Billy Eichner and the True Reality Show That Is ‘Billy on the Street’
There’s a great moment in tonight’s Billy on the Street premiere where Billy Eichner and a woman in Union Square briefly debate Angelina Jolie’s acting abilities, and the woman cuts Eichner off with a simple question: “Who are you?” Despite his rise to TV prominence this year thanks to roles on Parks and Recreation and Hulu’s new (and recently renewed!) comedy Difficult People, Eichner has held onto just enough obscurity to get away with interactions like this on Billy on the Street, and he’s also the only comedian with the pop culture prowess and unabashed attitude to counter a typical New Yorker’s snark and disinterest (“So are you an internet thing? … I don’t like your attitude … Who gives a shit?”) with consistent comedy gold (“I’m on TV! Who gives a shit about you, bitch?!”). Ahead of tonight’s season 4 premiere, I spoke with Eichner about why he regards Billy on the Street as television’s only true reality show, working alongside Julie Klausner in Difficult People, and why it’s a good idea to keep a few talents hidden in your back pocket.
Congrats on the Difficult People renewal! I really love the show and can’t wait for season 2.
What’s the whole experience of starring in a scripted show and getting instant feedback been like?
It’s been great. It’s been a big year. It’s weird — it doesn’t feel like this year, but Parks and Rec also happened, so I’ve been sort of balancing three different shows this particular year, which has been an embarrassment of riches, obviously. Difficult People has been great — it’s been nice to star in a scripted show and work with Julie [Klausner], who’s been working on Billy on the Street since the beginning. That’s where we really met each other and discovered that we were great collaborators and great friends, and it’s interesting — I think the two shows together function as an interesting unit and complement each other really well, and what’s nice about Difficult People is that I’m playing a real, three-dimensional person, and I’ve been known from Billy on the Street and Parks and Rec as, you know, a more over-the-top persona. Difficult People has its aggressive moments, but I think it’s certainly a much more well-developed multi-dimensional character than I’ve ever been asked to play on TV before. So that’s been really great. And the cast is great, Julie’s a genius, and we’re having a great time. I’m really excited to see what happens in season 2 as we explore the world of those characters a little bit more.
I have a soft spot for shows that have realistic New York apartment sets. I think Flight of the Conchords did that well, and Broad City does it really well too. Your character’s tiny studio in Difficult People is brutal — it’s my favorite one yet.
It’s also part of what you were saying before — your character is a lot more three-dimensional than the other roles you’ve had on TV. Because as funny as I thought it was when I saw it, it’s also kind of heartbreaking! And it shows he’s willing to sacrifice a lot to “make it” in New York.
Totally! And Julie and I know that world well. I lived in those apartments, you know? Thank you for noticing that. I think they were really smart about keeping the show grounded, and it’s pretty clear at what point in their lives these people are, and that’s kind of the conflict in that show — in their head they’re meant to be huge stars, but the reality is the world does not see them that way yet, which inspires all of their bitterness and all their contempt. I think that’s an interesting situation, so it’ll be cool to see how it evolves.
I know you studied theater at Northwestern. Besides comedy, are there other things you’d like to try, acting-wise?
Oh yeah, I’d like to try a lot of different things. I was a child actor — I always acted growing up. Actually, the first thing I did was musicals. What got me into performing at all as a kid was the fact that I happened to have a really good singing voice, and my parents and I kind of discovered that at a young age. They weren’t like stage parents in any way; they didn’t give a shit if I was an actor or not… I’m sure they would’ve preferred not actually. [laughs] But I did happen to have a really good singing voice, and that got me into musicals, and that led me to more acting, and then I went to Northwestern and I was a theater major, you know? I didn’t even know it then, but Northwestern has a huge improv comedy scene, and I went to school with Kristen Schaal and we were in acting class together every day. There was Kristen, Josh Meyers was there also, Seth Meyers had just graduated a few years before that, and a lot of people who are known for doing comedy were part of that improv scene when we were at school. But I actually wasn’t — I was very focused on theater.
I think with what a lot of what I did do, even then, it was clear I had certain strengths and a certain talent for comedy, for lack of a better word, because it’s all about timing. It’s very hard to teach someone comic timing or to have a unique comic perspective — you either just have it or you don’t, and people either like it or they don’t understand what you’re doing. [laughs] So I guess if I did have a “specialty” at the time it’d veer towards comedy, but it’s certainly not the only thing that I did. And yeah, I’m definitely looking to branch out, and that’s what’s exciting. Billy on the Street is one side of me, and Difficult People kind of opens the door to other things. I love doing Billy on the Street and I’m certainly gonna keep going that, and you know — we’ll see what else comes along.
But yeah, there’s a lot of things that I can do and people who know me from way back when know that I can do but that the world doesn’t know, which is kind of exciting because you wanna keep a few things in your back pocket. So we’ll see what projects come along and what projects I develop — I’m really really busy right now, and so it’s hard to sit down and say “Oh, I know this other character I’m gonna play in my next TV series!” That’s a little bit presumptuous, and I don’t even have the time to have that presumption at the moment. [laughs]
I’m excited to show people other things I can do, and that was part of the reason I wanted to do Difficult People. And with Billy on the Street, you’re a bit limited to what you can do in the context of the show because people like that show for what it is and you want to give people what they want, but we do take a few steps in different directions than we have in the past, which you’ll see later in the new season — me taking on slightly different personas or characters while still in the Billy on the Street context — nothing too far removed…or maybe it is? I’ll leave it up for other people to decide. So I’m excited for that. And I’d like to do something musical at some point too, because when I was growing up, for me, Broadway was the focus for a certain part of my childhood, and it’s hard to do something good that’s musical. It’s a very hard medium, but if I could figure something out, I think that’d be great somewhere down the line.
It makes me happy you said you’ll still keep doing Billy on the Street, because every season it seems to get exponentially more popular than the year before. One year a lot of people didn’t know it, the next year a lot of my friends loved it, and now a lot of my friends’ moms love it.
[laughs] Yeah. When the moms start to know the show you know that it’s getting out there, because it takes moms a while to figure out what’s happening sometimes.
So we don’t have to worry about it ending anytime soon, right?
No, not at all! I mean, Billy on the Street has been such a journey. I started doing the videos for my live show as far back as 2004 at a basement of a bar in the East Village for 40 people. This was before YouTube even existed, so there was no way to share it with the world. Then YouTube came along and Funny or Die came along years later, and then the TV show came along, and now we’re moving to a new network. And like you said, it’s been a really slow burn in a way, but it’s been really satisfying because, I mean, I’m pretty proud of the fact that we started so long ago and yet there are still so many people discovering it all the time for the first time. It’s this interesting mix of people who’ve known about it for years and people who just found out about it yesterday because their friend sent them a video or they saw something on Twitter. So it’s great. The audience has always been building, and the lineup of the guests this year is literally a dream lineup — like if you had told me five years ago “Write down the people that you would want to have on Billy on the Street,” I would’ve written down these people and I would’ve never expected to have ever gotten the chance to work with them. People like Tina Fey and Will Ferrell and Sarah Jessica Parker, we did a video with the First Lady this year, Letterman — it’s kind of outrageous and unbelievable.
What I’m really excited about is that every year with Billy on the Street we work really hard to come up with new things the way every TV show does, and it is kind of a limiting context, in a way — you are out on the street — but I think sometimes when you’re limited it’s actually an advantage because it becomes this fun challenge to figure out what you can do in the confines of that structure that still surprises people. And I think this is our biggest season yet. There are certain segments on the show that have been there since the beginning like the longer “Quizzed in the Face” games, and we play around with the structure of those or we add different twists, and every year we work really hard to find new ways to surprise people. I honestly think — and I’m not just saying this — this is our funniest season overall.
The celebrity guest stars are always great, but for me the real stars on the show are the people on the street you interact with.
Oh yeah, I agree.
And it’s only somewhere like New York City where you’ll push Tina Fey in front of a stranger and they’ll be like “Um, get out of my face.”
[laughs] Yeah. And I think that’s what’s great — we live in a cultural world and a social media world, which really revolves around celebrity. And as long as I’ve been doing the show, what doesn’t get old to me is combining a celebrity — and we have really revered celebrities on the show at this point, like really talented people; you’re not gonna find a Kardashian on Billy on the Street, and that’s by design — but these really talented and respected and acclaimed people with a “real person” or an everyday person you just run into on the street, I still like that combination. That juxtaposition still feels really spontaneous and funny to me, and it’s not something you see everywhere else.
I mean, I have these big celebrities on the show, but it really does become about these people and the chemistry between all three of us — the celebrity and me and all these people on the street — and you never know what you’re gonna get. There’s a lot of canned reality TV, and I don’t classify this show as reality, but we are dealing with real people. And it’s honestly the only real example of reality TV, because none of this is staged and it feels very real because it is. We shoot a lot and we get a lot of footage, because if you’re really doing something that’s real, it’s not gonna happen if you go out and shoot for 20 minutes. You can do that if you’re secretly scripting the show or casting the “real people” in advance and just asking them to pretend that you’re ambushing them, but that’s not something that we can do. It takes an insane amount of time, but in the end it’s worth it because you get something that actually feels, for lack of a better word, real. Because it is, and that’s why it’s funny, and you can tell that these are spur-of-the-moment interactions that we’re having and you’re getting spontaneous reactions from people that you wouldn’t otherwise get.
And as hard as you might work to write funny stuff or create new games, you can’t plan something like meeting Elena for the first time. That’s just icing on the cake.
Elena’s a star. We’ve had some of the funniest professional comedians and actors in the world on the show, but Elena is funnier than everyone. That’s just the bottom line. [laughs] She’s the funniest person I’ve ever met, and she has no idea. I mean, she knows that people like her, but she’s not trying to be funny.
I had an argument with Amy Poehler about this, because Amy insisted that Elena is faking it and that she’s in on it. And I had to tell her, because when we work with Elena, we deal with her behind the scenes, obviously. We’re talking to her, our producers are talking to her — not to tell her what to say, but we have to tell her where to go; you know, she’s a person, there’s logistics to be worked out — and those conversations are, if you recorded them, as funny as anything that’s on the show. She just is a very uniquely funny person. She’s just herself and she’s not trying to be funny — that’s just how she communicates and how she looks at the world, and you really can’t compete with that.
If you and Elena started a podcast together, that would be a big hit.
[laughs] Well, thank you for that. Elena should have a podcast. I don’t think I’ll be podcasting anytime soon — the world has enough of me at the moment, or too much. So I probably won’t be podcasting, but I will definitely encourage Elena to start recording herself.
Season 4 of Billy on the Street premieres on truTV tonight at 10:30pm.