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Friday, March 14th, 2014

Looking Back at Billy Eichner's Pre-'Billy on the Street' Days

Comedian Billy Eichner's hilarious pop culture game show Billy on the Street debuted its third season on cable network Fuse this week, and the show is more popular than ever. The man-on-the-street segments that inspired the show began as YouTube videos that came from a popular live late night show called Creation Nation that Eichner hosted for years in New York. In an interview with us promoting last season of Billy on the Street, Eichner said, "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."

After studying theater at Northwestern University, Billy Eichner moved to New York where he dived into the town's theater and comedy scenes. He starred in an Off-Broadway musical called I Sing! that was written by some college friends and dabbled in improv, completing the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre's program before he decided to create a show of his own. Along with college friend Robin Taylor, Eichner created and co-hosted the live show Creation Nation, a variety show that mixed standup, sketch, original musical numbers, live interviews with celebrities, and pre-taped segments. The monthly show debuted in 2003 in the basement of independent downtown book store the Drama Book Shop and moved from spot to spot over the years that it ran. Another Northwestern alum, Benjamin Salka directed Creation Nation and its videos, which were written by Eichner, who wisely put them online in the early days of YouTube.


An Extreme Makeover: Home Edition parody from Creation Nation, called "I'm Nice."


"Projeckt Runwausen," the German expressionist version of Project Runway.

Billy Eichner described the premise for Creation Nation as "a land ruled by artists, celebrities … and people who like to talk about pop culture without necessarily contributing to it." He and Robin Taylor hosted the show as characters Billy Willing, Creation Nation's gay president, and Robin Lord, its closeted vice president, respectively, with their sexual tension and TV host bickering defining their dynamic.

Creation Nation is where Eichner discovered his knack for man-on-the-street interviews. Here are the first two segments like that he released, both filmed in 2006, in which his unusual style is already pretty developed right from the get-go. In these initial ones, Eichner asks pedestrians about serious questions before quickly losing interest and inquiring about pop culture:

Entertainment and gossip website Radar Online caught wind of Creation Nation and commissioned Eichner to make some videos in 2007, and he did it, as he jokingly explains below, because he "needed the money so badly." His video "Jen's Blog" inspired the Bravo web series My Life on the Z-List: Jen's Vlog, which he wrote and starred in as the character, a New Yorker with an interest in fashion who wants to become famous as a vlogger.

Creation Nation led to Eichner starring in Bravo comedy pilot called Joan Rivers' Straight Talk, which was like The View but with host Joan Rivers joined by four gay men. Bravo passed on the show, causing Eichner's agent to drop him and him to consider leaving show business.


A clip from the Joan Rivers pilot, which, unfortunately, doesn't feature Eichner very much at all.

As Creation Nation winded down, Eichner focused more on solo projects. His one-person show, a mix of pop culture sketches, videos, and songs called Billy Eichner Goes Pop! got a run at the UCB Theatre in 2010, and he continued to release man-on-the-street and other web videos, including this one, a parody of Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind," which detailed his upbringing in the New York neighborhood of Forest Hills and featured Rachel Dratch as Eichner's Alicia Keys:

Eichner's web videos caught the eye of Mike Farah, president of production at Funny Or Die, who was looking to turn the web brand into a TV production company at the time. Eichner pitched him on turning his man-on-the-street bits into a game show, and Farah gave him the money to shoot a seven-minute reel to shop around to TV networks. Comedy Central, VH1, Bravo, E!, and BBC America were all interested in making a pilot after being presented with the pitch and the seven-minute clip, but Eichner and Farah went with cable channel Fuse because they offered a 10-episode straight-to-series guarantee and promised complete creative control. Billy on the Street made its  debut in 2011, and three years later, it's still one of the funniest and most original shows on TV.

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