By Greg Carannante
City & Shore Magazine
Pittsburgh gave Billy Gardell his boyhood dream of funny business. Florida was where it got real.
The star of the popular CBS sitcom, Bob ❤ Abishola, and the former famous first name of Mike & Molly for six seasons, Gardell spent his high school years in Central Florida, after his parents divorced and his mom moved the family to Winter Park.
“There’s a great sense of humor in Pittsburgh where you don’t take yourself too seriously,” says Gardell, still a big-time Steelers fan. “And I got all those attributes from Pittsburgh. And Florida is more laid-back and it’s about daydreaming. So I applied the work ethic of Pittsburgh to daydreaming, and there I am, you know?”
“I’m very grateful for my time down there,” adds Gardell, 50. “I started as a comedian there and I met a lot of great comics when I was working the road there. Florida was very good to me as far as sparking my career — in other words, getting to that I’m-going-to-do-this-no-matter-what thing. Florida inspired me.”
The inspiration partly took the form of a bet that gave Gardell his start as a stand-up.
“I kept saying I was going to do an open-mic night because I was going to be a comedian, and the guys I worked with at the warehouse finally made me put some money up or shut up. And so I had to do the open-mic night so I could cover the bet. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to.”
That open-mic night ended up launching a career that’s transcended stand-up to diverse roles in a host of movies and TV shows, including, of course, the comedian’s holy grail — a sitcom … and now two.
Bob ❤ Abishola shares a similarity with Mike & Molly beyond the character-name titles. Both shows zero in on Gardell’s relationship with a strong woman. This time, though, in striking contrast to prodigious force-of-nature Melissa McCarthy’s Molly, it’s a calm, confident Nigerian immigrant in the title role, played by Folake Olowofoyeku. As Bob, a mustachioed, middle-aged Detroit divorcee and businessman, tries to win the heart of the younger, single mom and nurse, her feelings for him gradually warm — in part because, unlike her friends, she likes Bob’s mustache.
The show is holding its own in the ratings and was recently given the green light to extend its debut season to a full year of 22 episodes. Gardell figures he’ll be hearing about renewal “around March or April.”
In the meantime, before taking the stage Feb. 8 at the Concours d’Elegance gala at the Boca Raton Resort & Club, Gardell took a break from holiday shopping in L.A. with his wife of 19 years, Patty, to talk about his father, his future and his fondness for South Florida.
Did you enjoy growing up in Florida?
Not a whole lot. When you’re a Northeastern kid, moving down South is always strange. But the gift of living in Central Florida was that when I was in high school, I found the drama department, and a group of friends there that I still talk to. It was an inspirational thing.
You ever spend any time in South Florida?
I love South Florida, man. I got good buddies down there. [Big 105.9 deejay] Paul Castronovo is a good buddy of mine. I love him to death. And when I’m down there, we eat, we go fishing and I’m on his radio show. South Florida was where you wanted to work when you lived in Orlando. You wanted to get a gig in Boca or Lauderdale or some of those surrounding cities because … you know, it’s weird to me. From Fort Lauderdale down, Florida feels like it’s up North, but everybody’s on vacation. Then, of course you got the Latin culture in Miami. If you go north of Orlando, you get kind of Country and Western. So you get a little bit of everything in Florida, depending on where you’re standing. But South Florida was always very appealing to me.
Do you remember when you first realized you could be funny?
I was at a baseball banquet when I was 7 and there was a gentleman speaking. My dad whispered in my ear, ‘Say this.’ And he gave me a line and I said it pretty loud, and the whole room busted up. Something about that reaction made me go, OK, I don’t know what I just did right here, but I would like to learn how to do that all the time. And it’s funny — me and my father for years tried to figure out what that line was, but we could never remember.
When did you know you wanted to be a comedian?
Oh, I’ve wanted to be a stand-up comic since I was 9 years old. I would imagine that had to do with my grandmother, who I used to watch Johnny Carson with every Friday night. And my father was a great connoisseur of stand-up comics. We had all the old records — Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Bob Newhart. He would videotape the [Rodney] Dangerfield specials. My dad also had a great love of television, which I got from him. We would watch stuff like The Honeymooners together. And, man, once I saw that, I was like, I’m just going to do this. And looking back now, I think I not only loved it because comedy was a way to get through tough times, but when I saw my dad laugh at a television show, that just meant something to me.
You’ve cited Jackie Gleason as a major influence. Who do you go to now for a good laugh?
I’m a big fan of Bill Burr. I like Brian Regan, Steve Byrne, Nick Griffin. But I try to watch a little bit of everything. My dad was very eclectic with music and movies and I think I got that from him.
What was he into?
He was a big child of the ’50s, so Elvis was absolutely his favorite. But he had a little bit of everything. And that’s what he used to preach to me: Man, you just have to enjoy every facet of entertainment, every facet of life — keep your mind open. You don’t know where you’re going to learn something or have something inspire you or push you to maybe think differently. My dad was really cool that way. He was my hero.
That’s beautiful. Do you get to do much stand-up these days?
I get out about once or twice a month. I’ve been doing standup since 1987 and I still love it, ’cause it’s what brought me to the dance and I respect it. But I’m at the point now where I like acting better, and the fact that I got an opportunity to be on a second sitcom … I’m just enjoying it so much. I love every day at work. So I get a little bit more out of acting these days than I do stand-up.
