Billy Eichner Makes A Career Out Of Love/Hating Celebrity Culture

Originally published on August 25, 2017 10:33 am
Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guests, Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner, have made careers not only of being funny but of being abrasive. Separately, they've gravitated towards comedy shows and standup routines that are anything but self-flattering or all-embracing. And together, they've teamed as an us-against-the-world duo in a Hulu sitcom called "Difficult People," which launched its third season earlier this month. Today on FRESH AIR, we'll hear from them both, starting with Billy Eichner.

Before joining forces with Julie Klausner on "Difficult People," Eichner worked with her and made a name for himself as the star of "Billy On The Street," a series brought to cable by truTV. Eichner is obsessed with pop culture, and "Billy On The Street" is a crazy, manic quiz show in which he's the host. The streets of Manhattan are the studio. And the contestants are strangers he runs up to, asking such questions as, name a celebrity that's redefining Hollywood's beauty standards.

Terry spoke with Billy Eichner last year and began with a clip from "Billy On The Street" in which he was given a pop quiz to a random passerby on a New York sidewalk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILLY ON THE STREET")

BILLY EICHNER: OK. Here we go, Kevin - immigrant or real American. If you get enough right, you have a prize to take home to Alex. Here we go. Immigrant or real American - and away we go - Mila Kunis.

KEVIN: Immigrant.

EICHNER: That's correct - Jeffrey Dahmer.

KEVIN: Real American.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Pierce Brosnan.

KEVIN: Immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Charles Manson.

KEVIN: A real American.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Salma Hayek.

KEVIN: Immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Gloria Estefan.

KEVIN: Immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Ted Bundy.

KEVIN: (Laughter) Real American.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Charlize Theron.

KEVIN: Immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Antonio Banderas.

KEVIN: Immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - the Unabomber.

KEVIN: Real American.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Craig Ferguson.

KEVIN: (Laughter) He's an immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, he is - Lee Harvey Oswald.

KEVIN: Real American.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - the Boston Strangler.

KEVIN: Oh, God, real American.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer.

KEVIN: He's an immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, he is - Timothy McVeigh.

KEVIN: Real (laughter) American.

EICHNER: Yes, he is - Natalie Portman.

KEVIN: She's an immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, she is - Jackie Chan.

KEVIN: Immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Casey Anthony.

KEVIN: She's a real American.

EICHNER: Yes, she is - Carlos Santana.

KEVIN: He's an immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, correct - Albert Einstein.

KEVIN: He is an immigrant.

EICHNER: Yes, he was - O.J. Simpson.

KEVIN: A real American.

EICHNER: Yes, correct. Did he win? Yes, you win. You win, bisexual, you win. Let's see what you win. Oh, bisexual, look at this. Look, if you like a cuckoo clock, you'll love a Cuoco clock. It's an alarm clock that wakes you up and tells you what Kaley Cuoco said when they asked her if she's a feminist. Are you ready for this? Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KALEY CUOCO: Is it bad if I say no?

EICHNER: Yes, there you go, Alex.

KEVIN: Kevin.

EICHNER: Oh, Kevin, yes. Alex is your boyfriend.

KEVIN: But I'll give it to Alex.

EICHNER: Of course you will. Who won't you give it to, Kevin?

KEVIN: Anyone (laughter).

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Billy Eichner, welcome to FRESH AIR.

EICHNER: Hi, Terry. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: (Laughter) My pleasure. I mean, that's really hilarious. And it seems like that has more political implications than your typical "Billy On The Street" does. It seems to me...

EICHNER: Correct, yeah, sure.

GROSS: So what inspired that?

EICHNER: I think that as the show has evolved, we've started to play more with political tones in certain ways. Actually, what's interesting is that the "Billy On The Street" videos started out as a segment in my live shows about 10 years ago - more, actually - in New York that I did. I did a live late-night talk show called "Creation Nation" with friends of mine. I had a sidekick and a band, and I wrote the whole thing. And it had the form of a late-night talk show, but we did it on stage because no one was giving me a TV show at the time. And the segment started out as a video I would show in that live show.

And, actually, when I introduced the video, I said it was a chance for me to try to break out of my pop culture bubble and that I was hitting the streets to specifically talk to people about politics and real issues, issues that actually mattered to the world and not just pop culture because the rest of the live show was largely about pop culture and the entertainment industry and celebrity.

And the first couple of questions in every video were about politics. And then halfway through the video, I would veer back to pop culture questions, and that's when I would start freaking out and running around. It was the celebrity stuff that got me worked up, and the message of that was that I - no matter how hard I tried this persona - because the persona on stage was not exactly like "Billy On The Street" but similar - that no matter how hard I tried, I could not get out of the pop culture bubble, that, ultimately, what I cared about was the entertainment industry.

