BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Swissvale native Billy Gardell is grateful. Not the Hollywood, "love ya, babe" grateful, but a Pittsburgh kind of grateful.
"Show up to work and no matter what, be happy you're there," Mr. Gardell said, espousing his work ethic mantra after a CBS press conference in late July for his new sitcom, "Mike & Molly" (9:30 tonight, KDKA-TV). "This is new to me, and it's exciting and I'm trying to hold onto that every day. ... I'm a ham-and-eggs comic, and now I'm in the middle of the biggest show on CBS."
With hit comedy "The Big Bang Theory" moving to 8 p.m. Thursday, CBS has high hopes that "Mike & Molly" will be able to takes its place and help maintain the popularity of the network's Monday night lineup. The series focuses on the budding romantic relationship between Chicago cop Mike (Mr. Gardell) and fourth-grade teacher Molly (Melissa McCarthy, "Gilmore Girls"), who meet at an Overeaters Anonymous group meeting.
Yes, there are the requisite fat jokes -- a card table collapses in tonight's premiere when Mike leans against it -- but executive producer Chuck Lorre ("Two and a Half Men," "The Big Bang Theory") says it's not a series about weight.
"It's a show about people trying to make their lives better and find someone that they can have a committed relationship with," he said. "If we're still talking about [weight] come Episode 6, we've got a serious problem because it would get tired really quickly. It's not enough to hang a series on."
For Mr. Gardell, a longtime stand-up comic, "Mike & Molly" represents an opportunity to play the leading man, something he never thought would be possible. He said he's accustomed to being cast as the bad guy, the cop or the neighbor.
"I'm not the good-looking, muscle guy. I'm not the handsome, pouty guy. I'm the heavy guy who's usually right next to the main guy," Mr. Gardell said. "If you come to Hollywood, you have to know the part you're gonna get. I can't pretend I'm the action hero. I have to focus on being the neighbor. You focus on what you can do, and you can make a good living doing it. I just happen to have sailed into the role of a lifetime for a guy like me. This is more than I ever thought I would be, really."
Mr. Gardell grew up splitting his time between his divorced parents' homes, spending the school year with his mother in Florida and summers with his father in Pittsburgh. He still considers Pittsburgh home, returning at least twice a year and making weekly radio appearances on WDVE-FM's morning show. Mr. Gardell, 41, was back in Pittsburgh in July to tape his first hour-long Comedy Central stand-up special, which is expected to air in early 2011.
He doesn't have a second home in Pittsburgh, a la actor David Conrad, but he said owning a place in Pittsburgh -- "my own Batcave," he called it -- is a goal he and Mr. Conrad recently discussed.
But first things first: There's the little matter of finding success with "Mike & Molly," which he thinks hearkens back to 1970s TV comedies such as "M• A• S• H," "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times," particularly in regard to the casting.
"None of those people looked beautiful. I'm not trying to insult them, but you watched those shows and went, 'I know that guy,' or, 'I know a guy like that guy,' " Mr. Gardell said. "That was my dream as a kid, to be on a show that represented that. Then we got into the beautiful people thing, which is fine, but I just kept trotting along as a stand-up, thinking something's going to come up for me."
A lot of things have come up for him. After taking acting lessons upon his move to Hollywood in the late '90s, Mr. Gardell landed roles on the short-lived FX comedy "Lucky" (2003) and the equally short-lived NBC drama "Heist" (2006). He had recurring guest spots on CBS's "Yes, Dear" (2001-06) and "My Name Is Earl" (2007-09).
But "Mike & Molly" represents Mr. Gardell's first real leading role on a weekly series, let alone playing a romantic lead.
"Yeah, that's frightening isn't it," he said with a self-deprecating laugh. "It's nice to stretch and feel awkward. That's how you grow."
His co-star, Ms. McCarthy, said even from their first screen test together, there was a comfort level that made the pairing feel natural.
"It felt like we'd been doing it for years," she said at a CBS party. "We had an immediate kind of connection."
Like Mr. Gardell, Ms. McCarthy also started out as a stand-up comic.
"I think he's such a lovely actor. I don't think you expect that vulnerability from a stand-up, and I think that's very, very rare," she said. "Billy always says we both kind of trusted each other right away. I don't know if it was our backgrounds. ... We're not 20 and crazy. We both have a family, and your priorities shift."
With "Mike & Molly" getting generally positive reviews and a plum time slot behind "Two and a Half Men," odds are better than average that Mr. Gardell will be coming into CBS viewers' homes on a weekly basis for some time. But if that's not the case and Mr. Gardell decides to chuck the Hollywood life, he does have a backup plan in mind.
"If this doesn't work out, I'm going back to the 'Burgh," he said. "I could be out here another 90 years, and it isn't going to wind up like this again. I've got some cool pictures. I'll open a pizza or hoagie joint. People will come in and say, 'Is that you with Letterman?' 'Yeah, what do you want, a large? I gotcha.' That's fine with me."
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.