Billy Eichner Finds the Funny in Our Political Tragedy With 'Billy on the Street' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Driving east along the legendary Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California, past bars like The Viper Room and Whisky a Go Go, where Guns N' Roses and Mötley Crüe played in the '70s, but before the Chateau Marmont, the famed hotel where Lindsay Lohan was reportedly briefly banned in 2012, you will pass a 10-story tall billboard of Billy Eichner wrapped in microphone wire with a bemused expression on his face. The text next to the photo reads: "You nominated DONALD TRUMP for an Emmy but you won't nominate BILLY ON THE STREET? Be on the right side of history."
"I actually wrote the joke that's on that billboard," Eichner tells ET. "I'm glad the network thought it was funny and let me do it. And then on top of that, whoever owns that ad space where that humongous billboard is, they have to approve the contents of the billboard, too. We weren't sure they were going to, but then -- turns out, they had no problem with it!"
And though the comedian's West Coast abode is not far from where the ad has been erected, he promises that he has only made the pilgrimage to see it in person once. "I think it's a little Norma Desmond to keep driving around the block to see your billboard over and over again," Eichner laughs. "But I like that it's up there and I think it's cool. You have to have a sense of humor about all of it -- the Emmys and politics and everything."
That last bit -- Eichner's need to acknowledge the absurdity of the current political state -- inevitably made its way to the truTV variety show he created, Billy on the Street, despite the fact that the bulk of season five was shot when Hillary Clinton was still the frontrunner to become president of the United States, and certainly long before our new Commander-in-Controversy took office. (Eichner was outspokenly #WithHer throughout the election and once gleefully allowed former First Lady Michelle Obama push him around a supermarket in a shopping cart, if you needed any hints as to his political leanings.)
We're a bunch of liberal showbiz kids writing this show, so the outcome of the election was not the one we expected or wanted, but we did know that politics would be in the air," he recalls of broadening the scope of the series, which began airing the week immediately after Election Day. "To do a show that was purely centered around pop culture felt like we were avoiding what people were talking about. The election was the story. And the election still is the story, even all of these months later."
Which is why, though this past season was chock-full of star-studded segments like "La La Land or Nicki Minaj?" with Stephen Colbert and the holiday edition of "It's Debra Messing, You Gays!" Eichner says he is proud of two games in particular: “The Super Sloppy, Semi-Automatic Double Dare!” obstacle course with Keegan-Michael Key ("[That's] a topic that's very close to my heart, which is promoting gun safety and gun control regulations.") and a pre-Muslim Ban round of "Immigrant or Real American?" "We could have never in a million years predicted how laser-focused people would be on that issue when we played that game,” he says of the latter.
"I never want the show to be didactic. I always want to lead with comedy, but hopefully be able to sneak my message through at the same time," Eichner says. "I'm glad that the show has evolved in a way where we can take on those topics. Because that really reflects who I am as a person, more than just someone who is so single-minded in terms of thinking about pop culture and award shows and all that. And I do love all of those things! But, obviously, I was thinking about more serious issues."
Likewise, Eichner's career has only continued to evolve since Billy on the Street premiered on Fuse in 2011. When he phones ET on a recent May afternoon, he is enjoying a fleeting break between wrapping season three of Hulu's Difficult People and beginning work on the upcoming election-themed season of American Horror Story. Billy on the Street, meanwhile, has gone from a “Funny or Die” segment to a 2013 Daytime Emmy nominee for Outstanding Game Show Host to a Primetime Emmy nominee in the Short-Format class in 2015. Now, after its fifth season, the show is a certifiable contender for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, an award only previously given to Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele.
"We've really managed to -- literally and figuratively -- create a lot of noise for the show and really break through the clutter," he says. "Everyone wants to be nominated. It is nice to be recognized. It's certainly not the end of the world if you're not." More than the honor of just being nominated, Eichner notes, he is honored to have his own TV show in the first place. "Billy on the Street is my baby. I've been doing it forever. I love this show and I hope other people love it too. If that results in a nomination, then that works for me."
Not just for the red carpet, either, or the chance to hobnob with Nicole Kidman or Elisabeth Moss or whoever is among the acting nominees this year. In a recent guest column for Variety, Eichner wrote about the need for better LGBT representation on TV and in movies, and to see an out comedian honored would, one can imagine, be significant for young, gay viewers. "I hope that it would mean a lot," he muses. "I've always been out. I was never in. For me, it just felt unnatural to be in the closet professionally, even before it became more accepted. That's just the choice that I made that felt right for me."
"The fact that I started [Billy on the Street] as a series of videos that I would show as part of my live show in small bars in the East Village back in 2004 and now, 13 years later, it's really blown up into something that I've turned into a career and it's led to many other, wonderful projects -- yes, I'm proud of that. I hope gay kids see that and are inspired by that. But I also just hope everyone sees it and is inspired by it. Because I do think, without patting myself on the back too much, it's really a story, like many show business stories, of perseverance and persistence and staying at it and believing in yourself and all those things that sound cheesy but ultimately are true," Eichner says earnestly, then deadpans:
"You're reminding me of Matthew McConaughey's Oscar speech, where, if I remember correctly, he thanked himself in the future or the past or something like that. I've blocked out most of that speech, but I do recall that general theme running through it."