Billy Gardell, best known for his role co-starring with Plainfield native and Oscar nominee Melissa McCarthy on the hit CBS sitcom “Mike & Molly,” called earlier this week to talk about his stand-up gig Friday at Park West — plus all things Chicago on his series.
Q. It’s often said, there are few “overnight” sensations in showbiz. Most stars — yourself included — first pay their dues. Right?
A. I’m a blessed guy. I put in 23 years before my time came. As my manager says, ‘When even the bitter comics are happy for you — you know you put in the time to make it!’
Q. Not only is “Mike & Molly” set in Chicago, but you actually know Our Town. You lived here, right?
A. For sure. My brother lived in Downers Grove for many years, and I lived there too. I lived in Westmont and I crashed at a buddy’s place at 17th and Jefferson, back when we were trying to break in at all the comedy clubs. I spent at least a year living in Chicago, and it was hard to leave — because of the food. My manager kept saying, you’ve got to get out to L.A., but I was not sure I wanted to go. I kept saying, “Yeah, but the Italian beef. There’s Portillo’s. This will be tough! I’m not sure I want to go!”
Q. You and Melissa, a girl from Plainfield, sure look like you’re having fun on the show. How does that chemistry work?
A. Melissa’s a sweetheart. It’s the perfect storm. I think a lot of it is because we have a lot in common. She’s got kids. I’ve got a kid. We actually like each other and hang out. That’s true for the whole crew as well as the cast. We end up going to each other’s kids’ birthday parties, for gosh sakes! I go to her movie premieres. She comes to my Vegas shows.
You don’t do that with people you don’t like!
Q. What is the essence of your stand-up comedy?
A. Look. I’m a Midwest kid. I’m from Pittsburgh, which, like Chicago, is a working-class kind of town. I think our comedy comes from a working-class version of the Midwest, both in Pittsburgh and Chicago. I think the things that make people laugh are coming up with good writing about the little challenges of being a grown-up today, having moved on from our crazy youth. … Being a a good father. Being a good husband. Often a lot of that can be very funny.
Q. Of course, you lived in Chicago, but you must love that “Mike & Molly” is set here.
A. I love Chicago. I always say Chicago is like New York — only dipped in Lysol. I love the sarcasm of the people, but it’s not mean-spirited. People are truly funny there. There’s a pulse to the city. It’s so vibrant.
Q. Being from Pittsburgh, are you a Steelers fan?
A. I’m a fan of all Pittsburgh teams, but Chicago’s teams are my SECOND favorites! Of course, on the show, Mike is a total Chicago sports fan. Some of my friends — who are such major Pittsburgh fans they miss the point — say, “Why are you wearing a Bears jersey all the time on the show?!” I have to remind them, “THE SHOW IS SET IN CHICAGO!!!!”
Mike, of course, is a Cubs fan. … One of our prop people brought in stuff for a birthday party on the show. They got Cubs cups, but White Sox paper plates. I had to tell them, “This will never fly. We’ll lose the entire city of Chicago. We can’t be both!!!”
Q. You play a Chicago cop. What kind of feedback do you get from Chicago Police officers?
A. The Chicago PD have been phenomenal. They have sent us boxes of shirts which we wear, both on the set and off. Many officers have told me their favorite episode was the one where Reno [Wilson, who plays Mike’s partner] and I were stuck in a squad car for like 70 hours on a stakeout in the bitter cold. After awhile, we were like an old married couple. Clearly someone you’d take a bullet for — but if that person ate ONE more potato chip, you’d shoot him yourself!
The Chicago cops loved that one, because it hit home!