"If I’m screaming at someone, it’s because I think they’re an idiot.”
I’ve just asked Billy Eichner if he feels the need to yell more these days. His hit series, Billy on the Street, is returning for its fourth season, now on TruTV, and every clip of him yelling at a celebrity or random New York City pedestrian seems to instantly go viral.
“No, I never go into it saying I have to scream more,” he tells ET thoughtfully, sitting in a conference room in Funny or Die’s industrial-style offices. (Fun fact: Oprah’s production offices are right next door!) “If anything, I kind of operate from the position of, ‘Give people a little bit of what they want, but not everything that they want.’ Sort of force them to deal with other things that they didn’t know they wanted.”
The 37-year-old says he took this philosophy from one of his personal favorites: Madonna. “Which sometimes blows up in her face a lot, but ultimately I think is interesting,” he adds. “If I’m screaming at someone, it’s because I think they’re an idiot — or me, in character, thinks they’re an idiot — and there’s a reason to scream. I only scream if screaming is deserved. You have to earn the screaming on the show.”
Eichner started developing his Billy on the Street persona — and it is a persona — over a decade ago, when he wrote and hosted his own stage show, Creation Nation: A Live Talk Show, which featured pre-taped segments of the actor hitting the streets with his microphone and abundance of pop culture opinions.
But back to the yelling. Does he have any regrets now, given that is what he’s become known for?
“I regret the whole thing!” Eichner, who has traded his trademark T-shirt and hoodie for a white, striped button down, says with a laugh. “I think no. That’s what’s funny about the character...He’s just irrationally passionate about pop culture and about stupid s**t that you shouldn’t really care about. I think bringing urgency to talking about whether this is Brie Larson’s year still makes me laugh a lot.” He pauses. “And it is her year.”
What he will say, though, is that he thinks people don’t give the show enough credit for the times when he isn’t screaming, which he attributes to the first three seasons being on a smaller network, Fuse, and people only seeing viral videos. (“For a viral video, you tend to choose whatever the loudest, craziest thing is going to be, because you want to make some noise.”)
“If you watch a full episode of the show, I’m not screaming the whole time. It’s just that, you have to watch a full episode of the show to appreciate that,” he points out. “If you’ve really seen the whole show, and you walk away with, like, ‘Oh, that’s the guy that screams,' you’re not really-- I think that’s a very kind of dumbed down analysis of the show.”
He continues, “I think we’ve done some really sharp satire of pop culture on the show. I think the questions are really funny. On the first episode of the new season, there are some really funny questions. I mean, ‘Is middle America ready for Uzo Aduba?’ That’s funny! And that’s not screaming; that’s just a really funny, cleverly written, ridiculous question. I think there’s a lot of levels you can appreciate this show on. If you’re someone who just wants to see me scream, you’ll have that. If you’re someone with a brain, you’ll have that.”
Meanwhile, Billy on the Street has taken Eichner from commenting on the sidelines of pop culture to the belly of the beast. In 2013, he was nominated for “Outstanding Game Show Host” at the Daytime Emmys. The next year, he hit the streets with late-night host Seth Meyers for a video segment at the Primetime Emmys. He returned this year, when Billy on the Street earned a nomination for Outstanding Short-Format Live-Action Entertainment Program.
But when I ask if he still has the same desire to talk pop culture, now that he is pop culture, he laughs again, “No! I hate it!” He pauses to consider. “I still really like culture. But I mean, I’m an adult,” he says.
“To me, what the Billy on the Street persona is, is me as a 12-year-old,” he explains, likening the character to Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman persona. “It’s like arrested development. It’s my id blown up...that’s who I was as a child. So, I have an adult perspective on it now. I like good movies and I love theater and things that I grew up loving I still love. Am I feeling like less of a need to make snarky jokes about celebrities? Yeah. But ultimately I like a clever joke.”
While Billy on the Street is an outlet to celebrate those things that Eichner loves, he isn’t afraid to throw shade at what -- or whom -- he doesn’t. But he says he has never heard from anyone he’s snarked.
