For most New Yorkers, there are few things as irksome as strangers accosting you on the street. But when it happens to other people, it turns out, the practice is hysterically funny.
Case in point: Billy Eichner, who is entering his second season as host of Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street, an ambush-style game show in which Eichner runs—literally—through the streets of New York City, harasses unsuspecting pedestrians, and shouts—again, literally—innocuous pop-culture questions at them (“For a dollar, do you think Chelsea Handler will ever find peace?”) before sprinting away as quickly as he arrived. The absurdist game show, like Cash Cab if Ben Bailey harbored an extreme devotion to Meryl Streep, takes the man-on-the-street interview concept and spins it on its head.
The questions are solely about entertainment and celebrity gossip: “Whose mustache do you prefer, Daniel Day-Lewis’s in Gangs of New York or Salma Hayek’s when she’s not working?” And the host is a raving lunatic with encyclopedic pop-culture knowledge, a quick wit, and refreshing, unabashed wackiness—who is only mildly afraid to bombard typically ornery New Yorkers as they stroll down the street.
“Every actor-performer says this, and it sounds so irritating, but I’m not the most outgoing person,” he tells The Daily Beast. Yet as he sticks a corded microphone into the face of a woman who had been innocently chatting on her cellphone and demands she name two famous white people, that may be hard to believe. (The woman answers, for the record, Dionne Warwick. She did not win.)
In the prime of its second season—Billy on the Street airs Friday nights at 10 p.m. EST on the Fuse channel—the series has been steadily building an obsessed following, a fan base on the verge of exploding thanks to a series of buzzy celebrity cameos (Will Ferrell, Pink, and Maya Rudolph have all stopped by for segments) and viral videos, like SNL alum Rachel Dratch running the Julia Roberts Obstacle Course, garnering hundreds of thousands of hits online. Nearly a decade after posting his first man-on-the-street clip on YouTube, Billy Eichner is about to be a star.
“Man-on-the-street stuff is so hard to do,” says Funny or Die’s president of production, Mike Farah, “and he makes it look so easy. Billy has a great way of channeling what we’re all thinking about, and putting people in the spot without being super-malicious. It’s not like a nasty thing, but like, ‘Oh yeah, is Anne Hathaway just a little bit out of control with these acceptance speeches?’”
Not that getting to this point has been easy. Comedy-obsessed since childhood, Eichner used to talk in a Pee-Wee Herman voice as a kid while at home with his parents. For a period, he tried to force his mother to respond in the same nasally squeak, to little enthusiasm. He graduated from Northwestern University with goals of being a stage actor, and moved back to New York City, where he grew up. He took classes with the famed improv group Upright Citizens Brigade before earning a cult following for hosting and writing 2005’s Creation Nation, billed as “a live pop culture drenched variety-comedy-concert-comedy-variety talk show for the next generation,” at New York’s Ars Nova theater.
After seeing Creation Nation, “I was struck by how funny he was,” says Rachel Dratch. “Not to be cliché, but I did think, ‘This guy needs to be seen by more people. He could be a staaarrrr!” Eichner was already producing short video skits that aired during the show, and Dratch agreed to appear with him on Forest Hills State of Mind,” a spoof of the Jay-Z/Alicia Keys smash Big Apple-ode “Empire State of Mind” about what it was like to grow up as a middle-class gay man in New York City. It was his first video to go viral.
Before landing on his Billy on the Street segments, he had floated the idea of other man-on-the-street videos. A struggling actor himself, he was tickled by the ridiculous obsession the culture of young actors had with their head shots: What photographer did you use? How much did you spend? Do you like my new head shot? Look at my head shot!!! “I thought it would be funny to go to my Korean dry cleaner and ask her about my head shot, as if it’s the most important thing in the world, and as if it’s something that everyone should weigh on because it’s important to me,” he says.
But after the viral success of Forest Hills State of Mind, it clicked. His segments should be topical, pegged to whatever insane pop-culture news was dominating the water cooler at the moment. He did his first Billy on the Street bit about the Oscars. Almost instantly it was picked up by HuffPo, Perez Hilton, Funny or Die, and countless other blogs.
