April 23, 2014 10:30am PT by Lesley Goldberg
Billy Eichner on His Slow (and Loud) Rise to Stardom
Billy Eichner might be the loudest comedian on primetime.
The Emmy-nominated often-screaming host behind Fuse's Billy on the Street started his career as an actor in New York, waiting in long lines to put his Northwestern theater training to good use, before embracing his penchant for comedy and heading to the Upright Citizens Brigade to hone his skills as a comedian.
It was then that the former high-school speech and debate team member came up with Creation Nation, the show that would help put his passion for pop culture to good use: quizzing people about the latest in celebrity culture. That led to a partnership with Funny or Die and what is now Fuse's Billy on the Street, the part interview/part game-show series that in its third season has drawn an impressive roster of talent (Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Seth Meyers, Neil Patrick Harris, etc.) to play "For a Dollar" and "Quizzed in the Face" -- both of which have become Eichner's trademark games.
Here, Eichner talks with The Hollywood Reporter about his rise to fame, his future in late night, destroying cars with Lindsay Lohan and (possibly) returning full-time to NBC's Parks and Recreation, where he's delivered his trademark screaming brand of humor as Craig, the newest member of the Pawnee Parks Department.
When did you first know you were funny?
The first time I became cognizant of the fact that I was a performer is when I was 5 or 7. Not because I was funny, but because I had a really good singing voice; that's when my dreams of becoming a professional performer started. When I got to college, it solidified itself. I was a theater major at Northwestern and was in acting class every day. We'd be doing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Northwestern, and you're not supposed to ad lib in that, but I would anyway and the audience would love it. That's the first sense I got that, "Oh, maybe not only can I say previously written lines in a funny way; maybe I can actually make stuff up on my own that's funny."
So comedy was never something you'd wanted to do from an early age?
There are a lot of kids that grow up and watch SNL and they know from the time they're 12 years old that they want to be on the show. That was not me at all. I stumbled into the comedy world at UCB in my mid-20s, years after I'd been performing as an actor. When I got to New York after Northwestern, I was a struggling actor and writer and wasn't getting much work. I went to Upright Citizens Brigade and I took all the improv classes. That gave me a lot of confidence and I took this ridiculous late-night stand-up comedy class. I was considering becoming a comedian because I always liked school and I needed the discipline. I knew if I was left to my own devices, I would just sit and watch the Internet all day. I started writing sketch comedy and developed this live show that I did in New York called Creation Nation, which was what I would do with The Tonight Show if someone had given me that job, but live onstage. It started in the basement of the drama bookshop for 20 people, who were mostly my friends from college. I would drag all my friends to be in sketches with me and I put together some of my musician friends from Northwestern for the band. I got my best friend, Robin Taylor -- who just booked [Fox's] Gotham -- to be my sidekick. I started doing the show and it got this big cult following in New York, and The New York Times wrote a whole piece about it in 2005.
So Creation Nation helped solidify what we see now on Billy on the Street?
At that point, it became clear that this is the path that I should be on. With Creation Nation, I developed this over-the-top persona who was insanely passionate about pop culture and celebrity as a comment almost on how much our culture was becoming fascinated with that. I got more confident as this character evolved; it became a live stage show and I would do a topical monologue and sketches and spoofs of other TV shows, as well as long rants about celebrities and these crazy, angry movie reviews. At some point I thought it would be funny to take the urgency and passion that this character and I feel about pop culture and shove it in people's faces because I thought it was really funny. That was the original kernel of what became Billy on the Street.
We had no money and didn't know how to edit movies and we filmed these man-on-the-street videos with a cheap camera and mic from Radio Shack. That's why the mic [on Billy on the Street] has a wire -- at the time, we couldn't afford a wireless one. Everyone asks why we don't get a wireless one, but to me, that wire and being attached to the camera in this primitive way is part of the aesthetic of the show.
Where did your trademark screaming come from?
