Billy Eichner Makes A Career Out Of Love/Hating Celebrity Culture

Aug 30, 2019
Originally published on September 5, 2019 1:07 pm

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. This week, we've been featuring interviews with some of the artists nominated for Emmy Awards. Today, we're featuring two people whose shows are up this year in the short form variety series category. Later on, we'll listen back to Terry's recent conversation with Randy Rainbow, star of YouTube's musical spoof series "The Randy Rainbow Show."

But first, we'll visit with Billy Eichner, whose "Billy On The Street" series also has received an Emmy nomination. Billy Eichner is known now for a variety of roles, including Billy in "Difficult People" and several different parts on "American Horror Story." But he first got noticed and continues to get noticed for "Billy On The Street," which you can now see on YouTube. Eichner is obsessed with pop culture, and "Billy On The Street" is a crazy, manic quiz show in which he's the host, the streets of Manhattan are the studio, and the contestants are strangers he runs up to asking such questions as, name a celebrity that's redefining Hollywood's beauty standards. Sometimes he brings celebrities with him to do the questioning.

When Terry Gross spoke with Billy Eichner in 2016, she began with a then-current clip from "Billy On The Street" in which he was giving a pop quiz to a random passerby on a New York sidewalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Billy Eichner, welcome to FRESH AIR (laughter).

BILLY EICHNER: Hi, Terry. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: My pleasure. One of the things I find really funny about your show is that it gives this, like, huge significance to the more trivial aspects of pop culture. So here you are on the street just, like, stopping people who have no clue what's going on and asking them questions. And this is an excerpt of Billy Eichner's TV show "Billy On The Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILLY ON THE STREET")

EICHNER: Miss. Miss. Miss. Miss. Miss. Miss. Miss. Did you hear that Reese Witherspoon celebrated her 40th birthday in style? Excuse me. Miss. Miss. Please turn around. Reese Witherspoon celebrated her 40th birthday in style. She had a...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't care (ph).

EICHNER: She had a great time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Nothing to do with me. Thank...

EICHNER: I understand. But she celebrated her 40th birthday, and she had a wonderful time. She had a great night.

Sir, do you want to go the full Monty?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Full Monty?

EICHNER: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, I don't know. What are you talking about? Is it a card game?

EICHNER: No. It means we get naked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Naked - what's [expletive] wrong with you?

EICHNER: Oh, OK. Sorry.

Sir, is "New Girl" having a quiet renaissance?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I don't think so.

EICHNER: OK.

Miss, for a dollar, Vince Gilligan, J.J. Abrams, Shonda Rhimes - are you excited to be living in a time when TV creators themselves are known personalities?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I didn't get the question. Sorry. I'm, like, in the middle of my...

EICHNER: I'm talking about Vince Gilligan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Who - I don't know who is...

EICHNER: He created "Breaking Bad."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Oh, OK. I know about this TV show, but I didn't watch it.

EICHNER: What shows do you watch?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I - literally, I'm working, like, 14 hours a day. I...

EICHNER: That leaves 10 hours.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: By the time I get home, like, I'm super tired. Like...

EICHNER: But it doesn't take much. You sit on your couch, fire up the DVR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Sure. I watched "American Horror Story."

EICHNER: OK, that's good. Well, that's a start.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: OK. So what was the question about? Like...

EICHNER: I was asking about Shonda Rhimes - Ryan Murphy, too, though - a great example.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: OK. But what was the question? I didn't get...

EICHNER: Are you excited to be living in a time when TV creators themselves are known personalities?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I really don't care.

GROSS: (Laughter) I don't know. I think that's hilarious. I guess...

(LAUGHTER)

EICHNER: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Are these actual headlines? These sound like they really are ripped out of entertainment magazines and, you know, entertainment headlines - the kinds of headlines, though, that, like, hype things - you know, like, that Reese Witherspoon celebrated her 40th birthday in style. Like...

EICHNER: Yes. Sometimes, I do find these things in a magazine or on an entertainment website. And if they're not, it's certainly - it's meant to sound like that. Just the idea that someone's going about their day in New York on their way to the job, running to catch the bus to pick their kid up from daycare, but I'm going to stop you and ask about Kate Winslet's Oscar chances...

GROSS: Right.

EICHNER: That's the general idea.

GROSS: Yeah. Like, the world is going to hell, but you're going to find out about how people feel about living in a world where TV creators themselves are becoming known personalities (laughter).

EICHNER: Exactly. Exactly.

GROSS: Yeah. But I love it because I think people think that you're, like, insulting people on the street. But I think you're just kind of making fun of a certain type of pop culture writing, in a way, a certain type...

