Big Love: Comedian and Swissvale Native Billy Gardell Talks “Mike & Molly”
By Lauren Mifsud / Photographs from Michael Chevas
A little more than a week before my interview with local funny man Billy Gardell, he appeared as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Three words: He. Killed. It. The genuinely humble and hilarious Gardell had the audience, Leno, and guest, Halle Berry, laughing for eight minutes straight. He talked about Pittsburgh (including his love for the Steelers and 102.5 WDVE-FM), his start in stand-up (he performed at an open mic night on a bet), and meeting his wife, Patty (at a bank in Atlanta).
His road from stand-up comedy to sit-down with Leno has been paved with hometown support, and to Gardell, an interview with WHIRL is just as important as one on late-night television. “I’m a fan of WHIRL. I’ve always liked your magazine, and it was exciting when you guys asked me [to do an interview]. Thank you,” he says when he calls from Los Angeles.
Gardell lets me know that he picks up WHIRL every time one of his friends (like October cover guys and DVE Morning Show hosts Randy Baumann and Jim Krenn) are in the magazine. “I’m happy to be a part of this,” he says.
The comedian, with roots in Swissvale, has made guest appearances on popular shows such as My Name is Earl, Desperate Housewives, and Bones, and played minor roles in movies like Bad Santa and You, Me, and Dupree.
He’s enjoying all of his recent success, most notably, his starring role on the hit CBS sitcom, Mike & Molly. The show follows the love and life of Mike (Gardell) and Molly (Melissa McCarthy), a couple who met in Overeaters Anonymous. The “so funny because [they’re] true” story lines are brought to life with the help of Gardell’s stand-up background.
“We tape every Wednesday night at Warner Bros. [studio], and there’s a live audience. And there’s something about being a stand-up comic that you really connect with a live audience in a way that is hard to explain. You can kind of feel them, and they can feel you. And I think that transition becomes easier when it comes to sitcoms because of that,” he says.
Although Gardell has made a major move from the stage to the small screen, he continues to hone his craft in stand-up situations. This month, “Half-Time,” a gig he filmed in Pittsburgh this past July at the Byham Theater, will air on Comedy Central. “It was so amazing. It was like capturing a really incredible power in a bottle. Pittsburgh came out and supported me so well,” he says. “It was like a tailgate party. There were Terrible Towels and people screaming. It was wonderful.”
He credits his hometown with helping shape his drive to perform and be successful, especially on Mike & Molly. “I work very hard to go into that studio with a grateful attitude and a Pittsburgh work ethic. We go in there, we do our job, we’re happy about it, we go home, and we’re happy to have a job,” he says.
Even with the massive amounts of support he’s received, Gardell still seems genuinely shocked at his recent fame: “The support that I’ve gotten from Pittsburgh is overwhelming. I mean it literally fills my heart. I’m not trying to sound cheesy, but it fills my heart. It also reminds me of who I am, and I take great pride in not embarrassing this city. I always want to be able to come home.”
And he’s always welcomed back to Pittsburgh. On trips to town, he goes through Swissvale and takes a look at his old house and his Nana’s old home. He visits his friends Baumann and Krenn at WDVE, and says hello to one of his buddies, who is a Swissvale cop, and another who works for the water company. Then, he’ll grab a bite to eat — a sandwich from Rudy’s Submarines.
But at the end of the day, whether it’s in Pittsburgh or L.A., Gardell hasn’t changed the things he loves to do as a result of his success. “At some point, we end up at a bowling alley or watching football somewhere. Hey man, you are who you are.”
And that’s no joke.