Billy Gardell's new Comedy Central special and upcoming DVD, "Halftime," opens with a shot of the comedian driving across one of Pittsburgh's many Three Rivers bridges as a morning radio program begins. As Gardell told The Comic's Comic, he was this close to taking a job in morning radio back in Pittsburgh before he got the call of a career: A starring role in a primetime network sitcom. Mike & Molly has been a breakout hit in its first season on CBS, and earlier this week, the network ordered two additional episodes to fill in for the expected absence of Two and a Half Men due to Charlie Sheen's new stint in rehab.
I caught up with Gardell between shows Friday night at Gotham Comedy Club, and when he stopped glowing about being able to stand on Heinz Field as the Pittsburgh Steelers won the AFC Championship Game, we spoke about the halftime of his career.
But first, let's look at a clip or two from Halftime, debuting Saturday on Comedy Central and next Tuesday on DVD. A veteran headliner with an old-school, working-class view on observational material from the perspective of a husband and father. Here's what he says about young people and their love of iPhone apps. He's old-school enough to still say the word "application" and in the bit, acknowledge: "I just showed how old I am. I just hung up an iPhone." Roll it:
And about wanting his 7-year-old son to have a normal childhood, while still keeping up with what passes for normal now:
Your special is airing the night before the Super Bowl. "Yeah, man. I couldn't have written that better. What's funny is I filmed it in my hometown of Pittsburgh, and when I come out, my town got behind me, and when our town unifies, it just becomes the Terrible Towel. So it's just going to look like I flew in to do that special before the game, which is going to be awesome."
Now when you were starting out as a stand-up, did you imagine that someday, you'd be the star in a romantic comedy TV series? "Nah. I always thought with my mug and my shape, I'd be like the buddy, the neighbor, or the bad guy. But never in the middle of a romantic comedy. It's just been unbelievable."
So when they brought you the initial pitch and the script… "No, my agent sent me the script and set an audition for me, and I went in and read for Chuck Lorre, who's the executive producer, and Mark Roberts, who is the creator of the show. And I read this part in front of these people and figured, if I could get a bit part later down the line. I had no idea. I wish I could say to you, that it was, I stayed the course! I had no fucking idea. Literally, I got hit with the lucky stick. I just happened to fall into the best people in TV."
And I take it from what you said at the end of your show tonight here at Gotham — he closed by thanking the audience for watching Mike & Molly and saying, "We're the show they wish wasn't a hit. We've become those relatives you have to have over." – that you've been paying attention to the so-called controversy from critics wondering if TV can show overweight people falling in love. "Well, it shows normal people. That's what I like. Look. A couple of us are overweight. One has a drinking and weed problem. One gives bad advice. You know any of those people? (laughs) That's why people identify with it. We're not Ross and Rachel. You know what I mean? Stuff don't work out for us, which is great."
You also prove that people with problems don't all look like Charlie Sheen. "Exactly. Well, you know, hey man, it don't matter what you look like. When it comes to getcha, it comes to getcha. But. Our group is just a group of people you wouldn't normally see. The characters, Mike and Molly, are two characters you'd never thought they would fall in love, and to see them get that chance, that's why people root for them. You know what I mean? If you can't root for that you're dead inside."
I know you've been working the road for years, but I've seen this happen before, once you're a TV star, the crowd changes. "Well, it doesn't change. There's just more of them! So the luxury of being on television affords you a visibility, where at least they'll come see you once. After that, it's up to you. You have to put on a good show for them to come back."
Since you call your special Halftime, here's the obligatory question: What do you, as a coach, say to yourself at the halftime mark of your career and life? "We've got to make some adjustments. We've been sloppy out there! I think for me, the second half has got to be about eating right. I've got to drop some weight for my health, as far as my knees and my ankles. And I've got a 7-year-old, and I don't really want to be chasing him around on a Zappy. I don't want to have put myself in that situation. So that's my goal, is to get a little healthier for my kid, and to make good decisions."
So at 7, is he at an age where he's watching the TV show? "He prefers to play video games while the show is on, because he knows he's up for another half-hour because Mommy and I are watching it. He watches once in a while, though. He digs it. I was very clear with him from the start that this is what I do. Daddy has a great job. This is what Daddy does. But who Daddy is is your father. I'm very very clear with that for him. I don't want him to ever have that mixed up. We're no better than anyone else. I just happen to have a great job. End of story."
But you haven't had to have that talk with him about seeing you kiss another woman? "Yeah, yeah, yeah. At the beginning, he got mad that first time he saw it, but then I said, 'That's just pretending like when you watch a movie. That's not real.' I said, 'She has a husband. She has little kids.' And he gets it."
And then what age does he get to see the stand-up? "Ah, probably 16, I guess. When did I start listening to (Richard) Pryor? 14. I guess 14."
Although you've already taught him to swear… "Yeah, he already has the basic mechanics of how to be a smart-ass. But you know, that got me out of a lot of trouble, so I think that's not a terrible gift to have. It's in the DNA. I'm just cultivating it."
Do you feel a sense of liberation having the success now? "No. It's fear. It's joy and fear. Those are the two: You get one minute of joy and one minute of fear. Because the joy is, oh my God, I can't believe this is hear. And the fear is, how can I do this good enough that we keep doing this. But it's starting to mellow a little bit. I'm starting to settle in. It's about trust, too, you know. I trust my castmates. They're great. I trust my director, Jim Burrows, because he's a great director. I trust Mark Roberts, because he's a great writer. It's about letting go and just letting it happen."
Do you feel that's a key whether you're in TV or working the comedy clubs? "It's the key to anything. You just have to trust what you're doing is going to be OK and do your best while you're doing it. I'm not exactly a scholar, but it got me here."
Halftime debuts Saturday, the night before the Super Bowl, on Comedy Central. A 69-minute extended DVD edition, with extras including a tour of Pittsburgh, WDVE, a photo shoot and more, is available for pre-order via Amazon.com before its release on Feb. 8.