Every episode of Billy on the Street is a window on a social experiment unfolding on the streets of New York. How would New Yorkers react if a tall white man with a microphone breathlessly ran up to them to ask about the cancellation of Bones? They are startled, they try to ignore him, others are truly sad the show is over. The man behind the mic, Billy Eichner, 38, has been doing a version of this vox populi questionnaire since putting on his 2003 stage show Creation Nation, billed as a “live pop-culture-drenched variety-comedy-concert-comedy-variety talk show.” But it wasn’t until recently, buoyed by social media, that the show truly took off. Now in its fifth official season on truTV, the unique Billy on the Street is still one of the strangest shows on television — a delightful alchemy of pop culture, celebrity, performance art, and social anthropology.
Billy on the Street is a bit of an ethnography of New York City — it reminds me of Bill Cunningham in that way. How do you choose people?
There’s no rhyme or reason. I learned early on that Billy on the Street is a great lesson in “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Things pop out of people’s mouths that you wouldn’t expect them to say, so I’ve stopped trying to guess ahead of time who might be interesting to talk to. There was a guy I played “Quizzed in the Face” with in the second season: Mr. Singh, an Indian man wearing a turban. He doesn’t make it all the way, but he had plenty of things to say about Lindsay Lohan and Shannen Doherty and Tara Reid. Here is a man who you would not expect to be reading Us Weekly, and he was. We found out later he’s a doctor, an intellectual, but it didn’t stop him from having this interest in celebrities. It’s one of those wonderful, magical moments that you wouldn’t think is true if it wasn’t true. The show fucks with your inner biases, and it is a social experiment in that way.
What really ends up dictating who I’m talking to is the traffic on the streets — how crowded it is, where I can find a space, logistics, and geography — more than anything about the person. If someone looks too wacky, I usually try to avoid them. I don’t want it to seem cartoonish. It’s actually better to talk to people who aren’t desperate for attention.
Was there a particular moment when someone surprised you?
Many times. We spoke to this older lady getting off a bus. She’s 83 years old, and she loves musicals, but she said she didn’t want to see Hamilton because she studied American history in college and she doesn’t need to pay all that money to sit through a history lesson. It was the opposite of what everyone else was saying about Hamilton, and only this know-it-all, older Manhattan woman would come out and say that so bluntly. I thought it was hilarious. And everything Elena says is unpredictable.
What’s great about the show is that you rely on the natural humor of what it’s like to live in New York.
People ask me, where do I get the balls to do this? I don’t really know if I have big balls; I grew up in New York, so those streets are not intimidating to me. It’s my natural habitat. I grew up in Queens, which is the most diverse borough: the rich and the poor and homeless and people of every sexual orientation and gender and age group. Everyone is saying we live in this bubble, and there’s some truth to that. But I do not think it is healthy to all of a sudden invalidate the way we live in New York. I don’t mean to sound like a Pollyanna, but for me New York is the ideal because of the diversity here. Billy on the Street is really informed by that.
Exactly. We really hone that. We have two months of preproduction where I’m in a room with six or seven of the funniest people you’ve ever met. They write the questions. I rewrite everything before we film to make sure it’s really in my voice. Anything we can prep goes through a very intense process that you would find on any show. The downside to creating this loud, larger-than-life character is that people gravitate toward the loudest element of it. But there is some very smart, subtle social criticism and cultural satire that is happening on the show that sometimes goes underappreciated because people tend to focus more on the shouting. If I were just screaming randomly, this would be a piece of shit. I’m the last person who would want to watch that. To be honest, I wasn’t a big Sam Kinison fan — I mean, rest in peace, I’m sure he was lovely — but that’s not my type of comedy. When the Billy on the Street persona is screaming, it’s about something specific. We talk about that a lot in the writers room: It’s not about the screaming, it’s about what you’re screaming about.
Which is why he’s a New York character.
