Yiddish people call it “chutzpah.” A lot of people say “guts” or, well, “balls.” President Obama prefers the more gender-neutral “audacity.” Whatever it is, though, Billy Eichner has a highly flammable tanker’s worth of the stuff coursing through his veins, and it has fueled him well.
Funny Or Die’s Billy On the Street is a comedic game show on Fuse that concludes its second season March 8. What sets Eichner apart from your average Chuck Woolery or Wink Martindale is his unpredictability, his energy, and a fearlessness that propelled his career and helped him land the show. And the Billy on the Street experience rarely resembles Love Connection. Contestants don’t volunteer. They’re ambushed. While an intrepid cameraman follows in hot pursuit, Eichner runs maniacally around the bustling sidewalks of New York, provoking sporadic strangers with pop culture-based challenges in which the answers are often solely up to the discretion of Eichner himself. Some would-be contestants run away rather than play, some yell and scream in his face, but Eichner remains unfazed. Because he is immune to fear the way most people are to gluten.
The rapidly rising comic honed his chops and his nerve doing live shows in New York City, where audiences can easily trend toward unimpressed. Eventually, he began staging an avante garde late-night talk show at venues like Ars Nova. His was a one-man variety show, where the host was inordinately amped up and obsessed with pop culture. An Eichner monologue, for instance, might contain a 12-minute rant about hating Johnny Depp. One day, the comic borrowed a camera and some mic equipment and started harassing folks with man-on-the-street interviews. Fuse was the first network that offered to put this unstable act on TV.
Eichner spoke with Co.Create recently about how one might go about being as undaunted in everyday life as he was upon finally meeting his idol, Meryl Streep.
At the beginning, it was tough to get psyched for what I do on the show, because who does that? Now, I’ve been doing this for so long that I just slip into character when the camera goes on. It’s not so different for me than if I were doing a sitcom or a movie. I do use my name, but I’m not that person. A lot of comics aren’t their on-screen personas; Chris Rock isn’t always ranting and raving. What I do is make myself this over-the-top character that people either find endearing or they think is a joke. Then I can do anything I want.
A lot of people in Hollywood, and everywhere pretty much, operate on fear. No one wants to get fired, so everyone’s scared to take a chance. There’s money involved, and there are careers and reputations on the line. It can really pay to take a chance, though, and that’s how I operate. I’ll go up to a threatening-looking man and ask if he wants to have sex with other guys. I haven’t given a shit ever. I care deeply about my show, but in terms of what people are going to think—”Is it too edgy? Is it too obscure? Is it too gay?”—I never think about that. I think, “Is this funny? Is this smart? Is this worth people’s time?” If it is, it’s worth the risk.
Will Ferrell is one of my comedy idols, and he started the company that produces the show–so I want him to like the show, obviously. When he came on, we were playing this game called “Would Drew Barrymore Like This?” It was a list of mundane things that Drew Barrymore may or may not like, and one of the things on the list was “Will Ferrell.” It’s not scripted, so when Will said that he thought Drew Barrymore would like him, I said “No, Drew Barrymore hates you. She doesn’t get you. She doesn’t like you. I love you, but Drew Barrymore can’t stand you.” Now, obviously we’re joking around, but still, I’d never really dealt with Will Ferrell much in person before then. But he responded to that.
When we got Nas on the show, I’d assumed that he was either a fan or that someone from his team had shown him a video and he would at least be familiar with it. In any case, we started playing a game called “Media Mogul or Rabbi,” where I went down a list of Jewish names and he had to tell me if it was the name of a media mogul or a rabbi, and he got very uncomfortable. And I don’t think Nas is ready for me to ask him if he’s looking forward to Les Miserables. He’s probably not as into Anne Hathaway as I am. He just didn’t seem to know where I was coming from or how to react, which made for what I think was a different, funny, awkward segment. He was there with his entourage, and I still went up to him and did the show. I didn’t change a thing; I plowed ahead. His segment ultimately aired, but he didn’t want us to put it online. I did my thing, whether he was prepared for it, or understood it, or it made him uncomfortable. I still would’ve put it online, but Fuse wanted to respect his wishes. I still want to put it online. I might put it online!
I find that the people I get along with best are the ones who aren’t afraid to get out there and do it. You should believe in the work enough to catch hell for it. So the show gets cancelled, who cares? I don’t care. As long as the work is good and I think we did our best. That’s all I care about. The people who get me are going to get me. And the people who are going to say “I don’t get what you’re doing—you’re just loud and yelling,” they’re not smart enough to get the show. And the people who just want to write “faggot” on my Facebook wall are going to do that no matter what. And I could give a shit. As long as there’s enough people out there who get me so I can keep doing my thing somewhere, that’s all I care about.
We got a lot of offers on the show, but of course some networks passed. They were laughing during our meetings, they thought the videos were funny, but they didn’t think the show was for them. So I would investigate while I was in the room, because at that point, just who cares? I like the game of trying to convince people they should adjust their thinking, that they should recalibrate and reframe. “You don’t think this is right for your network? Let me tell you why it is right for your network.”
When you’re dealing with a network exec, they come at it from the angle of “We have all the power,” because so many people are desperate to have a TV show. They think you’re just going to sheepishly back away when you see they’re not interested, like, “Okay, well thanks for your time, really love your network, maybe we’ll work together in the future!” and just walk out with your tail between your legs. But that’s not me. If I feel like someone’s looking at me one way, I try to turn it around and put it in a different light.
It comes down to being fearless about alienating people who are in theory holding the cards. Ultimately you need each other. Remember this: Nobody knows anything. We’re constantly seeing huge movies flop, and little movies win Academy Awards. If you really think you have something good, you can’t take no for an answer. You’ve got to get in there and ignore the people who say no. In your first meetings, you’re in a submissive position, so you might behave in a way that you’re not selling yourself properly. Be respectful of people, don’t be rude, but you really have to act like you’re the shit, and that’s how you get places. Maybe do be a little rude sometimes, actually.
[Images: John Durgee/Fuse]