In Your Face

03.12.14

How 'Billy on the Street' Star Billy Eichner Turned Screaming at Strangers Into Comedy Gold

Now in its third season, 'Billy on the Street' is more popular than ever. Billy Eichner explains why yelling at innocent New Yorkers makes us laugh so damned hard.

Billy Eichner has been screaming at strangers in the streets of New York for nearly a decade and has yet to be punched in the face. More, his drive-by shouting has had the complete adverse effect, building into the most unlikely of successful comedy careers. God bless him--and, of course, Meryl Streep--for that.

Season three of Fuse's Funny or Die Presents Billy on the Street premieres Wednesday, an absurdist game show on which pop-culture savant Eichner ambushes unsuspecting New Yorkers with entirely subjective quizzes ("Would Drew Barrymore like this?," for example), mining comedy from their startled reactions and earnest attempts to muster a flustered answer.

When it returns, it will have been a year since we at The Daily Beast dubbed him "Comedy's Next Big Thing," and Eichner's lived up to the title. The show is more popular, he's parlayed its success into an uproarious guest arc on NBC's Parks and Recreation, and even picked up a Daytime Emmy nomination for hosting the series last year.

But don't be fooled by the brash on-the-street demeanor and meteoric rise in popularity. "I'm just a regular gay Jewish person from New York, and I'm actually pretty shy offstage, off-camera," Eichner tells The Daily Beast. "I'm on Tinder like everyone else."

And while we're all swiping right (Tinder speak that translates to: we love him), so many people have become fooled. Perhaps conditioned from watching clips of Eichner darting up to people and demanding that they name three white people (which they implausibly, yet inevitably fail to be able to do), or seeing him scoff at strangers who just stare blankly when he shouts at them that "I just want you to know that Blake Lively is available for features," many people expect and even demand Eichner to be screaming all the time.

Tweets requesting that he come scream in the face of the respective tweeter are a daily occurrence. "People are like, 'I'm getting married, will you come scream at me on my wedding day?'" Eichner says. "Literally, 'Come to my child's birthday and scream at him.'" Even his closest friends and family won't let him off the hook. A Thanksgiving Day trip to his cousin's this past fall ended with his cousin taking out the iPad and sheepishly saying, "I'm sorry but before you go you have use this hairbrush and scream at my child. Otherwise I'll never hear the end of it.”

Eichner’s cousin sheepishly asked him, "I'm sorry but before you go you have use this hairbrush and scream at my child. Otherwise I'll never hear the end of it.”

"I'm like, ‘Guys, obviously this a persona that's a character,’" he says. "I'd be a serial killer if that's the way I lived all the time."

The "persona" has been long curated, too. He was a comedy aficionado growing up in New York, talking in a Pee-Wee Herman voice at home to his parents, always miffed when they didn't respond with the same squawk. He went to Northwestern University and graduated with hopes of stage acting career. He returned to New York City post-grad, where he studied at the Upright Citizens Brigade and first made a splash for hosting and writing 2005's Creation Nation at the Ars Nova theater, "a live pop culture drenched variety-comedy-concert-comedy-variety talk show for the next generation."

It's from that project the man-on-street quizzes he's made his name doing was born--not to mention a lasting work ethic. "Even when I had nothing and was doing these videos for YouTube, it always meant a lot that videos were as funny as possible," he says. "Even when if that meant going out an extra day--not only when I wasn't getting paid, but losing money--and shooting when it was 20 degrees outside or 95 degrees outside to yell at people in Washington Square Park." Trite as it sounds, the hard work pays off. "It's really hard to make noise and it's just as hard to stay relevant," he says. "It's not easy, but it easier to pop for 15 minutes than to keep it all going for years. I've been doing this thing for 10 years."

Billy on the Street has grown exponentially in profile, thanks to the easily digestible and even more easily sharable sketches that, cobbled together, make up his show. The celebrity cameos help--a sketch with Amy Poehler that combined Christmas caroling with jogging around Gramercy instantly went viral, while this upcoming season features appearances from Paul Rudd, Neil Patrick Harris, and even Lindsay Lohan. In the premiere, Olivia Wilde runs with Eichner as he compels strangers on the sidewalk to tell her she's pretty, while the second episode has him playing a game of "Who Said It: Steve Harvey or Harvey Milk?" (The prize for winning is a baby mobile of the characters from Orange Is the New Black.)

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But, as anyone who has watched Billy on the Street knows, the celebrities are fun but the majority of its appeal is the New Yorkers themselves: the startled, sassy, confused, and always surprising characters Billy meets on the street. These essential foils for Eichner’s comedy are accosted by a loud man who yells in their face, "For a dollar: Which is scarier, a serial killer on the loose or an adult who watches Once Upon a Time?" and actually stop to ponder the question. The humor lies in them reacting to Billy's peculiar humor, which is not sarcastic or mean-spirited, or exclusionary or high-brow, or demeaning or pandering. It's all born out of a bleeding love for all things pop culture---and an awareness for how silly such a true love can be. (Listen, I get it.)

"What I'm doing is mocking people like you and me in a way, who have an obsession and think it's crazy this someone you're talking to doesn't know who Lupita Nyong'o is and that she went to Yale Drama School," Eichner says. "Like how do you not know that? I knew that six months ago when I looked up who the Oscar predictors thought was going to win. I just think it's funny to talk to someone who works for the MTA about that."

When Eichner and I chatted last year, we talked a bit about the "gayishness" of his humor (this is a man, after all, who makes no qualms about parading his devotion to Meryl Streep) and how his show's success is, by no coincidence, coincides with a growing acceptance and appreciation for that particular brand of humor. "I think every dog has their day, in terms of the gay thing," he said at the time, discussing ever-broadening appeal of "the gay thing." "For some reason, I have WWE wrestlers tweeting me all the time. Like my biggest fans. Why they can connect with my love for Meryl Streep, I don't know."

What makes Eichner's brand of humor so funny? If you watch a string of Billy on the Street episodes, you'll notice a certain type of celebrity crop up in many of his jokes and questions. Actresses, mainly: Julianne Hough, Katharine McPhee, Lea Michele. Something about this grouping of actresses is funny.

"I have an instinctual feeling of certain people who are funny to me and certain people who are funny to talk about," Eichner says. "Like I find middling talent to be fascinating. Not untalented. There's something about the middle that I find funny. They're all trying. Oh, they're trying. And sometimes they try too hard. But you can see them trying, and that I find amusing.

Like Julianne Hough? "Like Julianne Hough," he says. "Middling talent. LIke no one's sure why, but where she is and no one's sure why. I think having a passionate opinion one way or another is so absurd."

Absurd? Absolutely. But also what makes Billy Eichner so damned funny. It’s in the stunned looks in New Yorkers' faces when he's smashing expensive sculptures in front of them after they answer a question about Tyler Perry (since Perry destroys art, Eichner vows to, too). "There's something that's still funny about that," he says. "When it stops being funny, I'll stop doing it."

Until then, he's still on Parks and Recreation. And, of course, "I'm just running and trying to keep up with it," he says. "Literally and figuratively."