Billy Gardell rattles the date off without thinking about it: Dec. 28, 1987.
“I don’t forget that one, buddy. That’s when it all changed. It was an open mic night on a Wednesday at Bonkerz in Orlando.”
That led from cleaning a comedy club to performing at them. And a stand-up career led to auditions for acting jobs that led to “Mike & Molly.”
“It’s a pretty amazing thing that’s happened to me, and it’s not lost on me,” Gardell says.
But Gardell is using a week off from production of the CBS comedy’s third season to do stand-up at The Orleans this weekend. “I feel like you gotta fill the cup while the water’s on. There’ll be time to rest when this is all over,” he says.
Beyond business concerns, “There’s definitely a calling from stand-up. I’ve never been able to stop doing it,” he says.
So it makes sense that the 43-year-old comedian has a Showtime side project called “Billy Gardell Presents Road Dogs.”
Gardell says he hand-picked veteran comics Kenny Rogerson (who has played comedy clubs on the Strip since the ’90s), Tim Wilson and Ben Creed (who opens today’s show at The Orleans).
The first Showtime airing fared well enough that the cable network wants two more specials with Gardell hosting comedians who have been around for 15 or more years and who inspired him during his road dog days.
“There’s this wave of comedy where it suddenly became full of categories: the young guy, the hip guy, the angry guy, all that stuff,” Gardell says. “I just wanted to go back to the days when it was guys who got great at it, who killed the room night after night.”
Prime-time success may have changed audience expectations for Gardell as a headliner, but it hasn’t changed his comedic perspective.
“They’re there because I’m on TV, but then hopefully when they get there they like what Billy has to say,” he says. “My stand-up has always been based on, ‘Are you guys seeing this, too, or am I alone?’ I think if you go at it that way, for me that’s what works.”
Audiences know he makes big-time money now, but Gardell says he is still able to keep the blue-collar perspective of his past.
“I try to stay in touch with who I am and where I come from. I don’t ever want to disrespect where I come from because that’s what made me discover my voice,” he says.
“I think when you write about the common struggles of trying to be a father, or trying to be a husband and trying to be good at those things, those are the common worries and fears of ‘Is it going to be OK?’
“I think when you stay along those themes, then it connects us all.”
“Mike & Molly” co-star Melissa McCarthy used her scene-stealing role in “Bridesmaids” to land more big-screen comedies, such as the current “Identity Thief.” Gardell says he is “looking to just find myself a couple of character roles and start to build my career as a character actor.”
“If nothing else happens besides ‘Mike & Molly’ and stand-up, I’m good,” he adds. “But if I had my druthers I would really love to build a nice character actor career in some indie films and some more dramatic films.”
Gardell says he sees a big difference in his acting skills when he watches a first- season episode of “Mike & Molly” now.
“I think I’ve grown quite a bit, and I attribute that largely to my cast,” he says. “It helps us get those great moments that are written for us.”
He never took acting classes, but has realized “stand-up is about battle, it’s about winning the confidence. Acting I’m learning is more about letting them see you think and letting them inside.”
Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.