That was a natural evolution. The idea wasn't, "Let me go outside and scream at people." I always worked myself up to the screaming. I might be louder than the average person, but I'm not constantly screaming.
You and Lindsay Lohan destroyed a car to "celebrate" the conclusion of How I Met Your Mother. What was filming that like?
I was proud of that one because she brings a lot of baggage with her, and I was happy that we could do something funny that was totally in the world of Billy on the Street, but that also wasn't, for the most part, commenting on her personal troubles. We could just show her the way we would use any celebrity on the show: doing something absurd and ridiculous. I was afraid to do it myself. I don't go around destroying cars with sledgehammers all the time. That was real glass and we had a guy there showing us the proper way to do it so that we wouldn't get glass in our hands.
That was one of several Billy on the Street videos that have gone viral this season. Do you think those clips and your recurring role on NBC's Parks and Recreation have helped you really break out this year?
Yes. It's pretty amazing. Everything happens when it's supposed to happen, and a lot of people are discovering Billy on the Street through Parks and Rec, even though Billy on the Street has been around for a while to those in the know. I'm very grateful because this wasn't an overnight thing; I've been waiting for this moment for a long time.
What's been your best experience doing Billy on the Street?
There's a huge spot in my heart for the Amy Poehler "Christmas Carol" segment. We filmed that as a way to promote the upcoming season because we weren't airing over Christmas. It completely blew up in the same way that this Paul Rudd video just blew up. A lot of what I do is very topical. I love topical humor and commenting on current events and pop culture, but what I love about the Christmas and Rudd videos are that those are evergreen. That's a video that hopefully people will return to every holiday season.
Who's your dream guest?
I have this ongoing love for Meryl Streep. I did get to meet Meryl; we were together on Andy Cohen's Watch What Happens Live. Andy is a big fan of Billy on the Street and when he booked Meryl, he asked me to come on and be the bartender. That was an amazing moment because he actually played Meryl my clips of me yelling around and screaming, "Meryl f---ing Streep!" I got to watch Meryl react to those clips in real time. That was a surreal and wonderful moment -- but I would still love to get her on the street with me.
How do you come up with some of the games that are featured on the show?
I come up with a lot, but have a small group of writers. Billy on the Street is a very low-budget show, so I cherry-picked about four or five writers and we sit around in a room for about four or five weeks before we start filming and talk. We also have some freelance writers who send in ideas. We're very much a New York-based show and a lot of comedy writers live in L.A. Ultimately, everything does get filtered through me and most of the time, I will rewrite things to make sure they're suited to my voice. My great friend Julie Klausner, who is a genius in her own right, is the one writer that's been with me since the very beginning. She's our equivalent of a head writer and is a co-EP on the show. We have great writers, including Jake Fogelnest, Jeffery Self and Jon Daly.
The first season, I was begging people to write on the show and they had no idea who I was. Now, people actually call us. The one thing I've always made sure of was that there's no writer on the street with me feeding me lines, because once I get out there, I need to be on my own -- for better or for worse.
What's the weirdest thing that's happened to you when you've been out on the street doing the show?
A lot of people want to be on the show. They're like, "Oh, can you scream at me?" That's the weirdest thing that's happened in my life. I've gotten numerous requests asking me to come to people's weddings and scream at them. People do want to engage with me when they see me, which is great. Though I won't actually make those people contestants because it has to be spontaneous. I went up to someone last season and she said, "My friend is obsessed with you," and I think I just said, "Oh, shut up" and walked away. That's fun once in a while.
How do you think Stephen Colbert will do on Late Show?
I've never met him, but we both went to Northwestern and I know he was a theater major there as well. Stephen is a genius and an inspiration. There are a lot of good comedians out there and great comic performers, but he really sits at the head of the pack in terms of intelligence and sophistication. I worship him. The way he's managed to stay as intelligent as he is, to not talk down to the audience but remain popular, that is a feat in this world. My acting teacher at Northwestern always said, "Always play to the height of your intelligence. Don't dumb down the character," and I try to stick to that in whatever I do, even if it's a wild, absurd, out-of-the-box, lunatic performance. It's hard to do that and still maintain a universal appeal and he's managed to do that -- as has Jon Stewart.