GROSS: Well, you know, the early "On The Streets" that you were describing where you'd start off by asking about politics and then it would veer into pop culture, and that's where you really get excited - it's kind of like putting on the same level, like, what's the cause of climate change, and name a Hollywood celebrity that's redefining Hollywood's beauty standards? (Laughter) Like, they're...

EICHNER: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Totally equal in importance in the world.

EICHNER: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: And that's one of the things I find really funny about your show is that it gives this, like, huge significance to the more trivial aspects of pop culture.

EICHNER: Yes, yes. I mean, the "Billy On The Street" persona is truly inspired by who I was as a child - obviously not having an adult perspective on the world. I always kept up with current events. That's just - I don't know - I was that kid. But it was pop culture, entertainment, Hollywood, award shows - these are the things that really captivated me as a kid. I would watch the Oscars and every award show with my parents. I would make lists of who was going to win. I'd be doing Oscar predictions months ahead of time, and not only for the Oscars, for the Grammys. This is just what excited me as a kid.

And, you know, I have a very vivid memory. I remember the day I walked to the larger one of our newsstands that we had and found Variety. And I didn't know what it was. There was no internet at the time. And I remember reading through Variety and finding out there was a list of not only the top 10 movies that weekend at the box office, which every newspaper would print, but the top 50. And my mind was blown.

GROSS: Well, let's hear another example of you on the street. And unlike the immigrant or real American one, this is truly just about popular culture (laughter). So here you are on the street just, like, stopping people who have no clue what's going on and asking them questions. And this is an excerpt of Billy Eichner's TV show "Billy On The Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BILLY ON THE STREET")

EICHNER: Miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss - did you hear that Reese Witherspoon celebrated her 40th birthday in style?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Laughter).

EICHNER: Excuse me. Miss, miss, please, turn around. Reese Witherspoon celebrated her 40th birthday in style. She had...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No.

EICHNER: ...A great time.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Nothing to do with me.

EICHNER: I understand. But she celebrated her 40th birthday, and she had a wonderful time. She had a great night.

Sir, do you want to go the full monty?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Full monty?

EICHNER: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I don't know. What are you talking - what is it, a card game?

EICHNER: No, it means we get naked.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Naked. What the [expletive] wrong with you?

EICHNER: Oh, OK, sorry.

Sir, is "New Girl" having a quiet renaissance?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I don't think so.

EICHNER: OK.

Miss, for a dollar, Vince Gilligan, J.J. Abrams, Shonda Rhimes, are you excited to be living in a time when TV creators themselves are known personalities?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I didn't get the question, sorry. I'm, like, in the middle of my...

EICHNER: I'm talking about Vince Gilligan.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Who? I don't know who...

EICHNER: He created "Breaking Bad."

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Oh, OK, I didn't - I know about this TV show, but I didn't watch it.

EICHNER: What shows do you watch?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I - literally, I'm working, like, 14 hours a day.

EICHNER: That leaves 10 hours.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: By the time I get home, like, I'm super tired.

EICHNER: But it doesn't take much. You sit on your couch, fire up the DVR.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Sure. I watched "American Horror Story."

EICHNER: OK, that's good. That's a start.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: OK, so what was the question about? Like...

EICHNER: I was asking about Shonda Rhimes - Ryan Murphy, too, though, a great example.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: OK, but what was the question? I didn't get...

EICHNER: Are you excited to be living in a time when TV creators themselves are known personalities?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: I really don't care.

GROSS: (Laughter) I don't know. I think that's hilarious.

(LAUGHTER)

EICHNER: Well, thank you.

GROSS: 'Cause, I mean, you're using - are these actual headlines? These sound like they really are ripped out of entertainment magazines and, you know, entertainment headlines, the kinds of headlines, though, that, like, hype things, you know? Like, that Reese Witherspoon celebrated her 40th birthday in style. Like...

EICHNER: Yes. Sometimes, I do find these things in a magazine or on an entertainment website. And if they're not, it's certainly - it's meant to sound like that - you know, just the idea that someone's going about their day in New York on their way to the job or running to catch the bus to pick their kid up from daycare, but I'm going to stop you and ask about Kate Winslet's Oscar chances.

GROSS: Right.

EICHNER: That's the general idea.

GROSS: Yeah. Like, the world is going to hell. You're going to find out about how people feel about living in a world where TV creators themselves are becoming known personalities (laughter).

EICHNER: Exactly, exactly.

GROSS: But I love it because I think people think that you're, like, insulting people on the street. But I think you're just kind of making fun of a certain type of pop culture writing in a way, a certain type of...

