Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner.
Photo: Neilson Barnard/2014 Getty Images
Billy Eichner is currently in the middle of the third season of Billy on the Street, and in spite of the show’s insane pace, he shows no signs of slowing down (either in terms of his output or the speed of his running). This season he’s already destroyed a car with Lindsay Lohan, asked strangers if they would have sex with Paul Rudd (while standing alongside Paul Rudd), mourned the loss of How I Met Your Mother by screaming at people with Neil Patrick Harris, played “Ask a Squirter,” and much more. Vulture asked Julie Klausner, who is a friend of Billy’s as well as head writer and co-executive producer of Billy on the Street, to reign him in. They discuss the show’s evolution, working with Lindsay Lohan, what he had to cut to get Fuse to agree to “Ask a Squirter,” Mayim Bialik, why the gay community hasn’t embraced him, and much more.
I think we should start with the same questions that Seth Meyers asked Neal Brennan.
Okay. Hi, Neal. I feel like we should start with the full disclosure that we’re excellent friends and then you say … who cares? If people don’t know that we’re friends, they can find out. By the way, I’m having a little sugar crash, so I apologize in advance if I’m a little loopy.
That’s fine. I’m not offended.
The Lindsay Lohan episode. What have you heard since it aired? What was the feedback?
I think overall the feedback was good. You know, she’s Lindsay. She brings a lot of baggage to the table, but I thought — Hey, Julie, full disclosure, you write on Billy on the Street …
Yeah yeah yeah.
I think that we did a good job of making her look good and making her look a lot better than she has come across in a long time. I was really happy that we did something with her that did not reference her personal issues or her reality show or any of her demons or any of that baggage. We brought her into the Billy on the Street world the way that we would with anyone. I’m happy with it. What really matters is that Mayim Bialik tweeted us.
Mayim Bialik tweeted that she wants her money.
In the Lindsay Lohan video, Lindsay and I destroy a car based on our anger about How I Met Your Mother ending after only nine seasons. We put a dollar value on different parts of the car and at the end we totaled up the dollar value for each part of the car that we sufficiently destroyed and we said that we’re going to send it to Mayim Bialik because she’s on the Big Bang Theory and they haven’t been canceled, so out of spite we’re going to send this money to her. And, I guess she saw the video.
And by the way, it was for $500.
$500, yeah. And then I looped you in and my best friend Robin, because Robin and I were texting, shocked that Mayim Bialik had responded, and then Robin asked me to ask her if she would split the check with Iris the Handwalking Queer from Beaches. And Mayim responded again with a still photo of her and Iris the Handwalking Queer and said that she would in fact split the check with Iris the Handwalking Queer.
It’s so good that we got this done before Shabbos, because then she wouldn’t be tweeting us at all.
Well, she tweeted about Billy on the Street and then I was so mad because she immediately tweeted a second tweet, which shoved our tweet down her feed. Her next tweet was of course about her Passover plans.
What about the segment “Ask a Squirter”? Do people like “Ask a Squirter”?
Oh my God, “Ask a Squirter” is a triumph. People were so shocked. For the first time ever in three seasons, Fuse ran a parental advisory “this show is for mature audiences only” warning right before the segment — not at the top of the show, but right before the segment. Everyone should know that it was your idea. I have never been more proud. People should also know that woman, Jennifer, admitted within two seconds of me meeting her on the street randomly that she was a squirter, if you gave her enough to drink. She also told me she loved Broadway. Those are the two things she loves to do: squirt and see musicals. She’s a woman after our own heart.
Fuse was giving you shit! They wouldn’t let you use it at first. You took out “Bob Dylan or Anal Sex?”
Right, so Fuse thought that the segment was very funny. But they got a little worried. We had another game in the show, which hopefully will end up online, with Neil Patrick Harris, called “Bob Dylan or Anal Sex?,” which you also wrote.
Yep, that was mine.
It’s the silliest game and Neil loved doing it. I actually sent him a list of games to see which ones he wanted to play on the show and one of the ones he chose was “Bob Dylan or Anal Sex?”
By the way, he was just pitch perfect.
