The groundbreaking comedy game show, Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street, recently made its bombastic return to Fuse TV and Season 3 is set to be the most memorable yet. The show’s growing popularity has allowed its host, Billy Eichner, to recruit celebrity guests like Lena Dunham, Seth Meyers and Lindsay Lohan as participants in his frantic pop-culture challenges, like “Cash Cow,” where the loser has to milk a live cow in the middle of downtown New York City. I recently talked to Billy about his Billy on the Street persona, the return of Elena, and, of course, Meryl Streep and Madonna.
Do you see an advantage to the show being on a network like Fuse as opposed to being on one of the big four networks?
Honestly, I think there are pros and cons to being on any network. I think the fact that we’re on a smaller network — all I can say is that one of the reasons that Fuse was appealing to us at the beginning when we were deciding where to do this is the fact that they decided to go straight-to-series and we had a bunch of offers for pilots. It’s very unusual if you’re not a huge TV star already, and even then, to get a straight-to-series offer. So for me, that was huge, and they were guaranteeing me a TV show. What also came with that was an agreement that I would have a lot of creative freedom on the show.
I think now that the show is successful, that the show has gotten a lot of attention. I think now if I were to go out there and pitch a new show, now people know me and know that I have fans and I think now creative freedom is something that might be afforded me at other places. But at the time, hindsight is 20/20, I had a cult following on YouTube and a cult following in New York City based on my live shows and that was it. No one really knew who I was, so the fact that Fuse was saying at the beginning, “We’ll let you do the show you want to do” meant a lot to me.
I am an idiosyncratic person, I’m a bit of an oddball, and I’m a bit outside the box in terms of what I like to talk about. I think if I had gone straight to E! or Bravo, for instance — and I love those places, those places have actually been very supportive, you know Andy Cohen’s been a big supporter, Joel McHale, Joan Rivers — I think there was a chance they would have really wanted me, at E!, for instance, to talk about the Kardashians, and I really have no interest in those people and if I do it’s probably going to be something cutting. I’d rather focus on Sigourney Weaver. I don’t think at VH1 they would have been very excited about my Meryl Streep obsession, at least at that time. Now everyone’s excited about it, but it’s easy to be excited about me now.
Speaking of Meryl Streep, any chance for an appearance?
I hope so. I hope one day. I did get to meet Meryl and have her watch my clips when I did Andy Cohen’s show with her about a year and a half ago. Andy had Meryl on, and I was the bartender that night. I’ve done Andy’s show a lot as a regular guest, but obviously, with Meryl there, she was the only guest, as she should be. I actually got to watch Meryl watching clips of me screaming, “Meryl fucking Streep!” and seeing her react to that in real time, which was one of the most surreal moments in my existence. And Meryl was so nice. I think she was scared for a second, but she’s Meryl and she totally got the joke. She could not have been lovelier. So that was a great first step, and I hope that one day I get to bring her into my environment on the street. I know I would have such a great time. I think she would have a blast, and I know that it’s something the viewers want. So we’re working on it and, you know, hopefully, one day it will happen.
The third season’s lineup of celebrity guests is pretty stacked. Do you have a favorite guest that you worked with this season?
That’s hard to say. We work really hard once we book someone on the show to come up with interesting things for them to do. I really have never had a bad experience with anyone. It’s really interesting, and I’m very honored by the fact that these celebrities don’t really come on our show to promote anything. It’s not a typical talk show appearance. If they happen to have something going on, I usually mention it before they do. Unlike any talk show they might do, there are no pre-interviews saying, “Promote this or that.”
What’s cool about that is they’re coming on just to have the experience of doing this crazy bizarre stunt with me and running around the streets with me and going up to civilians and seeing what their reaction is. No celebrities are doing this show if they don’t want that experience, if they’re not willing to let themselves be brought into my world. Because of that, we’ve really had great experiences with everyone. I know that’s like an annoying answer, but I’m always so shocked by how game people are. Like how game Debra Messing let me do “It’s Debra Messing, You Gays” or Olivia Wilde this season going up to people and having me make other women tell her how pretty she is. I just love that Olivia Wilde was able to do that and have the self-awareness to do that and to have fun doing it. That’s really cool. So I can’t say that there’s a favorite. If something ends up on the show, it’s because I liked how it went down.
I think that’s kind of a nice trend with celebrities on TV right now. You’re able to do it, Fallon is able to do it as well: Bring celebrities on and kind of humanize them in a way, like, “Let’s play a silly game or do something completely unusual. There’s not an etiquette to it or anything, because that’s what we do here.” I think it really makes celebrities, a lot of them, the ones that play along, a lot more appealing.
