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20Q: Billy Eichner

20Q: Billy Eichner: Mary Ellen Matthews

Mary Ellen Matthews

Q1 When you filmed the new season of Billy on the Street, the impromptu quiz show on which you shout pop-culture questions at strangers on the streets of New York, how was it different from previous years?
It’s a big change from our first and second seasons, when no one knew who the hell I was. I was just a crazy lunatic on the street. A lot of people recognize me from Parks and Recreation, even though I was only on the final two seasons. The roster of celebrity guests we have this season is insane. The first season, the only people I could get were two I knew: Joan Rivers and Rachel Dratch. This year, we have Chris Pratt, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell and Julianne Moore. We shot a show with the first lady last season. We were nominated for an Emmy two years ago. But in a strange way, the show hasn’t changed. I’m still walking down the same streets, asking the same types of absurd questions. Yeah, more people know me, but there are plenty of people who don’t. [laughs] Sometimes I can even get material out of people who recognize me. A few seasons ago I walked up to a girl, and she said, “Oh my God, my friend is obsessed with you.” I said, “Oh, shut up,” and walked away. It’s funny for me to get angry even at people who love me. Who does that?

You do. Now that you’re known for yelling at people, do you get a lot of requests from people who want you to yell at them?
Happens all the time. I get tweets like “Will you come to my wedding and scream at me?” “My eight-year-old loves you. Will you come to his birthday party and scream at him?” No! I’m not screaming at you. It’s a character. When I’m doing Billy on the Street, yeah, I scream. We were shooting the other day and a young straight dude yelled, “Hey, will you harass me?” What a strange request. Well, I don’t know that he was straight. For all I know, he’s as gay as Rupert Everett in the 1990s.

You also co-star on the Hulu series Difficult People with your good friend Julie Klausner, who created the show. You both play people who are mean, petty and not very successful in their artistic careers. The unsuccessful part aside, are you playing yourselves?
Julie and I are prickly, opinionated people—especially on the show. It’s an exaggerated version of who we are. In the first few episodes it’s established that they’re snarky and bitter. Julie likes to hit people over the head with the fact that they’re unlikable and unattractive. But the show wouldn’t work if they weren’t likable on some level, I think. People find the show cathartic in a way—they live vicariously through these intensely blunt, cutting characters who have no social graces and say things other people think but don’t say out loud.

So your good friend Julie thinks you’re unattractive?
Yes. She says the show is like Will & Grace, if one of us were a six and the other were a seven. [laughs] We argue about who’s the seven—that’s going to be a cliff-hanger at the end of the season. Let’s be honest, it depends on the lighting.

You shot the Difficult –People pilot for USA Network. How did it end up on Hulu?
Amy Poehler is the executive producer. We pitched it, and USA green-lit the pilot. The network had just bought the Modern Family reruns and was looking for original half-hour comedies with a bit of an edge to pair with them. Because of my schedule and Amy’s schedule with Parks and Rec, a year went by between selling the pilot and filming it. In that year—how can I put this diplomatically?—the Modern Family reruns didn’t explode as anticipated. USA literally disbanded its entire scripted comedy department. The great thing is, we got USA to produce a full pilot, which we took to other networks. It’s a much better fit for Hulu than for USA. We can be ourselves and not be watered down. There’s no sense doing Difficult People if we’re going to get notes from the network that say “Be friendlier.”

They’re not friendly people—in fact, they’re clueless idiots. In the first episode there’s a joke about R. Kelly peeing on Blue Ivy, Jay Z and Beyoncé’s toddler, which a lot of people found offensive. Do you expect some people to hate the show?
Some people may dislike it for the most obvious reasons: It’s too bitter and extreme. But what they dislike about it is the reason we made the show, in a way. I remember when The Comeback came out, reviewers said, “Oh, this makes me uncomfortable.” But The Comeback is the greatest show of the past 10 years, in my opinion. If you do an extreme show, it elicits extreme opinions. I’m more surprised that 90 percent of the critics like it than I am that a handful of people find it too toxic.

What was 13-year-old Billy Eichner like?
For my 13th birthday, in addition to my bar mitzvah, my two presents from my parents were Madonna’s Sex book and tickets to see Nathan Lane in Guys and Dolls on Broadway. Gay much? But I stand by those as good gifts. I grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, which is an interesting environment. You’re very close to Manhattan geographically but so far away culturally and intellectually. I felt like a Manhattan person who was stuck in Queens. We had one newsstand that sold Billboard and weekly Variety. The New York Post published the top five weekend box office movies, but when I discovered Variety had a list of the top 50, it was orgasmic. I’m an encyclopedia of unnecessary information. Variety was like my Dianetics.

When did you come out to your parents?
I haven’t yet. That’s what this interview is for. “See? I’m gay, but it’s in Playboy.” No, I came out to my parents when I was 20. I was lucky—I never feared coming out to them. They said they had discussed the possibility that I was gay. But parents are funny. They were still like, “Maybe he’s not gay. Maybe he just likes culture.”