EICHNER: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Fandom and a certain kind of, like, exaggerated importance to things, even though you are truly passionate about this stuff. As am I. I mean, I'm so deep into pop culture, too, but I think it's hilarious to make fun of it in this way.

EICHNER: Exactly. And I think the whole show is about my own personal love-hate relationship with my interest in the entertainment industry. As I've gotten older, I realize it's ridiculous. Award shows are fun, but completely arbitrary and absurd. And yet, I will watch every single one of them. And this is, you know - "Billy On The Street" is inspired by that love-hate relationship.

GROSS: So did you try stand-up comedy before doing what you do now?

EICHNER: I started out as a very traditional actor. The first thing I ever did in terms of performance was singing. When I opened my mouth to sing as a kid, I kind of randomly had a really good singing voice. And so that put me on the actor track and the musicals track. I went to Northwestern. I was a theater major there, and then when I got to New York after college, I was doing the typical struggling actor thing. And people had told me that I was funny. I would adlib in plays even if I wasn't supposed to. So I thought I should maybe try to focus on comedy. And I went to the Upright Citizens Brigade, the famous improv school in New York, and I took improv classes. And, ultimately, I ended up writing the show that I mentioned earlier, "Creation Nation." And that became the first thing I did which put me on the map at least in New York, in terms of the industry getting to know me and press and things like that.

GROSS: Since you love TV, and you love to sing, could you sing a few bars of your favorite TV theme (laughter)?

EICHNER: Oh, my goodness. On the spot? (Laughter) I'm trying to think. Let's see. (Singing) Thank you for being a friend. Travel down the road and back again. My heart is true. You're a pal and a confidant.

There you go.

GROSS: There you go.

EICHNER: "Golden Girls," everyone (laughter).

GROSS: Did you watch that show a lot?

EICHNER: Oh, of course, I did. Who you talking to?

(LAUGHTER)

EICHNER: Yeah, of course. My parents and I - we watched it every Saturday night. We couldn't get enough of it.

GROSS: What did you like about it?

EICHNER: You know, the writing was good. You know, "The Golden Girls" still holds up. I'll still catch it, you know, in the reruns. It's still funny, and the actresses were fantastic. This is - this could not be more on the nose - me on FRESH AIR talking about "The Golden Girls."

GROSS: And singing the theme, yes.

EICHNER: And singing the theme song. This interview better get a GLAAD award, Terry. That's all I'm saying.

GROSS: (Laughter).

EICHNER: And I haven't gotten one yet. So maybe this is it. It was perfect. The comic timing, the writing - it was very progressive. It was the mid-'80s. They were doing episodes about gay marriage - not that I even recognized that at the time. But looking back, they were wonderful. And, you know, those actresses - well, particularly Bea Arthur - she came from the theater. She had a stage actor's timing, and I loved Broadway. As a kid, my parents and I would go all the time to plays, to musicals, off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway. We weren't rich people, but my parents and I shared an interest in the theater, and so we went a lot. And that definitely inspired me.

GROSS: You did some acting as a kid, right? And you had a little cameo on "Saturday Night Live" when you were 12, I think...

EICHNER: I did.

GROSS: ...Playing John Goodman's son.

EICHNER: I did, yes.

GROSS: Did you audition for other roles and for commercials?

EICHNER: I did. I did a couple of commercials. I did a couple...

GROSS: Which ones?

EICHNER: Oh, boy, "Mortal Kombat," the video game. I did industrials, which are almost like after-school specials. What else did I do? I didn't do much. I really wanted to be on Broadway as a singer, but I was already 6 feet tall. I was really fat as a kid - I just was - and there weren't many roles for me. I remember I auditioned for - it's funny. I just saw the Broadway revival of "Falsettos," which is beautiful and maybe my favorite musical of all time - certainly one of them. And one of the leads in that is a 13-year-old Jewish kid. It's about him getting bar mitzvahed.

And I auditioned for the original production when I was 12 or 13. And James Lapine, the director, after I sang, went out into the waiting room and told my dad that I was really good, but I was already taller than the actor playing my stepfather even at that age.

GROSS: (Laughter).

EICHNER: And so this kept being a running theme. I was too tall. I was too this. I was too that. And then I never fully committed to the child actor thing. I also liked being a regular kid and being a student. I ended up deciding not to go to the performing arts high school and instead going to Stuyvesant, which is a specialized math and science high school, of all things. So I liked being a student, and I got back into theater in a major way in college.

GROSS: Was your father impressed when James Lapine told him that you were good even though you were wrong for the role?