You’ve played so many different roles, from dramatic shows to game shows …
Yeah, I’m like a utility hitter. You can kind of put me anywhere [laughs].
Did you have any formal acting training?
Just my drama teacher in high school. And then I took one cold-reading class when I was out to L.A. the first year. But that’s it.
I really love your new character’s vulnerability. What do you love about Bob?
I love that he’s a more driven guy than Mike, and it’s nice to play something different. He’s also a guy that’s looking out for his family and has an open mind and open heart. It was a very attractive role.
And it’s an appealing concept for a show — a middle-aged culture-clash romance.
Yeah. So far so good, man. It’s been received very well. What I love most is it’s a very kind show and there’s grounded characters that care about each other. I think that makes the audience care. We’re in a time right now where we’re thirsty for kindness, and to see people get along and to be an example of that is something to be proud of. I got a really good group of people I’m working with and we all know that we’re doing something that puts positive in the air and makes people laugh. The whole family can watch the show. So when you can do all that stuff, you go home and sleep pretty well at night.
How did your role on Mike & Molly come about — and who did you have to kill to get it?
Nobody, man. I auditioned, just like everybody else. And the day I auditioned, [producer] Chuck Lorre happened to be in the room. Chuck really helped talk me into doing that role, ’cause I wasn’t sure I could do it. So I really owe him for that. But he goes: ‘I think you’re the guy. I’m going to surround you with a great cast. You’re not going to have to carry the water up the hill by yourself.’ And he put me in there with Melissa McCarthy and the wonderful veteran actors. And Reno Wilson, who’s just one of my favorite human beings on the planet, was playing opposite me. And we had this beautiful little family.
That was a great show.
It really was. And that’s the thing about this new one. I feel like we’re headed that way. I told this cast that the secret to our success in Mike & Molly was we trusted each other. And the more you build that trust, you genuinely start to like each other. And I believe the audience knows the difference.
Is there something you’d like to do that you haven’t?
I’d like this show to run for about six years and then I’d like to spend the rest of my days trying to find character-acting work in movies. I’m a big fan of John Goodman — I love the stuff he does. So I’d like to find my way into those things. But if nothing else happens, I’m very content.
A Marvel movie maybe?
Uh, yeah, but I think I’m a little too big to get into one of those suits. Maybe I could play a bad guy.
One last question: Do you like Bob’s mustache?
I love it! It was my idea. I figured, look, he’s 50, he’s driving a Cadillac, he’s got a compression socks factory and he’s a salesman. That just fits.
* * *
I F Y O U G O
Comedian Billy Gardell will be the featured entertainer and celebrity judge at the 14th annual Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance charity car and motorcycle exhibition, Feb. 7-9, 2020, at the Boca Raton Resort & Club.
The co-star (with Melissa McCarthy) of Mike & Molly on CBS, Gardell also has appeared on My Name is Earl, Sullivan & Son and as the voice of Santa Claus in Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas. He currently stars in the CBS sitcom Bob ♥ Abishola, co-starring Folake Olowofoyeku. Gardell was recommended for the gala spot by his friend Jay Leno, last year’s featured entertainer, organizers say.
The schedule for the 2020 Concours event, a benefit for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County, includes:
Friday, Feb. 7: The Hangar Party at Atlantic Aviation at the Boca Raton Airport. Guests can peruse cars, motorcycles, private jets, premier vendors and gourmet food, wine and spirits from over 25 South Florida restaurants.
Saturday, Feb. 8: Mecum Gallery Exposition, featuring automobile art by the Automobile Fine Arts Society Show (AFAS) and a display of multimillion-dollar collector cars, available for purchase, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. (open to the public); and 5 p.m.-8 p.m. (for gala ticket holders) in the Mizner Center at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. The Grand Gala Dinner, Live Auction & Show begins with a cocktail party and silent auction starting at 5:30 p.m., followed by the dinner/auction/show start at 7 p.m., at the resort. In addition to Gardell’s performance, the evening will feature the presentations of the National Automotive Manufacturer Lifetime Achievement Award to Scott Keogh, Volkswagen of America President & CEO (who oversees VW and Audi); the National Lifetime Racing Achievement Award to three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves; the Automotive Lifetime Dealership Achievement Award to William Lehman, Jr., founder of the Lehman Dealership Enterprises; and the induction of Colin Brown, Chairman of the Board of JM Family Enterprises, into the Dream Makers Society.
“Dream Makers inductees are individuals who have established a long-term commitment to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Broward County for at least 10 years, have played a vital role in the development of a program or event that has had a significant impact on the success of the organization, and have personally contributed funds over $1 million,” organizers say.
Sunday, Feb. 9: The all-day Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance automobile and motorcycle exhibition and competition, sponsored by the Rick Case Automotive Group, featuring over 200 cars and motorcycles from various eras. VIP-ticketed guests will enjoy gourmet food, wine and spirits from more than 25 South Florida restaurants at the Concours d’Gourmet Pavilion at the resort. The event’s Marque of the Year, Duesenberg on their 100th anniversary year; the Feature of the Year, Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg Club; and a Special Display Class, “30 under 30.” The Mecum Gallery Exposition of automobile art and collector cars will also be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to Concours ticket holders only.
For tickets and information about the 14th annual Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance, visit www.BocaCDE.com. All events are open to the public.