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There is still room in prime time for a little comedy with a big heart. And big stars.

Since debuting in September, the sitcom Mike & Molly has surprised many people by becoming the highest-rated rookie comedy of the new fall season.

The show also introduced two relative newcomers in the titular roles: Billy Gardell is a natural as Chicago police officer Mike Briggs, who, while attending an Overeaters Anonymous meeting, falls for a gentle-natured schoolteacher named Molly (Melissa McCarthy). The series follows the plus-sized couple's burgeoning romance at an unhurried pace, and only rarely takes issue with their weight.

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Pittsburgh-born Gardell has been a busy working standup comedian since the age of 19 — more than half his life — and appeared in small roles in such Hollywood features as Bad Santa and You, Me and Dupree.

McCarthy, meanwhile, hails from the tiny burg of Plainfield, Ill., and previously starred in the series Gilmore Girls and Samantha Who?

And now, against all probable odds, Gardell and McCarthy are TV's hottest romantic couple. They spoke to us from the Mike & Molly set.

Ratings keep climbing for Mike & Molly. Does that create on-set buzz?

Gardell: All I want to know each week is whether the ratings held or went up. Once I hear that, I go right back to work. I try not to pay too much attention to the ratings. If they go up, that just means those cameras are going to roll one more week.

McCarthy: For us it's still exciting to work on something really good each week. Having people like the show is just getting hit with a lucky stick.

Are you slowly morphing into these characters?

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Gardell: It kind of felt like that from the beginning.…

McCarthy: When we were doing the pilot, we felt like, 'Are we crazy or does it feel like we've already been doing this for three years?' Now that we've gotten into it, there's just a really nice ease to the process. The writers hear us and everybody gets where we're going. It takes a lot of the stress off.

You've both spent years doing standup. What's been the biggest lifestyle change working on a sitcom?

Gardell: The fact I'm able to drive home every night and spend time with my family is one of the biggest blessings for me. Just being able to see my kid every day is really special for me. The wife? Not so happy about me being home every day, but she's getting used to it.

McCarthy: Same here. I've got two kids and before this I've always worked on single-camera shows, which means a lot more hours filming. So being able to come home and be a parent and see my husband is great.

Does it feel like your characters are moving toward true love at a leisurely pace?

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Gardell: The premise went out further in the beginning and then pulled back. I love that they've slowed it down.

McCarthy: I think that's what people enjoy about the show. There's no expectation of that quick banter back and forth, which sometimes works great, but it's on every sitcom now. Our show is about these two people falling in love and they're letting it happen at its own pace. When you pull back and give things a little bit of breath, it feels a bit more filmic. It doesn't feel contrived to me, as an actress.

Is it true that sitcom kingpin James Burrows is directing every episode of your first season?

McCarthy: He really has done every one and it's been fantastic. We love him so much I can even describe it. Jimmy has such an amazing sense of what's funny and what works. And he's such a great guy. Having him there all the time has been amazing. We still can't believe our luck.

Gardell: It's like being in Santa's workshop every day.

Some reviewers credit the show's mainstream success to your characters' working-class status — he's a cop, she's a schoolteacher. Could you do those jobs?

Gardell: I don't know if I could get on the force at this point. Maybe 20 years ago. But it's a working-class show, with working-class characters. These are real people. They're not in a laboratory at night solving crimes.

McCarthy: The pacing is real, and so are the people. It has a bit of a throwback feel to it, I think, in a really good way, in an All in the Family or Cheers way. It feels familiar.

Have the writers thrown any curves at you so far?

Gardell: Any curves we get are usually in the middle of filming. A sitcom script can change on the fly. For me, that's when I panic.

McCarthy: You mean like when they set your hand on fire?

Gardell: That's right, they actually set my hand on fire, when I was trying to light the grill for the Thanksgiving episode. Oddly, that didn't bother me at all.

For two former comedians, is being on a hit sitcom as good as it gets?

McCarthy: Billy always says it's like playing for the Yankees, and that's how it feels. Holy smokes, let this go 100 years.

Gardell: If things went like this for another nine years, I'm good with that, man. If I could just get a long run with this same cast and writers, I would never complain again. I could be on an infomercial for Cuisinart and not complain.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Mike & Molly airs Mondays at 9:30 p.m. on CBS and CTV.

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