By Jami Smith
Originally published on Advocate.com January 18 2012 10:50 AM ET
Funny or Die darling
Billy Eichner isn’t your everyday game show host. With his new television show, aptly titled Billy
On The Street, Eichner hosts an impromptu quiz
show where unsuspecting New Yorkers are ambushed on the sidewalk and forced to
answer hilarious (and entirely subjective) pop culture questions for money. The
premise of the show is simple, but the results are spectacular.
Eichner chats with The Advocate about going toe-to-toe with some headstrong
pedestrians and why Brad Pitt won’t win an Oscar this year.
When did you first get the idea of accosting people on the street with a
Billy Eichner: I
was doing a live show in New York back in 2005 called Creation Nation. It was a talk show, my version of what Letterman
does or The Daily Show, but we
didn’t have a TV show so we did it onstage at various Off Broadway theaters and
bars in the East Village. It developed a pretty big cult following in New York.
The host I played was a persona, a very exaggerated version of myself. One idea
that popped into my head was the original kernel of the idea for my man-on-the-street
act. At the time, I was a struggling actor/writer, and I thought it would be
funny if I went to my Korean dry cleaner and asked her opinion of my new
headshot, as if that were an important thing in the world. When you are a young
actor/comedian in New York, your fledgling career is the focus of your life and
people lose a lot of self awareness. I sort of played with that. I thought it
would be funny to run around New York asking people who wouldn’t give a shit
about my headshot as if it’s something everyone should weigh in on. That was
the original idea. We never actually shot that, but it led to going out to the
street and asking people about my career and about pop culture in general. The
first time we showed this at my show, people loved it. We would show it at the
end of the show and people would wait for it and clap when I started to
announce it. It had an incredible reaction every month and became a signature.
Now that it’s escalated into a television show, have
people starting looking for you on the street the way they look for the Cash
I’ve been in L.A. since the show started
airing but I came back for Christmas and I went into the Apple Store and one of
the employees said to me, “Are you Billy On The Street?” And I said “yes,” and he said, “Please
don’t scream at me.”
The thing I find most interesting is that you can never
predict how New Yorkers are going to respond to such an abrupt approach.
Anywhere else, people would be terrified. Here, some people don’t even flinch
when you run up to them.
It’s amazing. We get a really wide variety
of responses. Asian women have a tendency to get terrified and run away from
me. Other than that, it’s always so hard to predict. What you see on the show
is what you get. There is little to no pre-planning. We decide what
neighborhood to shoot in that day, and we turn the cameras on. I don’t know who
I’m going to approach until three seconds before I approach them. It’s not like
Cash Cab where contestants have some idea that they are about to
play a game of some sort. But here, it isn’t the case at all. I find that every
time I think someone that looks fun and crazy, nine times out of 10, they’re
boring. Then, I go up to the most unassuming old lady with like a cane, part of
me doesn’t want to scare her, but I’ll approach her and think, this person
will go nowhere. They are going to know nothing about Lady Gaga,” and she will launch into a five-minute diatribe
about her or Brad Pitt or whatever. It’s so unpredictable. That is the beauty
of New York.
Your comedic style is pretty bold. What kind of role do
you think political correctness plays in comedy? You were the guest when Lance
Bass was co-hosting Access Hollywood and
got in trouble for saying “trannies.” Do you think people were too sensitive?
I think there is a huge under appreciation for context. Context is
everything when you’re putting a stand up act together or talking on TV or
editing a movie. Context is everything. You can’t just take quick sound bites
and make a story out of one word. In terms of what happened at Access
Hollywood, I thought Lance handled it as well as he could afterward and wrote a
very articulate and honest blog about it the next day apologizing. He didn’t intend to mean any harm at
all. He’s one of the only openly gay celebrities. It’s difficult sometimes to
navigate. I remember a time when Project Runway was on, they were saying that word all of the time. That was only a
few years ago. If that changed, that’s fine but sometimes we don’t all know
that it changed and we’re in the
gay community. On our show, we play around with things. I’m an equal
opportunity offender. I talk about gay people, black people, I make fun of
myself. I make fun of everyone. If we have a segment that feels edgy, I am not
going to appeal to the lowest common denominator because I’m going to offend
someone. I’m not going to worry if someone doesn’t get it. If you are offended,
go write a blog about it.
Tell me some of your favorite moments. What contestants
We’ve had a lot of really incredible
moments. One viral thing from this season so far is there’s a semi toothless
man who I got into an argument with about Meryl Streep versus Glenn Close. I
had been walking around all day talking about it because I have a huge Meryl
obsession. I love Meryl Streep. I even saw the movie, Prime, Jami. I’m a big fan. I approached this man and,
again, here is a person who you would think would not have anything to say
about Meryl Streep, let alone Glenn Close, let alone anyone in pop culture. He
had only half the amount of teeth he should’ve. He comes down so
strongly on the side of Glenn Close and doesn’t let up. Even after I walk away,
he keeps talking to the camera and makes this crazy but logical argument on why
he prefers Glenn Close. It’s one of the more absurd things that has happened in
my life, let alone the show.
Glenn lost the Golden Globe to Meryl the other night,
I know!My favorite part of the Golden Globes was her icy
death stare when Meryl won.
It’s a stare she’s done before.
Yeah, she has two looks and that’s one of
them. Glenn Close finally gets back in the movie game after years of cable and
theater and she was never going to win for that weird little movie where she
plays a man that no one’s going to see. But to be beaten by Meryl, again,
after all of those years in the ’80s, it’s really cruel. It was all in her
eyes. A great Hollywood moment.
The same look that Elton gave Madonna when she won.
That was beautiful. You can’t write that.
Any upsets or people you thought shouldn’t be nominated?
The thing about the Golden Globes is that
half of them shouldn’t be nominated. I miss the years when Sharon Stone would
win for Best Actress and she hadn’t even been in a movie that year. Those were
the best years. They’ve gotten slightly too legitimate for my taste. I was
surprised that Brad Pitt isn’t winning. I just assume that he is going win for Moneyball
because he hasn’t won and Clooney has. I think Jonah Hill is what is throwing Moneyball off. People want Jonah to stay fat. Just stay fat.
You found something that works. I don’t like when these fat guys get skinny. I
love when the fat men always have thin anorexic supermodel girlfriends because
it would never be the opposite. Gabourey Sidibe shows up alone to award shows.
It’s not like she’s going show up with Tom Brady. The opposite would never
happen. Melissa McCarthy, I love her but she’s got a fat husband. If she were a
man, she would be showing up with Elle Macpherson as her date. She is, by the
way, one of our finest actresses. So glad she got her due. Not a dry eye in the
house. I’m sure her and Sidney Poitier had a lot to talk about.
Watch another clip from Billy On The Street on the third page. The show airs every Thursday at 11 p.m.
on the Fuse Network, which you can find on your television here. Follow
Billy on Twitter at @billyeichner.