Absolutely. It shows they have a sense of humor. It shows that they’re not out there just hawking their latest product, and it shows that they want to have fun. I read an interview with Fallon or his producers that said when Jimmy first started at 12:30, all the publicists were so scared of their clients playing these games with him and it was very hard for them to convince people to play these games. Now people call and say, “Hey what game are we going to play?” It’s so fun to watch them have to do something a little outside the box.
And I have to say on that note, I’m really proud of what we did with Lindsay Lohan, which is coming up on this week’s episode. She brings some baggage to the table with her from the viewer’s perspective, and we do something with her that I think is really funny and just as funny as we’ve done with any celebrity guest but has nothing to do with her personal life or any of the tabloid side of it. I think it’s really funny. Again, I bring her into my world, and she was totally game and brought a lot of energy to the table. I’m excited for people to see that one just because I think it’s showing her in a light we haven’t seen her in in a long time.
This season also marked the return of Elena. The undeniably appealing Elena.
She’s the biggest celebrity we’ve had. [Laughs] She’s a breakout star.
The way things ended last time, you’d never think that a reunion would be something that would even be possible. How did you woo her back on to the show?
I just thought Elena was so goddamn funny the first time. She is truly one of the most naturally funny people I have ever met. At this point, I’ve met a lot of big time fancy comedians. I just think she’s hilarious. We got word that Elena was getting recognized in the streets of New York after her first appearance on Billy on the Street. Then Elena sent me a very long handwritten letter. She doesn’t have a computer, so she doesn’t email or any of that. Sometimes, she emails through her sister, we discovered recently. But she sent me a very long handwritten letter, which she sent to Funny or Die, which finally got to me. She talked about how excited she was to be recognized on the street. She didn’t remember doing it really because it’s a TV show. We tape it six months before it even airs. By the time it aired and got online she had totally forgotten she had even done it. But she was having fun with the fact people that were recognizing her. She doesn’t really know about YouTube but she heard she had like a cult following of fans on YouTube.
People say to me all the time that they want me to bring back certain contestants, like “Bring back Mr. Singh,” or, “Bring back the woman who thought Denzel Washington was the Phantom of the Opera,” or, “Bring back some of our more famous contestants.” I never wanted to to do it because I don’t want it to be a revolving door of people you’ve seen before. It’s important to me that every episode is very fresh and unexpected. But with Elena, she’s just too damn funny. And that’s kind of the beauty of Billy on the Street. If Billy on the Street is about anything — and I’m not saying it is — but if it was about anything, it’s about finding these real people. It really is an unscripted show. It’s not one of these reality shows that says it’s real when it’s completely scripted. We go out, we shoot. I ran into Elena completely at random, the way I would run into anybody else. I did think it was fun to find someone who otherwise no one would have ever known how funny this person is. I just think it’s great to give them a moment. That she can go up against me and Lena Dunham and essentially steal the show for nine minutes of a 20-minute show and have the fans wanting me to bring her back even more, I just love that so much. We are bringing her back again at the end of the season.
One of the most common terms used to describe your show by people who write about it is “ambush.” Have you ever had an ethical crisis when shooting a segment?
Umm, I think “ethical crisis” is a bit much. I don’t know if I’ve ever had an ethical crisis. I know this is an absurd show and part of the absurdity lies in me confronting these people about pop culture topics in a very urgent serious way without them having any preparation for it. Because to me, I look at it like, I use my real name in the show, it’s obviously a character and this character treats pop culture questions with the same urgency that Anderson Cooper would treat the missing flight in Malaysia. So I look at it as like it’s almost a news show from my character’s perspective and in any other local news program, or CNN, you’re going to hit the street and talk to people about what they think. You want those to be unfiltered, very real unscripted responses, so it’s not really an ethical crisis because it’s what makes the show so much fun.
At the same time, I am a human being and although I know it’s all in good fun and truthfully, 99.9% of the people, whether they sign the release or not to be on the show, they knew it was in good fun. They knew it was a comedy show, after the fact they know. But have there maybe been one or two times where there was someone who I freaked out, who got a little scared and then I felt bad? Yeah, that’s not the intention and that’s very very rarely happens, but yeah, there might have been one or two times where I screamed at someone, and they didn’t really know about pop culture or TV or comedy enough; they weren’t media savvy enough to understand what went on, and so yeah, I feel a little bad. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s day. And honestly, like I said, 99.9% of the time — and I’ve been doing this starting on the internet for 10 years on and off — that has not happened.
It’s very rare that anyone gets even upset and if someone doesn’t want to sign the release, we’ve never fought with anyone to sign because if someone doesn’t want to be on TV, they don’t want to be on TV, end of story. I don’t want to make anyone’s life bad. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s life or even just give them a bad day or make them upset. So, for the most part, it’s not an issue but when it has happened, yeah, I feel bad and I apologize and I make sure they know it was all in good fun and we’re not going to use the clip.
