Billy Gardell (Cobb Energy Centre January 18, 2014) happy with changes at 'Mike & Molly'

Melissa McCarthy has become a huge movie star thanks to her over-the-top characters in films such as "Bridesmaids," "Identity Thief" and "The Heat" with Sandra Bullock.

She also stars in "Mike & Molly," a CBS sitcom which debuted in 2010 before her movie roles took her to new heights. Her Molly character has been a sweet, relatively low-key teacher wooed by Billy Gardell's cop character Mike. The two got married season two.

But by the end of season three, the producers felt the show needed to better utilize McCarthy’s physical comedic skills. So Molly, who quit her teaching job this season to write a book, has become far more animated as she explores new environs. In recent episodes, she has wrestled a heavy water jug, attacked a beeping smoke alarm, and wreaked havoc riding a forklift.

Gardell, a stand-up comic headlining a show at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre Saturday, said he couldn’t be happier with the show’s shift in tone and focus.

"She's one of the best physical comediennes of the past 20 years," Gardell said in a recent interview. Creator Chuck Lorre "took the reins off of her and let her do her thing. He was brilliant giving Molly a mid-life crisis. She ends up in this tornado and the family just has to react."

Gardell said he spent the offseason studying entertainers such as Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Jackie Gleason and Desi Arnaz to learn more about how to better react to another person's antics in a way that connects with the audience and enhances the experience for everybody.

When he has breaks in production, he does as many live comedy shows as he can. "Stand up is my first love," he said. And he has sentimental reasons to make a stop in Atlanta: he lived in Marietta in the mid-1990s and met his wife Patty and manager Chris DiPetta while in the area.

DiPetta, who co-owns the Punchline Comedy Club, “is a dear friend as well as a professional partner. He’s the godfather to my son and I consider his son a nephew. We’re more family than anything else.”

Gardell is planning to star in his first film this summer. He'll play a cop who ends up with a dog. "It has a John Candy feel to it," he said. He also co-wrote a comedy script and hopes CBS will pick it up as a pilot. "I've been able to live my dream by starring in a big sitcom and having a lucrative stand-up career. I would also love to try my hand at running a television show."

Here's a little sampling of his comedy, which includes a story about how he met his wife here in Atlanta:

Concert preview

Billy Gardell

8 p.m., Saturday, January 18

$35-$50 before fees

Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre

2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta