Every sitcom star through the ages owes a debt to one of the originals: Lucille Ball.
"Mike & Molly" star Billy Gardell understands this and said it was part of the appeal when he was invited to perform at the Lucille Ball Festival of Comedy that begins Wednesday (Aug. 1) in Jamestown, N.Y., Ball's hometown, and runs through Aug. 5. Gardell will perform his standup act at Lucy Fest Saturday night.
"I thought it was a great opportunity to honor one of the greatest sitcoms of all time," Gardell said earlier this month. "Being on a comedy, it felt close to my heart."
Gardell said he was a fan of "I Love Lucy" even before his stint on CBS's "Mike & Molly" (9:30 p.m. EDT Monday).
"My dad turned me on to the great sitcoms when I was younger: 'I Love Lucy,' 'The Honeymooners,' 'The Andy Griffith Show,' 'All in the Family,' " Gardell said. "I've always been fascinated with those kinds of great sitcoms."
And while he likes "Lucy," Gardell said he found himself most in tune with another early TV comedy.
"I was more of a 'Honeymooners' guy," he said. "But I certainly respect 'Lucy.' They broke a lot of barriers: the first time a strong female lead carried the show; they had an interracial couple. And it was so well done and so well crafted."
Lucy Fest, held annually on the weekend closest to Ball's Aug. 6 birth date, drew 13,000 visitors to New York's Chautauqua County in 2011, according to one economic impact study.
The festival is put on by Jamestown's Lucy Desi Center for comedy, which seeks to preserve the legacy of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and develop the comedic arts through Lucy Fest workshops devoted to improv, sketch comedy and standup. (For more information, visit lucycomedyfest.com.)
Gardell said his act won't change much for Lucy Fest.
"I think you have to give a nod to what the fest is all about, absolutely, but my act is my act," he said. "It's for working class with a mentality of 'don't take yourself too seriously, how did we get in this situation and how do I be an adult.' Those are the common themes in my show."
And he says his act hasn't changed much since he landed a starring role on "Mike & Molly." But the audiences have changed in one significant way: "They're a lot bigger.
"I always thank my audiences for watching our show, but that's about all I mention because my act is pretty much working class and I want to keep it simple," Gardell said. "The good thing is, we have parallels to all of that. My humor matches up with 'Mike & Molly' because that's a working-class show."
During his summer hiatus, the Pittsburgh native filmed a guest appearance on the Pittsburgh-bar-set sitcom "Sullivan & Son" that will air on Aug. 16. Gardell will play a "Pawn Stars"-type expert who estimates the value of a magazine found in an attic.
"That Pittsburgh bar (set) is as authentic as it can get," Gardell said. "It was fun to play in that atmosphere."
During his "Mike & Molly" hiatus, Gardell also filmed a special for Showtime, "Road Dogs," that will likely air in 2013. It features three standup comics Gardell said were influential in his career: Ben Creed, Tim Wilson and Kenny Rogerson.
"These are guys who have been doing standup for 15 years or better and people might not have seen them, but they should," Gardell said. "It was a real passion of mine. These are a bunch of guys who are masters at their craft and deserve to be on television."
Now he's getting back to work on "Mike & Molly," but he doesn't know what's ahead for the characters after their marriage in the May season finale.
"They don't tell us anything. We know a week in advance what we're doing," Gardell said. "I'm sure we'll talk about what this season will be that first week. I imagine we'll deal with the early days of the marriage. Hopefully, we're searching for a house and thinking about kids."
"Mike & Molly" offers a good example of how a television series can change over time. When it began, the show had a few secondary characters, but now it has more, several of whom were not around for the pilot episode.
"That's the beauty of our show," Gardell said. "It really is an ensemble piece. Because of that we can go anywhere. Our bench is so strong any of these characters can carry a storyline."