You mentioned this being a persona. There are a lot of similarities between your Billy on the Street persona and your character on Parks and Recreation. I’m sure you’re having a blast playing with that level of energy and intensity, but do you ever worry about being typecast as the character of “Constant Screamer?”
I think there are different phases to a person’s career and I think that, yeah, my character on Parks and Rec is definitely inspired by Billy on the Street. Although, what I like about it and what I find challenging about it and different from Billy on the Street is it’s a similar character but in a completely opposite environment. Billy on the Street is a character that I created, that I am in complete control of, and it happened outside on an unscripted show in the heart of the biggest city in the world. Parks and Rec is a scripted show where I am not writing the line,s and it is happening in an office, in a very contained, small environment in the Midwest. For me, there are differences and in terms of being typecast, I think there are projects to come. This is sort of the first moment that people are experiencing me, and I’m an actor first and foremost. I’m not even a comedian. I now I am a comedian, but I started off as an actor. I went to Northwestern, a really prestigious theater school, where a lot of great actors have gone to and you know, this is just the first thing people are seeing from me, meaning, Billy on the Street and Parks and Rec. There are projects I’m developing and things to come where people will see I’m not constantly screaming. At the same time, I think people like this character, and it’s not going to be what I do my whole life. But I think for this moment in time, if people like it, I’m going to do it. There will be other projects along the way that show different sides of me.
That’s a good attitude to have. When it comes to pop culture, you’re clearly very opinionated. But do you have one particularly unpopular view that you refuse to budge on, that even your fans and friends think you are just way out in left field about but you absolutely insist on?
Well, I don’t think Sex and the City 2 was that bad. That was one of my first man-on-the-street videos to go viral. That video in particular was the video that led Funny or Die president Mike Farah to email me out of the blue and say, “Hey, I really love what you’re doing. Let’s talk about other projects.” I still think, having watched it on TV since, that Sex and the City 2 got a bad rap. I hate in general when there’s a very hot TV show or movie or actor who does a thing we all like for a period of time, then the media and the audience kind of randomly turns against them, just because everyone likes to bring someone down after lifting them up. That’s sort of the Hollywood way. That always really pisses me off.
For me, if I’m a fan, unless someone out of the blue does something terrible like makes a racist comment or it turns out they’re a horrible person, that changes your view of them. But if that doesn’t happen, I’m a fan. I’m a fan for life. It’s Hollywood and it’s hard. Everyone has a project that flops. Everyone has something that didn’t go as well as they wanted to, or something that maybe they did for the money, and it wasn’t the right thing to do. We’ve all moved on. If I’m a fan of an actor or a singer, I’m a fan for life. I’ve been a die-hard Madonna fan since the mid-’80s when I was a kid. She has gone up and down in popularity, in relevance, in album sales, in this, that, and the other thing, and I am always there for Madonna. I always think she’s doing something interesting, and nobody’s perfect. But I really see her as a very vital artist who is constantly challenging herself and doing new things, and I’m there for life with Madonna. Unless she kills a bunch of people and even then, we’ll see.
Where do you see Billy on the Street going from here, after the third season? Is it going to take on any new forms? What would you hope to see happen with the show?
Its an interesting question. I’m still editing the show. I’m very slow when it comes to editing, so I still have about five episodes, which is half the season, to deliver. I’m here at Funny or Die right now, editing, as we speak. I’m very much concentrated on this season. It’s a great season, and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes from here. The show is more popular right now than it has ever been, which is really remarkable to me since I’ve been doing these videos for 10 years. There seems to be a really great awareness of the show now. I just did The Tonight Show and I was on Kimmel a few months ago and The New York Times wrote this huge, full-page, Sunday article about the show.
I don’t mean to be name-drop-y, but it’s gratifying. I struggled many years, and I was just doing my shows at UCB and didn’t have any money and didn’t have health insurance and making my YouTube videos and scrambling to get people to help me edit them and to be in my live shows when I needed guests and whatnot. It’s really gratifying. I’m just trying to enjoy it. There’s a lot going on in Parks and Rec too. There’s a lot of people now discovering Billy on the Street because of Parks and Rec. That’s cool to see. It’s all kind of working in tandem. I have a bunch of other projects in development that I’m working on. There’s something I’m working on with Joel McHale, and there’s other things I’m working on with Julie Klausner and things I’m working on on my own. There’s a lot more to come and I’m just trying to take it a day at a time and also to try and enjoy it because I find that’s really rare. You get really caught up in the buzz, and also the amount of work that needs to be done to keep it all going. I’m trying not to be thinking so far ahead all the time that I’ll look back and have no appreciation for this moment.
Billy on the Street airs new episodes Wednesdays at 11pm on Fuse
Isaac Kozell is a writer and standup comic.
Photo credit: John Durgee/Fuse