“I’m sure there are people who get offended, but everyone’s too cool to tell you,” he guesses. “Everyone is going to act like they don’t care. So you’ll never hear back about it. I mean, they might never work with me, but I won’t know that’s why.”
Difficult People, Eichner’s Hulu series with Julie Klausner, he’s willing to admit, is another story. A NSFW joke from the pilot episode -- Klausner’s character, also named Julie, tweets, then deletes, a joke about R. Kelly and Blue Ivy -- sparked backlash online. And, because, as he says, he’s "on Twitter 24/7," it was impossible to miss.
“I thought if you had watched the full episode of the show, it’s so clear,” he says of why he didn’t respond. “That was so ironic that whole situation, it shows you the world that we’re living in. I mean, people are so short-sighted and so dumb. Just so dumb. And we’re living in this world ofknee-jerk reactions. People living to get outraged on a daily basis. You don’t have to react anymore, because the next day there will be a new outrage. I didn’t write, and I don’t say the joke on the show, so if Julie and [executive producer] Amy [Poehler] weren’t responding, it wasn’t my place to respond. And I think Julie and Amy and Hulu did the right thing by not responding, because you don’t have to pander to every moron who doesn’t get context. I think responding would have been the worst thing to do because it doesn’t deserve a response. It wasn’t a just criticism.”
If there are celebrities out there who aren’t clamoring to work with Eichner, you wouldn’t notice. Past seasons of Billy on the Street have featured the likes of Poehler, Lindsay Lohan, Paul Rudd, Lena Dunham, Neil Patrick Harris, and Debra Messing. (Of “It’s Debra Messing, You Gays!” fame.)
Looking back, two guests in particular stand out for Eichner. “The first lady, obviously,” he says of a segment he shot last year with Michelle Obama and Big Bird. “I didn’t know what to expect. I had her do some really bizarre things, like push me around in a shopping cart while I read Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar speech. She really didn’t know what I was going to ask her to do, and she was really, really game and fun and lovely.
The other is David Letterman. “I would have never in nine million years...“ he trails off. “Even when I was, like, 10 years old, I would stay up watching Letterman after Johnny Carson. And Letterman, he’s not at the stage in his career where he’s doing random bits on the street. He did that because he really liked what I do and that was a huge honor, and it was really, really surreal to walk around Manhattan with Letterman. Just with him talking about the architecture of the buildings. I don’t think he walks around Manhattan very much...It almost wasn’t even about the video. I mean, the video was really funny, but that experience is just...it’s craaaazy. That’s crazy.”
This season, he’s lined up a slew of even more celebrities to play with him, including Tina Fey, who attempts to name 20 Latinos in 60 seconds in the premiere episode. Then there’s Chris Pratt, Anna Kendrick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jason Sudeikis, and Julianne Moore.
“I’m very popular,” Eichner deadpans after listing off the numerous guest stars. “I mean, I DMed Julianne Moore on Twitter. I didn’t go through her publicist. She followed me for some reason, we were chatting back and forth on Twitter, and I just DMed her. She had literally just won the Oscar [for Still Alice] and I was like, ‘There’s no way you’re going to do this, but we’re about to film Billy on the Street. Would love to have you on the show. I don’t even know if you know what it is, but here you go.’ And she wrote back an hour later and she was like, ‘Yeah, where do we do it? I love it.’”
There’s one celebrity left that Eichner hasn’t managed to lock down just yet: Meryl Streep. Eichner says it almost happened though.
“We almost filmed this segment with her for Into the Woods, but a snowstorm and some logistics stood in our way, unfortunately,” he revealed. “But Meryl is a fan, and we’re working on it. I kind of feel like Meryl needs to be on at the end. 'Cause where do you go after Meryl? I mean, what am I going to do?”
He leans forward in his chair and shouts, faux incredulously, “Like, I’ll bring back Tupac?!”
Billy on the Street premieres October 8 at 10:30pm on TruTV.