Talking to Billy Eichner about the New Season of His Crazy Game Show ‘Billy on the Street’
One of the most unconventional and unique comedies on TV, the absurd man on the street game show Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street, returns tomorrow night on Fuse. Inspired by a series of web videos host Billy Eichner made, in which he bombards New York pedestrians with music and pop culture questions, the show is now about to begin its second season. Big stars like Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, and Rashida Jones will be appearing on the show this year, joining Eichner to run around the streets like maniacs. I recently had the chance to talk to Billy Eichner about the new season, the ins and outs of approaching strangers on the street, whether being recognized is getting in the way of the show or not, his obsession with Madonna, and the first Billy on the Street obstacle course:
How would you describe Billy on the Street to people who aren’t familiar?
Billy on the Street is a music and pop culture trivia game show that takes place on the streets of New York City. It’s produced by Funny or Die, Will Ferrell’s production company. I’m the host of the show, and I ambush pedestrians walking down the streets of New York with various music and pop culture trivia. I’m a very opinionated, passionate guy when it comes to celebrities and pop culture. There are some people I love, some people I don’t love as much. We play lots of different games with people on the street, but one of the twists of the show is that some of the questions are factual, but some of the questions are subjective. So, in order for people to win money, their opinions have to match my opinions about pop culture.
Watching the show, it seems like such a perfect job for you. Can you ever imagine finding something more perfectly suited towards you?
Well, the show is actually inspired by YouTube videos I made – man on the street videos – that were actually from a live show I did at Upright Citizens Brigade in New York. My live show was like a late night talk show live on stage. There were a lot of different segments. You know, I love doing it, and that’s great, but there were lots of other segments on the show that weren’t man on the street that people like just as much. This is like the first thing that caught on. I love doing the man on the street stuff, but there’ll be other things that I do that are indoors and slightly less frantic.
But you’d like to host a talk show on TV one day?
Yeah, we’ll see, you know. I mean, I did a live talk show in New York years, and it had a big cult following in New York and at various comedy festivals. I don’t know, we’ll see where all of this leads. I wouldn’t be surprised if man on the street [segments] still appeared in other versions or in some sort of hybrid with other things, like in a sketch show or something like that. I hope there’s other things beyond it.
What kind of comedy did you grow up with? What were the TV shows and comedians you liked a lot as a kid?
There were a lot of people. Not to suck up to the guy who owns the company that produces my show, but I love Will Ferrell. I loved SNL, growing up as a kid. Dana Carvey. I really love Steve Martin. I was kind of obsessed with Martin Short as a kid. When I was a young kid, I really loved Pee-wee’s Playhouse and Pee Wee Herman. Some people have actually – not in terms of creatively or the aesthetic of it but sort of the energy and the style and the larger than life persona on Billy on the Street – some people have said it reminds them of Pee-wee Herman. There’s sort of a cartoonish quality to it. That, actually, I think is a huge compliment because I really loved Pee-wee when I was a kid.
When did you first start performing comedy?
I got into the improv scene after college. I grew up in New York. I went to Northwestern and studied theater. I did more of a traditional acting thing and a lot of musicals. I came back and I started taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade. Then, I started writing that show I described – that talk show. It was called “Creation Nation.” It was a live sketch/variety show that I did. Sometimes, the man on the street videos were a segment in that show. That show was a combination of stand-up and sketches and video parodies and man on the street and there was a band, we had funny songs I’d write. It was a whole hodge-podge of different types of comedy segments. I don’t know, I never thought I’d be a comedian. I just kind of fell into that world, doing this live show and these videos. And I love it. It’s great.
(a segment from Eichner’s live UCB show, “Creation Nation”)
On the first episode of the new season of Billy on the Street, I saw you get recognized by a pedestrian. How frequently does that happen in the new season?
I think that might be the only clip like that in the season. I don’t like to repeat myself. It does happen now. People come up to me and they say, “Oh, you’re Billy on the Street.” I don’t tend to want to film segments with those people because it’s not as much fun because they’re sort of prepared for what it is. But also, hey, it’s a great problem to have. I’m happy to know that people recognize me. It means that people are watching the show or they’re watching me online. So, that’s a good thing. It hasn’t gotten in our way at all. People are very friendly, and there’s so many people in New York that there will always be many people who don’t know who I am or even if they recognize me, [they] don’t exactly know what I do. So, I don’t think it’s gonna be a problem.
Thinking back to Insomniac with Dave Attell, he had that problem by the end of the show where too many people were recognizing him.
