The Billy Eichner Interview

April 6, 2012

Today I chat with a very funny comic whose Funny-or-Die-based TV show, Billy on the Street, debuted late last year on Fuse. On the show, Eichner quizzes unsuspecting New Yorkers on pop culture ephemera, often giving them a dollar if they agree with his particular opinions. The charm of the show is Eichner’s frazzled, frustrated interview style and the unpredictable responses he gets from his subjects. It made me laugh and then keep laughing when I thought about how silly the thing I was laughing about was--does that make sense?

New episodes of the show start airing in the fall but you can catch reruns on Fuse Thursday nights at 11/10CT. If you can’t wait until then, you can catch Billy on the Street online at Funny or Die and follow its hero on Twitter.

Congratulations on Billy on the Street being picked up for more episodes. Do you think success would change the show much? How would a bigger budget be reflected on the show?
I think success will only change the show in that we'll be able to try some new things from time to time, have more guests, etc. But ultimately I think what's fun about the show is how raw and real it is, so I don't think its a good idea to try and get too fancy. You won't be seeing me jump out of a plane…at least not just yet…and only if I can use Meryl Streep as a parachute.

How do you pick your subjects?
What you see on the show is exactly how it happens when we film it. We literally leave the production office, turn the cameras and microphones on, and I start walking. I only decide a couple of seconds before I go up to someone that I'm going to approach them. It really happens just as you see it happen on the show. I have absolutely no idea how they're going to react. There's no rehearsing or pre-planning that goes into it. It is a pure pop culture ambush!

Have you ever found yourself feeling unsafe during an interview? I’ve noticed that occasionally you’ll be quizzing someone and a person who doesn’t look completely mentally stable will wander up.
For some reason I never really feel "unsafe," per se. Maybe its because I grew up in New York and I'm a diehard New Yorker so I feel very comfortable walking those streets. Although I'm probably in a bit of denial about all the dangerous things that could happen while we're filming. Sometimes you walk up to someone that looks completely normal and it turns out they are completely insane. The opposite is also true, and therein lies the beauty of New York City, and how unpredictable and hopefully funny the show can be. And sometimes those crazy people in the background are my favorite part!

If you did an elevator pitch of your interviewing personality, fill in the blanks: “Billy Eichner on Billy on the Street is a marriage of ___ and _____.”
Cash Cab and Adderall.

Have you ever contemplated taking the show to another city? If so, where would you go?
Yes! At some point I would love to do special episodes in other cities. I get tweets from people all over the country asking us to come shoot in their town. It would be great to go to Chicago, Vegas, Miami, maybe Dallas? Maybe the Bible Belt? Maybe the set of Parenthood? I want to go everywhere! I had a blast shooting in Indianapolis during the Super Bowl for the Conan show so I'm dying to go to other cities ASAP!

I loved the footage of you at the Super Bowl--how did you come to shoot that for Conan?
That was an insane experience. I had done the Conan show once before just as a regular guest and the next day they called and asked if I'd go cover the Super Bowl for them. It was very surreal - we were on the field during the Super Bowl and the Madonna halftime show. I doubt I'll ever be on the field at the Super Bowl again so that really blew my mind. And Conan and all the folks who work there are incredibly nice as well as insanely funny. As one of my grandparents would've said if they weren't all totally dead, "it was quite something!"

Who are some people who you’d love to see host the Oscars?
Hmmm…its a really tough job. I think Tina Fey would be fantastic. Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Colbert, Seth Myers, Wanda Sykes. Also Barney Frank, Carrie Underwood, the Braxtons, my ass and the Annoying Orange.  

What’s been the biggest pop culture-related argument you’ve gotten into recently?
Well I'm becoming a little obsessed with the show Smash and that show gets people pretty riled up over how amazing and/or hideous it can be, so I find myself talking about Smash a lot. I feel like Debra Messing may be going off the deep end and I'm pretty excited by that possibility.

Who are some artists/celebs/comics who you feel are completely underrated?
Kat Von D is a major talent.

Just as a fan and not necessarily as a colleague, who are some of your favorite standup comedians?
There are many of course…Chris Rock, Wanda Sykes, Louis CK, Joan Rivers, Patton Oswalt are just a few that come to mind. And there are many in the next generation of superstars that I love. People like Paul F. Tompkins, Rob Delaney, Julie Klausner (not a traditional stand up per se but totally brilliant), Kristen Schaal, Bridget Everett, etc that I always love. And many more than that of course.

I first became aware of you when Julie Klausner interviewed you on How Was Your Week so I’m going to ask you a question she asked you back then, to bring things full-circle: who are you rooting for on Celebrity Apprentice?
I think it will come down to Lisa Lampanelli vs. Debbie Gibson and I think Lisa will win by stabbing Debbie Gibson in the makeup.

How does it feel to be the 308th person interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
Well I'm answering these questions while on a long flight, so it feels pretty nauseating and claustrophobic.