Billy Gardell (Punchline, Feb. 19) looks back on 'Mike & Molly' six-year run with gratitude

"Super Cop" -- Mike becomes hyper vigilant after his wallet is stolen from the squad car while taking a nap, on MIKE & MOLLY, Wednesday, Jan 27 (8:30-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Billy Gardell as Mike Biggs and Melissa McCarthy as Molly Flynn Photo: Peter Hopper Stone/CBS ©2015 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved
Caption
"Super Cop" -- Mike becomes hyper vigilant after his wallet is stolen from the squad car while taking a nap, on MIKE & MOLLY, Wednesday, Jan 27 (8:30-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Pictured L-R: Billy Gardell as Mike Biggs and Melissa McCarthy as Molly Flynn Photo: Peter Hopper Stone/CBS ©2015 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Thursday, February 18, 2016

CBS in December abruptly announced the end of "Mike & Molly," a sturdy, reliable utility infielder of a sitcom for the network over six seasons starring stand-up Billy Gardell and rising film star Melissa McCarthy.

Fortunately, that gave the producers enough time to whip up a series finale, which will air sometime this spring. (Seven episodes remain.)

Gardell, who met his wife and his manager in Atlanta two decades ago, spoke with me about his experience on "Mike & Molly" and his plans for the future. He will be at the new Punchline at Landmark Diner Friday night to test out some material for an upcoming theater tour. (Buy tickets here.)

CBS tended to move the show around the schedule. "It seemed like no matter where we landed, we survived," Gardell said. "It's a real testament to the fans who stayed loyal and followed us around the week."

To him, the show could have gone another three years. "We can't cry over getting six years," he said.

And they were on the network with the most viewers, meaning the threshold for survival is much higher. Hit shows on CBS tend to hang around for years (see "The Big Bang Theory" or any "NCIS") so new slots are valuable. "If you aren't pumping numbers, you're gone," Gardell said. "Kill or be killed."

"Mike & Molly" entered the sitcom world with two plus-sized leads, something that rarely happens on TV. ("Roseanne" was another.)

They made a fair share of "fat" jokes early on but over time, that became less of an issue over time. "We treated weight issues honestly and in a grounded way," he said.

He also praised the entire cast, including Katy Mixon (Molly's dimwitted half sister), Swoosie Kurtz (Molly's alcohol-loving mom), Rondi Reed (Mike's overbearing mom) and Reno Wilson, his police officer partner and best friend Carl.

"The secret of the show is those characters love each other," Gardell said. "Most importantly, you could find someone you knew on the show."

Gardell loved Mike's journey toward love, that he built up the confidence to land a lasting, loving relationship. Plus, he enjoyed Mike's friendship with Carl. "I'd get to these tender scenes with Melissa, then it would get funny. I also got to have wonderful Ralph and Ed moments with Reno. When you put us in the squad car, it was awesome." (Reno and Gardell were friends long before "Mike & Molly" came into existence and it showed.)

McCarthy's rise into A list ranks changed the dynamic of the show. Gardell held his own, grateful for the ride. "We were a very grounded place, a safe family to go home to for her," he said. "We were always the bottom of the tree. She never came in with arrogance or a 'better than' attitude. She had none of that. She became more giving as her star grew. I respect her. I really do."

By season three, the producers decided to give McCarthy freer rein to use her physical humor. "She grew more spontaneous, more confident in a healthy way," he said. "I became the straight man. We'd do two takes. They'd let her improve on a take. I told her not to tell me what she was going to do so I could respond naturally."

Her fearlessness in terms of falling or contorting her body amazed him. "I would say during rehearsals, 'Please don't break a leg!' "

Amusing, James Burrows ("Friends," "Will & Grace") developed a name for this: "Gardell blocking." "The less I move, the happier I am," he said. "That's why me and Melissa made a good combo. I'm the plant. I talk. She's like a tornado. Put those two together and we made chemistry!"

Gardell said "Mike & Molly' may have a few more episodes to air but it wrapped last month. They agreed there would be no crying on set until the final week. Burrows came in to direct the final episode. "He kept it really fun with a lot of playful energy. But boy, those poor makeup people earned their money that week. Everyone cried. It was a beautiful send off. We ended with a lot of grace and dignity. The writers really outdid themselves. It was some of their best writing in six years."

Gardell would love to land a one-hour drama next, something completely different from the sitcom world. He loves how Ray Romano ("Everybody Loves Raymond") has transitioned into that world and is now in an HBO period drama "Vinyl." He'd love to guest star in "Better Call Saul." He sees John Goodman as a good template, as someone who has nabbed great roles in big films over the years. "I hope I can go down that path," he said.

And while "Mike & Molly" won't go down in the history books as a huge hit, he's okay with that. "We never quite got that level of attention," he said. "You play the hand you're dealt. The entire run, we were never out of the top 25. And we broke the top 10 several times. That's pretty good. I can ride out on that."

IN CONCERT

Billy Gardell

7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Friday, February 19, $32.50The Punchline, 3652 Roswell Road, Atlanta GA. Buy tickets here.

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