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.
The Advocate: When did you first get the idea of accosting people on the street with a microphone?
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 Cab?
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 stand out?
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, again.
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.