Billy Eichner on 'Billy on the Street,' His Favorite Guests and a Hostless Emmys

Billy Eichner-Getty-H 2019
Walter McBride/FilmMagic

The host, whose show is nominated for an Emmy for shortform variety series, looks back on the evolution of his show and the lessons learned: "It's truly a matter of don't judge a book by its cover."

Billy on the Street's path to a wide audience has been an unorthodox one. Its star, Billy Eichner, began peppering unsuspecting New Yorkers with pop culture questions for videos for his live shows in the East Village 15 years ago. He expanded the bit into its own show for Fuse in 2011 and moved to truTV in 2015. But the Funny or Die series left traditional TV to become a digital-only show in 2018.

For his sixth season (which included guests Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Jonas brothers and Kate McKinnon pretending to be Reese Witherspoon), Eichner earned an Emmy nom for shortform variety series. The winners of this category and 96 others will be doled out during the two-night 71st annual Primetime Creative Arts Emmys on Sept.?14 and 15 (an edited version of the show will air Sept. 21 on FXX).

Eichner spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how the show has changed over the years, his favorite guests and what he thinks about the Emmys following the Oscars lead with a hostless show.

What's been the most impactful change you have made to the show over the years?

I'm proud of the early episodes creatively, but the show certainly found itself as we kept doing it. I kept getting more confident with it — making it bolder, more absurd, and, in turn, the show kept getting more popular. But my process has stayed the same. Creatively, I don't think it's broken, so I don't want to fix it. Of course, we always like to try new things, take new chances, find new angles and keep it fresh, but a lot of that comes down to the guests.

Which guest are you most proud of getting on the show?

Michelle Obama. [Having her appear] made me feel that the work we were doing was really getting out there and that people were appreciating it. And to walk around New York City with David Letterman for a few hours was surreal. We’ve had so many people — Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, John Oliver, Seth Rogen. Actors especially at that level have teams of people catering to them, but the great thing about Billy on the Street is that these people on the street give their unfiltered opinions and they could really care less [about entertainment] sometimes.

What unexpected lesson have you learned from hosting this show?

It sounds like a cliche, but the lesson I learn over and over again is it's truly a matter of don't judge a book by its cover. You walk up to someone and you think, "Oh, that person is young and hip, so I'm sure they'll have a lot to say and they won't be scared to talk to me." And then you go up to them and they have nothing to say and they don't necessarily know about certain industries, even topics that you think they might.

What do you think of the Emmys going hostless?

I do have a feeling that if people like these hostless Emmys, coming right after the hostless Oscars, and the ratings are good, we'll see fewer hosts. It's all a bit of a cycle. If we go a few years with hostless award shows, at some point, one of the shows is going to tank in the ratings, and then someone is going to say, "We need a host again — that's why the ratings are bad!" And then there'll be a host. It was always tough — and now with social media eating you alive, live-roasting you while it's happening, while you're doing one of the toughest jobs in show business, what's in it for anyone?

The Lion King has been a huge success and there was so much praise for your work in it. Was it difficult to adapt to the unique film that was made?

People really underestimate how hard it is to do a voice performance. I can say from experience it's incredibly challenging, especially in the case of The Lion King and Timon. We were genuinely worried about it. All you have is your voice. You don't have all the tools at your disposal that you're used to relying on. You can't make a funny face. You can't do anything physically with your body. Every inflection, every emotional change, every joke has to land specifically with what you do verbally in terms of the rhythm of how you're saying something. So, you really have to rely on what you can do within the confines of only being able to use your voice to put across a multidimensional, hopefully, heartwarming performance.

You're very active on Twitter. What's your policy on how far you push what you say?

I feel a responsibility to call out injustice, inequality and hypocrisy when I see it — especially when it affects various marginalized communities and certainly?when it affects my own marginalized community, the LGBT community. So I use my platform to speak out against it because what else can you do? When I do it, if I do it eloquently, I feel that the people do listen, and it has a ripple effect. I can try to galvanize people to feel like they have power, to speak truth to power and feel like they're not alone.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story also appears in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.