One hundred percent. This is like Ratso Rizzo. He’s an only–in–New York type of guy. You either have affection for that type of person, or you’re so removed from who that person is that all you hear is a loud, gay guy screaming at you through the TV, and you don’t understand why other people think this is so funny. But it’s because you don’t have the vocabulary, and I understand that. Not everyone needs to be obsessing about the nuances and intricacies of Cate Blanchett’s career. But for those of us who do, this shit’s pretty funny.
“At this point, there’s really not much stopping you from coming out of the closet as an actor.”
What’s surprising to you when you have celebrity guests on?
It’s always interesting to see the people who engage. Because sometimes celebrities come and, as talented as they are, this is an odd thing to do. The more famous you are, perhaps, the less time you’ve spent actually engaging with other non-show-business people on the street. You have a team of people around you keeping you from those people, not allowing them to get to you and ask for a selfie. I’m literally dragging you over to someone on the street who may or may not be a fan. And you don’t know what their reaction’s going to be.
Chris Pratt, at the height of his breakout year, ran around with me and I literally went up to people and said “This is the hottest star in Hollywood right now. Hollywood Reporter says X about him, Entertainment Weekly says this about him, who is he?” And they didn’t know. They thought he was Chris Evans, Chris Pine, Josh Duhamel. He’s just standing there, and I think it took him by surprise. We played “It’s Spock, Do You Care?” with Zachary Quinto. “Miss, it’s Spock, do you care?” Many people didn’t care. And Zach turned to me and said, “Every actor should have to do this.” Because it’s humbling, and if you have a sense of humor, you’re not really offended. These actors are doing plenty well even if not every single person can get their name right. It pops that balloon in a nonthreatening, fun way.
A hundred percent. Sometimes people do freak out and get excited. With Amy Poehler, people were freaking out; everyone wanted to have sex with Paul Rudd. But it does take the piss out of celebrity, and at the same time is very celebratory of pop culture. I myself have been obsessed with entertainment and the industry since I was a child.
Who’s on your wish list of celebrity guests for Billy on the Street?
Meryl Streep has always been at the top, and she remains at the top. I’ve met Rihanna and we spoke a little bit about it and she’s a fan. She’s a busy lady. She doesn’t give a fuck, Rihanna. And that’s the attitude you need for Billy on the Street. Then there are some comedy icons. I’d love Steve Martin, I have worshiped him forever. Louis C.K. Chris Rock, I think, is the single funniest comedian living, currently.
How do you calibrate a joke that might insult someone, like “Queen Latifah or Brave Person,” which implied that Queen Latifah is a lesbian who hasn’t come out?
That’s actually a big part of the reason why I edit all the episodes. I have two amazing editors — they are wonderful, and we all do it together. But I am there 24/7, and I contractually have final cut over Billy on the Street, which is very rare. There are a lot of projects I have to turn down because I’m editing Billy on the Street. But I will never let go of the editing. I’d sooner stop doing the show.
Part of the reason I insist on that is because we do do outrageous things, and I need to be able to get behind all of that. If something makes it to air that someone has an issue with, I’m able to say I made the decision and I can defend it. With “Queen Latifah or Brave Person?” it’s not like I was intending to completely obliterate Queen Latifah. I think Queen Latifah is very talented. I’m sure she’s lovely. But there is one aspect of her life I find frustrating and a tad backward. That was what that game was about, and I was more than happy to put that on the air because I think that is a statement that needs to be made.
“I challenge anyone who sees themselves on TV a lot not to want to look a little better.”
Do you think there’s an obligation for celebrities of a certain stature to come out?
It’s an interesting question. Everyone’s life experience is different. I do take for granted, probably, the fact that I grew up in New York City, one of the most liberal places on earth, with bleeding-heart, liberal parents who took me to see Rent and Terrence McNally plays from a very young age. So my view of this whole topic is skewed, because I am one of the lucky ones. With that said, I do think that if you can come out, you should come out. I personally think it’s the right thing to do. And at this point, there’s really not much stopping you from coming out of the closet as an actor.