EICHNER: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Of fandom and a certain kind of, like, exaggerated importance to things - even though you are truly passionate about this stuff. As am I. I mean (laughter), I'm so deep into pop culture, too. But I think it's hilarious to make fun of it in this way.

EICHNER: Exactly. And I think the whole show is about my own personal love-hate relationship with my interest in the entertainment industry. As I've gotten older, I realized it's ridiculous. Award shows are fun but completely arbitrary and absurd. And yet, I will watch every single one of them. "Billy On The Street" is inspired by that love-hate relationship.

GROSS: So we heard you saying, for a dollar, and then you'd ask a question. What's the dollar about? Is that meant to be, like, the reward for getting it right or a way of paying them for legal reasons so that (laughter) they can't...

EICHNER: Oh, no.

GROSS: ...Sue you for being used freely in the video?

EICHNER: (Laughter) No. It's not for legal reasons. It - this show is also, among other things, a strange type of game show. And when we started out, the idea was to make a game show but where the questions were subjective. So a person would, quote, unquote, "win" if we had the same opinion - if they agreed with me or even if we just get along - if I simply liked you. And their prize would be a dollar. I just thought that was funny. It was also, especially when it started out, a very low-budget show. And so we're giving away as little as humanly possible.

GROSS: Well...

EICHNER: You'd be surprised, though. People really want that dollar.

GROSS: I keep thinking, as - although I think what you do on the street is hilarious, if I didn't know who you were, and I saw you coming at me with a mic, I would turn and run in the other direction (laughter) because...

EICHNER: Right; most people do.

GROSS: Do they really?

EICHNER: Yeah. I would say 9 out of 10 people simply walk past me and don't engage at all. And that's fine. You know, I certainly won't - I won't - I rarely will - if someone's just clearly uninterested, they're not going to be fun anyway. They're clearly in a rush. They probably won't stop to sign the release after, which means we can't use the footage. So I certainly won't give anyone a hard time about that. And yeah. People are - we don't script this show. We don't pre-cast the show. We go out there. I go up to people. I don't even know who I'm going to go up to until I'm there. So if someone walks away from me, we just let them walk, and I move on to the next person.

GROSS: So what's the angriest response you've gotten?

EICHNER: There was an older lady back in my YouTube days who slapped me across the face. I asked her something vaguely sexual. I honestly don't ever remember what it was. This is going back a while. And I loved it. I mean, I thought it was hilarious. And I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often. But, you know, I think New Yorkers - they're media-savvy. People have a sense of humor. Even if they don't want to ultimately be on the show and not sign - you know, if they don't sign the release - they're not necessarily going to hit me. And that's really the most physical response we've gotten. I've had a lot of arguments with people, but it's never really gotten physical.

GROSS: So did you try stand-up comedy before doing what you do now?

EICHNER: I started out as a very traditional actor. I went to Northwestern. I was a theater major there. And then when I got to New York after college, I was doing the typical struggling-actor thing. And people had told me that I was funny. I would ad-lib in plays even if I wasn't supposed to. So I thought I should maybe try to focus on comedy.

GROSS: You did some acting as a kid, right? And you had a little cameo on "Saturday Night Live" when you were 12...

EICHNER: I did.

GROSS: ...I think, playing John Goodman's...

EICHNER: I did.

GROSS: ...Son.

EICHNER: Yes.

GROSS: Did you audition for other roles and for commercials?

EICHNER: I did. I did a couple of commercials. I did industrials, which are almost like after-school specials. What else did I do? I didn't do much. I really wanted to be on Broadway as a singer. But I was already six feet tall. I was really fat as a kid. I just was. And there weren't many roles for me. I remember I auditioned for - it's funny. I just saw the Broadway revival of "Falsettos," which is beautiful and may be my favorite musical of all time, certainly one of them. And one of the leads in that is a 13-year-old Jewish kid. It's about him getting bar mitzvahed (ph). And I auditioned for the original production when I was 12 or 13. And James Lapine, the director, after I sang, went out into the waiting room and told my dad that I was really good, but I was already taller than the actor playing my stepfather...

GROSS: (Laughter).

EICHNER: ...Even at that age. And so (laughter) this kept being a running theme. I was too tall. I was too this. I was too that. And then I never fully committed to the child actor thing. I also liked being a regular kid and being a student. I ended up deciding not to go to the performing arts high school and instead going to Stuyvesant, which is a specialized math and science high school, of all things. So I liked being a student. And I got back into theater in a major way in college.

GROSS: Was your father impressed when James Lapine told him that you were good, even though you were wrong for the role?

