Billy Eichner has made his career by ambushing people on the street while screaming questions about pop culture and celebrities into their faces. His show is aptly named Billy on the Street and once you start watching you won’t be able to stop. Its third season starts March 12 on Fuse, and with it Billy will be back startling unsuspecting strangers and handing out dollar bills to those who can answer his questions correctly — they may not be technically right, but they are as long as he agrees. We sat down with Billy to discuss the hilarity that happens on his show, how he got to where he is today, and, most importantly, his opinion on some of the biggest names in showbiz.
Has anyone ever tried to assault you, physically?
Billy Eichner: Not really. One older woman slapped me across the face because I asked her something about a blow job; I don’t even think she knew what I was talking about. Some people will do the Sean Penn thing, where they’ll put their hand on the camera and they’ll shove my camera man, not even that hard. There was one time when it got a little too aggressive. Sometimes you’ll go up to someone and, you know what’s funny about New York, sometimes people look like they are mentally ill, but they’re not. They are actually really smart, they are just dressed crazy or look crazy, but they are actually smart, they just don’t give a shit about how they look. Then sometimes you go up to people who look totally normal and then you talk to them for a few seconds and you are like, Oh I better get out of this, because this person is a little mentally unbalanced, and they are not going to get this joke. I like talking to a person who is crazy in a fun, eccentric way. I don’t want to talk to a legitimate crazy person, because that’s not nice.
Do you have a standout favorite person that you’ve spoken to, besides Elena [one of Billy’s classic contestants]?
BE: Oh sure, yeah. Mr. Singh, from last year, who was amazing. This unexpected man. Little, lovely, charming Indian man. And also of course the woman who insists Denzel Washington was in The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. That became a very popular clip, this woman was adamant that she saw Denzel Washington on Broadway playing the phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, and we have a huge argument. And then there’s the toothless man from the first season who liked Glenn Close more than Meryl Streep. There’s a lot.
Has any celebrity really wanted to be on the show, and who would you just not want to ever be on the show?
BE: Well this year we were really lucky, because everyone who I asked to be on the show said yes. And actually Olivia Wilde, who is in the first episode and then comes back later on in the season, she reached out to us to be on the show. She was a huge fan, and she was so game for everything, and I make her do that crazy thing where she’s asking other women if they think she’s pretty. They are all so game; for the most part they are coming to play along with me and go along for this ride. And as for the other part, I’m pretty game for anyone. I always think, we just need to figure out what can we do with this person to make it interesting. I’m not a big reality show fan, because I just think it’s too fake. What I like about BOTS is that we don’t fake anything. We don’t stage or precast, I run into whoever I run into, they sign the release or they don’t. I love Andy Cohen and I’m a big Andy Cohen fan, but I’m not a big Housewives fan, and I know a lot of real housewives would do the show, but you know, ehh, I’d say probably not. They asked me to do Kris Jenner when they were trying out that talk show, and they asked me if I would do man-on-the-street segments for her and I was like, “No.”
How did you go about getting Elena back on the show?
BE:At the premiere, Paul Rudd — who is on the show this season — came out and introduced me. And then Elena came out at the end as a surprise guest. She got a standing ovation. And honestly, it was so much easier to get Paul Rudd than to get Elena. Elena doesn’t have a computer, she doesn’t have email, she’s not online. She has a cell phone, but she was out of the country and she doesn’t work out of the country. We went to her building to get to her doorman, and we found Elena. I knew she had a good time on the show because she had written me a handwritten letter that she sent to Funny or Die, which I read, and we posted it online sometime last year, after her episode aired, me reading Elena’s letter, she said people were recognizing her on the subways, in New York. She doesn’t have YouTube, she doesn’t know what these things are, but she knew that people were seeing her, and she was loving it. She got a kick out of it. I don’t think she gets why she’s funny, but I think she’s one of the funniest people in the world, I really do. So we convinced her to come back. And then I thought, We have Lena Dunham on the show, and Lena is really becoming an iconic New Yorker, and this show is very New York. I’m a native New Yorker, and I thought Elena, in her own way, is a quintessential, eccentric, smart, funny, odd New Yorker, very much marching to the tune of her own drum, which Lena does too, and which I try to do too. So I thought bringing us together, with a live cow in the Meatpacking District would work, and I think it did.
How much of what actually happened with Lena and Elena made it onto the show?
BE: With Elena there’s always a lot that happens, because Elena talks and talks and talks, and she’ll go off on Republicans for like an hour. She does not like Republicans; she’s very vocal about that. But you can’t fit it all into the show. I can talk to Elena forever.
Maybe a Billy and Elena special?
BE: Well, there is another Elena segment coming this season. Not with Lena, but she and I do a “for a dollar lightning round”-type of segment together that will be on later. And again Elena kills. She’s magic. She’s a star.
You are now on Parks and Rec. What’s something that goes on on set that maybe we don’t know about?
BE: Oh wow, it is an amazing set. There’s a lot. It’s my first sitcom. I did grow up as an actor, I did a lot of theater and musical theater and I went to Northwestern and was a theater major and did a lot of plays, and that’s what I was really setting out to do. I was doing plays in New York and musicals, before I stumbled into the UCB improv world, which Billy on the Street grew out of. But I really was on a track to be an actor, so Parks and Rec is really getting me back to what I initially wanted to do. I love Billy on the Street, and that will always be part of my life, but what’s great about Parks and Rec is that they improvise a lot on the show. Ninety-nine percent of what we improvise on Parks and Rec doesn’t make it on the air, but as a tool for me to loosen up and be myself, and be creative on the show, it’s been really great — they are so open to that. And they are such good comic actors. It’s the tightest ensemble I’ve ever seen; there’s not a weak link. When I first started I was so nervous. I didn’t want to dissapoint, I wanted to be as good as the show is, and it’s been a great experience.
Who farts the most on set?
BE: Chris Pratt.
Glad you answered that.
BE: I’m sure it’s a tie between Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman, but I’m gonna give the edge to Pratt.
Who is your favorite comedian?
BE: I have a lot, I would say, going back to when I was a kid. It’s hard to name one. But Martin Short, Steve Martin, and then on the other end of things, like Sandra Bernhard. And probably, I mean, not in terms of quality, but in terms of tone, if you put Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Sandra Bernahrd in a blender, you’d probably come up with something like me, I think. I don’t mean in terms of I’m as good as those people, but in tone. And there are others too. Chris Rock, who in terms of traditional stand-up, I think currently, no one can touch him. He’s a master. So funny, so honest, ballsy. He’s the best.
Fuck, Marry, Kill: The Devil Wears Prada Meryl, Mamma Mia Meryl, or Sophie’s Choice Meryl.
BE: OK, this is very difficult. I’m going to say, you fuck Sophie’s Choice Meryl, because she could use it. She’s had a hard day or two. You marry Mamma Mia Meryl weirdly, because I think she’s kind of the most grounded, you know? It’s not her best movie, but I think it’s the best character to marry, plus you get to live in Greece, with Christine Baranski, and who doesn’t want to do that. And I guess you kill The Devil Wears Prada Meryl, although it’s one of my favorite Meryl performances, you know, it’s kind of a negative energy to be around. And then you’d probably have to deal with Anne Hathaway and no one wants that.
That brings me right into the next question. I’m going to say a name, and you can tell me how you really feel about these people, a little word association if you will.
BE: She’s trying. Good actress. Off camera, I think she’s trying… she’s trying. She’s just really trying.
BE: Talented, loved him in Dallas Buyers Club, hated his Oscars speech.
BE: Very talented, don’t know much about him. Seems like a nice enough person.
BE: Glorious. A huge talent. Pitbull can do no wrong.
BE: Umm, Giuliana Rancic. I know if Mandela had to die, I’m just glad we have Giuliana Rancic with us, to carry on that legacy.
BE: Hard worker. Lucky.
Juan Pablo, the bachelor.
BE: Ughhh. Go away. I hate that whole thing.
At the Oscars, John Travolta mispronounced Idina Menzel’s name completely, instead, saying Adele Dazim. How do you feel about what happened?
BE: He’s such a lunatic, and I think he finally came out with an explanation, but it wasn’t an explanation, or even a full apology really. Because of course he’s a Scientologist and you’re not allowed to apologize or some bullshit. He said, “I bet Idina Menzel would say, ‘Let it go, let it go,’” and it’s just like, no she wouldn’t! You fucked up her name on the Oscars and it’s not like she’s Meryl Streep, or that everyone knows who she is. I mean, I love Idina Menzel, I’m a huge Broadway fan, I saw her as Maureen in Rent when I was in high school, but let’s face it, the Oscars, Frozen, this is a huge moment for her, and you ruin her name? And you don’t even fully come out with an apology immediately? And then when he did he said everyone should just let it go basically? He’s an idiot and I think he’s just really tragic, and I tweeted the night of the Oscars that there’s going to be an HBO movie, years from now, like Behind the Candelabra, about John Travolta, and it’s all going to come out. And it’s actually sad, with the hair, and the wife, and the Scientology. And he’s just trying to hold on and control it all. It’s also transparent and kind of sad. He’s a mess.
Joan Rivers recently tweeted, “LA sure has changed Billy Eichner, on the plane back to New York and he’s ignoring me, or is it the gas I’m passing after my vegan lunch?” What happened there?
BE: I just got onto a plane to come back to New York for this press week, and Joan, who is a friend of mine, I look over and she’s sitting right there. Totally coincidentally, and then she said, “I’m going to start a Twitter war; I’m going to take a picture of you and tell everyone you’re ignoring me now that you are famous” or whatever I am, and I love Joan. She’s the greatest. The greatest.
So no beef, obviously.
BE: There’s no beef, no. I’d fuck, marry, AND kill Joan Rivers. Then I’d do it all over again.