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For Billy Eichner, pop culture and politics intersect on the street

John Oliver is the special guest on Billy Eichner's
John Oliver is the special guest on Billy Eichner's "Billy On The Street."
David Scott Holloway

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On the TruTV show "Billy on the Street," comedian Billy Eichner plays a pop culture-obsessed fan who runs around New York City — often with celebrities in tow — confronting passersby with questions or asking them to play along with his trademark quizzes.

The show relies heavily on spontaneous moments with celebrities and everyday people. In the just-completed fifth season, there was a slight shift in the show’s comedy. While still full of moments with the likes of  Amy Poehler or Jon Hamm running around with Eichner, there were some more political messages — albeit couched in Eichner’s familiar comedic format.

When Eichner came to The Frame’s studio recently, he said that while “Billy on the Street” isn’t scripted in the traditional sense, he has a creative team that puts a lot of thought and planning into every segment.

Interview Highlights:

On the planning that goes into each segment:

Every time we book a guest, we sit down and say to ourselves, What would be funny to do with this person? Is there something about them, about their essence? About what they put out there that would be funny, either to celebrate in an excessive way or spoof in some way? In the case of John Oliver ... You know, I have a lot of gay writers that work with me. I'm a pop culture guy and I'm a big current events nut and so I love John Oliver. I've done his show and we're friends, but my gay friends who are not in entertainment — I don't really see them making as big of a deal about John Oliver or Jon Stewart or any of these guys as the culture-at-large would make you believe that they do.

Yet I know that they DVR Wendy Williams, who's not nearly as celebrated in that way in certain circles as my gay friends celebrate her. As a gay person myself, I've done the John Oliver show and I've done Wendy Williams and I love them both. But I would say someone like Wendy Williams maybe doesn't quite get the respect that John Oliver gets. I think that's an interesting question. Why not? Does it have anything to do with who's watching? With who looks up to this person? And so we eventually landed on a very simple question: Let's take John Oliver out to a gay neighborhood in Manhattan and ask gay guys, Do you care about John Oliver? 

On whether he expects a certain response from subjects:

I've learned not to expect anything, and that as much as I might want a certain answer — because it would benefit the comedy or is what I expected — I've done this long enough to know that I'm not always going to get that answer. And I want the show to be real. Not every gay guy in that segment said they didn't care about John Oliver. There were a few who did and there were some in-between. There were some who did care about him, but liked Wendy Williams more. The nuance of that is really funny to me. John Oliver standing right there. Are you gay? Yes. Do you care about John Oliver? Yeeah. What about Wendy Williams? Who's better? Oh, well, Wendy Williams! Even in front of him they could not betray the fact that they liked Wendy Williams more. And I think that's really funny on one level. Without overthinking it too much, I think I am trying to, in my own bizarre way, give voice to certain opinions that maybe subvert what the common thought is about people who are popular or respected and those who aren't in the media.

On the evolution of "Billy on the Street" and if it's working:

I had done these videos starting way back in 2004, even before YouTube started, even as a video segment in my live comedy show that I was doing in New York, which was my own version of a late night talk show on stage. It was called "Creation Nation." What's now known as the "Billy on the Street" persona developed on stage where I was occasionally ranting and raving, not only about celebrities, but about politics and relationships and anything that I was thinking about that month. But then I started to make these videos for the show.

So by the time the TV show came about, I was very confident in who this persona was. In terms of people getting it, yeah, it was a frustration the first few seasons when I started to realize that between "Billy on the Street" and "Parks and Recreation" — where the character they asked me to play was clearly an offshoot of "Billy on the Street" — that people were thinking, This is who this guy must be. Off camera and on camera, this is the one thing this guy does. That was frustrating. In the past few seasons since then, since the show's gotten more political and actually more popular and I've been out there more outside of the show, people are realizing that it is a character. 

On making the format of his show more political:

You sit down in a room with your writers and I said, You know what? This is an election year. I'm older now. I'm five years older than when the show actually started. I'm 10 years older than when I first started making the videos for my live show. I've evolved and I want the show to be more of a reflection of who I am in real life, which is someone who's very politically engaged. I said, I don't like the conversation that the country is having about immigration. And we turned that into our "Immigrant or Real American" game. It's very black-and-white, but when you hear the names listed, you can tell what the message is.

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