EICHNER: Yes. He - my dad went to all my auditions with me. And my mom couldn't get off work as easily, and my dad could. And I think my dad got a kick out of the whole thing because he loved show business from afar. And, yeah, my dad loved it.

I remember he - as soon as we left that audition - this is just coming back to me now - we stopped at a payphone. There were no cellphones. And he called my manager and told my manager what James Lapine had said. And my dad was not a stage dad in any way. He didn't push me. It was all about what I wanted to do or didn't want to do. But he loved that someone said I was talented.

GROSS: And James Lapine wrote the book for Sondheim's musical "Into The Woods," for people who don't know who he is.

EICHNER: Yes, he's a very celebrated Broadway director, writer.

GROSS: So as a boy, you weren't able to audition in the role of "Annie," right? Because all the girls who (laughter) want to be, like, Broadway stars, they get to do "Annie."

EICHNER: No, I did not audition for "Annie." That would have been very nontraditional casting...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

EICHNER: ...Although we're probably about five minutes from that production.

GROSS: (Laughter) So when you were in high school, and you were too tall to get kid parts in shows, and you were too heavy for a lot of those parts too, you were also gay. Did you know you were gay yet?

EICHNER: Oh, yeah, definitely knew I was gay.

GROSS: Did other people know?

EICHNER: No, I came out when - I came out to my friends when I - well, I bet they knew, but no one was saying anything (laughter).

GROSS: Right, yeah.

EICHNER: I came out at the end of my sophomore year at Northwestern to my friends. And then I came out to my parents about a year after that.

GROSS: Was anyone surprised?

EICHNER: I don't think so. I remember when I told my parents - I came out to them in a car at Northwestern. They'd come out to visit me, and the time had come. My mom kind of was pressing me. I think she just wanted me to say it. She asked me if I was dating anyone. And she said, are you dating anyone - boy, girl, whatever?

GROSS: (Laughter).

EICHNER: And that was actually really, really nice because...

GROSS: That's her way of saying that she knew.

EICHNER: Yes, that was her way of saying she knew and that it was OK for me to tell them. And I asked them a few - like, an hour later after that dinner, I asked them to pull the car over. And I told them that I was gay. And they said that they had discussed the possibility (laughter) and that they were OK with it. But they were really wonderful. Again, I was really lucky. They were very supportive, and it just never was an issue.

GROSS: You've spoken very fondly about your parents, who have both passed away. Your mother died, I think, when you were 20, and your father in 2011. Was your - had your mother been ill? Did you know that this was...

EICHNER: No. My mom had a heart attack, and it came out of nowhere. She was 54. My dad had leukemia for about three months. He was 80 when he passed. My dad had me later in life, and so he had leukemia and was alive for about three months between diagnosis and passing away.

GROSS: What's the transition been like for you to be somebody without parents, after having been so close to yours?

EICHNER: Yes. It's been a very strange trajectory because I struggled for so many years. I mean, I was doing these videos. I was doing these live shows. I had a lot of fans in New York. The press would write about me, but I couldn't get a paying job. And so my father and I were a - really like a team. I mean, he was very supportive. He'd come to every single one of my live shows. My mom had passed away at that point. She passed away when I was in college.

And then, strangely, my dad passed away on March 30, 2011. And about six weeks later, I finally sold "Billy On The Street" as a TV show. And in December of that year, it was on the air, on the network it started on, Fuse. And that all happened in one year. So that obviously was, to say the least, very bittersweet because my dad just quite - just missed seeing it all come to fruition finally and certainly has missed everything that's happened for me since. And a lot of nice things have happened for me, so that is tough.

But I also know that, you know, they were so great, that that really has stayed with me. And they would've been so excited. I do think there would have been a lot of funny moments in the way that they processed my fame (laughter) and all my celebrity encounters. And I do think about that. But obviously, it's very sad. And timing is everything.

GROSS: Were you grateful that you were able to come out to your parents before your mother died, not necessarily because it was a big revelation to her because she probably knew, but more so that you knew that you weren't keeping such a kind of fundamental thing secret from her - you know, never having spoken to her about something that was, you know, so fundamental to who you are?

EICHNER: Yes. And I remember thinking about that a lot because I came out to her about six months before she died, I believe. And I am very happy about that. I think that would have been difficult. That would have been very frustrating had that not happened.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Eichner. He hosts the show "Billy On The Street." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAIA WILMER OCTET'S "MIGRATIONS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Billy Eichner. He does the series "Billy On The Street," in which he quizzes people on pop culture questions (laughter).

EICHNER: (Laughter) Yeah.

GROSS: You did a really funny video that's a play on "New York State Of Mind." But this is "Forest Hills State Of Mind" because you grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, which, I guess, when you were growing up, it was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.