For me, it was a no-brainer. My personal life is too important to me and it informs too much of my work for me to have ever considered making any other decision. I do think one does have a responsibility, not only to your audience but particularly in the world we’re now living in and about to enter into with Mike Pence and his ilk running the show. What does bother me is when you see a closeted celebrity say, "Oh, I just don’t talk about my personal life." Okay, but what about your ten-page spread in Architectural Digest? Or your multiple profiles in People magazine about every other aspect in your life? I don’t buy that for a second. We’re all on our own journey, and I respect that. But maybe reconsider your journey? [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Wow, that’s nice. I did a Reddit AMA, and this was a big topic. I swear to God here is what happened: If you go back and watch the first season of the show — and it’s the weakest season creatively because we were still figuring our shit out — I look fine. It was a very stressful period of time where I was figuring out how to do a TV show. I would sit in the editing room, and out of stress and exhaustion, I would eat up a storm. I think about how I look, but I’m not someone who obsesses over that. I’m into fashion, but I’ve never been a fashion gay 100 percent. Then we went and shot the second season after all of that eating in the editing room, and we came back to edit the second season. I saw myself, and I was like, “Well … that doesn’t look great.” I’m running around New York in a little T-shirt, because we shoot over the summer, and it just didn’t look so hot to me. I thought, I can’t let this get out of hand. My life is getting busier and more stressful. So I got a trainer and started watching what I ate. I don’t know if anyone wants to hear about this … but that’s what happened.
I challenge anyone who sees themselves on TV a lot not to want to look a little better. That’s a natural, human feeling. Or maybe it’s not. For me it was. And it’s fun to look a little better. Why not? It’s healthy. If I’m going to obsess about something, better it be that than other, less healthy things. And I still don’t think I’m obsessing about it. But it is something I fit into my schedule — it makes me feel better. I’m 38 years old. You get to a different place in your life, and you do want to make some changes. And you know, you want to have sex with good-looking people. Why not? Life is short.
How has dating been now that you’re more famous?
It’s fantastic. [Laughs.] I’m not someone who dated a lot before I got a bit more successful. And that’s because I was always very focused on trying to get to where I am. It always felt weird on a date to tell someone I was an actor. Then they would say, “What are you in?” And you have no answer. That always was very degrading to me. I hooked up with guys. I partied a lot. I’m very social in that way, and I always have been. But in terms of real dating, that only started to be something I focused on in the past few years because the rest of my life started to take shape. Now I feel like I’m ready for that sort of thing.
Do you use apps?
I’m on all the apps. Tinder, Grindr, Bumble, Scruff. I have no shame about that. And to be honest — not to sound holier than thou — I do miss the days before Grindr. I had about five years as a gay guy in New York after college before the whole Grindr explosion happened, where people were still going out to meet each other. It was social. It was sexually charged. And it was more fun. The Grindr thing has pros and cons to it. But you kind of have to do it if you’re single — that’s how gay men have decided to meet each other. So what am I going to do, not be on Grindr because I’m on TV or something? I just don’t care about that.
I never thought of myself as an outsider. Then you enter this show-business bubble where TV and movie execs are concerned about what will play or not play in Middle America. It was only then when one of my early agents told me I was “too ambitious.” That sounded like code to me. There was going to be some industry showcase of [my live variety show] Creation Nation, where my persona was very out and proud. The show wasn’t about being gay, but I was talking about my life: I’m gay, I’m Jewish, I’m tall, I’m a New Yorker, I like pop culture, all those things were equal to me. There was one manager early on who was like, “Err … can you maybe take out some of the gay stuff this month?” This is ten years ago. I looked at her like she was nuts. I ended up putting in more gay content that month than before. She said to me after, “I asked you not to do that. Why did you put even more of it in?” I said, “Because I thought your question was ridiculous, and I guess I was rebelling a little bit.”
