If you ever see comic Billy Eichner hanging out with his camera crew, run toward him and start bantering like a mad person. You might end up on Funny or Die‘s Billy on the Street, his hilarious nouveau pop-trivia game show based on outdoor ambushing and spontaneous interactions.
No, wait. Let Eichner approach you first. That’s what he’s good at, having created a franchise out of the delicate art of man-on-the-street video assault. The New York–born comic has long peppered his stand-up act with the vids, which were then picked up by funnyordie.com, paving the way for the Fuse TV show Eichner calls “Cash Cab on coke.”
While waiting for the show’s December return, I pumped Billy for some Street smarts.
Hi, Billy. Do people have to sign a release after you ambush them? They do. The ambush you see is exactly how it happens. Ninety nine percent of the time, we don’t say anything and try to get the release later. About 10 production assistants follow me and my crew around, and then they have to go up to that contestant and explain what just went on. It’s very unpredictable. There can be someone who I have a fight with on camera who’ll sign the release, and then there will be someone I have a completely pleasant exchange with who won’t sign the release because they don’t want to be on television.
How has the electoral climate affected the man-on-the-street mood? Well, so far, I’ve been too busy asking people about Anne Hathaway’s Oscar prospects and haven’t had time to deal with the election. That said, I do have a special election-themed segment premiering on the Conan show on October 23.
Have you ever approached a celebrity on the street, whether knowingly or unknowingly? We have a lot of great celebrity guests on the show this coming season, including Rashida Jones and Zach Quinto. As for people I’ve approached inadvertently, I once went up to Jill Hennessy and asked her a question. She ignored me, and that was the start of the Jill Hennessy–Billy Eichner feud that’s been blogged about pretty much nowhere.
In your past exchanges, you’ve said that you hate Sandra Bullock and Rachael Ray. Is that just a pose? Sometimes I think there are people it’s fun to take the piss out of a little bit, for whatever reason. “Hate” is a strong word. It’s a comedy show. I wouldn’t say my opinions are coming out of a completely fictional place, but I take it to an extreme for this character I’m playing. I’m using my own name, but it’s like me times 10. We’re all just people who want to be on TV or be in the movies.
But you are really obsessed with Meryl Streep, right? I do love Meryl. If I saw her at a party, I wouldn’t start screaming at her face like a crazy person because the police would come and take me away, but the feeling is coming from a genuine place. The celebrities I have memories of as a kid are the ones I have that incredibly passionate feeling about. Like Meryl, Madonna…
All one-named stars that start with M. Hmm. Who’s next? Martika? Is she still alive?
Speaking of past lives, weren’t you on some gay-talk-show attempt years ago? I remember forcing myself into an audition. Yes. My first TV job ever was a pilot I did at Bravo that didn’t get picked up. It was going to be kind of like The View but prime time, and instead of Barbara Walters and four different types of women, it was Joan Rivers and four different types of gay guys. Me, Andy Cohen . . .
Couldn’t he have just green-lighted it himself? [Laughs.] I don’t know how that process is.
Did you decide to be a “gay comedian” or a “comedian”? I just am. I never thought about it. Luckily, things have changed on the TV landscape a great deal. It’s a nonissue when it comes to what I’m doing.
But you can sort of pass. I don’t know about that. Depends on which show you watch. [Laughs.]
I know you’re single, but do you want to be? Ultimately, no, but I don’t think I’d be a very good boyfriend right now. I’m either yelling at people on the street or I’m very tired and irritable. I’m protecting someone by staying single.
Are you too much of a celebrity to be on Grindr? I don’t think I’m too much of a celebrity, but those things are good for a quick fix, and, ultimately, I don’t know if you get much out of it. I imagine it’s very time-consuming. I was on it years ago, but I don’t have the patience for it.
Wait, how can a quick fix be so time-consuming? It’s getting to the quick fix. The whole rigmarole. But I do love Twitter and Facebook. They’re better for comedy than sex, though.
What kind of movies would you like to do? Will Ferrell will be a guest on the second season. I love those big, broad, silly comedy movies.
Like The King’s Speech? I’m the next Helena Bonham Carter.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 24, 2012