“If you love what you are doing, then you will be successful.” When this quotation was first uttered, it’s highly unlikely that the speaker imagined it would apply to a man screaming at strangers on a sidewalk about pop culture. But that’s exactly the bliss that Billy Eichner decided to follow — and it’s working. What started as a series of modest YouTube videos named Billy On The Street has now blossomed into a partnership with Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s comedy site Funny Or Die and an Emmy-nominated TV show on Fuse. Despite this exponential growth, Billy has never strayed from his formula: Grab a mic and a camera; scour New York City’s streets; find colorful characters that are willing (or funnier still, resistant) to his improvisational pop culture grilling. Sure, sometimes money is handed out for correct answers, but the real reward for his contestants is a truly unique experience that will undoubtedly serve as dinner conversation for years.
Premiering its third season on Fuse on March 12th, Billy on the Street has gained a significant celebrity following and, as a result, has added star-power to the equation: Neil Patrick Harris, Lena Dunham, Olivia Wilde and many others have graced Eichner’s guerilla-comedy show with guest appearances. Rolling Stone chatted with the Manhattan-raised comedian about his pursuit of Meryl Streep and how he nabbed a reoccurring role on Parks and Recreation.
The show is hilarious when it’s just you interacting with regular people — but you’ve been able to get an impressive number of stars to participate this season. How do you go about booking these people?
Billy On The Street has no doubt always been about the people we talk to. That being said, it thrills me that the show really has a dedicated following in the comedy world. It’s one thing to hear that someone likes your show; it’s a completely different thing to have them come, take their time and film something with you on a sidewalk. We got just about every person that we reached out to, which was amazing. Joel McHale came and shot an episode when it was 25 degrees out in New York.
Do things ever go horribly wrong?
The shoot we did with Lena Dunham was a particularly crazy day, because the skit involves a cow and we brought it into the center of the Meatpacking District. It was a professional cow — they have those! —and there were a lot of handlers there for it. No matter what kind of preparation you do with animals, you never know what’s going to happen. The cow decided to take an enormous dump right there on the street, right in front of the Gansevoort Hotel and several restaurants with outdoor seating. I can say they were all none too pleased.
Your discussions can sometimes veer into the taboo. Have you ever had to cut a segment because it was just too “out there” to air?
There was one game that I played with Neil Patrick Harris — it’s about anal sex —that I’m not going to be allowed to put on TV. Maybe it will end up online, maybe it won’t. I mean, come on: It’s Neil Patrick Harris! “When in Rome,” as they say. He was totally game and we had a great time, but I think we might have crossed a line in how many times I said the words “anal sex”.
Your obsession with Meryl Streep is well documented. Have you ever attempted to get her on the show?
I would love to get Meryl on Billy On The Street! Andy Cohen let me come on and be the bartender during his show Watch What Happens Live when she was the guest. He played her some of my videos where I scream about her and I got to watch her reaction to my obsession in front of my own eyes. I think she was scared for a second, but she got the joke. We hugged and took some photos together. I also know her daughters Grace and Mamie, and they’ve told me how much they enjoy the videos as well. It’s a work in progress.
You’ve been great as the fittingly loud-mouthed Craig on Parks and Recreation this season. How did that role come along?
Amy [Poehler] was a fan of my Billy On The Street show; I had reached out to her to be on. I heard through the grapevine that people at Parks enjoyed my show, then Mike Schur and I set up a meet-up through Twitter. After that first meeting, I got a DM on Twitter from Mike Schur and he said, “We have a part for you.”
Did you know how big the role would be?
I thought I’d be in one or two episodes — and then I ended up in ten. My life was crazy because my show shoots in New York and Parks shoots in LA. I’d shoot my show all day in New York then get on the latest flight to LA to shoot at seven in the morning, then right back to New York.
You’re working with some serious comedic talents on that show. Do you find it hard not to crack up on that set?
It’s incredibly hard to keep a straight face there. I mean, it’s Amy Poehler doing physical comedy — that’s amazing to watch. She’s trying something different on every take; lots of it doesn’t end up on the air, but I enjoy it immensely. There was a scene recently where Amy accidentally makes cookies with mustard and tries to sell them. She has to take a bite, and watching her making different faces in reaction to eating this disgusting cookie, over and over again, was a complete riot.
What can you tell us about the finale?
So many great cameos: Word is out on Michelle Obama, there are some famous musicians, and lots of old characters that you’ll remember from back in the day. I don’t want to give anything away but towards the end I spend a lot of time with Tom, (played by Aziz Ansari); let’s just say they are forced into a situation where they have to work together. I can also reveal that Jean-Ralphio (Ben Schwartz) and Mona-Lisa (Jenny Slate) are back. They have a lot of fun bonding with Craig. It’s crazy!