A version of this story about Billy Eichner and “Billy on the Street” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
About 13 years ago, comic Billy Eichner started accosting strangers on the streets of New York to ask them questions about pop culture. The live act turned into YouTube videos, which turned into a TV series, TruTV’s “Billy on the Street” — and now, after five seasons of Eichner screaming about the Kardashians and Rihanna and dragging game stars like Jon Hamm and Julianne Moore along with him, “Billy on the Street” has landed its first Emmy nomination in the marquee Outstanding Variety Sketch Series category.
Along the way, though, Eichner’s comedy has acquired a political edge. This season’s skits included a quiz titled “Immigrant or Real American?” and the “Super Sloppy Semi-Automatic Double Dare!,” an obstacle course in which Keegan-Michael Key took a guided tour of America’s lax gun laws.
“My live shows always responded to current events and news, and we planted those seeds on the show in Seasons 3 and 4 in smaller and more subtle ways,” said Eichner. “But when I first pitched the TV version of my YouTube videos, I didn’t want to overcomplicate it. TV executives wanted to keep things in a very specific basket. I was ready to go outside the box, but I thought that people would be able to process it more easily if it was simply about pop culture. So we went with that.”
Over the years, he said, he began to feel free to push the show in different directions. “As you go on, the show needs to evolve and you need to evolve as the world changes. This season premiered right around election day, and we would seem out of touch if we weren’t touching on those topics.
“We have evolved beyond the Kardashians and the Oscars. Those things are not taking up the space in people’s brains that they had in previous years, and I felt our show had earned the right to move past pop culture.”
This year’s show, he said, feels more of a piece with the other comedies that have been receiving Emmy attention. “Years ago, when I was growing up, a comedy was ‘The Golden Girls’ or ‘Family Ties,'” he said. “Every once in a while they would have a ‘very special episode,’ but these were silly sitcoms that lived or died on the strength of their one-liners.
“But times have changed. It’s a hard time to just put something lightweight out there in the world — if you look at comedies like ‘Veep’ or ‘Transparent’ or ‘Atlanta,’ they are confronting political and social issues. That’s what’s in the air right now.”
At the moment, though, Eichner has put “Billy on the Street” on hold while he acts in the next season of “American Horror Story.” “I am currently and very happily in Ryan Murphy’s world for a little while longer,” he said. “I decided to take a little break from ‘Billy on the Street.’
“We did two seasons back-to-back with ‘Difficult People’ and ‘Friends From College’ squeezed in the middle, and ‘American Horror Story’ on top of it. So I’m going to take a little beat to figure out what I want to do next.”
Read more in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.