Billy Eichner isn’t in the mood for stupid questions. Surrounded by his press team in the conference room at Funny or Die’s swanky Hollywood office, Eichner is far more relaxed than his television persona has ever been, but I’m still catching him in the middle of a long day of press interviews promoting the new season of Billy on the Street. I have 20 minutes with him before he’s on to the next round of saying probably many of the same things to someone else. Hoping to avoid too many clichés, I start off by asking which question he’s already tired of answering. “Probably the most common question I get is ‘who’s your dream guest?’ That’s kind of annoying because there isn’t one,” he tells me. “Also, people keep pressing whether or not I’m gay when I’ve been very vocal that I’m straight. Just kidding.”
Eichner may feel like the celebrities are incidental, but the promotion for the upcoming season hasn’t been shy about dropping the big names that’ll be showing up, with Tina Fey, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pratt, Sarah Jessica Parker and Julianne Moore among them. Eichner says the bookings come mostly from him, directly asking his friends, people he’s worked with, or famous people he follows on Twitter. “They’re all people I’d heard were fans of the show and then I reached out,” Eichner said. “I knew Chris from Parks & Rec; Tina, I never worked with her but I ran into her at various events and she said she was a fan; I knew Sarah Jessica Parker was a fan so I just reached out. With Julianne Moore, I didn’t know her personally, but we followed each other on Twitter, and I DM’d her a few weeks after she won the Oscar and I knew it was a long-shot but she got back right away and said she’d do it.”
Although the show airs on smaller networks—prior to TruTV, the show lived on Fuse—Eichner and the show’s presence has loomed large in Hollywood and media circles. In 2013, he received a Daytime Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Game Show Host”; 2014 saw him and Seth Meyers in a video segment that played on the Primetime Emmys; and this past year, the show earned a nomination for Outstanding Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program, the famous OSFLAEP. That’s not mentioning his aforementioned memorable role on Parks & Recreation, plus his starring role in Difficult People, which recently received a second season renewal on Hulu.
Celebrity guest segments weren’t originally a recurring element in the first season. Those interactions have grown as the show has grown, but Billy’s fascination with celebrities has always been a main ingredient. One memorable example that made the rounds online was the Julia Roberts Obstacle Course, in which Billy yelled at Rachel Dratch as she completed Julia Roberts-themed hurdles, like crawling through sludge to find an Oscar for Erin Brockovich or attempting to create sexual tension with a Denzel Washington cardboard cut-out (Julia and Denzel co-starred in The Pelican Brief in 1993, if you’re spacing on your Julia Roberts IMDb trivia).
“When I was child I was intoxicated by celebrities, showbiz and theatre, but from a child’s perspective, where they seem far away,” he tells me. “Now I’m older and I’m more interested with people’s fascination [with celebrities]. There’s a mix of reactions. Sometimes people are really excited, or [just as frequently] people are like ‘get out of my way, I’m going to my job. I don’t even have a TV.” Eichner laughs at the thought. “That really entertains me, even after all these years; real people’s reactions to showbiz people.”
Eichner’s path to being a comedy celebrity himself was a unique one. He didn’t climb through the ranks of stand-up, sketch or improv; although he dabbled in each, Eichner found his voice and developed his persona by producing a stage show called Creation Nation in New York that essentially served as a development lab for the eventual television show. “I was doing Creation Nation on stage because no one was putting me on TV at the time,” he smirked. “It was sketches and songs. It was a variety show where I could do whatever I want. There was a sidekick, a band, I spoofed reality shows like Project Runway and Extreme Home Makeover, and one of the segments in all of that was me talking to people on the street. This was before YouTube, this was 2004, then YouTube came along and we thought the on-the-street segments would work on their own. We put them up and then Funny or Die got in touch and we created the half hour [version], which started 4 years ago. That’s the nutshell. It was a long process. I’m older than I look.”
Maybe because the show at first glance can seem like a relatively simple shoot—the show’s concept is man on the street interviews—Eichner stresses the level of craft involved. “We do a really good job of preserving the raw lo-fi nature of the show, but it’s a much bigger production than people think of it,” he told me. “Obviously the obstacle courses require more planning. There’s a whole arts and crafts team building slides and crazy things.”
For his own performance, he’s careful about not being seen as just a guy barking at people about celebrities. “People focus too much on the yelling,” he said. “I’m not always yelling if you watch full episodes. Yelling happens for a reason. Lashing out at someone who doesn’t have the right opinion, getting worked up about celebrities, is part of the joke. Billy on the Street is a persona, it’s crafted, it has writers; it’s a mixture of performance art and comedy.”
The writing process for the show does involve a writers’ room as well as a handful of remote contributors. “For six weeks we sit around and think of funny games. If we book someone like Tina Fey, we try to come up with spins on games specifically for Tina Fey,” he said.
At the same time, the show isn’t strictly scripted. Eichner makes a point to maintain the stream-of-consciousness that’s central to the appeal. “Sometimes they give me a launching point, so I’ll have questions in my head but they’ll lead to other questions on the spot. If I see an ad on a bus with Tom Hardy, then I’ll spontaneously start asking questions about Tom Hardy.”
Now that both Eichner and the show are more well known, and finding themselves on a new network this season, can viewers expect any changes? “It’s the same basic show, there’s no huge structural changes. We have more obstacle courses this year, and there’s a couple of segments where I take on a different persona than the usual persona. Not a ton, but sprinkled throughout.”
A new persona? Does that mean we’ll see a different, softer side of Billy Eichner on the street? “It’s just a different attitude. You’ll have to see it.”
The fourth season of Billy on the Street premieres Thursday, October 8th on TruTV.
Grant Pardee is a writer, comedian, and comedy-lover based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @grantpa.