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With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense for how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood’s top writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.
Billy Eichner, best known as the host of Billy on the Street, may be a New Yorker through and through, but he’s been spending the quarantine holed up in his Los Angeles home, where he lives alone. To keep his spirits up, he’s been forcing himself to exercise. “I guess one of the advantages of L.A., unlike New York City, is that no one really walks around here anyway, even under normal circumstances — my neighborhood is like a ghost town, so I throw on a mask and I go for a jog,” says the comedian, who recommends it for anyone who feels a bit stuck right now. Here, he talks with THR about his new normal.
First off, how are you?
I’m good, relatively speaking. Compared to what other people are going through, I have no complaints. I just keep reading the news and reading about what other people are going through, what people in my hometown of New York City are going through, what doctors and nurses and health care providers are going through. Taking all that into consideration, I have no complaints. I’m trying to figure out how to help people who need help right now and also keep myself occupied and try to find ways to be creative — and not always constantly be dwelling on the news.
What sorts of things are you doing to occupy yourself? What does your typical day look like now?
It’s interesting. For me, personally, I feel like it’s starting to move into a different phase. I don’t know what day of self-isolation this is — I guess we’re a month into it?
Over a month, actually.
Boy, it’s really flown by.
You’re not making little scratches on the wall for each day?
Thankfully, we’re not at that point yet — but it does feel like it’s moving into a different phase. I’m not someone who panics easily. For some reason, with the really important things, I go into a very pragmatic mode in these situations. I’ve had some personal tragedies in my life with my parents, things like that. I was in New York on 9/11. So, personal things, macro- and micro-tragedies, for some reason I don’t tend to panic.
Seems like that’s not a bad quality to possess.
When the lockdown first was announced, I just leaned into the fact that I get to be in my apartment and tried to make the most of it by helping out with any type of fundraising event that I was being asked to participate in — and then the rest of the time, just use it as a time to connect with friends, watch movies and chill out the way that everyone else who has the privilege of chilling out now has been trying to do. And then in the past few days, between the reality of this going on for a while now and also reading articles in the past 48 hours talking about how much time realistically it’s going to take for things to come back, I’m starting to deal with the realization that we might be in this position for months and months — and maybe longer.
That it might be more of a marathon than a sprint?
Yes, thank you for summing that up in a more succinct way. But yes, I’m trying to figure out what kind of work I want to do and what type of work I’m capable of doing within these new restricted parameters. I want to stay creative and I want to stay vocal and I want to stay politically active during this time, especially leading up to November. So, I’m going from the mode of “OK, I’m just going to sit here and be comfortable” to “OK, how do I be more productive?”
I can’t imagine we’ll be seeing a new Billy on the Street anytime soon, but any chance we’ll get Billy on the…Zoom?
It’s actually been really touching. The half-hour episodes went on Netflix for the first time back in November, so it’s had this resurgence of popularity. I keep seeing people posting clips of them and their families watching the show and sending me notes about how it’s providing this escape for people, but also this kind of strange element of nostalgia because Billy on the Street is the opposite of social distancing.
It really is.
And not only that, it takes place on the crowded streets of New York City and it’s a show about New Yorkers. I’ve always considered it this very twisted, odd love letter to New Yorkers and to New York. That’s my city, that’s where I grew up. So, I can do an occasional segment in other cities perhaps, but I’ve always resisted the calls to take it out on the road for any extended period of time because of that. It thrives on the energy and intelligence of New Yorkers — their sense of humor and their willingness to play along. And so now it has this strangely nostalgic element that I certainly would never have predicted. It does make me feel good that people are watching. I’ve always considered the show a real satire of our cultural obsessions. But culture right now in general, whether it’s a satire or not, feels rather frivolous and silly and absurd — as it should. And so I think because that’s what Billy on the Street is about — it’s serving as a real escape for people. It’s just so silly and absurd and loud and and joyful and bizarre and not grim or bleak in any way. And I guess people are looking for that right now.
So, if you don’t plan on crashing Zooms anytime soon, what are these other creative projects you’re getting started on?
In terms of what I’m looking to do now, I’m still mulling it over. I feel fortunate that I am a writer and a comedian who’s always had to generate my own work in the industry. I’d like to think I have certain skills that allow me to not be a prisoner of relying on other people to generate work for me. So, that’s something I have going for me. Now, it’s just a matter of trying to figure out how exactly I want to use this time.
What were you originally supposed to be doing right now?
The big focus of my time the last few years has been writing a movie — the first movie I’ve ever written. I’m co-writing it with Nick Stoller, and Judd Apatow is producing at Universal. And we were literally weeks away from finally shooting when all of this happened. And that has been, along with the occasional Billy on the Street segment, American Horror Story and little things here and there, really the main focus of my time. I’ve been writing this movie with Nick for the past two, maybe three years at this point, and I’ve been putting blood, sweat and tears into it. We were finishing up casting for it. We had scouted all the locations and we were ready to go. I was so excited.