The Difficult People Billy and Julie, it’s still not even clear whether they’re talented or deserving of success. They have not been welcomed into the party they really want to get into, and they definitely see themselves as outsiders. That’s an easy narrative to apply to me. And maybe there are people out there in the world who say, “Oh, he’s such an oddball. He’s really a nut. So unique.” Those aren’t necessarily bad things, and those adjectives certainly apply to the Billy on the Street persona. But in terms of me, Billy the person, I never felt like an outsider. I do what I do and hope that people get it. I have no desire to dilute who I am in order to reach the Big Bang Theory audience.
How do you feel about becoming more mainstream?
I’m fine with being mainstream. There are things I’ll do in my life, like every actor. You’ll do some weird little indie movie, which will be for critics and a few thousand really smart people to appreciate. Then you’ll go and hopefully make some big studio comedy or do a more mainstream sitcom, which is still hopefully good on its own terms. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Especially for those of us perceived as outsiders, it’s very powerful to go mainstream. The mainstream needs Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell. The mainstream needs RuPaul. The mainstream needs all of us. So I don’t see that as a negative thing at all — that should be a goal in a certain way.
One thing that has amused me is that mainstream gay-media organizations and blogs have been slow to embrace you.
Why do you think that is?
You’d have to ask them. I don’t know, and I don’t care. Some of them will post my videos sometimes. I’ve never done anything for Out magazine, but you’d have to ask them.
Weren’t you in the Out 100?
I was in the Out 100, yeah. And they took literally the most embarrassing photo of me of all time.
The Jedi thing.
I’ll tweet almost anything, but I didn’t tweet that. My friend Guy Branum, who’s written on Billy on the Street and writes on The Mindy Project, tweeted the other day that one day this country will have its first gay president, and the cover of Out magazine will be Nick Jonas talking about how he once saw a gay porn [film]. This is one of the funniest and most truthful things I’ve read in a long time. That really says it all.
I know the election of Donald Trump has been on your mind a lot. Where were you watching the returns on Election Night?
I was at the Javits Center waiting for Hillary to speak. A friend of mine had invited me, and I was so excited. I got there and there were thousands of people on the main floor where she was going to speak, we all assumed. It had the whole glass-ceiling element and there was music blaring and huge screens everywhere playing CNN. It literally took my breath away. I could not believe that I was going to be there live to hear her victory speech. And then it became clear that wasn’t going to happen. It’s a fascinating place to be because you’re surrounded by people who had put their blood, sweat, and tears into campaigning with her and for her. She wasn’t there. If she was, I didn’t see her. I was in New York during 9/11, and I don’t want to minimize 9/11 where thousands of people died by comparing it to anything, but it was the closest feeling I’ve had to that since, where you literally felt like an unexpected death had occurred. I’m not someone who thought Hillary was a perfect candidate, but the thought of what was to come was mind-blowing.
“If Out magazine or The Advocate don’t want to write about me, that says more about them than it says about me.”
To make a surreal night even more surreal, I was in this room with Amy Schumer, Jennifer Lopez, Stevie Wonder, Cher, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Angela Bassett, Tony Goldwyn, Busy Phillips, numerous senators and other big Democratic bigwigs. Once the tide started to turn, I stood in a corner with a couple of my friends who were also in this room. Slowly, people started to trickle out. People were crying. Around midnight or so, an older woman who clearly worked with the campaign came out. She screamed at everyone, “Everybody stop crying! It’s not over!” Then there was silence because I think the rest of us knew that it was over. It was bizarre.
When did you leave?
I snuck out around 12:30 and walked home because I don’t live too far from there. I remember eight years prior, when Obama won the first time, I was downtown celebrating with my friends, and I was living uptown at the time. I took the subway home around midnight or so, and I was by myself. The subway reached Times Square, and I thought, I have to get out. I have to see what’s happening in Times Square the night our first black president was elected. I have such a vivid memory of it. There were literally young people doing cartwheels in the street. It was like New Year’s Eve, but with a purpose. It was magical.
Eight years later, I was walking from Javits Center on 34th Street — I live in Hell’s Kitchen — and you could see people, particularly people of color, who were leaving Times Square in complete silence. Everyone had little American flags they’d brought with them that were down at their hips. One guy was sort of waving it. No one was talking and you could tell that they’d all gone to Times Square expecting a big celebration. Now they were silent. It was the antithesis of before in the same part of town, and it really was breathtaking.
