'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Billy Eichner ('Billy on the Street' & 'Difficult People')

The 37-year-old funnyman, who has landed Daytime and Primetime Emmy noms, dispels the notion that he's an overnight sensation and dishes on the "love-hate relationship" with celebrity culture that's at the center of his work as a comic and an actor.
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Billy Eichner

"It's been a lot of hard work," Billy Eichner, who stars on truTV's unscripted laugh-fest Billy on the Street and Hulu's Amy Poehler-produced scripted series Difficult People, says of his "overnight" rise to prominence as we sit down to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "I mean, it was 10, 12 years of hard work before anyone knew me at all."

(Click below to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Amy Schumer, Harvey Weinstein, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Kristen Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Ridley Scott, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore and Lily Tomlin.)

While Joe Public may still be catching up with the 37-year-old New Yorker, he has been on the radar of the Emmy community for a number of years already for his work on Billy. He garnered a Daytime Emmy nom for outstanding game show host in 2013 (losing to Cash Cab's Ben Bailey back when he still regarded his program as a game show) and a Primetime Emmy nom for outstanding short-format live-action entertainment program in 2015 (losing to Zach Galifianakis' Between Two Ferns in a category he was only eligible in because he put out just one episode that season, co-starring Michelle Obama).

Eichner's profile still got a big boost during last year's Emmy telecast when a hilarious "Emmys Edition" of Billy, which he taped in advance of the show with host Seth Meyers, went over like gangbusters. "That was a big moment for me," he acknowledges. And this year, he looks like a strong bet to return to the Emmys as a nominee for outstanding variety sketch series — a category created last year in which he is eligible to compete for the first time this year, alongside the likes of Inside Amy Schumer and SNL.

A theater kid who ventured into comedic sketch-writing while on his high school speech team, Eichner applied his love for acting and ad-libbing while majoring in theater at Northwestern University. After graduating, he honed his craft at Upright Citizen's Brigade and, with fellow Northwestern alums, put together Creation Nation, a 90-minute multimedia sketch show that quickly became a hit in New York. "It was like a delivery system for me to basically say whatever funny shit I wanted to say about pop culture," a subject of great interest and concern to him, he says.

The most popular Creation Nation segment featured video of Eichner going out on the street as "Billy" — "my 12-year-old id just exaggerated in the body of an adult person," he explains, citing Paul Reubens' Pee Wee Herman and Martin Short's Jiminy Glick as inspirations — and interacting with people in humorously uncomfortable ways. It eventually led to the idea for Billy on the Street, which, with the support of Funny or Die, initially landed on Fuse in 2011 and then moved to Turner, which airs it on truTV and also on TBS. "For me, it's a satire of someone like me who has this love-hate relationship and this love-hate obsession with the entertainment industry," Eichner says. "I think of Billy on the Street as a live-action cartoon."

Billy on the Street is "the hardest thing that I'm ever gonna do," Eichner says. "We do a very good job of making it look pretty effortless, I think — like, 'We just hit the street and here's what happened!' And, to some extent, that is what is happening. But there's a lot of preparation that goes into it. I'm involved in every aspect of the show — the preproduction, the writing of the questions, booking people, shooting it, editing it, promoting it. It's a long haul."

We discuss how he picks locations for the show in New York; why he still uses a mic with a wire attached to the camera; how he comes up with his hilarious jokes and games; the legal requirements of such a show (getting signed releases from people he's insulted, writing down in advance the "correct" answer to even the most inane questions he asks people, etc.); why he decided to make Elena his occasional "sidekick"; how he picks his celebrity guests (who have ranged from Poehler and Chris Pratt, alongside whom he appeared on a few episodes of Parks and Recreation, to randoms like Lindsay Lohan, Paul Rudd and, most famously, Julianne Moore); and the safety precautions that are taken for him and his celebrity guests.

The fourth season of Billy has covered new ground. "The show has come a long way," Eichner assesses. "We are known for sketches now. This past season, specifically, the one that's eligible, we really sort of went into more social commentary, more political commentary — there were games like 'Eddie Murphy or Mark Twain,' we did a whole ShondaLand obstacle course, we did a whole obstacle course about Leah Remini's escape from Scientology. I think we're really doing things that other people aren't doing, and I'm very proud of that. So I hope we get a nomination!"

While Billy and comedy are very important to Eichner, it is still very important to him that people see him not just as a comedian, but also as an actor, which is what he initially set out to be. Joan Rivers, a "big supporter" of his early on, was deeply saddened about the fact that most people forgot she was an actress. "I keep that as a lesson in the back of my head," Eichner says, and it's why he also appears on Difficult People, "a female Curb Your Enthusiasm" sort of comedy series, written by ex-Billy writer Julie Klausner, in which he plays the Jeff Garlin to Klausner's Larry David. Eichner sees the opportunity to play "a three-dimensional character" on that show as a "gift," emphasizing, "I'm very grateful for that."

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