He was. So “Bob Dylan or Anal Sex?” we played with Neil and we also played “Racist or Vegetarian?” which is the game that ended up on the program, because Fuse was very worried about having an anal sex game, and it was a game where Neil kept saying the words anal sex over and over and over again.
That was what was funny about it.
That leading right into a six-minute segment where I talked to a middle-aged woman about how much she squirts. That freaked out Fuse and I had to really fight for squirting woman, so I had to replace “Bob Dylan or Anal Sex?” with “Racist or Vegetarian?” which is also a great game. It’s not “Bob Dylan or Anal Sex?” but we needed “Ask a Squirter” on the show.
I feel like there’s a think piece lurking in the bushes based on the popularity of the show and about your interactions with people of color. And I fear for that day because I’m not crazy about making people unfunny by writing about it in a particular way. I think that it’s sort of an age in which people pick apart young white people’s comedies for not having diversity. You have a lot of black fans. There are a lot of black people on the show. It’s a celebration of diversity, if I may.
Yeah, I agree. I love that about the show and I love that, not to toot our own horn, that we have women like Jennifer [the squirter] who look like middle-aged women. It’s actually pretty rare to see women, especially of a certain age, that look like women do in real life. Even on reality shows, those women are getting tons of plastic surgery.
I loved it when we had our premiere at the Beacon in New York. Fifteen hundred people show up and so many people commented afterwards about how diverse the audience was. The streets of New York are diverse, but when you go into a Broadway show, unless Denzel Washington is in it, or Fantasia’s in it, it’s a lot of old white people and gay men. Our pop cultural likes and dislikes are still very segregated, and that is not true of Billy on the Street.
It’s also nice that you can make jokes about stereotypes that a lot of other shows can’t. You touched Clarice’s hair without asking.
Yeah, and a black woman on Twitter got really mad at me about that. She said, “You do not touch a black woman’s hair.” I mean, I’m just going with the flow.
She did not seem to mind. I just think that in a world in which everyone’s so uptight about talking about race and people being overweight. Like the Adele game [in which Billy asked people if they thought she was lactose intolerant] was in the first episode, is that right?
Yes, I love that game.
And that was also something that was a comment on the show as well as the world.
I agree. That game made people uncomfortable, in a good way. There is such a double standard. Why is it bad to talk about the fact that she’s a little overweight? She’s still beautiful and insanely talented and successful. There are certain people you’re allowed to pick apart and certain people you’re not. Honestly, Adele has made certain people so much money that I think her publicist just makes sure she’s very protected in that way — in a way that some overweight reality stars or overweight actress who’s not quite as relevant isn’t.
Where’s your GLAAD award? You don’t get enough appreciation from the gay community for representing somebody on television that isn’t gay in a very specific sitcom way.
I get a variety of reactions from the gay community, verging on zero reaction. I’ve never even been invited to the GLAAD awards, to sit in the audience. I don’t necessarily care, and I’m sure they will one day and it will be fine, but I’ve never been invited to anything like that.
Why do you think that is?
There’s still a lack of awareness about the show in certain mainstream circles, and outside of the independently, culturally minded urban gay man, the general gay population is out there watching Bravo, and I’m not on Bravo. I’m actually in the comedy community much more than I am in the gay community at this point in terms of my public persona — I don’t mean in my personal life. And I think the comedy community is largely a heterosexual community, although it’s getting a little bit more gay. The Will Ferrells, the Adam McKays, the Conan O’Briens, the Jimmy Fallons of the world have been much quicker to embrace me. Other than Andy Cohen, who was a friend of mine going back a few years. Logo saw my live shows for years before I got Billy on the Street and never wanted to do anything with me other than maybe write on one of their shows, but they did not want me on-camera.
You’ve been making these videos for ten years. I was wondering about the origin story of the show. You have the man on the street videos, but whose idea was it to turn it into a game show?
That was an idea that I had had for years, that I had talked to various other production companies about. My man on the street videos always played very well universally. So for years we thought about this, beyond just trying to be a correspondent on somebody’s show. Which, by the way, no one was offering, either. I would have loved to be a Daily Show correspondent.
How many times did you audition to be a Daily Show correspondent? I auditioned like five times.