EICHNER: Yes. He - my dad went to all my auditions with me. My mom couldn't get off work as easily, and my dad could. And I think my dad got a kick out of the whole thing because he loved show business from afar. And, yeah, my dad loved it. I remember he - as soon as we left that audition - this is just coming back to me now - we stopped at a payphone - there were no cellphones - and he called my manager and told my manager what James Lapine had said. And my dad was not a stage dad in any way. He didn't push me. It was all about what I wanted to do or didn't want to do, but he loved that someone said I was talented.

GROSS: And James Lapine wrote the book for Sondheim's musical "Into The Woods," for people who don't know who he is.

EICHNER: Yes, he's a very celebrated Broadway director, writer.

BIANCULLI: Comedian Billy Eichner speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break - this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "BLACK AND TAN FANTASY")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last year with Billy Eichner. He's the host and star of "Billy On The Street" and co-star with Julie Klausner of "Difficult People," the Hulu sitcom that launched its third season earlier this month. Here's a clip from the series. Billy's character and Julie's character have gone to a gay bar in Hoboken. It happens to be on National Coming Out Day. Lately, Billy's been feeling too old and unattractive to be noticed. And here, he can't even get the bartender's attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DIFFICULT PEOPLE")

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Well, there you have it - New York or New Jersey, I am invisible in gay bars.

JULIE KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Hey, "Grease Live," pay attention to my friend.

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Could we get the Coming Out Day drink special, I guess?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The two for one is only for people who just came out. Did you just come out?

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Me? Yeah, I just came out today.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey, welcome to the tribe. This round's on me.

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Thank you. (Expletive). Did you see that?

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) Yeah, I didn't know Diesel still made that wash of denim.

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) No, no, no, Julie, don't you understand? Nobody knows us here. I can pretend that I just came out. And then guys who are way out of my league would start paying attention to me.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) So what are you waiting for?

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Everyone, sorry to bother you. I just wanted to make an announcement. My name's Billy, and I just came out of the closet.

(CHEERING)

EICHNER: (As Billy Epstein) Oh, and, furthermore, this is my wife, and I'm going to leave her.

KLAUSNER: (As Julie Kessler) But I'm OK with it.

(CHEERING)

GROSS: (Laughter) That's Billy Eichner and Julie Klausner in a scene from "Difficult People," which is on Hulu.

EICHNER: That was Julie. Yeah. That was Julie, and I'm assuming an assist from Scott King, our wonderful show-runner who co-writes a number of the episodes. And that was all Julie. And I love her for it. I mean, Julie knows - somehow knows more about the nuances of modern gay relationships and dating and sexual relationships than I do sometimes. Sometimes, I'm shocked at the things Julie knows about gay culture and gay subcultures.

And, honestly, I am very proud to be a part of that show because I really do think - some may disagree - but I do think that it is possibly the only show on TV showing a realistic portrayal of what it means to be a single, gay person, at least in a big city.

GROSS: You've spoken very fondly about your parents, who have both passed away. Your mother died, I think, when you were 20, and your father in 2011. Was your - had your mother been ill? Did you know that this was...

EICHNER: No. My mom had a heart attack, and it came out of nowhere. She was 54. My dad had leukemia for about three months. He was 80 when he passed. My dad had me later in life. And so he had leukemia and was alive for about three months between diagnosis and passing away.

GROSS: What's the transition been like for you to be somebody without parents after having been so close to yours?

EICHNER: Yes. It's been a very strange trajectory because I struggled for so many years. I mean, I was doing these videos. I was doing these live shows. I had a lot of fans in New York. The press would write about me, but I couldn't get a paying job. And so my father and I were really like a team. I mean, he was very supportive. He'd come to every single one of my live shows. My mom had passed away at that point. She'd passed away when I was in college.

And then strangely, my dad passed away on March 30, 2011. And about six weeks later, I finally sold "Billy On The Street" as a TV show. And in December of that year, it was on the air on the network it started on, Fuse. And that all happened in one year. So that obviously, was, to say the least, very bittersweet because my dad just quite - just missed seeing it all come to fruition finally and certainly has missed everything that's happened for me since. And a lot of nice things have happened for me.

So that is tough. But I also know that, you know, they were so great that that really has stayed with me, and they would've been so excited. I do think there would have been a lot of funny moments in the way that they processed my fame and all my celebrity encounters, and I do think about that. But obviously, it's very sad, and timing is everything.

BIANCULLI: Billy Eichner, co-star of "Difficult People," which began its third season earlier this month on Hulu. He spoke with Terry last year. After a break, we'll visit with the other star of "Difficult People," Julie Klausner. And film critic Justin Chang will review the new independent film "Patti Cake$." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.