up in the late ’80s when comedy was just about as popular as it was ever. When people came out for comedy they didn’t even know who was in the club. It was just about going out and seeing stand-up comedy. The guys I started out with at my open-mic night were me, Darrell Hammond, Tom Rhodes, Carrot Top, Larry the Cable Guy. Larry the Cable Guy and Tom Rhodes were already feature acts. Everybody was like “Wow, we want to get where those guys are.” Wayne Brady.
Is there still a cohesiveness between you?
Yeah, we had a really great group. Everyone got successful. I was the last one to the party, but it worked out. (laughs)
Are there other game shows you might appear on?
I hope so. I’d like to host one again. I really had a blast when I got to host this one called Monopoly Millionaires' Club and it did really well, but we had a little trouble because we were connected to the state lottery. There was just a lot of political stuff that went on so we weren’t able to continue the show, but I’d love to get into that arena again because I really loved doing it.
One of your bits is about 7 being a fun age. How old is your son now, about 15?
He’s 15, right on the money, yeah.
Is 15 a fun age?
Fifteen’s a fun age too, man. Any age they are is a fun age, that’s what I’ve found. He’s a good kid. He’s a good, good kid.
I read somewhere that you were thinking about retiring to be a …
No, that thing has been misquoted more times. It just makes my ass hurt, it’s so misquoted. All I said was I could see, when he’s a little bit older, slowing down and not obsessing as much about my career so that I’m present in his life. How that morphed into “I’m gonna retire” … No. I still gotta work.
That’s what you did. It seems you kept your balance and didn’t go crazy …
No, I didn’t. Thank you for knowing that. I actually have been very careful to not let it be anything other than a really good job and not let it overshadow my family, and I’m proud of that.
How are the Steelers going to do this season and are you going to do play by play or color commentary on Twitter?
Any time they let me and sometimes involuntarily I do. I’m gonna say maybe 11 and 6. Maybe. What do we have 16 games, 17? I’ll say 11 and 5, 10 and 6.
So you are conservatively optimistic.
I am. I think the offense is really, really good. I’m not sure of the defense in the back. The secondary has got a lot of new guys, we’re gonna have some guys shifting up front in the defense. We’ve always been able to hide our horrible secondary by having an amazing pass rush. They haven’t had that in the past couple of years so I’m still not sure that we have the pieces in the defense to go the distance, but I think the offense is ready to go.
You’re using first-person plural.
Well, I lived there, man. (laughs)