Billy Gardell

Billy Gardell stars on "Mike & Molly."

Billy Gardell's bank account hasn't caught up with his brain yet.

Despite starring in CBS's "Mike & Molly," the most-watched new comedy series of the past season, he won't give up doing standup in small clubs around the country during his summer break from the show.

"As a comic, you're always waiting for the other shoe to drop," he deadpans about why he's still playing clubs. "It's like a sickness that never leaves you."

Having never starred in a series before, Gardell landed "Mike & Molly" through an audition. The comedy, focusing on the courtship between an overweight couple, has superb pedigree: It's a production from Chuck Lorre, whose credits include "Two and a Half Men," and veteran comedy director Jim Burrows helms the episodes. Around 13 million viewers catch the show in a typical week.

Gardell, 41, is fully aware of the show's popularity, but says, "Not everybody is going to like us."

An article in Marie Claire magazine took especially sharp aim at "Mike & Molly," with the writer suggesting that watching two overweight people in a romance was repulsive.

Gardell, though, let it slide. "I grew up fat," he says. "You think I've never heard fat jokes before? I learned a long time ago about life that, hey, sometimes some people just ain't going to like your face. That's their thing."

In his act, he talks about his battle to lose weight. He works with a nutritionist and a trainer on fitness goals. But, still, "there are some days when I feel like rolling around in a pizza," says Gardell, whose weight has gone as high as 350 pounds. "I'm trying to keep the good days outnumbering the bad ones."

On the road this summer, "I'm learning to make the right choices," he says of his eating habits.

With "Mike & Molly" having completed its first season, and with another coming in the fall, Gardell, an acting novice, feels grateful. "There's a great sense of accomplishment that we made it through," he says. "The only way I can equate it is that this is like steering a ship among the rocks."

He says he had no expectations when the series began.

"I wanted to embrace the joy and fear or whatever came out of it," Gardell says. "I was ready to embrace that. It turned out to be one of the greatest journeys I have ever been on."

The journey hasn't changed him entirely. He still does his own grocery shopping, picks up his dry cleaning and fetches his own fuel at the pump. "I nearly gave a woman a heart attack the other day at Kmart," he says. "They have these T-shirts with the pockets, and the shirts fit my big (backside) perfectly.

"The woman ringing me up looked at me and said, 'Aren't you the guy from "Mike & Molly"?' I said yes, and she said, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'I love these T-shirts.' She could hardly believe it."

"Mike & Molly" has changed his life in more personal ways, too. "I can now expect to buy a home in the next couple of years," he says. "I can look at putting my son through college."

And for himself?

"I bought myself a hot rod: a 1956 rebuilt Chevy Bel Air. That's the one thing I allowed myself," he says. "You know if you give white trash money we're going to go buy a hot rod.

"It's the first time in my life that I've not had to live paycheck-to-paycheck. It's a real blessing. I still can't comprehend it sometimes."


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