EICHNER: It was a very Eastern European-Jewish-Russian area.

GROSS: OK. So I thought we could hear a little bit of "Forest Hills State Of Mind." And this is you rapping with Rachel Dratch singing. And do you want say anything about this before we hear it? When did you make it?

EICHNER: This was done late 2010, I believe. The Jay-Z, Alicia Keys song "Empire State Of Mind" about his experience growing up in New York was a huge hit. And I rewrote it to be about my experience growing up in a very different part of New York than he did. And we made a video of it. And it's actually my first video to go viral before the "Billy On The Street" videos.

GROSS: So we're going to play a part of it where the language is clean enough that we can actually broadcast it. So here's Billy Eichner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOREST HILLS STATE OF MIND")

EICHNER: (Singing) Hated playing sports I preferred the mall. You're not good at basketball just because you're tall. Strutting down 71st and Continental. They made me get bar mitzvahed as if I was Yentl - loved playing Clue, hated playing Yahtzee. Ironically, my rabbi was a bar mitzvah Nazi. So I got a bar mitzvahed and though I didn't want to, the theme of my bar mitzvah party was Madonna.

RACHEL DRATCH: (Singing) In Forest Hills, concrete jungle [expletive] are made of. There's nothing you can't do...

EICHNER: (Singing) Forest Hills baby...

DRATCH: (Singing) ...When you're in Forest Hills, Forest Hills, the city lights will inspire you. Upper-middle-class Jews walk around Forest Hills, Forest Hills, Forest Hills.

EICHNER: (Singing) Rosh Hashanah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

EICHNER: Oh, God - haven't heard that one in a while.

GROSS: So does it seem inherently funny to you - for you to be doing hip-hop - for you to be doing, like, a Jay-Z thing by talking about your bar mitzvah?

EICHNER: Yes, I mean, it was very - it's very incongruous. And it's one of those things. I just thought it was silly. I made that video for YouTube with friends of mine from high school just as a whim. And it ended up getting shared a lot and actually put me on the radar of a lot of blogs and things who then, because of that video, started discovering my "Billy On The Street" videos, which were already online. But no one was watching them.

GROSS: So you were close with Joan Rivers for a while. And she was the first famous person to really help you with your career. Did she give you advice about insulting people in your act?

EICHNER: Joan gave me a lot of advice over the years. And the main advice Joan gave me is to stick with it because there had been a point when - I remember emailing her. Maybe this was 2010 or something like that- 2009. And I said, Joan, I don't know what to do. The New York Times wrote about me. People write about me, oh, you're - oh, he's a genius, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I'm not saying any of that is true, but people were very complimentary of my live show and of the videos. But no one was hiring me. Like, my dad used to say, if you're such a genius, why can't you get three lines on "Law & Order"?

GROSS: (Laughter).

EICHNER: This - no literally, he said that to me. You know, my dad was a native New Yorker too and an older guy. And he just called it like it is. And although he thought I was very talented, I wasn't making a dime. I mean, I would get little gigs here and there but nothing substantial.

And I emailed Joan and I said, Joan, can I come see your standup? She did standup every week in New York at a little theater in midtown. And she gave all the proceeds to charity. She just liked performing. So I went to see her. And she said, it took me seven years. It might take you longer. She was talking about the time between when she started standup and when she first, I think, got on "The Tonight Show." And she said you got to stick with it. And she was very complimentary and very encouraging.

And that was at a moment when my dad was starting to get - you know, I was in my early 30s. It wasn't so cute anymore. It's one thing to be struggling and not really making money in your early 20s and figuring out your life. Early 30s, you start to wonder, is this ever going to happen? And I was lucky in so far as my dad, because he was a bit older - he was the same age as Joan. They were in the same generation. So he understood. He remembered Joan from way back. Joan Rivers to him was huge.

When I went - when I called my dad and said, hey, this is what Joan Rivers said. Joan Rivers thinks I've got what it takes. She said that she saw all these young comics coming up, and that I was on their level. And that she just thinks it's going to take the right person to come along and put me in the right project and that I should stick with it and that she thinks this is going to happen for me. And that really calmed my dad down.

GROSS: Billy Eichner, thank you so much. It's really been fun to talk with you. Thank you.

EICHNER: Thank you, Terry. This was my pleasure. It's an honor. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Billy Eichner speaking with Terry Gross in 2016. He's the host and star of "Billy On The Street," which is up for an Emmy award as outstanding short form variety series.

After a break, we'll hear from another artist who's competing in the same category - Randy Rainbow, star of the musical comedy showcase "The Randy Rainbow Show." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROGER DAVIDSON'S "SAMBA 3") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.