Society Would Be Cured if We Just Started Taking Billy Eichner Seriously
Dollar for your thoughts, Billy Eichner?
Search for “Billy Eichner” on YouTube, and beneath an anthology of street ambushes and Scientology obstacle courses you will find Eichner’s first uploaded video from October of 2006 called“Billy Eichner: I’m Nice!”. He and a band of sociopaths renovate the home of a family whose father has been diagnosed with cancer in this short parody of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, ending with Eichner on the verge of receiving fellatio from the man’s wife in front of their new bowling ball home. This is the twisted genius upon which truTV’s Billy on the Street was sculpted. The voices in Eichner’s head speak in the same tongue then as they do now, but perhaps just a bit louder.
“It’s just who I am,” he tells me, for Celebuzz, as we sit high above the city blocks that have become his Olympic track. “I don’t think my voice has changed very much when it comes to things that I create. It’s just my perspective, my point of view, and I guess that really hasn’t changed very much. Luckily it hasn’t had to change in order for me to work.”
Before the parade of YouTubers hit town, Eichner first fell in love with live theater as a New York City native who was dazzled by the bright lights of Broadway. He started off as an actor studying theater at Northwestern University, and eventually found his way to sketch and improv comedy in his mid-twenties. Though he credits representatives, producers, writers and collaborators for his widespread notoriety, Eichner acknowledges that the constant in his winning formula has been his own persistence.
”Hollywood is very ‘you’re hot and then you’re not’ and in order to navigate all of that I think that you have to really believe in yourself. You have to be the one to get up and say, ‘Well, no one’s interested in me today, but I’m going to write something. I’m going to produce something. I’m going to make a video. I’m going to tweet, whatever it’s going to be.’”
Billy on the Street is indeed his modern manifestation of Broadway. “It’s a larger-than-life persona and I think that’s what makes it stand out from a lot of other comedy,” he says. “Whether you like it or you don’t like it, it certainly is unique in that way.”
Eichner’s only regret in building this character is having fostered it under his real name. “There were legal reasons why I did that,” says the actor. “But sometimes I think that I should have changed my name so that it was just clearer to people that there was a divide between me and the character, the way that there is between Sacha Baron Cohen and Borat.”
Fortunately, the laser beam trajectory of Eichner’s career has landed him the opportunity to make this distinction. He’s headed into shooting season two of Difficult People, an original comedy series on Hulu created by Julie Klausner and executive produced by Amy Poehler, with whom he worked on Parks and Recreation.
“There a time comes to make less of an ass out of yourself,” he says. “You grow older, you evolve. I think Difficult People has been a nice step in that direction for me. I get to play a real person—still a pop culture-oriented person, but a person with feelings and a family and someone who’s dating.”
Despite his enthusiasm to show off dramatic chops at a greater capacity in season two, he honors his roots nonetheless. “Comedy requires balls. Big balls,” he laughs. “You gotta have the guts.”
Though a devout member to the church of Meryl Streep, Eichner is notably inspired by his late friend and mentor, comedy legend Joan Rivers. Rivers’ core desire to be acknowledged for her acting over her stand-up comedy resonates with Eichner’s struggle as he plows his own professional path.
“[Rivers] talks about this in her documentary and she starts to cry because I think that her one regret was no one thought of her as an actress, but she did,” Eichner reflects. “I think to myself, ‘Don’t let that happen to yourself, because if you want to be an actor you’ve gotta put a pause on the comedy at some point and make sure the world knows.’”
Eichner embodies Rivers’ joie de vivre despite how seriously he takes Billy on the Street, reminding us that such anxiety-ridden work is a punchline in the end. For instance, he recognizes the perfection of Difficult People’s home on Hulu, but concedes that media as an industry will eventually collapse into nothing. “We’re not quite there yet, but not that many years from now we’re just going to have one big box and a YouTube star will be very similar to the star of a CBS scripted show, and we’ll all just be watching everything in the same place,” he says. “Or maybe we’ll just not watch anything at all.”
He acknowledges that this is already somewhat of a truth, given that people prefer to watch their Twitter timelines rather than the content itself. “Like, I know what people think about the Mad Men finale without having actually ever experienced it myself, but I can talk to you about it for 15 minutes as if I saw it,” he says. “It’s so strange and I don’t know if that’s really good, but that’s just where we’re at.”
So how does Billy Eichner, off the street, propose that we fix society? It’s a two-step process, his first proposal being, “Society would be better off if Billy Eichner started getting more dramatic work.” The second amendment is for everyone to start watching his show. “Society would be a lot better if people watched Hulu’s original programming and not just Mozart in the Jungle, which everyone is watching apparently,” he alleges.
“Have you watched it?” I ask.
“No,” he snorts. “No one’s watched that.”
“They’ve just read about it.”
“Exactly,” he smiles.
Watch Eichner’s bold Billy on the Street segment with Terrell Owens, asking New York City pedestrians to do their best touchdown dance for a delicious Butterfinger ahead of Super Bowl 50 in the video below.