For seven years, comic Billy Eichner has filmed himself urgently accosting strangers on New York City streets to ask them about decidedly nonurgent pop-culture ephemera. He’s incorporated the videos into his stage routine, but it wasn’t until the debut this past December of his Funny or Die–produced quasi game show for Fuse, Billy on the Street, that his talent for being a manic, preening, one-man Perez Hilton comments section found a wide audience (the second season debuts this fall). Then, as the confetti was still flying after the Giants’ Super Bowl victory in February, an unflappable Eichner, at the behest of Conan, stormed the field to ask players what they thought of Madonna’s halftime show.
The most amazing part of Eichner’s increasingly visible stunts: As of press time, he has yet to be punched.
The more intense and aggressive I got with people about these absurdly superficial things, the funnier it felt to me. It feels like an extension of how I’ve been since I was five years old — obsessed with the entertainment industry and pop culture. I’m still completely infatuated with it, but this is the cartoon version: How far would I take my desire to talk about celebrities?
I do think it’s important that people know it’s a character — I’m not some wild, creepy, gay homeless man that Funny or Die threw on camera because he doesn’t have any self-awareness. There is a theatricality to it, there is an outrageousness. A friend who works on the show said, “I hate when people get mad about gay stereotypes on TV because those are the ones I relate to the most.” Stereotypes are based in truth.
There have been man-on-the-street interviews for years, but insulting people is not that funny to me. What people are responding to is that crazy sense of entitlement — that everyone should be talking about what I want to talk about. It’s really easy to sit and write some terrible comments on YouTube under a fake name; I’m just saying those same comments to actual people. There’s one episode where I go up to an older lady with a cane and ask her, “Any thoughts on Brad Pitt?” And she says, “He’s a good actor, he used to look good, now his looks are going down,” and she just keeps walking.
You’d be amazed how little antagonism we run into. Of all the people I’ve gone up to, only a handful have gotten angry. New Yorkers, on some level, are pretty unfazed. And how angry can you get when I’m asking you about Anna Paquin?
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of SPIN.