Merging the high pressure intensity of a trivia game show, the must-have savvy of the on-the-scene reporting and his own brand of comedy, Billy Eichner has single-handedly changed the meaning of “man on the street” with his TV show Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street. The brand new season airs March 12 at 11 p.m. ET with a brand new crop of celebrity guests accompanying Billy as he aggressively roams the streets of New York City to get answers to his pressing pop culture quizzes. A-listers hitting the pavement with Billy include the likes of Olivia Wilde, Lena Dunham, Neil Patrick Harris and his Parks and Recreation co-stars Nick Offerman and Amy Poehler. We had the chance to chat with Mr. Eichner about his early comedy career, getting slapped in the face by a lady on the street, doing aerial acrobatics with Pink and Meryl Streep at the Oscars, of course.
You have experience in the UCB, right?
I do, yeah. I took all their classes back in the day. It was my first foray into improv. I did a one-person show there for over a year every month called “Billy Eichner Goes Pop” in the time frame before I got my TV show on Funny or Die.
How did your time there influence your comedy career path?
By the time I did my one-man show at UCB I had been performing a lot in New York and other theaters. I’ve always been a bit of an outlier in a way. I just go do my own things. I took all the classes at UCB and I loved them, but I was never jumping at the chance to join an improv team which is what you do there most of the time. I learned a lot.
At the time I just wanted to write for myself, do more sketch stuff and maybe a slightly more elaborate show than what people were doing at UCB. I ended up going to some other theaters that were more sort of mixes of comedy and theater because I ended up creating this live show called Creation Nation. It was a live talk show that I did — kind of like my version of The Tonight Show, but on stage.
Do you remember your first UCB show?
I’m sure I was very nervous. It’s hard to remember the exact point. It’s always nerve racking. Comedy’s always nerve-racking. We had a big premiere at the Beacon last night and I had to come out and give a little speech beforehand. Even then, when I know there’s 1,500 Billy Eichner fans in the audience who are excited to see me, you still get nervous. It’s comedy. It’s always challenging and that what’s thrilling about it when it works and devastating when it doesn’t [laughs].
Let’s talk about the new season of Billy on the Street. I watched a couple of episodes and it’s very funny of course. How do you gauge when to stop talking to people and when you’ve pushed them a little bit too far? Has anything happened where you were genuinely scared for your life because someone was about to get physically violent because of your style of on-the-street interviewing?
I’ve never been scared for my life. I feel like people want me to be scared for my life because there’s something kind of thrilling about that. I can say over the past 10 years that I’ve been making these videos, have there has been a handful of occasions where someone got really mad. A lady once slapped me across the face and someone once pushed our camera Sean Penn-style. There really are a remarkably small number of occasions that has happened. The fact of the matter is there might be people that don’t want to be on the show. There might be people that don’t want to talk to me, but in terms of physical violence there’s two cameras on these people. They see us coming.
I’ll be honest, there are some times when I do get a little be scared for you.
It always surprises me a little bit when people are so scared for me because when you think about how the show is actually made, it’s not a hidden camera show. You see us coming down the street. I mean no one’s prepared for me to go up to them and I don’t even know myself until a second before who I’m going to go up to. I just keep going up to random people throughout the day and I never know how someone’s going to react. I think the reason that it works so well in New York is because New Yorkers give as good as they can. They’re not threatened and they get the joke on some level. Even if they’re not in show business everyone’s in show business in New York to a certain extent.
You’ve done the majority of the shows in New York. I remember seeing you at at the Super Bowl where Madonna performed at half-time.
That was for Conan, yeah.
Besides that have you ever done the show in any other city?
We shot with Pink in L.A., but it was we shot inside with her and I was dangling in the air.
It was one of those things where she had to shoot in L.A. I was thrilled to have Pink on the show. I thought, “What can we do that’s special with Pink?” I thought she’ll never do this, but we have to propose the two of us dangling in the air together and playing a game because she’s known for all those aerial acrobatics she does on the awards shows and her concerts. It turned out she was rehearsing her world tour on a stage at Sony and she had all those aerial things set up. I asked her if we could dangle on them and play the game in mid air. That’s the only time Billy on the Street went inside.
Would you want to expand to other cities?
Yeah, I would. I really would like to do that at some point. We have fans all over. People are always reaching out to me on Twitter and Facebook saying “Please come film here!” I think it’s a very New York show, but as we saw with the Conan videos, everyone’s pretty savvy about pop culture no matter where you are. I would love to take it out to different cities and also see the different flavor that another city could bring to the show. I think that’d be really fun.
It’s been a bit over two weeks, but I have to ask: How your Oscar viewing experience was this year?
Well, award shows have become a very intense experience for me, as they should be for all of us.
Yes, they are.
Oscar weekend in L.A., as I’m sure you know, is a whole production. There are parties every night and because it was our “Billy on the Street time” we had an early flight to New York the next morning. For the Oscars, I stayed home in my underwear and live tweeted the show and that was what I did. Then, I packed by bags and came back to New York the next morning.
What are some of your favorite highlights?
I mean, I have a long, ongoing love affair with Meryl Streep.
Yes, as everyone should.
She had a big presence on the Oscars this year even though she didn’t win. I love Meryl. [She] landed all of those bits and they lean on her really hard to land some of those bits. I’m sure she was prepared for the Pharrell moment which I thought was great. I thought Meryl really made a lot of those bits—which might not have worked otherwise—land…as of course she would. I loved all of that. I thought Ellen did a good job and I liked the joke about people being racist if they didn’t vote for 12 Years a Slave. I think the Liza joke was maybe not thought through enough only because…it’s Liza. Liza is fragile.
Yeah, that’s shaky ground.
[Liza] clearly did not like that joke. I didn’t think they treated Liza very well on the show in general. Not to sound like gayest person of all time, but she is Liza Minnelli! They had her there. I was shocked she didn’t get up on stage even for that tribute to the Wizard of Oz. They let her get up in the audience after making fun of her. She couldn’t even get onstage. hen Ellen took that photo with her, she was like, “#Besties” and I was like, “No you’re not.” I thought it was kind of like a Jekyll and Hyde Ellen. She was giving out pizza and having fun and then she said that.
It was kind of out of Ellen’s wheelhouse.
Yeah and I think because of Liza it really didn’t go over well because we all love Liza for who she is. It’s like, “Really? You’re going to pick on Liza Minnelli of all the people in that audience?” It’s such an easy target and an old joke. Other than that I thought Ellen was great. I love Ellen. She’s really clever and funny. I enjoyed it.
Final question: What are your top three Meryl movies?
Well, that is a great question. Obviously I have more than three, let me think… I’m going to say I think Kramer vs Kramer Meryl is very special. I think that was one of the early Meryls that I saw early on and I just thought the whole movie is great. I thought “Whoa! That is such a hard character…such a potentially unlikable character and yet you sympathize with her to a certain degree.” You at least understand her. I hate it when people say when performances are brave, but I thought that was a really sharp, really smart performance.
I think Bridges of Madison County Meryl is not talked about enough because she makes that movie. That could’ve been a real cheese fest and again she just like imbued that character with so much soul and so much depth. That’s a really amazingly detailed performance. That kind of happened in the years when Meryl was a little under the radar. She hadn’t had the “Meryl renaissance” like the past few years box office-wise, so that’s an underrated performance.
I love The Devil Wears Prada because it made her into this huge movie star in the second half of her life. Again, that’s a performance that changes the entire way the movie was received. You know that’s all Meryl.
The new season of Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street premieres tonight on Fuse at 11 p.m. eastern.