Well, you can’t generalize. There are some entertainers who are meant to provide escapism, and that is very important because you need a break. I am so overwhelmed by Twitter right now. Twitter’s great for getting information out there you wouldn’t otherwise get and for feeling you’re not alone in the world. But you’ve also got to act. You’ve got to hit the street, to make calls. I try to be politically active. I try to remain engaged, fight for the causes I believe in. I’m on every email list you can imagine. I’m on the Creative Coalition of Every Town for Gun Safety now. Move On, Courage Campaign. So it’s a flood of emails, constant tweets about You need to put your name on 17 petitions today. It is an overwhelming amount of information to process for anyone, but of course you have to. You have to stay engaged; it’s very important. If we get overwhelmed, the bad guys win. They want us to get overwhelmed.
Billy on the Street is essentially about pop culture, so the show becomes something that can’t, beyond a certain point, carry the weight. We’re not The Daily Show. We’re there to provide a different type of entertainment and a different type of commentary. But where I can, we are doing that. I do think entertainers and artists have a responsibility to, at the very least, sit themselves down and have a conversation with themselves about how they are using their platform. Because this is potentially a nightmare for many of us.
I’m curious what you thought of Jimmy Fallon’s now-infamous interview with Donald Trump, where he ruffled Trump’s hair. That created a big discussion about how a comedian uses his platform.
I’m trying to think of the right word. I thought it was naïve and a bit of a slap in the face to all the people that I know for a fact Jimmy Fallon loves and celebrates: the LGBT community, women, people of color. I’ve done Jimmy’s show twice. I think he is a huge talent. I really, really do. There are three people in the world that can do that job well. Are you kidding? Hosting The Tonight Show every night? With the amount of people you have to satisfy while still trying to remain true to your own creative values? He is terrific. I don’t think that was a good moment. Moving forward, with how potentially dangerous these guys can be, you can’t be fluffing a Nazi sympathizer’s hair on television. After the interview, Jimmy did say something like, “Hey, have you ever seen my show? This is what I do.” In that instance, he just didn’t think it through. You’re doing your show every day, and sometimes things slip through the cracks. I hope that he’ll be more mindful of that because Jimmy does have a big platform. He gets double the ratings of the other guys. He is probably speaking to more Trump voters than you or I. And I do think there’s a responsibility to not take things lightly. Even if you’re a performer whose go-to is to focus more on the more lighthearted stuff. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling he wouldn’t it again.
What sorts of things have you been doing to stay politically active?
I’ve been talking to Beau Willimon, an old friend of mine, who is known for many things, but probably most for creating the American version of House of Cards. Beau has started to create action groups in not only big cities but small towns, in order to give people a way to physically come together in a room and meet other like-minded people. It’s actually a bipartisan effort. You can meet other people and figure out tangible things you can do in the short term and in the long term, like going to protests or supporting someone that’s running for your local school board. I hope to work with him even more as the weeks and months and years go by. That’s making me feel better because I found myself tweeting a lot, and I still do — I mean angry tweets. I think they’re effective and important: You’re rallying the troops. It’s comforting on some level. You’re talking and communicating with like-minded people. But, it’s going to have to be about more than tweets. We need to take a breath and find big ways and small ways to get active. And look toward 2018 and 2020.
I’m not sure what the answer is to that question. There have not been any conversations about what happens with Billy on the Street after this. It is a monumental undertaking — it’s a ten-month process for me from start to finish. I don’t necessarily want it to go away entirely. It strangely keeps getting more popular. I know people that really, really love it, and that means a lot to me. And I do enjoy doing it. We shall see what form that takes. With all the platforms available to you now, nothing has to go away. Ever. Shows that were canceled ten years ago are coming back. So who knows? I may need a little break, but I certainly don’t want to say good-bye to it.
Billy on The Street is streaming now on SBS On Demand: