On any given weekday in Manhattan, comedian Billy Eichner is ambushing strangers on the streets and quizzing them with subjective pop culture trivia. He is armed with a microphone and trailed by a team of production assistants and cameramen. Sometimes there are A-List celebrities like Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler by his side. Eichner’s game show, Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street, premieres its third season on March 12 on Fuse TV at a time when he is getting recognition beyond his original cult-comedy following.
Eichner first hit the streets to barbarically quiz New Yorkers for laughs ten years ago. Before he had an entire production team and camera crew, Eichner had the help of just one friend. He began uploading his man-on-the-street videos to YouTube, and cultivated a niche following with the help of social media. In 2011, Funny or Die took notice of the show’s off-beat and pop culture obsessed comedy style, and produced it for Fuse, launching Eichner’s career for good. These days, the Queens native is more visible than ever, as a fixture of the late-night comedy circuit (he’s taken his act to Conan) and as a new addition to Parks and Recreation, where he plays Craig, the devoted and neurotic new employee to the fictional Pawnee parks department. We recently spoke to Eichner about how important New York is to his show, his famous fans, and that weird thing he asked Olivia Wilde to do.
Now that Billy on the Street is more popular and chances are higher that you’ll get recognized, does that change things? I feel like part of the show’s charm in the beginning was that people didn’t recognize you when you would approach them on the street.
You know, there’s a lot of people in New York City and they’re here from all over the world. Chances are, not everyone is on the Billy on the Street bandwagon. We’ll see, we’ll take it season by season and if I have to start filming in Africa, then that’s what we do.
Your show is super New York specific, though. What is it about New Yorkers that make them such good sources of comedic possibility?
Oh, everything. They’re smart, they don’t put up with bullshit, they’re game. During the interaction I have with people, that ambush, you know, it’s not for everybody. But there are a lot of people who just are willing to participate, even though they have no idea what it is. It just seems strange and fun to them. And, they’re New Yorkers! So they’re funny and they’re pop culture savvy and they give as good as they get, and that’s just intrinsic to the show.
Do you think that the New York specificity of the show affects how it resonates in the rest of the country? Do other people love you as much as New Yorkers do?
Uh, yeah! Well, I know that they do thanks to Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and all that. You might not be a person who wants to live in New York 24/7 but you have to be out of your damn mind not to be excited about what’s happening here because this is still like the center of the universe to many people. There’s also so much diversity on the show because we’re in New York and that’s something very rare on TV. Every minute there’s someone from a different background, someone from a different race, a different ethnicity, a different cultural background, a different economic background, a different sexual orientation. It’s anything and everything that you run into in New York and you don’t get that everywhere. I’m a native New Yorker and I grew up taking the subway to high school everyday so I’m used to all that. But, for someone from a small town, that’s interesting, that’s fresh to them.
Does it take some smoothing over to get people to sign the release after you’ve yelled at them in the street?
Yeah, you know, there’s always a couple of people who are angry that don’t want to sign the release, or just people who aren’t angry but don’t want to sign the release because they don’t want to be on television or because they don’t quite get the joke. But, for the most part I have a really great production team who follows me around, and they’re willing to go up to these people and they just explain what it is, you know, “He’s crazy and he’s a comedian and it’s for a game show on TV and on the internet that’s produced by Will Ferrell’s production company and that’s the spirit that it’s in.” Most of the time people do sign the release and they get that it’s an absurd joke and they’re willing to play along.
So, in some ways, Fuse isn’t the most natural place for your show. Do you feel pressure to work in music-related jokes?
Um, that’s a good question. Fuse is a music network and 99.9% of their programming is music related and I ask questions about singers and musicians all the time. But at the same time, when it comes to this show, there was no way that I was going to do 100% music questions. That’s not what the show was supposed to be and that’s not what I was doing online and it’s just not what I’m interested in. I do get a lot of creative freedom on the show and I do try and sprinkle in some music references in most of the episodes but they don’t hold me to it. I really wouldn’t be able to do Billy on the Street otherwise because you can’t predict what could lead to the interactions that could end up on the show before you shoot them. So, you know, they’re cool with it and it all works out.
I’ve heard that a lot of celebrities approach you to be on the show instead of the other way around. Is that true?
Uh, yeah! This season we really had a lot of luck. The first two seasons, we started out so under the radar. I had my little cult following from YouTube, but no one really knew who I was. But the second season really exploded. When it came to guests this season, everyone on my dream list said yes and almost immediately. Even people like Olivia Wilde who reached out to me to do the show because she was a fan and Joel McHale really wanted to do the show and Seth Meyers and Paul Rudd who in a minute got back to me and said yes. I feel really honored to have those people on our side.
And I saw that RuPaul is a fan of yours?
Yes, Rupaul! Who knew? Gotta get Rupaul on the street…But, look, the real people on the street will always be the heart of the show. In terms of the celebrities, you know, a celebrity or two per episode is good, as long as they go along with what I want them to do. Most celebrities don’t come on to promote their work on my show, they come on because they’re a fan and they think it’s a bizarre opportunity and they want to experience it for themselves by being on the street with me. And they’re always willing to go along with whatever crazy idea I come up with. Like, I told Olivia Wilde: “Look, I really think it’s funny if we do a little spin, a little twist on your image, and we go up to women and make them tell you you’re beautiful…” That’s kind of a weird thing to ask her to do!
So she was game?
And she was game. It’s really nice that they trust me enough. I said, “Look, no one’s going to think that this was your idea. This is all coming from me, this is just my perspective on the world.” You look at Olivia Wilde and, that’s a movie star. Olivia is gorgeous and she’s also incredibly talented. I just love taking that part of her image and throwing it in peoples’ faces and making it ten times the size of what it is. Like, when we did “It’s Debra Messing, you Gays!” she [Messing] obviously has a huge gay following from Will & Grace and I love just taking that and exaggerating it. And I think that’s really fun and it’s really great that they’re so game and go along with it.
So, Elena, your favorite contestant from the second season comes back next season, right?
In the past I’ve always said I don’t want to bring people back to the show because I always want the show to remain really unpredictable and fresh and I don’t want the show to be this revolving door of recurring whacky characters, you know? But, Elena is just so damn funny. And, I got a hand-written letter from Elena after her episode aired and she started getting recognized on the streets and on the subway and she got a kick out of that. And, I just thought, if this show is about anything, it’s about someone like Elena getting their time to shine because she’s a real person.
And, then we got Lena Dunham to do the show and Lena is really becoming an iconic New Yorker and this show is very New York and I’m a New Yorker and Elena in her own ways is also an iconic New York type, marching to the tune of her own drummer and eccentric. I thought just putting all that together we would have something special.