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Rebecca Hutchens

NEW YORK -- It's a birthday for Mike Biggs, the goodhearted, heavyset hero of "Mike & Molly," and Molly Flynn, his plus-size love, presents him with the cake. "Make a wish," she says, to which he replies, "I don't need to. I already got everything I want."

A little bit sappy? Not this show, insists Billy Gardell, who co-stars with Melissa McCarthy in the hit CBS comedy.

"Mike & Molly," he says, exists "in a world where we don't just say a snarky line, make a crazy face and walk out of the room. There's actually some tender moments here, too."

An average weekly audience of 11 million fans clearly identifies with "Mike & Molly," making it a Top 20 fixture in its sophomore season (it airs at 9:30 p.m. Monday).

The title characters are a working-class Chicago couple who met at Overeaters Anonymous. Stories deal with tight budgets and workaday jobs (he's a cop, she's a fourth-grade schoolteacher), their exasperating families, and the ups and downs of their romance and impending marriage.

As Mike struggles to shed a few pounds, the show doesn't shy from wisecracks about the lovers' generous waistlines.

"Everybody always asks me, 'Does it bother you about the fat jokes?' " says Gardell. "At the beginning, we had to address that issue because we're a show in a world of shows where everybody's perfect -- and we're not! But as the show went on, it has become more about the love story."

When the writing takes a sensitive turn, the co-stars make the most of it. McCarthy, previously known from "The Gilmore Girls" and Oscar-nominated for last year's hit, "Bridesmaids," already has logged an Emmy for her performance as the gentle but no-nonsense Molly.

At 42, Gardell, whose TV credits include "Yes, Dear" and "My Name is Earl," is a veteran stand-up comic with an easygoing earnestness, both on- and off-camera. When the subject turns to "Mike & Molly," the operative term to describe Gardell is grateful.

He is grateful to be teamed with McCarthy and with their fellow cast members (Reno Wilson, Katy Mixon, Swoosie Kurtz, Nyambi Nyambi), with Chuck Lorre, its executive producer, and with James Burrows, its legendary director, on the dream project "Mike & Molly" has turned out to be.

"It was the last audition of pilot season for me," says Gardell, thinking back just two short years ago as he braced to leave Los Angeles for a possible radio gig in the Midwest.

He was aiming to cut down on his 42-weeks-a-year touring schedule as a comic. It had begun to wear him down as he approached 40, with a wife and a young son he seldom saw.

Born in Pittsburgh but raised in Central Florida as an overweight misfit in a broken home, Gardell was dealt his share of vulnerabilities. And he found an effective outlet.

"The quickest way to defuse fear or insecurity or anger is usually humor," he says. "... Once you figure it out, you think, 'Hey, if I can do this and get paid, that would be kind of cool.' "