Have you been approached by any of the broadcast or cable networks? There's now a void to fill at Comedy Central.
We get inquiries and we'll see how that all goes, whether it's Comedy Central or something else. Right now Billy on the Street is, I'm happy to say, the most popular it has ever been. Between that and Parks and Rec, I'm super busy. There are definitely other ideas I have and ways of expanding the Billy on the Street format or coming up with new shows and collaborating with other people. But right now, I'm focused on Billy on the Street. I think there will be life after this show, but there's still a bigger life for this show.
Could you see the show moving to another network at some point?
I think it's possible. We've been very happy at Fuse. It's a testament to make this show as visible and accessible to people as possible. Fuse has always given me so much creative freedom; they really let me be me. I get very few notes on the show, and if I want to do some crazy Julia Roberts obstacle course, they give me money to do that. They took the show straight to series, which is very rare, especially considering no one knew who the hell I was when this started.
At the end of the day, where do you ultimately see yourself? Late night at 11:30 or 12:30?
We shall see. There's a lot I want to do. My career has already gone into all these different directions. When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was be on Broadway. I wanted to be Nathan Lane or Martin Short. Those are guys that I really look up to even thought they're much shorter than I am. I could have never guessed in a million years that I would become a comedian and now I'm on Parks and Rec and getting back into more traditional acting, which is where I started. There's a lot I want to do. I love Billy on the Street; it allows me to do almost whatever I want to do. I am doing mini-talk show interviews with Paul Rudd or Amy Poehler (watch a preview of her on the show below) before I start running around with them and I love that part of the show. I have always had an obsession with talk shows. Kathie Lee & Hoda is probably the best show on television. That's like my Breaking Bad. I would hate if I didn't get a chance to do a musical at some point before I die. Who knows what order this plays out in, but it's important to me that I'm able to maintain creative freedom because I am a bit of an oddball and that's what people like about me. I'm going to go wherever people will really allow me to be me.
After competing in the Daytime Emmys -- where you were nominated as outstanding game show host -- the show is being shifted to the Primetime Emmys. If you could send a message to the TV Academy, what would you say?
Billy on the Street is an unusual, original show on a small network. I don't do this for the awards. Just kidding. I totally do this for the awards! [Laughing] That's what I want them to know. Unlike Heidi Klum -- or Ryan Seacrest or the great Jeff Probst, or anyone else they could possibly nominate in my host category -- I am doing this for the awards. If they don't nominate me, that literally leaves me in the gutter with nothing and they will have that on their conscience until they die.
What about Parks and Rec. Are you interested in being a series regular?
Absolutely. [Showrunner] Mike Schur is a genius. We all know what a great show Parks and Rec is; it's one of the more sophisticated shows and one of the best-written shows on broadcast TV, with one of the tightest and funniest ensembles I've ever seen on TV. When they called to have me in one episode, I was flipping out. The fact that they brought me back this much blows my mind. I was so nervous during my first episode and I came in all guns blazing with this very loud, overwhelming character. If I'm back next season, I would love for them to dive into Craig's life a bit more so we see what the root of all of his craziness is.
Wrapping up, let's play a game: THR's Cable Upfronts Quiz: Show or not a Show.
I love it! Let's do it!
And … away … we … go: Game of Crowns?
Correct! Sweathog Sensei?
Not a real show!
Correct! Street Art Throwdown?
Correct! Grouchy Cat?
Not a real show!
Correct! Fat N' Furious?
Not a real show.
Incorrect! That is a real show.
Oh no! Fat N' Furious? What is that on? Spike?
Oh, God bless them! We are going to discover how furious fat people are. Finally! That was so fun. I wanted that game to go on longer!