In Your Face
By Mike Berlin
Photo: Kareem Black
Billy Eichner knows what the ladies of Times Square secretly think of Lucy Liu. On a rainy afternoon in September, with a handful of cameramen and production assistants frantically power-walking to stay within his orbit, Eichner, host of Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street, is roving through clusters of overstimulated tourists, seeking out random women, thrusting a microphone in their faces, and loudly exposing them: “You’re jealous of Lucy Liu, aren’t you?”
Confrontations like these are the basis of Eichner’s impromptu game show, which debuted last winter. On it, he stalks strangers on the sidewalks of New York City and grills them, often for cash prizes, on absurd celebrity trivia. The format, while unorthodox in many ways, borrows from standard game-show tropes, but much of the brilliance lies in the spontaneity of Eichner’s interactions with the pedestrian commentariat.
“We get every reaction imaginable from every type of person imaginable,” he says. “It’s completely unpredictable.” “Unpredictable” could also describe a segment where Eichner and a partially toothless man got into a shouting match over whether Glenn Close or Meryl Streep is a better actress (duh). While fact-based questions do have their role on the show, the subjective ones -- “Who’s worse: Osama bin Laden or Leah Remini?” -- let Eichner inhabit a mock persona that’s seemingly possessed by the id of tabloid media and its crass, apocalyptic tone. This, along with his Wikipediac knowledge of celebrity, has a root. “My dad would read me Page Six,” Eichner, who grew up in Queens, says, referring to the New York Post’s gossip rag. “I’ve always loved it. I would make up lists when I was seven or eight of my Oscar predictions. My parents took me to every concert, every Broadway show.” He stops, before adding, “I was a very, very heterosexual kid.”
Eichner’s zeal for entertainment initially led him to pursue acting, which he studied at Northwestern University. But he’s since embraced a far more modern path to fame: “I wouldn’t have a career without the Internet,” he says. “I didn’t get an agent -- I didn’t have anything until my videos got out there. It just gives everyone a way to prove their viability.”
Judging by his celebrity guest list for season 2 -- which includes Rashida Jones, Maya Rudolph, and the rapper Nas -- and his recurring guest spot on Conan, Eichner has less and less to prove. But he still relishes the feedback he receives from fans and Twitter followers, who are as pushy and opinionated as he is on the show, if not more. “It’s a very modern phenomenon,” says Eichner. “Lucille Ball didn’t have people being like, ‘That third episode wasn’t so funny!’ Now, there are very immediate ways of finding out why you don’t deserve your success. Maybe that’s good.”
The second season of Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street premieres December 7 at 10 p.m. EST on Fuse.