Emmy, Grammy, Oscar or Tony: Which award would mean the most to you?
An Oscar. It has the stature. On a personal level, a Tony would mean just as much, because I grew up loving theater. But I’m a sucker for any awards show. Except the Teen Choice Awards.


As you mentioned, you were nominated for a Daytime Emmy as the host of Billy on the Street. Was it fun to be around so many celebrities?
I lost to the guy who hosts Cash Cab. Then his show got canceled and I got to work with Michelle Obama. [laughs] End of story.

Did you meet anyone exciting at the awards?
The Daytime Emmys were so depressing. It used to be great; now it’s in an attic in Pasadena. I was doing a bullshit interview with a reporter on the red carpet, and I heard all this commotion. I was like, “My God, who’s here?” And it was Kris Jenner. It was as if Sophia Loren had walked in. I looked at the reporter and said, “I don’t want to be at any awards show where Kris Jenner is the big draw.”

How was doing a Billy on the Street segment with Michelle Obama different from doing one with Lindsay Lohan?
We couldn’t be out on the street with the first lady because of security reasons. When they came to us and said they were interested in doing a video, I was thrilled but also a little worried. Am I going to have to water it down? At first they asked to see all the questions in advance. We said no. It relies on her being able to go along with it. We need real reactions. The day before, we went to the supermarket where we shot the segment, and the Secret Service, which was there the whole time, needed to know where she was going to go. Everyone had to be cleared by the Secret Service. I was shocked they cleared me. They must have missed something.

Except for the first lady, you treat all the guest stars the same. What’s your strategy with them?
I encourage them to engage with people on the street, and some of them take to that more than others. Whether they engage or not, it’s good, because I’m there. They’re the sidekicks, which is funny. The classic thing people said about Johnny Carson was that he let his guests be the stars. I won’t do that. It’s the opposite—you’re coming on my show, but I’m still the star, and you’re going to do what I tell you to do.

If you had to be stranded on a desert island with one of your Parks and Recreation co-stars, who would it be?
Who was on that show again? I’m just kidding. If I don’t say Amy Poehler, I’m going to get in a lot of trouble. She’s done a few of the most popular Billy on the Street segments, and now she’s producing Difficult People. She’s become a huge part of my life. Or maybe I’d take Nick Offerman, who is the greatest person. He played—who the fuck did he play?

He played Ron Swanson.
Right. I was going to say Ron Burgundy. There are aspects of Nick that are like Ron Swanson. He’s a man, you know? He’s a woodworker. He likes building furniture. If I’m on a desert island, I ain’t doing shit. I’d be trying to get wi-fi or taking a nap, one of the two. I’m like, “Nick, build me a fucking canoe.”

Is being successful better than being unsuccessful? Have you changed your lifestyle?
It’s way better. I got rid of all my poor friends. I went to Northwestern University, and I still have friends who are unemployed actors with rich parents. I’m like, “I’m on three TV shows and I’ll never be as rich as you. This sucks.” [laughs]

Before you picked the name Billy on the Street, were there other ideas of what to call the show?
We argued about that so much before the first season. We couldn’t figure out a name. One idea was Street Cred. Or maybe it was Street Talk. Terrible names. One of the games we play on the show is called “Quizzed in the Face.” People at the network were like, “That’s a raunchy title. That’ll get some attention.” No, I’m not calling my show Quizzed in the Face. My face is not going to be on posters that say “Quizzed in the Face”—which ended up happening anyway, because it became the tagline for the first season.

You couldn’t do Billy on the Street if you didn’t have some anger, could you?
I disagree. Billy on the Street is an idea I had. A guy getting really worked up about Meryl Streep and Holly Hunter is funny to me. Someone screaming about what’s in Entertainment Weekly is funny to me. The love of pop culture is what’s reflected on Billy on the Street. The anger is a joke. It’s like any acting job.

You were already in your 30s when Billy on the Street debuted. During your lean years, were you eating food out of garbage cans? Bouncing checks?
There might have been a little of that. I will not say I was eating food out of a garbage can. Once I started getting into comedy, I did a show called Creation Nation, a live talk show, and the Billy on the Street videos started there. The New York Times wrote a huge piece about me and the show in 2005. I was in a few TV pilots and had a big agent, and slowly but surely it all fell apart. Everyone was telling me I was funny, but I couldn’t get a job. When there’s a lean year, you think, Well, the Times wrote about me. That’s something. And Joan Rivers thinks I’m funny. Joan said it took seven years for her to get on TV. She encouraged me to stick with it. Billy on the Street happened just at the right moment. If it hadn’t, I don’t know what I would’ve done.

You would’ve been eating food out of the garbage.
Yeah, but still from a good neighborhood.

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