I auditioned twice. I went in once personally and then a year later I heard they were casting a correspondent and I sent in a video of myself, as if I was talking to Jon Stewart, and never heard a damn thing back.
I just want to mention, I went in for a bunch of auditions and got a callback and I wrote my own thing. This was when I was really trying to be on-camera, so I was on these crash diets. I found out I didn’t get it and then a week later they cast Josh Gad.
Julie, story of my life.
I was like, “This is why I haven’t been eating bread for like a month? The fucking Spelling Bee fatty? Are you kidding me?”
You know, let me say one other thing because I’m thinking about it now, in terms of the idea. I did not have the leverage at the time to go in and show a five-minute YouTube video and say, “Hey, I’m just going to walk around the street in my own format and talk about whatever I want, and that’ll be the whole show.” That wouldn’t have gotten sold, even if those videos were funny. It needed a bigger format and someone pointed me in the direction of Cash Cab.
Had you seen Cash Cab before?
Yeah, of course, I knew what it was. I had never thought of my work in relation to Cash Cab, but once I started watching, I thought, There’s something here. My agent set me up with producers, but no one could really put their finger on how it would work, but I knew it was a subjective game show. But for some reason — for legal reasons and other reasons — no one seemed to think that would be sustainable.
Even after going into our first season, when we were already filming, I wasn’t quite sure what the format would be until we got into the editing room and I thought, Oh, a mix of shorter games and longer games, and the fast stuff I do on the street will become its own lightning round. And the prizes wouldn’t be so cool, because we couldn’t afford to give people good prizes. I thought it was funny how silly and banal the prizes were.
Yeah, a dollar in New York City.
A dollar to have to deal with me. We didn’t even have a pilot. We went right to season, so that first season, we really figured out what the show was. You can see a big evolution from season one to season two in consistency and knowing what we do and what we do well. And there was another evolution, creatively, with a bit more experimentation from season two to this season.
There’s no way this show would be as good as it is if you weren’t from New York. I wonder if you can explain that to people who don’t get New York, or who don’t like New York, or who have never been. It’s almost like the opposite of the Friends version of New York that we grew up with.
Right. This is the real New York. That’s like how I was saying earlier with that woman, Jennifer, looks like a real, middle-aged New Yorker.
And Elena, I swear to God, there’s no one more New York than Elena. Putting Elena on television is maybe something people from other places don’t get. They just think she’s a crazy character, but I can’t express how specific it is to New York City, and I don’t have to, because it’s just there, it’s different. It’s different than Jimmy Kimmel using his security guard, it’s different than Chelsea Handler using her little person for God knows what reason. Elena is a star is because you made her a star.
Elena’s sister sent me a Facebook message today, because Elena obviously does not have a computer, as she has said a million times, but Lila Downs, the singer that Elena’s obsessed with, is playing Town Hall, and Elena wants to go with me. I’ve said it before, if Billy on the Street is about anything — and, as you say, there might be a think piece or two coming our way that we just have to tolerate — but it is about people like Elena, because she is funnier, naturally, than 95 percent of the sitcom actors and comedians that you see on television. And I literally just ran into her randomly and started playing “Quiz in the Face” with her, like I’ve done with a million other people on 23rd Street, and now she’s just a part of our lives and a huge part of the history of the show, and it’s kind of magical in a strange way.
She made you break for the first time on-camera.
Yeah, because Elena is just so goddamn funny. I’m usually really good at not breaking. I’ve had a lot of ridiculous interactions on the street and the voice in my head says, “Don’t break, because this could be really good and you’ll ruin it if you break.” I try to hold on tight, but with that I just — When she said “whertle” I just couldn’t …
Instead of Weird Al Yankovic. And then Weird Al Yankovic, God bless him, tweeted out that video and the whole thing just came full circle in this bizarre weird way. I just can’t believe that Weird Al Yankovic watched Elena.
If found comedy is as satisfying as we’ve learned it can be, then maybe Elena is to you what Bethenny Frankel is to Andy Cohen. Or maybe Ramona Singer.
Maybe Elena should start a line of margaritas.
Well, she’s in Mexico already, right?
She does spend a lot of time in Mexico making ethnographic jewelry.