“I have WWE wrestlers tweeting me all the time. Why they can connect with my love for Meryl Streep, I don’tknow.”
“I remember vividly the very first video we shot in Washington Square Park for my live show with this little rinky-dink camera from Radio Shack,” he says. “I would have to really psych myself up just to go up to even a very quiet person reading a book on a bench.”
He followed it up with a segment about summer movies, in which he’d play the only person in New York left defending Sex and the City amidst all the backlash for Sex and the City 2. It went viral again, got him on the entertainment TV news shows … and an email from Funny or Die’s Mike Farah. Impressed by those first few videos, Farah happily handed over money for Eichner to make a “sizzle reel,” roughly seven minutes of spec footage that he would use to shop around networks in hopes of a pilot deal. “That seven-minute sizzle reel got seven TV offers,” Farah remembers.
E!, VH1, Bravo, Comedy Central, and even BBC America were interested in shooting a pilot with Eichner. But upstart, under-the-radar network Fuse went to him with an offer he just couldn’t refuse: a straight-to-series guarantee of at least 10 episodes on air, and full support of his creative vision. On December 22, 2011, the first episode of Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street aired. It's now finishing production on its second season.
And thus was born Eichner’s gloriously wild series of recurring bits. There’s “Media Mogul or Rabbi?” “Dead or Boring?” and “Would Drew Barrymore Like This?” There’s his lightning-round segments, during which he charges up to bystanders and offers them a dollar for “correctly” answering questions: “Would you trust your children with Katharine McPhee?” The answer, of course, is completely subjective. (“No! God no!”) Or he’ll dart through the streets with Star Trek actor Zachary Quinto in tow, asking those he passes, “It’s Spock, do you care?”
“Usually, [the man-on-the-street model] relies solely on the people you find on the street, and finding someone wacky for the comedy, while the interviewer is the straight man,” Dratch says. “But Billy turns that a bit upside down and makes the people on the street have to deal with this crazy person coming at them asking questions in a semi-normal format and completely confusing them.”
Also helping raise his profile is a recurring gig on Conan, friendship with Andy Cohen, who has had him on his Bravo talk show Watch What Happens Live! several times, and an ever-growing Twitter feed through which Eichner can test out his comedy. (“I guarantee you Anne Hathaway is already on the Oscars red carpet,” he tweeted to his 72,000 followers the morning that Academy Award nominations were announced.)
It’s through Conan and Cohen that he was able to meet two of his heroes, Madonna and Meryl Streep. He appeared on Cohen’s show when Streep was the guest, and watched her watch him in a Billy On the Street clip screaming at strangers that “MERYL FUCKING STREEP” is a much better actress than Glenn Close. A friend of Eichner’s ran into the Oscar winner several weeks later, and brought the clip up again. “She said, ‘Oh! He’s a wild one!’ Which I thought was the perfect Meryl Streep quote.”
With an insatiable preoccupation with all things Madonna and Streep, and fascination with the behavior of Anne Hathaway, Eichner also is playing a part in ushering what some might call “gay humor”—or at least gayish humor—to the mainstream. “I think that every dog has their day, in terms of the gay thing,” he says. “It’s like how we’re only now starting to get sick of the ‘Are women funny?’ conversation. There’s always been a lot of funny gay comedians, and I’m lucky to be working at a time when it’s become cool to be gay, or at least not as much of an issue.”
Not that his audience is comprised only of gay people. “For some reasons, I have WWE wrestlers tweeting me all the time,” he says. “Like my biggest fans. Why they can connect with my love for Meryl Streep, I don’t know.”
And for now, as he enjoys ever-growing success, Eichner has nothing but respect for those New Yorkers he harasses, and who gamely sign waivers to appear on his show after cursing him out, running away, and twirling to evade him and his microphone during Billy on the Street tapings.
Because if the roles were reversed? “I would have been like, ‘Get the fuck out of my face!’ and walked away,” he says. “I wouldn’t have dealt with me for a second. Not a single second.”