Yeah, but that show lasted a long time. I don’t remember how long it lasted, but… hey, we’ll see how it goes. There’s also other cities. Conan had me shooting in Israel and all over the place. They don’t recognize me in Israel, not yet. Maybe it’ll just be Billy on the Street in Israel. [laughs] Every episode. You know, I’ll go to Africa. I’ll go to wherever I need to go.
Are there other man on the street shows or segments that you look to as inspiration?
I don’t think I was inspired for what I do. There are other man on the street videos that I like. I think Sacha Baron Cohen, obviously, he’s a genius. His wasn’t fully man on the street. I think there were some Borat segments that man on the street or some Bruno segments. But in terms of the whole ambush, I think he’s very smart. What he does is high-brow and low-brow. It is sort of a low-brow schtick, but it makes a statement. It is thought-provoking in the way he’s doing it and the character he’s taking on when he does it, and I think he’s brilliant. Of course, when Robert Smigel does Triumph, it’s still hilarious. It’s just very ballsy and smart and funny. I guess [man on the street] is thought of as a low-brow act, but I think there is a smart, fresh way to do it. I think it can be a combination of high-brow and low-brow going into this, and I hope that’s what we do on my show too. In terms of quality, I’m definitely inspired by those guys. I mean, I aspire to be as good as they are.
So, you have a lot of big guest stars on this season. Who are some of the people who appear on the show?
We have a lot of great guest stars. That’s the big difference from Season 1 is that, this season, we have a lot of fun celebrity guests on the show. And they’re all guests who are fans of the show, so they come prepared to play. They’re great sports about it, they bring a lot of energy to the show. They have a good time. We have Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones is in the season premiere this Friday. It’s a very eclectic group. Debra Messing, Andy Cohen, Nick Kroll, Zachary Quinto, Rachel Dratch. The list goes on and on. Ashley Benson from Pretty Little Liars. It’s a fun mix of people. They’re all really fun. You never know with the celebrity segments, “Are they gonna be uptight?” or “Are they not gonna want to talk about certain things?” or “Are they gonna be willing to run around on the streets with me. But it turns out they really wanted to, and that’s why they wanted to do the show because it’s a little different. You’re used to seeing those people on a couch at a nice studio at a talk show, but you’re not used to seeing them just running around on the streets of New York, you know what I mean? Just another crazy person on the streets of New York. So, yeah, I’m really excited about that. I think people are really gonna like it.
Is there ever anything that gets cut from the show? Is Fuse pretty liberal when it comes to what they let you keep in?
Fuse is actually really great when it comes to that. They really believe in, I guess, my bizarre vision for the show, to use a pretentious term. They really don’t give me many notes. I’m very fortunate in that way – working with them. I had a ton of YouTube clips online when they bought the show. They knew what they were getting into, and they were excited about it. We push buttons a little bit. It’s a little edgy, but I think there’s something about the show… I think it’s my persona. Although it does get edgy and I curse and stuff, it feels very non-threatening. It’s like, ‘Yes, I’m cursing, but I’m cursing about Meryl Streep.’ [Laughs]
The subject matter is ridiculous. Getting as worked up as I do over actors or pop stars. Everyone realizes that it’s absurd. Absurd is really the word. I wouldn’t even describe it as edgy. I don’t think it’s edgy, and I think that’s fine. I think it’s silly and I think it’s satiric and I think it’s absurd, in a good way. I hope that’s what it is. That’s what I try to make it.
So, what’s the writing process like for the show? Julie Klausner writes for the show, right?
Oh, yes. I love Julie. Basically, what happens is – it’s not a typical writers’ room, it’s a game show, and 90% of the show happens in the moment when we’re filming it. None of the contestants are pre-screened the way they are on other game shows. We turn the cameras on and decide what neighborhood to go to that day and start filming. I don’t know what’s gonna happen, the crew doesn’t know what’s gonna happen, but of course, I do have to have an idea of what I’m going to ask people on the street.
There’s three or four weeks before filming where I put together a think tank of funny people that I know in New York. Friends of mine, writers, comedians that submit to work on the show. We sit in a room together, and we come up with questions, new games to play, new lifelines… So, yes, it’s been Julie Klausner, who’s been the one main consistent full-time force on the show. She’s pretty much head writer. She’s there with me from start to finish. She’s not out on the street with me. Once I’m out on the street, I just like to be by myself. I know a lot of people who do on the street stuff, and they like a writer there to feed them lines, which’d probably make my life a lot easier, but, for some reason, it’s not part of the process I like. I’d rather just see what happens in the moment. Julie is great. Gabe Liedman, also hysterical, worked on the show this year. Ethan Berlin, Alison Rich, and then we have some other freelance people who I like in LA who… will send in some ideas… It’s great. These are very, very funny people, so I’m lucky to have them.