Where were you going to film it?
We were shooting it in different locations in New York state, including New York City, of course. We were shooting parts of it in Buffalo. It’s a romantic comedy about two guys who pride themselves on not being relationship people, who are well into their lives without having had any real serious relationships who unexpectedly fall for each other and then have to navigate that. Anyway, it’s obviously been put on hold along with everything else. So, at a time when I expected to be more busy on a project than I’d ever been before, I now have to recalibrate and think about what I want to do — and I’m not someone who wings it. I know that sounds odd because Billy on the Street is improvised, but before I hit the street and have those improvised interactions, there’s a lot of thought and planning in my own head and with my co-producers and writers that goes into preparing myself for it. So, I do need to wrap my head around what I’m going to do at this time. There are some offers that have been coming in, so I’m very fortunate in that way.
What kind of offers? Write this show, star in this movie…?
Well, no, you can’t star in a movie right now. (Laughs.)
If they’re planning projects down the road, I mean.
I was literally about to go into production on a movie, so the last thing I’ve been thinking of is developing a new movie. But I’m starting to reach out to writers who I love who I’ve wanted to work with. Since we’re all sitting around, there’s a lot of people who over the years we’ve said to each other, “Hey, let’s figure something out,” or “Let’s collaborate.” Usually it’s other writers as opposed to actors or perhaps actor-writers. So, I’ve been having those conversations with people. The one advantage to all of us sitting around is that people actually have time, so you have access to people who you might not have access to normally because we’re all running around and busy. So, yes, I am in the early stages of developing movies, but even if you develop a movie, God only knows when you can shoot it. And I’m going to look like Santa Claus by the time happens.
What’s been the easiest adjustment during the quarantine?
I don’t know if it’s an adjustment, but I think in general it’s a time to not question your own activities. You know what I mean? Normally I’d say to myself, “Oh, don’t order that pizza because you have to eat healthier tonight,” or “You better run and work out right now” or “Yeah, there’s this old movie that I’d rather watch because I just want something comforting right now, but I’m going to force myself to watch this new thing because everyone is pressuring me to watch.” So I’ve really tried to let go of all of that. I know I’m supposed to be watching, like, old non-English language classic Akira Kurosawa films, but I’m just not. I’m watching endless hours of The Golden Girls and falling into YouTube spirals of Barbara Walters interviewing Bette Midler in 1985 about Down and Out in Beverly Hills. I’m not giving myself a hard time about the things that are comforting.
What’s been the hardest adjustment?
I mean, it’s fairly obvious but I do tend to be a workaholic. I like to work. And like I said, I had a bunch of projects. I actually haven’t acted very much in the past couple of years. There’ve been little things here and there, but this happens to have come at a time when I had a string of projects lined up to act in. And I love writing and I love Billy on the Street and I love all the political stuff that I do, but I miss acting. That’s why I got into it. So I was going to act in a bunch of things — the Judd Apatow movie and then the Ryan Murphy series [American Crime Story:] Impeachment as Matt Drudge.
Yeah, and I’m confident both those projects will happen, but you just don’t know when. So, it’s adjusting to the reality of that. And also I’m a very social person, so it’s hard. I’m single, I live alone — and that’s been the case for a long time, so that’s not an adjustment that I’ve had to make but I’m usually completely fine with it and very comfortable. But part of the reason I’m fine with it is because I go out and I see my friends and I socialize. I really like seeing my friends. I actually do OK during the week because I try to focus on being productive and work and exercising, but then the weekends are a real bummer because that’s when I [typically] see my friends and I escape work. And that’s challenging to do right now.
What’s the best advice that you’ve given or received about staying sane right now?
Well, I’m not sure that it’s about staying sane, but I’ve been reading a lot of these “How I’m Living Now” interviews in The Hollywood Reporter and I did read that Marc Maron is still able to leave his house and is within walking distance of getting fresh fish. And that’s a relief to me. Just knowing that is helping.
Besides The Golden Girls, what else are you watching, reading and listening to as a reprieve?
I’m trying to divide my time between catching up with series that I may have missed, like newer series, but honestly, I’ve had to force myself to do that. I don’t love being pressured to watch anything. Like, I’m sure it’s brilliant, but I’m not watching Chernobyl during a pandemic. I’m sorry, I’m just not going to. Hopefully I’ll catch up with it one day. But I tend to be drawn to older movies or TV shows that I grew up watching. I rewatched All About Eve. I rewatched Broadcast News. I rewatched Groundhog Day. I fell into this YouTube spiral where I watched old clips of Siskel and Ebert on YouTube reviewing movies from the ’80s and the ’90s, which I know I watched when they ran originally because I loved that show and I haven’t thought about in so many years.
I’m sure that’s comforting.
On some level, yes, it’s nostalgic and it’s comforting, but on another level, I have to say, it was a reminder for me of how Hollywood has changed. I’m looking at the movies that studios would make in the ’80s and the ’90s compared to now, when it seems like all we get are these big blockbusters. And watching those movies was a reminder of why I wanted to be in this business in the first place. Because they made movies for adults and I don’t mean small, weird, pretentious indie movies. They made what would be considered mainstream, broadly appealing entertainment. And they just make so few of those movies now. Sometimes I look at what’s being made and I think, “Oh, wait — why am I doing this again?” Like, I don’t want to play a superhero.
I mean, I’d probably never be asked to play one, but to be honest, everyone’s like, “Oh, there needs to be a gay superhero.” Yes, that’s true. I think that would be very nice. I think it would be good for young people to see a gay superhero. But I don’t want to play a fucking superhero. I can’t relate to a superhero and I’ve had enough superheroes. That’s all we get. It’s perfectly fine, by the way — it’s just quite literally all we get. So, getting to rewatch those movies has put me in touch with the types of movies I want to make, the types of characters I want to see. It’s been a reminder for me that you can’t let the industry sweep you up and just do with you what they want to do with you based on the one or two things they’ve seen you do. And that becomes especially true for openly gay actors, so you really have to work hard.
Between those old movies, are you watching the news? And who have become your go-to sources, if so?
Pretty much what I’ve always relied on. I’ve always been a bit of a news junkie. I do love my MSNBC and I love my Rachel Maddow. I watch every night. I also love podcasts. I love The Daily, the New York Times podcast and NPR — all your typical bleeding-heart liberal stuff. And, of course, I watch Twitter like a hawk, for better or worse. So, there’s that constant avalanche of information. And the final thing I’ll say, which is really important, is that I signed on back in the fall as a senior adviser to Swing Left, which is this great political organization that now has a new arm called Vote Forward. So, I work with those two organizations and the idea was to do a lot of work, not only to defeat Trump in November, but my real focus is on flipping the Senate, which I don’t think anyone talks about nearly enough.
Sharp left turn here, but what have been your go-to comfort foods?
It’s your typical things. I love pizza. I try not to eat a lot of it under normal circumstances, but, again, I’ve allowed myself to indulge. I’m a Jew from New York. I’m not a great believer in actual religion at this point, but culturally I still feel very connected to it and it was Passover so I bought matzah for probably the first time in many years. Now, matzah is not something that people would necessarily find comforting in terms of taste or texture, but for some reason I did in this particular moment. And like most people who grew up in New York, I don’t cook a damn thing. Even though I’m in L.A. right now, I live as much of a New York life in L.A. as one could. I can make my coffee in the morning and that’s about it. I’m someone who loves to go out to restaurants and bars and go drinking with my friends. As a gay person, too, we really rely on nightlife and gay bars and places to congregate as a community. And I’ve been doing that, my God, since I was a teenager. And I feel really terrible for all the people who work in bars and who work in nightlife and who work in restaurants. So one thing I would suggest to people is that there are some big umbrella organizations that are helping restaurant workers and people who work in bars. And I’ve also been trying to order from local restaurants as well.
How would you describe your corona-era wardrobe?
Oh, I’m getting dressed to the nines every day.
Yeah, I think one of the great tragedies is that the Met Gala isn’t going to happen, so I’ve been trying to keep that spirit alive. (Laughs.) No, I’m totally kidding, I’m not a sweatpants person in general, but I have my version of that. I have my shorts and my t-shirts. I mean, no one in L.A. really gets much more dressed up than that under normal circumstances anyway. People walk around here in, like, workout clothes and yoga pants all the time. So in that way, not much has changed.
Final question: What’s atop your to-do list once this is all over?
To make my damn movie. You know, as you’re gearing up to make a movie, it’s a very stressful experience. There’s a lot of anxiety that goes into that and there’s a lot of pressure, especially for this movie. There are not a lot of movies like this. I mean, literally none that have ever been made by a major studio in Hollywood history in terms of it being a romantic comedy about two gay men. When we’re able to shoot this movie, I’m not saying we still won’t feel the pressure, because we will and we’ll want it to be great, but boy will we be relieved and happy and grateful to be working together during those 18-hour days. Even in the heat and in the cold, I think it’ll feel like such a gift. And it was always going to be a gift, but you get jaded and you forget and I think that we will just be so happy and grateful. I really can’t wait for that.
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