Do you ever have problems with the people on the street not wanting to sign the release forms to appear on the show?
Yeah… we film a lot. I talk to a lot of people every day. Luckily, we shoot in New York. There’s a lot of people in New York. You walk down the block and you circle around and there’s a million new people. Once in a while, someone doesn’t want to sign the release, and there’s nothing you can do about it. We don’t want anyone on the show who doesn’t want to be on the show, particularly because I can be snarky and bitchy with people. They have to be willing to have that be seen on TV. As you can see, no one who’s on the show didn’t sign a release after the fact, so, on some level, they’re cool with it or they’re game or they realize that it’s funny or sometimes just want to be on TV. And if somebody doesn’t, they don’t, and they’re not on the show. It’s as simple as that. You just sort of keep going. Just keep filming.
Do you ever get scared on the street when you maybe approach the wrong person?
I mean, what’s really crazy is that it’s so unpredictable how people are gonna react. Sometimes, I’ll go up to someone and see them coming, and I’ll think to myself ‘Oh God, maybe I shouldn’t go up to this person.’ You know, they look like they’re the kind of person that maybe they can lash out at any moment or maybe they’re very high-strung. And then, I’ll approach them, and they’ll be very nice and low-key. They might not be hilarious, but they won’t be angry at all or [get] freaked out at all – almost to the point where I’m disappointing, where I wish that they had.
I approach people in different ways. Sometimes, I’ll run up to people and catch them off-guard and scream in their face. Other times, I just approach them very casually. They see me coming, I’m with a whole camera crew. So, yes, I’m ambushing them, but if you’re looking around, it’s not hidden camera. There’s so many hidden camera shows, and it’s very obvious that we’re filming a TV show. You’d be surprised, sometimes, a really unassuming, sweet-seeming person can really angry because they don’t want to be on TV, and that’s fine. We just keep going, you know?
Do you have a favorite moment from the new season?
There are a lot of great moments this season. It’s hard to pick just one. The Will Ferrell stuff is really great. It’s a thrill. I grew up watching Will Ferrell and worshiping him on SNL, along with many other comedians. So, to be able to just improvise with him essentially for 15 minutes on my show, that’s really very, very exciting. There’s a lot of great moments. I run around with Rashida Jones and ask people if they recognize her in the first episode. She’s hilarious, people are hilarious. That’s a great moment. There’s a lot of great contestants on the show. Really funny New Yorkers with really funny reactions to things. People you would think wouldn’t know anything about pop culture, and it turns out they clearly keep up with celebrities and have all kinds of strong opinions about it.
I think one of my favorite parts of this season was – we did the first Billy on the Street obstacle course with Rachel Dratch. She runs our first obstacle course. It’s in the spirit of Double Dare, which I loved as a kid, but with my own pop culture twist, which I can’t give away.
Do you have a dream guest who you have in mind for future seasons of the show?
Well, I have a lot. Two of the people who I obsess about a lot in my shows are Meryl Streep and Madonna. I got to meet Meryl on Andy Cohen’s show on Bravo, Watch What Happens: Live. He brought me on the show with Meryl because he knew what a fan I was and “Meryl Fucking Streep” was one of the catchphrases from the show that really took off for people. I got to meet Meryl on Andy’s show, but I’d love to have her on. Now that I know her and I know she’s a fan and she’s aware of me. It was really extraordinary to be able to watch Meryl watching clips of me that Andy played on his show – the on the street clips where I run around screaming, “Meryl Fucking Streep!” And to see the actual Meryl Streep watching that in a room with her, that was insane. The next step – the only better thing – would be to actually have her on the show with me. She’s not on the show this season, but I’m crossing my fingers for next season. That would be great.
The other person is Madonna. I’m also a correspondent on Conan now, and I did a whole trilogy this past year of Madonna-centric videos. I was at the Super Bowl [for] the halftime show, he sent me to Israel to cover her world tour, and then, I was actually with her onstage during her rehearsal at Yankee Stadium in New York a few months ago. Madonna and I actually had a lot of good interaction in that segment for Conan. I feel like I’ve done Madonna, but I still want Meryl on the show. So, that’s a goal.
The second season of Billy on the Street premieres Friday, December 7th at 10/9c on Fuse. Check out the entire season premiere, embedded below: